A Love Of The Fury: A Conversation With Director Jesse V. Johnson
Jesse V. Johnson loves cinema. Working in various levels of film productions since the early 1990s, the English-born filmmaker first made his name as a stunt performer working on such high profile projects as the original TOTAL RECALL, STARSHIP TROOPERS, WAR OF THE WORLDS, and dozens more. This led to Johnson being a stunt coordinator, a second unit director, and eventually an accomplished feature director. Staying true to his stunt background, the films Johnson has directed are action-packed affairs such as THE DEBT COLLECTOR, TRIPLE THREAT, and AVENGEMENT (to name just a few) that value practical effects and physical performers more than expensive CGI-laden spectacle.
And throughout his constant climb to get where he is today, recognized as one of the strongest voices in action filmmaking among people who truly value that genre, he has never lost that love of cinema. This fact is abundantly clear when looking at his latest offering, the gritty World War Two thriller, HELL HATH NO FURY.
The film tells the story of a bloody three-way conflict, over a cache of hidden Nazi gold, during the waning days of the war between a ragtag group of American soldiers looking to make their fortune, deserting German officers, and French resistance fighters unwittingly caught in the middle of it all. HELL HATH NO FURY is full of the stunt heavy-mayhem that has defined so much of Johnson’s career but it also has a strong story coupled with great performances from a cast of very capable actors all orchestrated by his sure and experienced directorial hand into a truly cinematic experience.
I recently had the chance to talk with Jesse V. Johnson about this new film but due to his unsurprising candor, the lengthy conversation covered not just HELL HATH NO FURY but also his filmmaking philosophies, talk of his idols, opinions on the state of modern action filmmaking, and so much more. At every moment of our chat though, Johnson’s love of cinema was readily apparent.
How did you settle on HELL HATH NO FURY as your next project?
When COVID started, I had a feeling… About a month went by where I’m growing plants and going completely agricultural because you didn’t know how long this thing’s going to last and all that kind of stuff. But I’m quite funny like that, I rather like the idea of growing my own corn, tomatoes and onions. So, I didn’t know if it was going to be that kind of a pandemic, a “Mad Max”-level one or something a little less. So, after about three weeks or four weeks of getting thoroughly bored growing vegetables and being attacked by caterpillars, I put a call out for scripts that had minimal locations and minimal cast that had no attachments. I do this fairly regularly.
I’m drawn to action. I’m drawn to dramatic situations and people pushed to the limit of their physical abilities. We had probably had about forty-five scripts that rose to the top of the list. My manager, myself, my assistants, I had two assistants at the time, we’d read the first fifteen, twenty pages, and if you’re hooked, you’re hooked. If you’re not, you move on. So, it’s not that much of a physical feat to get through a really big stack of scripts.
We found very, very quickly we were using the script to HELL HATH NO FURY as the guiding bar. “Is it better than HELL HATH NO FURY?” No, move on. And finally, we said, “Well, we should make HELL HATH NO FURY.” It was a script that had been written in French and translated quite roughly, but still the basics came across that were really, really interesting and really poignant. So, I had this script, I ran into financing, financing that I probably wouldn’t have followed through with at any other time than COVID. But at COVID, you’re looking to make a movie. You’re looking to keep working, to keep your hat in the ring so to speak and it appealed, and it worked. Basically, the financier wanted any kind of film that he could finish the production with owning a World War Two-era Jeep. He really, really wanted a World War Two Jeep and wanted to be able to write it off as part of the production cost. And so, I said, “I think I have the perfect film.” And we snuck in sideways that way.
We shot in a very, very remote location that had no internet or cell. The way that I cast, I cast all friends that I’d worked with previously that I knew were capable of this kind of physical feat of endurance because it’s tough, frankly. We’re out in very hot weather and dust. Making a film like this is really, really hard work. It’s a physical endurance test every day. Nina is in a silk underskirt. She had to have her head shaved. Everyone’s getting burned and cut and splintered. It’s rough. It’s part of the game, and it goes towards character. But still it needed a certain kind of people, and they were people that I’d worked with before. I called them all, and everyone said yes, unequivocally.
