Jesse V. Johnson Talks The Hitman Diaries: Charlie Valentine

The stuntman-turned-director discusses his awarding-winning father-son crime drama, now on DVD

An accomplished Stunt coordinator and technical advisor, Jesse V. Johnson has worked on some of the biggest action sequences ever rendered for film, including those seen in Total Recall, Charlie's Angels, and Terminator 3: Rise Of The Machines. And he continues to do so with the highly anticipated Thor, The Green Hornet, and The Adventures of Tintin: Secret of the Unicorn all on the horizon. Instead of taking a well-earned vacation during his downtime, the man is known for jumping into the director's chair, where he is quickly earning a name for himself with his gritty, realistic crime dramas.

It was announced last week that Johnson would soon be taking on the 3D action-thriller Bratva, a high-octane crime drama featuring martial artist Dominique Vandenberg as a man forced to go head-to-head with a gang of assassins. Previous to this, Johnson and Vandenberg worked together in the cult heavy-hitter Pit Fighter, as well as the critically acclaimed sequel Green Street Hooligans 2 and The Butcher. Their most recent collaboration was The Hitman Diaries: Charlie Valentine, which recently hit DVD shelves nationwide.

This multiple award-winning crime drama stars Raymond J. Barry and Michael Weatherly as a father and son duo at odds with their seedy, underworld life. It's a stirring tale of lies and deceit that has won over film festivals, critics, and fans alike across the country. In anticipation of Bratva, and to further celebrate the release of The Hitman Diaries: Charlie Valentine on DVD, we recently caught up with Jesse from the set of For the Love of Money, where he is serving as a stunt coordinator.

Here is our conversation:

The opening credits of Charlie Valentine are a throwback to the films of the 40s and 50s. Its much more romantic than what actually transpires over the course of this gritty, realistic storyline. Why did you feel it was important to open the film in this way?

Jesse V. Johnson: I didn't want the film to be obvious in anyway. I wanted to take you into that romantic era to start with. Then gradually reveal the fact that this is a nourish thriller. Also, I have always been in love with that type of opening. Though the music has a modern synth on it, we based that on the films of the 40s. In the script, it describes the opening titles as being from Gilda, that old Rita Hayworth movie from 1946.

I like how that opening music does ease itself into the rest of the film...

Jesse V. Johnson: I always felt that this was a film about a guy who was from another era. Another time. He is only sixty years old, so he wasn't actually operating as a gangster in the 40s. Though, he does have a love for that period. And that era of doing business. The way the gangsters dressed, and the way they spoke to women. The way they conducted themselves. I thought it was important to give a lot of emphasis on that era.

How did you arrive at the impetus of this particular story? Especially where the father-son relationship is concerned? It almost seems as though you went to some of the older gangster movies from the late sixties and early seventies, maybe with a Michael Caine influence...

Jesse V. Johnson: Sadly enough, the genesis of this story came from something that happened to me personally. I was a product of the swinging sixties. When I had children, my wife thought it would be good to look up my actual blood father. We had some vague information. I'd never been too concerned myself. But my wife went out and did some Internet research and found him. So we went and visited him. It was sort of that flux of emotions. Those feelings and memories that you have sliding towards you. Also traveling to meet him. I have a love affair with French gangster noir movies. I think its something to do with coming from England. I loved American gangster movies, but not for the same reasons an American would. A lot of my favorite directors are from France. They had a similar affair with American gangster movies. Where it was the hyper-real world that they loved. It never existed, but it was wonderful. It should have existed, you know? I think there is an element of that going on in this. As boring as it is, that was the genesis for this story. Those French moviemakers were the inspiration for this. Perhaps more than the English gangster movies, or the American gangster movies. I have an amazing fascination with them. Especially Bob Le Flambeur, have you seen that film?

I have not seen that, no...

Jesse V. Johnson: Right. It's a Jean-Pierre Melville picture. He was a French director who adored American gangster movies. I don't think he ever did any real research on gangsters. But he made these fabulous pictures in the 50s and 60s with Alain Delon. Those films are the ones that really got my juices going for Charlie. Story wise, that is where the story came from. It was also a personal experience. Although, the anti-climactic end to that story is the fact that my blood father was not a gangster. He was a water colorist. But that was the seed to this story.

The first scene where Charlie and his son are together, alone, is pretty intense and realistic. Did you pull some of that dialogue out of your own experiences with your father?

Jesse V. Johnson: I try as much as possible...Which is a hard thing to do if you are a film nut and you watch a lot of movies...But I try to surround myself with a lot of these kinds of characters. And when I pick up an antidote, I try to take it from real life as opposed to from another movie. It's very difficult. When you get to be thirty, it's hard to know if it came from a movie you saw, or if it was actual real life. As a stunt coordinator, and a filmmaker, I always run into these colorful characters that have lived life. A lot of the conversation that I hear comes from turning a phrase, the metaphors that these guys use. I adore language. And I adore the way Americans work with their language. I think it is much more interesting to listen to than the English. It's almost easier for me. It's fascinating, so I notice when there are beautiful gems being dropped. But, yeah, a lot of my inspiration for writing comes form working with cowboys, ropers, ex-wise guys who work in the film industry now. Or teamsters, or truckers. A lot of the dialogue in this movie was inspired by those kinds of cats. They have an interesting way of showing affection. They will rip you less if they like you. Or they will rib you more if they like you, but it's a different kind of ribbing. However, they can do it while being sentimental. I think that is important in this kind of movie. Which is predominantly about men.

