This week we’re starting the first in a series of interviews ahead of the release of the new Jesse Johnson action thriller, Triple Threat. Reviews from select sites remain pending, including ours, so fans can expect plenty of chatter from the press out and about here covering this film.
We’ve especially doled out questions to send via e-mail courtesy of the film’s PR firm and handlers and for this, first and foremost is director Jesse V. Johnson in our second interview since the press rounds for Accident Man. He’s especially been the center of attention with Triple Threat after kicking so much on-screen butt in the last few years, and thankfully, we’ve had those hits (The Debut Collector, Accident Man, Savage Dog) to pass the time while post-production and distribution deals took the wheel behind the scenes following the 2017 comic-con trailer.
Here’s our interview (photos courtesy of Jesse V. Johnson):
Jesse, first off thank you for taking the time to talk to us about your endeavors! How! Have! You! Been??
Hi Lee, I have been very well, thank you!
Thirty years into your film career, you’ve stunted, you’ve acted, written and directed, and after a string of hits in the last two years you’re on set with the biggest, baddest cast on the face of our action movie planet apart from The Expendables. Triple Threat! Now, there’s some history to it as it was getting a cast together earlier on for a different version of it as Makeshift Squad before circling different directors and evolving its concept into what it is now. How did you land on this project? What was your experience early on when learning about it.
I had met Gary and Ying of Arclight (executive producers) at a film festival in Naples a few years back, we had got along very well and they were very complimentary about my film Charlie Valentine, which was playing the festival circuit at the time. So, it made sense a few years later, that my particular skillset was a match for the Triple Threat assignment. I didn’t know very much at all about the project before I came aboard, I do know there was no working script and that there was a ticking clock with regard to the start of principal photography. We all worked extremely hard on the script, and were careful and creative, designing it to fit our actors and the environment we were filming in.
I was shooting Accident Man in the UK when my name started to be thrown around for Triple Threat. I love the kingdom of Thailand and love filming and traveling in foreign lands, so, I was excited from the get-go. I was a huge fan of Iko and Jaa, and had worked with Tiger as a stuntman many years earlier on Charlie’s Angels so I was pleased to be entering the arena with them.
If you’re asking about my actual reaction, I will probably disappoint you when I say, any assignment is a “fraction” of a second of relief, before near “absolute” fear strikes, in this case, no script, no cast beyond the three heroes, and radially approaching start-date. You go into full on beast-mode and start pulling material and assets together.
I understand production was pretty intense – less than two months from what I was told and I was actually so surprised to see a trailer so soon that following summer in 2017. A LOT of peoples’ hopes were high!
That’s two questions so it requires two answers:
a. The production schedule was great, I loved it – Remember, I shot Savage Dog in fifteen days, I understand scheduling and producing, it’s been my bread and butter for decades. You adjust to your environment and milk it for the very best quality movie you can. It’s a careful and thoughtful process and you are continually reassessing your assets and time management.
b. The first trailer was released for the American Film Market, an industry market, while we were still filming and actually on-set when it was being buzzed about on-line. It took a little while longer to finish the film, and then get a release schedule from China who were dictating the US release date. It actually took less-time from “shooting to release” than a number of my other films, but, the “trailer release” created a false sense of time for the fans – and thank goodness, there are a LOT of fans. Anticipation can be a very good thing.
Now I know you’re still a stuntman from time to time but even as you were solely on directing and writing duties, I’m curious as to how hungry you were to get even a smidget of screentime with this cast, even if it meant taking a kick to the face or a ratchet pull from an explosion or something.
I don’t think about it at all. I am very, very careful with my directing, I like to watch everything and I take great care and pay attention to the quality of my product. I wouldn’t put myself in a scene simply to satisfy my own ego and risk taking my focus off the production unless it was absolutely 100% necessary.
Besides we had phenomenal top-notch and world class stunt performers from Tim Man and Seng’s stunt teams on this movie, I would have looked old and creaky up against those studs and studettes!
This film still sort of kicked your ass too, didn’t it?