It was one of those beautiful opportunities where you get to work with dear, dear friends. We isolated obviously there because of health reasons, and no one could leave. No visitors and every day there were health checks and tests and temperatures taken and all that. All the usual rigmarole- lunches dropped off in plastic containers. But it was a brilliant, brilliant, really wonderful experience making this picture. I think it shows because everyone was there in the moment, living almost as if they were in the 1940s. No one’s on their phone updating Instagram or Facebook or any of that awful shit that distracts people. They’re right there in the moment. I found it a really exhilarating, exciting, and inspiring process.
I loved that this film is made up almost entirely of people you’ve worked with previously. It’s like your own acting troupe. I also really liked the desperate nature of the story and the execution. I said this in my review, but it reminded me of the work of [director] Sam Peckinpah. I wrote, “… a grimy action yarn that feels like a wartime homage to Sam Peckinpah’s BRING ME THE HEAD OF ALFREDO GARCIA, if every participant was as sweaty and desperate as Warren Oates’ main character …”
Oh, that’s wonderful. Wonderful, what kind and complimentary words. A lot of people wouldn’t understand that as a compliment so it’s the highest compliment you can pay me. That’s honestly one of my most favorite of his pictures. Everyone refers to the slightly more polished work of THE WILD BUNCH, RIDE THE HIGH COUNTRY, or THE GETAWAY. But for me, the most personal, the most transparent and raw and fearless was that picture and I love the very texture and lifeblood of it, with second place being PAT GARRETT AND BILLY THE KID. That is just the highest praise you can give me. He’s one of my absolute favorites. I own nine biographies and studies on him and his work.
Yeah. It’s hilarious. I have a whole shelf of Sam Peckinpah biographies, studies and reference books. He’s my absolute God. The unfortunate thing is whenever you read a biography of Peckinpah, you’re almost immensely depressed by the last year where he drinks himself into oblivion- which I hope not to do.
I think as you get into Peckinpah, the entry-level Peckinpahs are THE GETAWAY, THE WILD BUNCH, and even JUNIOR BONNER, these pictures. But it’s not until you’ve really studied him and understand how the man thinks and works and how his art, how his pencil drawing works that you come to love those more personal, less showy pictures where it’s literally just him on display through the characters. So, I take that as a very high compliment.
I’m glad. You have a lot of impressive stunt work in HELL HATH NO FURY. It must have been difficult to accomplish it all with the restrictions you had to deal with.
You’re absolutely right. That stuff is very, very difficult to do without experience and safety measures and really experienced people performing and doing the work and choreographing it. Luckily, on this one, since I had a cast that had all worked with me before I knew where they were in terms of their abilities and levels of experience. I was very lucky to have Luke LaFontaine, he plays a part in the movie as well in this one, but he’s been my choreographer of twenty years, and he’s one of the best in Hollywood, if not the world. Then beyond that just to add icing to the cake, I had Daniel Bernhardt there who is possibly amongst the top ten choreographers and stunt performers working in Hollywood right now with ATOMIC BLONDE, JOHN WICK, and NOBODY. So, we had an extraordinarily talented stunt crew on board for this picture, and whereas usually, that stuff would be an absolute nightmare- always having to train people up, show them how to use firearms, show them how to move, show them how to hit the ground carefully, this team’s done it countless times before. I knew that these guys would all look after themselves to a degree as well. It’s very comforting for me when I work action to have people around me that know exactly what they’re doing but that also have a very strong understanding of how to keep themselves and the crew safe. Even then, it took an awful lot of planning and prepping.
I also prefer to shoot multiple cameras and do dangerous things as few times as possible so that also helps with moving expeditiously. But it was a really, really exciting shoot and everyone contributed towards the action. I was even one of the SS Officers in it who gets blown up and shot. I did a backward flip into a grave which I really shouldn’t have done. But I didn’t want anyone else to do it because it was quite a large stunt adjustment if we were doing it on a normal film. So, I jumped in. I’ve done that before. I did the car hit in AVENGEMENT. You can see it in the trailer. We shot with this actress, and she did all the running great and she’d been hired to take the car hit in London. When we got to it, she took one look at the car and one look at the road and then looked at us and said, “Nope. Not happening.” What can you do? You can’t force anyone to do anything. So, we shot the hit later in Sherman Oaks, CA. We flipped the film so it looked like the cars were driving on the opposite side of the road. But it was quite nerve wracking. The first one, I didn’t smash the window, I went over the car and landed in the street behind and that was the most painful thing I’ve ever experienced doing a stunt. But the second one, I shattered the window and obviously then it feels like landing on a bed in comparison.