Watching Raymond and Michael play off each other is fascinating. What did you do to insure this wicked chemistry that they share on-screen?

Jesse V. Johnson: It was very interesting. And I would like to take full credit for it. But it would be the biggest and most dishonest thing I ever did. I wanted to rehearse this picture. I'd never had the chance to properly rehearse a film before. I had directed a few pictures, but it was all jammed, I'd get the actors the night before. I always though that was the imperfect way to make a movie. I fought very, very hard to have rehearsal time on this picture. I had envisioned sitting with the actors, and coming up with this wonderful improve style. I thought we would all get together, and we would jam. We would have this fabulous jam session, and we would create art by the end of it. So we hired a theater. Raymond J. Barry is in there. So is Michael Weatherly. Michael started question it. He said, "I am not sure about my motivation in this. What do I have for this end? What do you think I should be saying here?" It was starting to go in the direction those things often do. Raymond ended the conversation. Michael turned to Raymond and said, "Well, what do you think I should do at this point? What would I say here?" There was a pause. And Raymond narrowed his eyes. I don't know if you have ever met Raymond...He is an incredibly intimidating presence. He was a jock. And he is still a tough guy. He narrows his eyes, and he goes, "What is the line? Its what is written in the fucking script! And that is why I am here. It's because of the script. And we're not going to change a fucking word!" He turned his back and walked away. I didn't know what to say. That's not how I saw it going. It was a huge compliment on the one respect. But it was also quite a shock. Michael, himself, is a big powerful actor. I thought that would have been the type of thing that would have inspired him to walk. But he looked at me. And a huge smile came across his face. I realized they had found their rhythm, and that was it. That was how I'd direct them. From then on, they got on like a house on fire. It was an amazing relationship. It worked really, really well. At that early stage, Raymond had to establish what the relationship was going to be. He did just that. It was terrific. Obviously, that is not how all of my movies are going to go. I would love to have those jam sessions. In this particular example, that was an ideal situation.

That intensity is certainly brought out on screen...

Jesse V. Johnson: Oh, absolutely. I think so too. You see it a couple of times. There is a nervousness to Michael Weatherly, where you see him do a double take. He does it with his eyes. He is a better actor than to do it with his whole head, to Laurel and Hardy it. But you see that nervousness and tension. It was fucking terrific. I was so pleased. You never want to put someone in a bad situation. But Michael is a big boy. He realized that was the way of the part. He loved it. I was thrilled. After all of that happened, it was fun.

I have been a big fan of Raymond J. Barry, for a long while, and he is excellent as Charlie Valentine. How did you get him attached to the project, and were you a fan of his before bringing him into this particular film?

Jesse V. Johnson: He auditioned for the bad guy. Then said, "You know what? I should be playing Charlie Valentine. I should have a shot at auditioning for the lead." So we gave it to him. And, yeah, he was very good. We had to see other people. We saw a bunch of big names. But he kept coming back to us. He became the person by which we were measuring everybody else. You do that, then you reach the minute where you think, "Hold on! If we are measuring everyone else by Raymond, then why don't we hire Raymond Barry?" It went about like that. The film that I most looked at was the one where he played the assassin of John F. Kennedy. He was very, very good. I thought he was terrifying in that. It came through his use of silence. His ability to not do much. But convey an awful lot. Which is a tremendous talent, and grossly undervalued in an actor.

Which set are you on right now? Are you directing? Or are you doing stunt work?

Jesse V. Johnson: I am currently stunt coordinating a film with James Caan called For the Love of Money. We're in Los Angeles. West LA, I guess.

I wanted to ask you about your work as a stuntman and technical advisor. With Charlie Valentine, the first act of the film includes a pretty spectacular shoot out. Did you rely on your extensive knowledge as a stuntman in choreographing some of these action sequences we see in here?

Jesse V. Johnson: My background helps enormously in knowing what we can, and what we can't do. But what I like to do is push to the ragged edge of safety, and then let someone else work out how to do it safely. I put enormous demands on my stunt team. The way I shoot is extremely quick. It puts a great deal of pressure on them. They all love it. They come up with fabulous solutions for what we want to do. Frankly, I felt there was more action than I had planned in Charlie Valentine. But there is always this consideration with this type of movie budget. You know your largest audience is going to be that foreign market, which requires a certain amount of action before they will pay for a picture. There is always that consideration. I felt I did a film that was more motivated by human issues than visceral issues. I am very proud of the film in that respect.

The full title of the movie is: The Hitman Diaries. Are you seeing this as a way to set up a franchise, where we are looking at various different hit men throughout the course of this particular era?

