When it comes to the world of stunt work, anyone in the business will tell you that Jesse Johnson is a true pro. Nephew of the legendary Vic Armstrong, you’ve probably already seen his work as a stunt man and stunt coordinator many times over, such hits as “Total Recall”, “Starship Troopers”, “The Thin Red Line”, “Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines”, “Alice in Wonderland”, “The Amazing Spider-Man”, and James Cameron’s “Avatar” are just a few of the movies where he’s worked his craft in his nearly three-decade long career.
After the turn of the century, Jesse also began to transition into directing action films, and in recent years, has sat in the director’s chair for “Savage Dog”, “Accident Man”, and “The Debt Collector”. His latest crack at action filmmaking is the long-awaited action ensemble, “Triple Threat“, which brings together a certifiable dream team of martial arts movie royalty, including (eye-opening insights about) Tony Jaa, Iko Uwais, Tiger Chen, Scott Adkins, Michael Jai White, Jeeja Yanin, Michael Bisping, and Ron Smoorenburg.
Today, Jesse sits down with KFK to share an exclusive behind the scenes look at the making of “Triple Threat”, and the process of bringing the film’s massive ensemble of action stars together, along with offering an idea on where he’d like to see the film’s titular butt-kickers go in the future!
Hi Jesse, welcome back to Kung Fu Kingdom! Hope you’re keeping well?
Hi Brad, thanks, I’m doing great, happy to be back!
Joining and Making Triple Threat
Fantastic! Well, let’s go ahead and kick off with your role as director of the action ensemble, “Triple Threat”. What can you share about how you became involved with the film?
It was during “Accident Man” when Arclight Films got in touch with me about “Triple Threat”. Tiger Chen had originated the concept behind the film as an ensemble of Asian martial artists. It was the first I’d heard of it when they contacted me, and I thought it was a fantastic concept. Everything actually moved very quickly on the film, because with the option they had taken on the film, it had to be in production within a year. So I was on a flight to Thailand within about three or four weeks of coming aboard.
Talk about hitting the ground running. On that note, in “Triple Threat”, you had the opportunity to direct an ensemble of action stars, including Iko Uwais, Tiger Chen, Scott Adkins, Michael Jai White, Celina Jade, Michael Bisping, Ron Smoorenburg, and Jeeja Yanin. What can you share about the making of “Triple Threat” with such a massive martial arts ensemble?
Well, when I came aboard, Tiger, Tony Jaa, and Iko Uwais were the only ones attached. Tiger had been shopping the idea around for some time before. There had also been two previous iterations of the script, and they’d gone through a number of rewrites. So when I came on, we were working on the most basic ideas for the film. Dwayne Smith also came onto the film and worked on the script that ultimately became the shooting script.
We shot the movie in Thailand, and having worked there as a stuntman before, I had a good idea of how to make the film in that setting. Thailand’s a beautiful country, but there are a lot of difficulties that come with shooting a movie there, and of course, the heat and humidity are off the charts. So I knew what challenges we’d face, but I also knew that our leading guys and the stunt team were very physical and would be up for it. I’d also just worked with Scott Adkins on “Accident Man”, and he’s a great guy to be in the trenches with. He was the first of the larger ensemble to come aboard, and the rest of the cast really fell into place after that. Michael Jai White had also worked on “Accident Man”, so he came on right after Scott. I’ve also had a long working relationship with Dominique Vandenberg, and he’s an ex-Legionnaire, so I knew he could handle anything, and we were fortunate to get him on board, as well. I also tried to bring in Ray Park, but we just weren’t able to make the scheduling work.
The other great thing about the cast of “Triple Threat” was that not only were they all really physical, but everyone was so well-versed in martial arts that no one character has the same fighting style as anyone else. So that gave us a lot of creative freedom in doing the action. Everyone really believed the film was going to be something special and they were all totally committed.
On the Action Design for Triple Threat
Absolutely. Speaking of designing the action of “Triple Threat”, what interesting stories can you share about making the film with stunt veteran and action director Tim Man?