Wow! I can’t even imagine.
[Anyway,] the fun thing is when I was making HELL HATH NO FURY, I didn’t think it was an action film at all. I thought it was just an incredible drama with an incredible lead character, Nina Bergman’s Marie, who was layered and deep and had multiple reasons for doing what she was doing and was mysterious. We didn’t know who the bad guy was, who were the good guys, who we were rooting for until about twenty minutes into the script for the movie, and that was what excited me. Even when I was selling the film, I thought it was a drama and I kept telling people that. Some of the crew even said, “We were going to pass on this movie because we thought it was a drama like you said. And we all watched it and it’s got as much action and violence in it as any of your films.” I had to revisit it and go, “Yes, I guess there is rather a lot of action and violence.” [Laughs]
It definitely reaches late 1980s Hong Kong movie-levels of gunplay and squib counts: very John Woo-esque really.
Interesting. I love his work too. John Woo, I adore those earlier movies of his and I love that he came from comedy. and then made this break to being an action director and consequently had to carry the sort of requirement of being an action director for the rest of his career. I find it very interesting. But he was very inspired Jean-Pierre Melville, BOB LE FLAMBEUR, LE CERCLE ROUGE, and LE SAMOURAÏ. He’s one of my absolute movie gods. So, I see the source material quite clearly when I watch John Woo’s pictures. Of course, Woo did amazing stuff with action that no one had done and no one still to this day has come close to. But it is interesting when we see a director’s influences as clearly as Melville influenced him.
I think if you truly appreciate films and really study them, the love shows through in the finished work. I think that’s one reason why people are really starting to discover and appreciate your films. That love of cinema that you clearly have is shining through. Another aspect of it is, we’ve got into a place where movies are just ridiculously big and expensive. A portion of audiences now are longing for smaller, more personal, films that are still thrilling.
There’s definitely an element of that, for sure. I think you’re right- there’s an element that wants something that’s handmade. You can go spend $600,000 on a Ferrari that any other person with that money can buy and, yes, it’s exciting, it’s fun. But it’s as impersonal as a McDonald’s Big Mac. Or you can have a custom car built for you for half that money, but it’s something unique and it’s special and it’s interesting and there’s a variance in it and it speaks of the creator, it speaks of the designer, it speaks of the people that tested that, and I truly believe that. Bear in mind, I love Ferraris, I love them to pieces. But there is so much to be said for having something that has that feeling of being custom made and that doesn’t comply to any rule set. I think every big movie you see, with very few exceptions, they have to bypass executives who’ve never made a film, who don’t have a creative bone in their body, deciding on creative elements in the film.
So, you have all of the sharp edges knocked away. The films all start to look very, very similar. They could have been directed by any of a list of fifteen or twenty directors because they are simply amalgams of various different people’s decisions based on financing, based on what’s going to recoup money, based on what’s going to be able to be sold effectively. And this has always been there in movies since 1908, this has been a part of the process of making certain films. But I do strive very much to make personal pictures, to make pictures that have my thumbprint all over them. I very much make films for myself. I feel I have quite a blue-collar taste. I’ve watched a lot of movies but the movies that I love going back to are films that also appealed to a blue-collar audience in the 50s, the 60s, and the 70s. I don’t have particularly highfalutin’ taste, if that makes sense?
I do try to have a broad range of film knowledge. But if you look at the films that I love, the early Peckinpah pictures were hugely successful with mass audiences. The Melville pictures were successful to a degree, with a larger audience. Howard Hawks and John Ford are two of my gods of cinema and their films were extraordinarily successful with audiences. But they are from the 50s and 60s, and I don’t think the human mind has changed that much. We’re still wanting the same forms of entertainment. But what’s important to me is that my films are influenced by movies that aren’t just from that last ten or twenty years.