Well, it was exhausting in a good way – the hours required of you and the attention is all encompassing. You are reviewing editorial and dailies and shot-listing, which usually leads to script revisions late at night, then arrive early to walk the set, and block and rehearse, shoot, and discuss the following day. No evening meal, shot-list, script review, dailies. It’s absolute Heaven for me, because that is the mode in which I feel most alive, most relevant in the universe.
But, yes, you drop weight, your tummy vanishes, and you’re in a perpetual state of alertness. On the weekend after you wrap production you sleep for 48 hours straight. It is a strange life but it is a wonderful life. The realization that that was my normal and most high functioning-zone was a profound epiphany for me.
What are some of the most important things you look to tackle as a filmmaker, in general? What’s the order for you and in planning and balancing everything out as much as possible?
Cast is everything, cast is your world, I made a few films at the start of my “career” – films that I took on, to earn and learn about the title “director.” Films that in reality were doomed to a certain level of achievement from the get-go by a cast that you couldn’t “reinvent.” I loved making them and put my heart and soul into them, but upon reviewing the finished product I was shell-shocked by how unimpressed I was.
Cast is everything.
Triple Threat has a KILLER cast – they were electric, engaged, tuned in and keep an ambitious sprawling film grounded in heart and personality, I love them!
Secondary is location, move to meet your location, don’t try to bring the mountain to you. Triple Threat has the greatest locations and production design (Biggy Biggy Designer) of ANY film I’ve made.
Thirdly your team, I don’t take risks anymore, I hire the team I know will make me look good. I worked almost 30 years to get to a point people will invest their hard earned cash in my movies, that is a privilege and honor, I’m not going to risk my future and their financial equity by going outside of the box. I did it in the past and then some, and got burned. Was sentenced to Director jail, and saw my hard work suffer by my own recklessness.
Hire the very, very best people possible and treat them well, keep them close and trust them to make you look good! The production team on Triple Threat is my A-Team – Jonathan Hall Cinematographer, Matthew Lorentz Editor, Just the very best Thai crew only could get – I was a very lucky director.
How integral would a bigger budget be for you on a film like this? I know you and I have chatted a bit and you’ve expressed hopes for better funding on projects and I’m curious as to what your thoughts are regarding some filmmakers, mainstream or indie, who say that the need for funding is bullshit and that if you want to make a movie, to simply do it and film something – and I know that certainly speaks to the motivational element of being a filmmaker or an artist of any kind.
Saying bigger budgets are bullshit – is like the moped rider saying that even if he had twenty grand in the bank, he wouldn’t buy a Harley Davidson. Every filmmaker wants a bigger budget – he or she is lying through their teeth if they say they don’t!
Now, maybe certain big-budget filmmakers yearn for a simpler lower-profile style of filmmaking, that is different though. We were lucky with Triple Threat in that I had shot in Thailand before and knew what could be achieved reasonably and what was cost prohibitive, working closely with Mike Selby the local producer we crafted an ingenious and very pragmatic production that utilized all the positives and avoided the potential negatives.
The film looks HUGE and I am very proud of what we pulled off.
And so this also goes into my next question – March 19, just a little over a hundred and fifty theater screens between maybe three exhibitors? The National Association of Theater Owners tops the screen count to a little over 40.3 thousand. So 150+ doesn’t sound like a whole lot, and so I have to ask – this, coupled with a VOD release the following Friday, what does one-night accomplish for you and for a film like this?
At the very least it is a brilliant form of advertising, at best, people turn out to see the movie and they keep it in theaters! 100 screeners is an incredible achievement for a small independent action-film like this, it’s an absolute “bloody” resounding coup, an achievement of the first order! What we all dream of, or certainly a VERY positive step in the right direction.
The Debt Collector and Accident Man got a week at one or two theaters max, that is heart-breaking, sure, Netflix opens up the audience, and takes away some of the pain – but you’re rubbing shoulders there with some tepid and truly awful product. I make my films and compose the frame for the big screen, Triple Threat was formatted this way and this gives the true action movie fan a chance to see the film in the manner it was designed!
Have you seen the film yet? I know it sounds like a strange question though I’m asking in terms of watching and enjoying it past all the post-production intricacies?
