“Avengement” on the Horizon: An Interview with Jesse V. Johnson

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Jesse V. Johnson has been in the industry for years. The nephew of stunt legend Vic Armstrong, Johnson got his start as a stuntman before delving into filmmaking as a producer and director. He has become the second half a dream team with martial arts ace Scott Adkins in recent years, especially with Savage Dog, Accident Man, The Debt Collector, and Triple Threat to name a few. Their latest collaboration, the gritty Avengement, is coming to select theaters, VOD, and Digital on May 24.

World Film Geek had the pleasure to talk to Johnson about his latest film.

Jesse V. Johnson has been in the industry for years. The nephew of stunt legend Vic Armstrong, Johnson got his start as a stuntman before delving into filmmaking as a producer and director. He has become the second half a dream team with martial arts ace Scott Adkins in recent years, especially with Savage Dog, Accident Man, The Debt Collector, and Triple Threat to name a few. Their latest collaboration, the gritty Avengement, is coming to select theaters, VOD, and Digital on May 24.

World Film Geek had the pleasure to talk to Johnson about his latest film.

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Jesse, it is an honor to be talking with you about Avengement. I have been a fan of your films as of late, especially your collaborations with Scott Adkins. This film was gritty, brutal, no holds barred and I enjoyed it to a tee.
I’m so happy to hear that! You’ve made my day!

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Tatsuya Nakadai in Hara-Kiri, the film that inspired Avengement (Shochiku)

What inspired you to come up with Avengement?
The genesis of the film came from a movie I really enjoyed, called Hara-Kiri. It’s about a samurai who wants into a castle and is about to commit suicide, but then organically, he tells his story and we soon learn that he is actually seeking revenge. I thought that was an exciting premise. We used that as the basic set up in the world of gangsters, where we have this stranger who walks in, unrecognized beyond recognition, pretending to be an everyday guy. Then he tells his story and he as that same motive of revenge. In Hara-Kiri, there’s the hierarchy of the samurai and it’s similar here to the hierarchy of the gangster.

As a young man, I really enjoyed that world of gangsters and also, East End in London, which is where we shot the film. I thought that area was really rich. I had written the original script and when we were given the greenlight, I would be directing with Scott [Adkins] starring thanks to Ehud Bleiberg, who was really trusting to let us do what we needed to do.

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Jesse V. Johnson (center) on the set on Avengement

Scott had to stay in England because he had just become a dad again, so he didn’t want to leave. He asked what I had so I showed him the script and Scott brought in his screenwriter, Stu Small, and he did a massive rewrite and polish to make it more appropriate for Scott. Stu and Scott are actually longtime friends. They went to high school together. And there is a very close relationship between the three of us [Ed. Note: The trio also worked on Accident Man]. I mean there those disagreements we’ve had but everything was organic and yes, it’s not always easy to collaborate on a script, but we had a script done and then came casting.

We have a great supporting cast. We have Louis Mandylor, Nick Moran, Craig Fairbrass, Leo Gregory, the guys and girls who are usually lead actors in their films. They did an excellent job because of their abilities. They brought a tremendous idea of what they wanted to do in terms on contrast. It was a lot of fun doing the movie. You see the film and see this is both exciting and extreme and Scott did an excellent job on the film. He really gave it his all. He’s becoming big and when you work with someone big like Craig Fairbrass, I mean Craig knows that Scott is the star so he didn’t want to outshine him but yet give it his all as well and I think he did an excellent job as well.

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Scott Adkins is Cain Burgess in Avengement (Samuel Goldwyn Films)

Speaking of Scott Adkins, you and Scott have become a dream team in recent years, much like he is the second half of a collaborative dream team with Isaac Florentine when he first started to burst on to screens. It is like you two understand each other when it comes to bringing the action on screens. Did you allow Scott to bring input to his character of Cain? What astounded me is Scott’s look in the film. He sports these nasty scars and these metal teeth that brings a notion that maybe he’ll want to bite his victims after pummeling them (Laughs), but that’s not the case. Was it your idea to give Scott this new look for the film?
It was written in the script. It was the idea to have him unrecognizable so that people who saw him didn’t know who he was and yet the audience does. It allowed Scott to bring that emotional content to the role. We wanted the character not only to be emotionally unhinged, from PTSD, but give him a physical look like a war veteran who did suffer from perhaps something missing. The first make-up test we did, we used a lot of prosthetics, but it looked a bit too-Freddy Krueger-ish. And we felt that we weren’t making a horror film. So instead, we have part of his face scarred from acid and the metal implants in his teeth. I think it is perfect for the film and I asked Scott to disappear into the character.

Scott would put the teeth on and begin rehearsing. Then when we are ready to shoot, he becomes full of energy. He becomes Cain Burgess. When Cain gets those new teeth, that becomes the emotional switch for him. He goes from being this innocent young man to getting brutalized to the point where he himself becomes this tormented, psychopathic killer. He starts talking to himself, screaming, going through mental anguish. This dementia enters his mind and becomes the trigger for his revenge. And we get to see that transformation as we hear his story and it felt perfect.

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Cain (Scsott Adkins)  brings the pain in Avengement (Samuel Goldwyn Films)

I totally agree. Sometimes when films offer flashback, they can jumble a lot of things, but I felt this one ran smoothly. You have the one present day scene, then a long flashback to flesh out the story then back to present and it kept going like that and it works here.
I came up with that idea from The Shawshank Redemption. I worked on that film as a production assistant. I was on the set with Morgan Freeman and we would talk on the set. His character would attempt to escape prison and then get caught and have more time added to his sentence. Then he tried again and by the third time, he would say, “I don’t care if they release me or not”. And at that point, they released him. It was about what it was like to be institutionalized. So, I used that concept as a way to show what Cain goes through.

He starts out slowly transforming from having the metal teeth then fighting, getting back up, getting burned with acid, but still fighting and getting back up. We see him turn into the dangerous Cain Burgess.

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Cain (Scott Adkins) in the opening scene of Avengement (Samuel Goldwyn Films)

Finally, I read Scott is working on some new films with Isaac Florentine. What’s next on your plate?
I love Isaac. He’s a great director. His style of films in terms of working with Scott is quite different from mine. He brings great visuals in his film, especially with the action. I do have some projects lined up. I have Legion Maxx coming out and a movie in the works called Lion’s Den and then we also have The Debt Collector 2, which is pending and very exciting because it will bring more to the main characters. I’ve tried to reinvent Scott in terms of characters and I would love to go back to characters we know and bring them on adventures that haven’t been done in the past. I’m also hoping to work with bigger name actors who could help me break into the more mainstream theatrical releases and also bring Scott in on those projects because it’s always great to work with him. Let’s see what the great journey brings us because I love to do various collaborations with Scott like the way John Ford worked with Henry Fonda or John Wayne.

I have to say I would love to one day, see you, Scott, and Isaac work on like a massive epic film.
That would be quite interesting, especially because Isaac and I do have different styles. But, if something were to be laid out that would lead into a collaborative effoer, you never know. I would love to work with Isaac and I hope Isaac feels the same (laughs).

Avengement comes out on May 24th and those who love to see Scott Adkins and Jesse Johnson’s collaborating will definitely enjoy their latest for its grittiness and no holds barred action. Thank you again Jesse. It’s been an absolute pleasure talking with you.
Thank you so much!

A Special Thank You goes to Katrina Wan PR and Jesse V. Johnson for making this interview possible.

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