That’s important because I think that’s being lost with a lot of the younger generation of filmmakers. There seems to be a real lack of knowledge about film history. People will say they “love movies” but they really only love a handful of movies from the past thirty years. They don’t go back any earlier and try to learn from what came before. I think it’s hurting the craft.
That’s the thing, isn’t it? It’s interesting. I don’t think you can call yourself a filmmaker until you’ve really studied the process of filmmaking, films going back at least to silent. You don’t have to know an awful lot about silent era because it’s such a different form of filmmaking. But have a little taste of it. Go and watch WINGS, for example, the first film that won an Oscar for “Best Picture.” It was actually first shot in silent and then became sound afterwards. But watch those kinds of pictures, understand them, understand that the language of cinema has been developing at an amazing rate and it goes backwards and then goes forwards, so there’s so much there, there’s so much.
I can tell when a film is based on pictures from the last ten or twenty years. They’re obsessed with THE MATRIX, they’re obsessed with PULP FICTION etc. It just comes out in their work and it’s like, “Whoa, boring. I know where you’re coming from. You’re obsessed with Guy Ritchie. Which is great, that’s good and that’s fun, it’s entertaining but your film will be superficial at best.” Anyway, enough about that. [Laughs] Now back to HELL HATH NO FURY.
To go back to the cast, one of the new people you’ve brought into your troupe is Daniel Bernhardt. I have always thought of him as underappreciated by genre fans. So, it was great to see him have such a varied, substantial part here. How did his participation come together?
I met with Daniel, and this guy is one of the nicest, most genuine, most intelligent human beings you’ve ever met. We talked for about three and a half hours and it’s just a joy to talk to him. He said things like, “I’ll come and do stunts. I’ll put on a beard and mustache.” I thought, “Yeah, sure, whatever, whatever.” So, it was a nice meeting, I thought good things of it. But more importantly, [from talking with others], I realized that what he’d said about not having an ego and being able to just chip in with the stunt guys and do whatever it took was absolutely truthful. I was so impressed by that because even as a stuntman, he’s at a level now where he’s doing the very, very best work, fighting opposite and choreographing with Charlize Theron and Keanu Reeves.
When this came along and COVID hit, there was only one role that I couldn’t hire anyone from my stock company for. Every other character in the movie jumped out as someone that I knew except for the role of Von Bruckner, the SS Sturmbannführer. And I finally met with Bernhardt and he speaks French and English and German. I called him in and we had a chat about the character. Boy, did he do a good job playing that role, man! I am so thrilled with what he pulled off. I think he’s tremendous in it.
I completely agree.
Without giving spoilers away, this character is possibly one of the more sympathetic in the movie and people are going to, “Oh my God, but he’s a Nazi.” You have to see the film to understand. He works through his own agenda, but in truthfulness he is the only one that shows any real empathy at all. It’s a very complex part to play. It’s not a bad guy for the sake of being a bad guy. He’s a bad guy who thinks he’s a good guy, and that is tricky and Daniel really fucking nailed it, and that’s impressive to me. I hope that this is going to change his career in a way that we see him playing much more complex and interesting and meaty roles. I hope that Chad [Stahelski] and David Leitch see this and go, “Oh, my God. We’ve had him working for us all this time and we’ve given him bit roles.” And they actually give him something worthwhile because I’m very, very thankful for what he did.
He’s phenomenal. I keep thinking he is going to have a late-career renaissance any time now because he’s been so good for so long and just so “under the radar.”
Absolutely he should, by all means. He does very, very strong work. He brought all of the stunt guys in from 87eleven. Everyone who is in this movie who you see hit the ground or getting blown up, all guys from his team that came because he was there. Obviously Luke, my regular coordinator, brought in quite a few familiar faces but the vast majority of them came from 87eleven due to Daniel. So, we were very blessed with that. Daniel stepped in and helped a bit with the knife fight that Tim Murphy has with the German next to the Jeep that’s quite vicious, nasty and ended up looking real. But that stuff has to be choreographed. When you want to look real and messy, that takes more choreography than something that’s going to look slick and sweet- the irony of cinema.
It’s true. Everything like that takes work and planning and so much thought.
