Exclusive Interview: The Man Behind “Savage Dog” Director Jesse V. Johnson (Reprint)

(Original Publication Date: July 31st, 2017) By: John M Jerva

If you love the action genre and know the people who make it happen, then you know Jesse V. Johnson. Having cut his teeth in the industry as a stuntman and actor, Johnson has parlayed all those years into a directing career. Starting in 2005 with the indie action-thriller PIT FIGHTER, Johnson has accumulated an impressive career in a short time with films like ALIEN AGENT with Mark Dacascos, THE LAST SENTINEL with Don “The Dragon” Wilson, THE PACKAGE with Stone Cold Steve Austin and Dolph Lundgren and now SAVAGE DOG with action sensation Scott Adkins, Marko Zaror and MMA champ Cung Le. It was on PIT FIGHTER, actually, that Johnson and Adkins teamed up for the first time and know they have worked on five total films including THE PAY UP which is currently in production. Johnson is one of the few directors out there, that know how to deliver great action on a budget and continue to give the fans what they want.  With SAVAGE DOG, Jesse has found his new go to action guy in the likes of Adkins and their newest action offering is truly a sight to behold. Jesse took some time out of his busy schedule to talk to me about the new film, his great cast, the action and much more. 

Here is the Action-Flix.com exclusive interview with director Jesse V. Johnson! 


1)   Action-Flix: You had mentioned that you had written Savage Dog a while back and that it was a passion project for you. How did you come up with the concept for the movie?

Jesse Johnson: I made a film called Pit Fighter which was basically my first film directing and it was a lot of fun but it was taken away from me by the producers that I was working with at the time and they absolutely ravaged the film and changed it on me. When your new to directing, these things happen. You don’t know how to protect yourself or the tactics you can use to gently get out of a situation like that. They cut a lot of the backstory and things like that and it became a staright action movie but it did very well. I always thought there was a far better film there, and a lot more mature and interesting then what was put out there. A year after Pit Fighter came out, I wrote Savage Dog as a follow up and it was set in Mexico at the time in the 60’s or 70’s. I played around with it and then and people would option to make it but the film fell apart and through the years that area was done and done and done and done very well like in films like Traffic, so we couldn’t really compete with that so I was shopping around for a better back drop and I’ve been a student of history for a long time and I learned about the Foreign Legion history  through Dominiquie Vandenberg my friend who was the lead in Pit Fighter and through him I had sort of this vicarious interest in the Legion and I read about this period in the 50’s where you had this very strange time where there was lawlessness and incredible bad guys and through that we changed it from South America to Indochina and I was like “This really bloody works.” The only thing was at some point we had  included Scott’s character who was an ex-SS soldier on the run and we realized through research that none of them were innocent or good in any way shape or form and there was no way we could make one of them your hero so I made him an ex-IRA soldier and I made Vladimir Kulich’s character the SS bad guy and suddenly the film started to take shape from there. I just thought it was an original backdrop that hadn’t been done in a martial arts film before. It was fun to go there and I just thought it was a really cool period of time where you had bad guys where you could have the good guy beat up and cut to pieces and no one would lose any sleep over it because they are the worst bad guys imaginable.

2)  Action-Flix: You have also stated that you have to have emotion and characters that the audience cares about in the films. You can’t have action just for the sake of action. How do you feel this relates to Savage Dog? How do you feel the audience will care for Scott?

Jesse: Oh you know I did my best and Scott did his job as well and you put as much of the back story in as you can and you put as much humanity in it as you can so the audience will sympathize with the characters. The film is sort of a potboiler. We didn’t want to do an action sequence every second so it is a little bit of a slow burn where you get to know the characters so when that first fight happens, you’ve become so vested in these people that it means something. I tried to put as much back story in as I could and I feel I could have done more but I feel we did what we set out to do.


3)  Action-Flix: Savage Dog is a very violent action film. Talk about the need to have such graphic action in the film.

Jesse: Like I said it’s a slow burn so when the first fight happens at the bar where Scott decapitates that guy outside and I don’t want to say the audience is bored but there is an old saying that you have to bore the audience before you can shock them and I just really wanted to play that to the hilt. You’ve gotten so involved with the characters by that stage and the audience is like “what am  I watching a drama?” (laughs) and then all of a sudden this violence happens and it is supposed to shock you. It might make you laugh or giggle or feel uncomforatable but it gives the film a dramatic punch on an emotional level and it’s important to the plot so when the violence starts you have become so invested with Scott that it makes you feel something.

4)  Action-Flix: Now lets talk about Scott Adkins. You put him in Pit Fighter back in 2005. How did you guys meet and how did you come to work together again? You two are now making a slew of action films together.

Jesse: It’s funny you know, this world is very small, the martial arts and action genre, is very small and we all move within the same circles whether it’s the producers or distributors we work with or actual crew members or  the stunt community. We are all very familiar with each other. I have been making martial arts films for a while now and I was friends with Isaac Florentine who was doing the same thing and he was trying to find scripts for this young fellow who had been a stuntman named Scott Adkins and he actually worked on stunts in a few movies of mine I believe and everyone liked what he could do. He could defy gravity and what he could do was amazing and to this day there is no one that can literally touch him when it comes to stunts and action. It’s very difficult to find a stuntman who is a trained martial artist and who looks great and can act the way that he can. He is, and I rarely use this term, he is a freak of nature and it is all because of his incredible discipline and work ethic. He literally gets better with each picture and its amazing to watch and he has inspired me. When I had gotten to the point where I felt I couldn’t learn anymore, Scott showed me that there is so much more that you can do. He really keeps you on your toes and it makes you to not want to settle for second best. He and I are now putting the energy that we use for the action into the performance aspect of films and it’s tricky and it’s a very interesting thing and we are trying to put everything we can into the films that we are doing. Anyway Florentine introduced me to him and he came in and worked for a day on Pit Fighter and he was great. We also come from England and we are a part of that blue collar work idea. So years later, I was putting Savage Dog together and I was going through the list of names to use and I didn’t feel a connection with any of them. They could do the martial arts and action but they weren’t as good with the acting so I sat down with Scott and he was doing supporting roles in A list films like Doctor Strange and Criminal and he is really, really trying to push in that direction as am I so we both agreed that we could make a great film here that would be a martial arts movie and be incredibly violent and intense but could also get some notoriety to it at the same time. Along with Accident Man and Triple Threat we are also doing another film called The Payup and we are shooting that right now.