That really came out of working with Tim on “Accident Man”. Scott had a lot of creative input on the film, but before we started, I told him, “You’re wearing too many hats already to also be the action director, so who did you have in mind for that?”, and Scott had already worked with Tim on “Ninja II” and “Eliminators”, so he suggested him. Tim is fantastic stunt guy, and he’s always very disciplined and very prepared, so when it came time for “Triple Threat”, I knew we needed someone we’d worked with before that would be up for all of the challenges in Thailand. And since he’d already worked in Thailand a lot himself, I knew Tim was the right man for the job.
We really wanted that no two characters in the film have the same fighting style, and Tim was really, really good at making every character’s fighting background distinct. So whether it was Kung Fu, Muay Thai, MMA, traditional Karate, Silat, etc, it was really exciting to see all of that come together.
In the Director’s Chair
No doubt about it. Looking ahead now, what influence would you say your extensive background as a stunt man yourself had on the making of “Triple Threat”?
Well, I think when I first began as a director, there was a process of switching from my mindset of being a stunt coordinator to putting a lot of trust in the hands of other people on the set to handle that part of the film. It’s a bit of a switch to go from doing stunts to saying “This is my movie, I’m in the driver’s seat now”, and relying on other people in the area I’d come from myself. I think it took me about three movies as director to put all of the self-imposed restrictions of being someone else’s stunt guy behind me and start thinking like the boss. That being said, there’s a pragmatism that a stunt background brings to directing, as well. I’ve done or been involved with almost every kind of stunt imaginable, so I can look at any stunt and tell you right away how much time we have, how much it will cost, and whether it’s achievable or if it’s the “beyond stupidity” kind of dangerous.
Working in Thailand before, I also went in with a real understanding of the financial side of working there as well. For example, it costs the same amount to do five bullet hits on one person in Thailand as it does to do one in the West. So I think coming from stunts really helps in understanding how to steer the production and understanding what is achievable and pragmatic with whatever your location or budget is. And I can always tell when I’m watching a movie that’s been directed by someone coming from being a second unit director, because the way they direct is so different coming from that background.
Triple Threat: Memorable Experiences
On that topic, what were some of the most memorable experiences from the making of “Triple Threat”?
Filming the assault on the police station was really memorable. We were doing it at a really fast pace, and that sequence had so much going on at once, from machine guns and rocket launchers to explosions and martial arts. Also, just seeing the camaraderie among the cast was really great. While we were filming the chase on the street, it was a pretty good walk back to where the trailers were, so the cast had a circle of chairs where they would all cluster together and hang out between takes. Everyone really got along incredibly on the set.
Also, the opening of the film that was out in the jungle, proved to be challenging because it had a big canopy over it, which meant that light didn’t really come in until about 11 am. It was really surprising to step out of there and it’d be broad daylight, and then step back in, and it’d be almost like night in there. I also kind of learned the hard way why everyone else on the 150 man crew was wearing long pants, because almost everything in there scratches and bites and leaves some kind of mark on you! (Both laugh).
On Stunts and Tony Jaa as a Martial Arts Powerhouse
Got to take the rough with the smooth. Speaking of that, were there any injuries or mishaps during the making of “Triple Threat”?
Well, these guys all throw themselves into anything, and they always give 110 percent. Also, whenever you’re dealing with a situation where you have a set full of life-long martial arts practitioners, everyone is eager to put their two cents in on how things should be done. And that’s not a matter of anyone being egomaniacal, but they’re coming from a lifetime of training and bring with that their own ideas about doing action. And I’ve been on other sets where that can get a bit toxic if it goes beyond a certain point. However, that wasn’t the case on “Triple Threat” at all, and a lot of that came down to Michael Bisping. At the time, he was the UFC Middleweight Champion, so everyone on set already had a ton of respect for him, but he’s also one of the most funny and charismatic guys you could ever possibly meet.
As far as actual injuries, we had a few stunt guys take a good amount of punishment in some of Tony Jaa’s fights. To see the way Tony moves throughout the day, and how he moves in a fight, the difference is like night and day. When he’s off camera, he’s so polite and gentle, he’s like the Buddha with this incredible aura of calmness. And then, the moment you call “action”, this unimaginable kinetic energy appears. Just the sheer power of the kicks he was throwing at Scott in their fight was just amazing.