The end fight in AVENGEMENT that had to have that same look … was possibly one of the most rehearsed and laid out and fore-planned of anything that’s Scott [Adkins] and I ever did, and it’s the messiest and the least martial art-y. That’s always the fun thing with certain artists. A fight that’s very clean and that is traditional martial arts is a lot easier to work out. Everything with those type of fights has a name, a technique. Messy ones don’t.
Again, very true. I don’t mean to digress, but you and I haven’t spoken since the press build up for AVENGEMENT. So, I just wanted to ask what it’s felt like to see such a positive response to that one post release?
Oh, wonderful. It’s absolutely wonderful. Both Scott and I love the hell out of it, the fact that people [have taken to it] … The film has an amazing following. It’s incredible. But what it did do, it had this knock on effect that people then also came to THE DEBT COLLECTOR movies and fell in love with those as well. They saw a character and a style emerging. People are funny- they beg for things they haven’t seen before, “Give us something new, Hollywood. Give us something different.” And they get it and they don’t want it. But then the moment they start to get used to you is when you start to get this amazing following. People like Scott, they like him with that ironic, slightly dark sense of humor that’s vicious and brutal but also could be your grumpy uncle, and they love that.
AVENGEMENT, I think, was the big bow that opened that door. He had a huge following in the Middle East already because of the UNDISPUTED pictures but it wasn’t the same following. It was a very different following that came to light after AVENGEMENT. And like Daniel, I hope that people start to notice Scott can really act. What I want to do with Scott is I want to put him alongside a truly “A-List” name actor so that people are forced to recognize him as what he is, which is a phenomenal presence and screen entity, which I know he can hold his own against any of those guys. I’ve worked with them all as a stuntman or as a director and there’s no reason that Scott should be slugging it out in these lower budget films. It frustrates me because a lot of them aren’t made with the same care and attention that AVENGEMENT was. But anyway, I would have had Scott in HELL HATH NO FURY except he was in England and as you know, during COVID, everything was sealed up so we had to rely on that local group that I could call on. As it was, they were very international which was quite exciting.
The cast you had for this one is wonderful, in my opinion. I can’t imagine better choices.
Oh, thank you so much, Matthew. It really means the world because you sweat about it, you wring your hands and you worry. It was a strange one though, it was a truly strange one. I read the script and I read the French version. My French is slow, I mean I read like a seven-year-old when I’m reading French. And the description of the character that Dominiquie Vandenberg plays really describes Dominiquie and I had to do a backwards and forwards and I had to actually take it and I Googled it to make sure that I was reading it correctly, not just projecting my imagination onto it. So, it’s this short guy, shaved head, has a face like a coal miner, and huge hands with calloused knuckles from where he’s been… And it’s like, “Oh my, this is Dominiquie. This is the Dominiquie that I know.” And I had it translated by my cousin who’s French, and they’re like, “Yeah, yeah, that’s Dominiquie.”
[When we were casting the part] we just kept coming back to him and it’s like, “Dom, please play this part.” And I think he does a great job with it. I think it’s the best thing he’s done. The tears are real, he gets slapped. And by the way, you don’t notice it when you watch the film, until I tell you right now, that Dom was shot, punched, hit, burnt, scratched and bruised on this movie. Every form of punishment somehow, accidental or within the scene, happened to him. He was hit in the face by one of the Zirc guns. Zirc guns are like a paintball gun that’s slightly overpowered that fires a .68 caliber plastic projectile with Zirconium and fish tank gravel in it. And so when it hits, it makes a big spark. It looks great in a film. I love using them, I quite often use them instead of blanks. I’ll have nothing inside the gun and I’ll have the Zircs going off because they’re so, so pretty. Anyway, he was hit twice in the face and side of his head with one of these and that would be a hospital visit for any normal human being. I get very upset when this happens. The last place in the world I want anyone to get hurt is one of my sets. But it happens sometimes and Dominiquie just kept coming back and I don’t know, it fed into the role. I really, really like his performance in this one. He’s so quirky.
He really surprised me with the amount of range he showed. He so often plays a stoic tough guy… because that’s what he is. It was great though to see him be vulnerable on screen and show that he could go there when needed. I thought he was great here.