Jesse V. Johnson: That was a title that Lionsgate gave it. I always felt it was just Charlie Valentine. That's its title in every other country. That is what it was released as. It is a part of three different stories I have written that deal with gangsters who are past their prime, living in Los Angeles. The first one was The Butcher, which we shot with Eric Roberts. The second one was Charlie Valentine, with Raymond Barry. And the third one is Don't Play with Guns. Those are three films that deal with different cats, who are in the midst of three very different situations. They are all past their prime, past their time. Which is a theme I have come to love. I am not sure if it's some deep fascination with Sam Peckinpah. He made films that were similar in theme, only with a Western background. Or whether it is something that comes from watching people in my industry. In the film industry, things are shifting and changing, and you have these old guys from a very old, tough, hard school who are basically no longer employable, because their way of talking, and dealing, is gone. I see that on a daily basis. It has cheapened my work in one way or another.

So, Charlie Valentine is the second in that trio of films, and Don't Play with Guns hasn't been made yet.

Jesse V. Johnson: That is correct. I would call it a triptych rather than a series. There are certain characters that turn up in all of them, but they are basically different stories, you know?

How do you divide your time between directing and taking on a huge stunt job like Thor or The Green Hornet? Does the stunt work allow you the financial freedom to go out and do these smaller, more personal films that you might not be allowed to do otherwise?

Jesse V. Johnson: Yeah. The stunt work does provide a duel purpose. It does allow me the financial freedom to write. And to edit. As far as actually directing a movie, I am getting paid, and it's great. It can take a year to develop. And then a year to edit, and get it ready. Then, like with The Hitman Diaries: Charlie Valentine, we had two years on the festival circuit. It's a different world. Its good to be able to nurture. Our film was made as much in the nurturing process as it was in the directing and writing process. They are all equally important parts of making a film. Not to underestimate anything, but the time you spend doing it is incredible. I have been very lucky. I have been able to balance that financially by going to stunts. And working on huge pictures, where I also get the chance to watch a lot of interesting and new technical equipment being used. I get to watch different directors work, which has been fascinating. And wonderfully useful. I learned my trade by watching other directors work. As importantly, I know my limitations. I can walk in the door and say, "This is what I can do. Its an action movie." They look you up, which they all do with IMDB and these wonderful sites that give your history. And they feel a sense of validation. They say, "Oh, you are the one to hire! He has the experience! Look what he's done." It sort of works to my advantage. But I also enjoy the stunt work as well. If you just spend your life writing, and watching other peoples work, the creativity suffers to a degree. The writers I love all lived life. Joseph Conrad, Tom Beck, and Ernest Hemingway. They went out and did it. They risked their lives. They put themselves in danger. And there is a freshness to it. I run into a lot of writers who live a very gentle and sheltered existence. And it shows through in their work. I believe. Maybe I am old fashioned.

You recently did stunts for the Tintin movie. How did that work, with the film being completely in CGI? Are you doing your stunts in motion capture?

Jesse V. Johnson: One hundred percent. Yeah. A great deal of it is motion capture. I didn't have to do a lot on that one. I did coordinate a movie, Beowulf, the Anthony Hopkins, Angelina Jolie one. We did a lot of hellacious stunts on that one. You couldn't wear pads. You had to be in a slim, black outfit, and all of the props had to be made out of steel. Wielded tubing. So they could be put in the capture environment. So when you hit a chair, it wasn't made of balsa wood, it was made of steel. For what ended up looking like a NanoVision movie, we had an awful lot of people hurt. Ambulance visits. Then we saw the film, and we were like, "It's mostly animated!" Motion capture is pretty hi-tech, especially with the level of stunt work. Because, obviously, they want the body to react in a way that looks realistic. Its actually being thrown, or flipped, or folded. They want to see how the body will move under those dynamics, so they will actually do that a lot of the time. It's certainly not to be undervalued. The amount of stunt work that is done on these pictures. It's hard, because you don't actually feel like you are seeing it at the end of the day. I have a love/hate relationship with CG. I'm a big believer in taking an actor, putting him in a bearskin, and putting a sword in his hand, then placing him in an eleven hundred year old castle. Then you get a better performance. Instead of just putting him in a room and telling him to pretend he's in a castle. You know? I truly believe that is something we do as a director. We create an environment that allows the actor to live and breath. For me, I am a little bit old fashioned in that respect. I love the old way of making movies. I think CG does have its place. But I'm not sure I will be doing one any time soon.

Yes. I would think it totally changes the way you approach your craft. It has to be a whole different game plan when you walk in there to figure this stuff out...

Jesse V. Johnson: Totally. Totally. Yes. It was a huge learning curve for all of us on that last one. How much padding we could use. How much wirework. How things had to be done to help the animators get what they needed. It was a big learning curve. There was a lot of technical expertise that went into it. They have a handful of guys that do it now. They do it very, very well. Its certainly not regular stunt coordinating. You are absolutely correct on that.