When we’re filming a fight sequence, the players involved will kind of decide how much actual contact is necessary to really sell each hit. That may sound very daring and heroic, but it’s also pragmatic in selling the fight to the audience, so it comes with the job. So, we had a couple of incidents where people told Tony to go ahead and make contact, and there ended up being a few stunt people who really took some hits and had to be taken off the set to get patched up. It even got to the point where by the third time someone was telling him to make contact, everyone on set was saying “No, don’t do it!”, and I even starting telling them, “Please, guys, don’t ask Tony to make full contact anymore!” (Both laugh)
And let me emphasize, Tony wasn’t being malicious in any way at all, and he was very, very apologetic, of course, but that really goes to show just how powerful he is. And even with everyone on set already having seen what Tony can do and knowing what he’s capable of, it still really took a lot of people by surprise just how much he can put into a hit. Other than that, there weren’t any major injuries on “Triple Threat” aside from the usual bumps and bruises that always happen here and there, so in a way, the only significant injuries were kind of self-inflicted because they were asked for. (Both laugh)
Well, their commitment is definitely on-screen in the final product. So, how would you say directing “Triple Threat” compared to other films you’ve directed?
Well, I’ve directed ensembles before, but directing “Triple Threat” took that to a whole new level. When you’re talking about doing a major scene or a major set piece on most action movies, you usually have about two to three players in the sequence at one time, and we averaged six (laughs). So with the time between set ups being about an hour and a half, on most films, you could finish one scene and be onto the next before lunch, but with how many players were involved, any one sequence would pretty much be our entire day. That was something very new for me, so you have to really adapt your style as a director to doing an ensemble at this level.
Favourite Triple Threat Fight
And going off of that, with so many incredible fight sequences between such legends of martial arts here, what would you say is your personal favorite fight sequence in the film?
The finale, without a doubt. The work that Tim Man and the cast did in the finale was just out of this world. Even though I’m the director, to see it all unfold on the set felt like being a spectator. The whole cast completely threw themselves into the finale of the movie, and it was gruelling, for sure. There was a point where I saw Tony laying off to the side of the set getting his legs massaged, and it wasn’t for anything serious, but they were all totally committed to taking the film out on a massive finale after all the build-up that had led to it. I saw things happening right in front of my eyes that were always done with wires before, and you’d have Tony or Scott just get in front of the camera and do it with no wires at all. Every time I’ve seen it, it just makes my hair stand on end to see what those guys accomplished with the finale.
Thoughts on Triple Threat 2…
It’s an intense, adrenalin-spiking scene for sure. Well, as we prepare to wrap up Jesse, “Triple Threat” reportedly already has a sequel in the works. What can you share about the in-development “Triple Threat” sequel for fans?
I’d definitely be back for it. Tony, Iko, and Tiger really brought everything they had to the film and more, and made it live up to its title. There’s no one in the world like Tony Jaa, and Iko Uwais has really made his mark. And Tiger Chen is a force to be reckoned with, as well – he’s a lot more comedic than I think people realize, and I think audiences will be really amazed seeing what the three of them pull off as a team. One angle I’d want to see it go is having more women among the villains. I think seeing Tony, Iko, and Tiger facing off with a team of really amazing female martial artists would be a really great direction to go in.
Now that would really be something, I’m already fan-casting…So what other projects do you have in the works following the release of “Triple Threat”?
I did “Avengement” with Scott after “Triple Threat”, and that’s coming out in May. It’s a really different project from what Scott and I have before, it’s a very character-driven piece mixed with all the action, and I think it’s probably his best performance as an actor. I’ve also got a few other projects in the works, and it’s just kind of in that period of pre-production that happens on every movie where you’re just waiting for the penny to drop.
Well, we definitely look forward to seeing those come to fruition. Thanks Jesse, it’s been a real privilege to discuss and explore behind-the-scenes of “Triple Threat” with you along with the process of bringing its incredible action ensemble together. We wish you all the best with the film’s release, and look forward to seeing “Avengement” as well!
Thanks, Brad. It’s my pleasure to share about the making of “Triple Threat” with Kung Fu Kingdom!