Thank you so much. Yeah, I loved it. It was really fun watching it happen. Nina worked very hard with him. The scene where she slaps him in the face multiple times? It was completely improvised. Any other actor I’d have been very cautious of. Dominiquie was trained in martial arts, he gets hit in the face an awful lot so I was less concerned. But I didn’t know she was going to do it and you never really know with a person. But he took that and he ate it up and he put it back into the performance. He started crying in that scene and that’s the moment we use in the movie if you take a look at that, that is true surprise on his face when he’s getting slugged. I don’t really encourage that sort of thing, I have to post script that with the explanation but when it happens and it happened that day, you embrace it and you go with it as much as you possibly can. Again, I don’t want actual harm coming to anyone when you’re making movies. It’s not what should happen there. But in that case, it really, really helped. And I think he felt so afterwards as well and he was deeply appreciative of that because it allowed him to go somewhere that I don’t think he’d ever been before with his acting.
How did Nina Bergman find her way into the lead role of “Marie?”
This film was cast and ready to go, and we had an actress who’d won several Russian Oscars lined up to play the Marie role. We got to about forty-eight hours before filming was about to start and we needed to do a cast readthrough. We were losing Daniel to THE MATRIX RESURRECTIONS, and we were losing Tim Murphy to [the] SNOWPIERCER [television series]. So literally, we had a very short window in which to shoot the film and get it done and get it out there. With COVID protocols and things like that, people were being pulled away from production. And that was it, we had hard start and end dates. The actress fell through. We didn’t have this actress anymore. So, I begged Nina, who I’d worked with on the WONDER WOMAN short [about the DC comic book character], and she and I know each other going way back. She’s bailed me out of trouble before. She had me write a script when I had no money in the world after the 2008 stock market crash. So, she actually saved my bacon at that point. I called her and I said, “I’m so sorry, you’re going to have to do this… I need someone to read the lead role in this.”
We couldn’t find anyone because the whole “having your head shaved” thing scared people off, and everyone who wanted to play it, we had amazing actresses submitting for it but none of them wanted to shave their hair. That for me was a deal breaker. So, Nina came in, she did the read through and every single member of the cast independently came to me after that read through and said, “You have to hire her. You have to hire this woman. She is the role. She is Marie.”
People were crying, grown men were crying at the end of her read through. And, as I’m sure when you saw the end of the movie, it’s a poignant ending that will affect different people differently. But it affected these tough guys in such a way that they were teary-eyed and each one came and said that. But Dominiquie specifically called me outside of the building and he poked me in the chest, which by the way is not really something you ever particularly want Dominique to do-
He is very intimidating.
And he said, “You’re a fucking idiot if you don’t hire this girl.” And then he turned his back and walked away. And that was the moment where I figured it would be a good idea to go to the financiers and say, “Look, we’re fourty-eight hours away.” And as it was, they never questioned it, otherwise we would have never made the movie and it’s the best decision that five or six guys forced me to make ever.
I have to admit that I was not familiar with her before this, but she impressed me.
We had incredible success with the Wonder Woman short we did together. It was before the official film had come out, before it was even known that they were really prepping one. We had a million hits which at the time was astronomical. The phone was ringing off the hook. I got called into Warners to talk to the DC rep there three different times, one male producer and twice with someone even higher up in the hierarchy and she said, “Look, we love what you’ve done. We can’t possibly hire you. Are you interested in answering some questions and making yourself available to us and maybe we can use the trailer in an informative way?” And I said, “Absolutely. Do whatever you need.”
I gave them carte blanche. There’s a shot in the movie that appears in the trailer, it’s a direct lift from my trailer, which is a slow motion shot of a rifle getting smashed as she kicks it. In their movie, they use World War One, in my short, it’s World War Two, but it’s identical framing. Our little trailer that we did could have been a pre-viz for the movie. I don’t mind any of that, I take it as the highest compliment imaginable and it’s all good. They told me immediately it was going to be a female director, there was no way on Earth it was ever going to be a male director. I didn’t mind it in any way.