Yeah, absolutely the strangest question I have ever been asked! [laughs] I was responsible for approving every shot, every sound effect, every beat of music, every color used, from the script through to the final delivery. I’ve watched this so many times on the small screen and big screen I know it inside out. It was screened once on the big screen for a test audience that flipped out. And then links have been sent to a hand picked group of reviewers prior to the March 19 release.
Now, I have to ask and just a few people have thrown this at me… what are the odds that a female response to Triple Threat could be in the works, because we only have Jeeja and actress Jennifer Yang getting in on the action quite a bit, and with Celina that totals to three women, and other directors had been stirring a similar film with nonimal, equally talent actresses. We haven’t heard a THING on this sort of film in a long time, and so even with sequel prospects for Triple Threat still pending, would YOU be that director?
This film was set up as a film starring Tony Jaa, Iko Uwais and Tiger Chen, not a female driven action movie, we slipped in some terrifically powerful female characters because I believe there should always be that balance in a film, and it is just good story-telling. But, we had shoot-days with 8 leading cast on this film, I don’t think it would have been physically possible to add anyone else.
I would love to do a female Triple Threat and it could be done incredibly well and would make a kick-ass and spectacular movie experience. But Triple Threat “as is” is pretty difficult to beat and I think it will satisfy fans for now.
As grueling as this production was for you, what’s your fondest memory from being in Thailand during the course of this production?
Every single day filming with this cast was a joy, it was an adventure to see where things would go, what would happen, where we would be, how Jon Hall would shoot it? God it was an exhilarating experience! I really didn’t want to come home, I think I recall inventing things to shoot at the end to delay the wrap.
Scott Adkins had taken a pay-cut to be on the film and was basically staying as long as was needed to make his character shine, so we just kept thinking up routines and additional fight photography to make the film as rich and as colorful as possible, Scott is also an incredible collaborator and very creative.
My favorite location was Khatanaburi the remote Jungle location that opens the film, three hours North of Bangkok on the Kwai River, it was an elephant reserve and a thick canopied jungle the kind we read about in Conrad or Melville, everything was alive, and if you looked at anything long enough it was moving with life.
This influenced and set the tone for the film, it was a brilliant adventure and a great way to start the film, galvanizing the team so to speak.
I’ve been in touch with a programmer for the Fighting Spirit Film Festival in the UK and I’m told Triple Threat will be getting some theatrical screentime in Birmingham. Can the fans there expect you and maybe the vast to attend?
I speak for all of us when I say we’re honored and very humbled to be attending the Fighting Spirit Film Festival and I think we’re all trying hard to be there for the screening, but, this is a very popular and “working” group of actors and creatives, and their schedules and locations are varied to say the least. So, we’ll see as the dates draws closer.
Next up you have Avengement from Bleiberg Entertainment. Can you dive in a bit for us?
Avengement is a very different film to Triple Threat, it’s a siege movie, in a very violent pub with a very violent group of men. It is a character driven performance piece and scene for scene is very likely my finest acting work to date. I’m so incredibly proud of every member of the cast, everyone brought it and worked so very hard. It was an exhausting and dangerous film to make, as we relate the story from the pub, visiting, prison, clubs, alleyways and it’s also an extremely moving film, one that will hopefully introduce Scott to a whole new audience.
A common assessment from the US test screenings was, “…we had no idea who Scott Adkins was before, but he could be the new Tom Hardy…” which is exactly what we were going for.
I have one final question, but firstly I want to thank you for taking the time out to share another piece of yourself with the world, lest you fall to pieces from all the hard work you do – by all means, Rest! Recharge!
No worries, I am always pleased to chat with you, Lee. To the contrary, I usually fall apart between jobs, never on the job.
Is there a message you would explicitly like to send to our readers as we exit this interview?
GO SEE TRIPLE THREAT AT THE THEATER ON MARCH 19TH – SEE IT ON THE BIG SCREEN WITH GREAT AUDIO AS IT WAS DESIGNED AND PLANNED. I promise you, if you are a fan of action movies, you will not be disappointed.