Nina actually got into the final five audition [for the lead in the official Wonder Woman film] and she said while she was there, they had pictures from our trailer blown up on the wall at the casting office and she said, “That’s me. That’s me in the picture.” And they said, “No, no, she’s got black hair.” She said, “No, I dyed my hair for the trailer shoot.” So that was how close they were referencing our proof of concept short. Nina has something. She’s always had something. I’ve known there’s an energy and a power there but it takes a certain project to hack into that. And I think the films that she’s done, like the sequel to THE CAR and the sequel to DOOM, I saw them and they rushed, it’s very… a true actor takes real time to get into their part. They take a specific kind of direction. There’s a trust level that needs to be formed and an understanding of what they’re doing and who they’re playing and the backstory has to be quite clear. And Nina’s a method actor, she gets into the character, she lives the character. And we converse and we talk and there are questions about what happened before, where she’s from, what her origins were, why is she wearing this piece of clothing, why has she chosen to do her hair that way. And if you have the time as a filmmaker to engage with your actor and do that, then you get an incredible performance.
I think on some of those other ones, maybe there wasn’t as much effort put into working out backstory, and so it’s trickier for her to have thrived in that environment. But I think she’s absolutely wonderful and I think what she did in HELL HATH NO FURY is phenomenal. It takes my breath away when I watch it now, the commitment that she gave. I’m quite a tough director. I’m quite verbal and I push hard and it’s really, really wonderful to work with someone when you’re in sync with them, like we were.
That hits upon what I think is an important element to your work and something that really separates what you are doing from others who are working in similar budget ranges, with similar themes, and in some cases even a few of the same actors. You are an actor’s director. The care and detail that goes into character motivations and story- I know those other filmmakers are doing the best they can within the system but that devotion to the story is often sidelined in an effort to just get the film done. I never sense, in your work, that story is being sacrificed just to get the shots in for the day.
That’s an awesome compliment. I put character first though before story even. It’s what the character would do and the truth in that character. My biggest job is to sit and listen to what that actor is saying, to watch what they’re doing and to find the truth in that. And then everything else comes from that, the action, the story, the plot, the fight scenes. All of that stuff is good if you’ve got the character down, if that character is believable, if that performance is going the way you want, and it is honest, genuine, and truthful- everything else rises and becomes better. When people watch BULLITT, for example, they think it’s the greatest car chase they’ve ever seen but it’s really just a good car chase. But what you have is Steve McQueen, at that point in the film where the car chase happens, you have invested so heavily into his character that you’re absolutely on the edge of your seat by the time that car chase happens.
What that it is for me is creating these believable, interesting, compelling characters, and I love that approach. I don’t really look at a lot of the other people that are working at the same budget level. To use a sweeping statement, I don’t know what budgets are when I’m working in it anyway. I look at the directors whom I love as being what I need to strive for, if that makes sense?
I’m looking at what those guys are doing. Those are my competitors, and that’s my way to get focused. If I looked at the films that have been made at the same budget that I’m working at, frankly, I’d get depressed. I’ve looked and it’s no fun.
When we were researching this one, we wanted to be very, very careful with the way that we depicted World War Two. Since SAVING PRIVATE RYAN and BAND OF BROTHERS, there’s been a huge slew of lower end, lower quality World War Two films. Jon Hall and I looked at about three or four of those and we just couldn’t watch anymore. It was totally depressing. They were so bad, so awful, so badly framed and shot. They’d wobble the camera to make it look like action in SAVING PRIVATE RYAN without realizing why [cinematographer] Janusz Kaminski did that with the camera, why he took the filters off the lens, why he worked with the tilted shutter. They didn’t understand that. They’re simply aping a technique or aping a shot- really badly mimicking it. It was just depressing. So, we went to back to the 60s, the 50s, even the late 40s. We looked at the war films from those eras for fun: WHERE EAGLES DARE, KELLY’S HEROES, and A WALK IN THE SUN, for example. These pictures are the ones that we were looking at, and their use of the wonderful, original anamorphic lens, not just cropping your film to 2:35 but using an actual anamorphic lens. It distorts the image slightly; it gives it this slightly surreal look and then the color palette and the choice of lenses which were Cooke lenses which are from the 1960s on a modern camera obviously. But we were very, very heavily influenced by classic World War Two films and wanted to give that same feeling of familiarity to the audience members that had sat on a Saturday watching THE GREAT ESCAPE with their dad or their grandfather and they’re like, “Oh, there’s something familiar about the way this film looks.” And then suddenly we’re telling this very different and poignant story within that visual framework.
It’s funny that you bring that up about the lenses. I was going to ask how you’ve achieved such a “filmic” look for your last few pictures. There is none of that “digital sheen” that plagues so many films that are shot digitally.
Jonathan Hall, my DP who I’ve worked with religiously, and I worked very hard on that. We love cinema, both of us. We love the history of cinema. We love classic cinema. In a nutshell, there is a lot that goes into that. We compose for what’s going on in front of the camera. The camera is a tool for recording that as effectively and dramatically as possible. What you find a lot of young kids now are doing which is the big mistake is they’re wobbling their camera around, they’re tricking things within the camera. They’re using After Effects, they’re manipulating the image with color and after a while, you realize this is just a sort of con game that’s being played out by people don’t really have the ability to block and actually create the scenario in front of the camera, which is the more important thing.
People talk to me about lenses and cameras and modern names and numbers and I don’t know any of that. I don’t care about any of it. I really don’t. If you tell me I’m shooting the next film on a Panavision from 1970, I’ll be just as thrilled as if I’m shooting it on a Mini LF, the one they use for 1917, which by the way I’ve shot two films on that one. It’s no different to any other camera. It’s about what you’re capturing that’s important and leaving it and framing it in a way the audience can see it, enjoy it, and appreciate it- whether it’s a fight scene or a beautiful woman or a fantastic looking 1940s car or a guy who’s gone through a tragedy. You’re wanting to give the audience enough room to appreciate that. The human eye is about 35 millimeter wide, that’s our scope. And I’ve found working with 35mm or the 40mm. As I get older, I use less and less different focal lengths. Instead, I move the camera closer or I move it further away. I physically move it.
I’ve found the stories are becoming more and more elegant because I’m working my ass off with the actors. I’m working my ass off with the production designer, designing that set, with the prop master and making sure the props are beautiful, with the script writer, making sure the dialogue is as authentic and powerful as it possibly can be, with the gaffer, making sure it’s lit beautifully. And this is what’s important. The camera needs to capture that and you put it in the most intelligent place to capture it but you don’t try and fake it, you don’t try and wobble it around or get up the nostril or put it on a pen. And I think there’s an obsession right now with nomenclature and of what camera you’re capturing it with and it’s just not important. It’s not storytelling. The storytelling is what’s going on at front. So that’s my little rant. [Laughs]
I would say that the person who John and I keep coming back to was Paul Thomas Anderson. I was lucky enough to work with him on THE MASTER and got to see the absolute disdain he has for camera trickery. If anyone on his set mentions fix it in post or visual effects, they get kicked off the set or reprimanded, some of it was jokingly but there was some reality there too. And to that end, I also watched the way that he worked with Joaquin [Phoenix], which was that Joaquin was in character the whole time. There was a note on the call sheet saying you have to address him as [his character] “Freddy”, not as Joaquin. This was when I realized, “Oh my God. You can actually do that?” It was like an epiphany. You can have this game, you can have this way of working where people will respect the acting and the storytelling process. They’ll agree, you just have to ask them. I thought that was wonderful and I’ve worked with that way ever since. Not knocking the actor out of their groove, not getting in their way, just drawing the camera back enough that you can see their work and let the audience appreciate it, because it really is magical what actors do.
That is a great note to wrap up on. Do you have anything you’d like to add before we part?
Just that if people have the opportunity to see HELL HATH NO FURY in one of the select theaters, I would highly recommend it. It was shot, framed, and designed to be seen on the big screen. The 2:35 anamorphic is how it was framed in camera. The film is absolutely a different experience when you see it on a big screen. It’s a lot of fun to watch on your large screen TV too, but if you get the chance… do yourself a favor, see it in the theater. It’s really brilliant, the acting is great and I’m just so proud of the film and everyone who worked on it.
Read my review of HELL HATH NO FURY HERE.
HELL HATH NO FURY is in select theaters now and available to rent and own on digital.
Currently residing in Nashville, TN, he also co-hosts the film podcast "Video Culture" (available on all podcast platforms). He can be reached at "WheelsCritic@gmail.com" and on Twitter: @WheelsCritic
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