5) Action-Flix:  This is a different type of role for Scott. He really gets to let loose and show a more extreme side to him. Can you tell us more about his character Martin Tillman and how this role differs for him? – 

Jesse: Thank you, I would not know how to speak regarding Scott’s other roles. Martin Tillman was written as a well rounded and layered character.  He had a distinct back story and history.  It was his dark back story that ultimately set up the film’s finale.  Locked up, he was more of a danger than roaming free, until they double cross him, then, at that time, we see his questionable past take a hold.  I liked the character and we worked hard on making him as believable in the circumstance as was possible.

6) Action-Flix:  The cast includes other great martial artists and action stars like Marko Zaror and Cung Le. How did you get such a great action cast for the movie.  

Jesse: I knew Marko from my first film, Pit Fighter, Marko had dropped by the set and worked as a stunt man, I always admired his determination and talent.  I called him personally and asked him to be in Savage Dog.  Cung Le and I had previously met regarding a project of Cung’s we were trying to get financed. I have a helluva lot of respect for Cung, he’s a warrior and a highly disciplined human, an inspiration.  I called him and begged him to be in Savage Dog and I don’t think he realized quite what was in store for him.

7) Action-Flix:  I got the chance to interview JuJu Chan earlier this year and found her delightful. She is normally known for action roles but in this film she is the dramatic essence of what drives Scott’s character. Tell us about Isabelle and how JuJu got involved.

Jesse: I know a reviewer named Danny Templegod and over the years Danny has helped me casting martial arts parts. He is very tied into that scene, and writes about these performers and seems to be able to track who is where and doing what.  He had previously helped me cast several tricky roles in other productions.  My distributor wanted a Chinese actor to play Isabelle and Juju was in town and Danny set up a meeting.  She was awesome and had a quiet but determined disposition that  struck me as similar to Isabelle’s.

8) Action-Flix:  The action in Savage Dog was awesome and I think different from what we have seen in the past. Tell us how you went about creating such great action set pieces.

Jesse: The fights were written by me, and then became the physical creation of Scott Adkins, Marko Zaror and Cung Le – covered and arranged by my fight director and stunt coordinator Luke Lafontaine.  I write the script, the rough beats, the violence and they interpret the blocking of the fights and I make notes on the pre-viz-(rehearsal videos).  I tend to keep out of the choreography as too many cooks slow down the process. The joy of directing for me is gone when you’re basically following a pre-viz, so I try to work with actors elsewhere when the fight-scenes take place. Scott and Luke live for that stuff so it is a great relationship.  The gun and pyrotechnic mayhem is 100% mine, and I don’t particularly care to work with any one else in that kitchen.  I don’t care much for the current fascination with the three gun technique. I shot IPSC and am intimately familiar with the fast mag change and shooting techniques in movie-use presently (head on a swivel, center mounted carbine or bent elbow cupped weaver-stance pistol grip).  The problem is that everyone is using it, and it leaves no room for ingenuity.  I think this is why the 1950’s era of Savage Dog appealed so much The gun work and tactical techniques, the actual period firearms are just so much more interesting to me.  I also despise computer animated pyotechnics, gun fire or explosions, or computer blood gore, I tried hard with Savage Dog to keep all of the savagery as real looking as possible.  This takes some doing as these types of guns in California  now require massive permitting and legal hoops to be stepped through to possess or rent for filming.  The pyrotechnics are expensive and require several expensive technicians on set, and realistic gore effects are time consuming and expensive and require artists to create and manage the effects.  I had to plan around this factors early in advance of shooting and I think this makes things feel a little different.


9) Action-Flix: Talk about Scott and Marko’s final fight. It was much more down and dirty and grittier then their fight in Undisputed 3. Was that always the plan to differentiate it from their previous match up?

Jesse: I haven’t watched any of the undisputed films but I saw a bit of their fight on Youtube.  It was a well made fight scene.  I drew absolutely no inspiration from it whatsoever.  My aim was to set two talented characters with agendas against each other, mid way through the fight they must forget their individual agendas and just become two men respecting the others talents, but still committed to kill, rather than walk away.

10) Action-Flix: I got to interview Marko Zaror also.  I asked him what makes you such a great action director and he said it was because “you hit the ground” meaning you cut your teeth as a stuntman and actor. Do you feel that action directors who have come up through stunt-work are just better because you guys know what is involved with action scenes because you’ve done it?

Jesse: I don’t think I’m anything special when it comes to action directing.  I would like to think the amount of time I spend with the actors on their dramatic scenes helps the audience better relate to their characters and thereby invest more in the action when it happens.  I can’t really hypothesize on it.  I learned my trade with my uncle, Vic Armstrong. He is an action director and I cannot even come close to the kind of ingenuity and experience he has.  He works very hard never to repeat himself.  That facet of his work ethic has always inspired me.  The transition from Stunt man to director has seen uneven results more often than it has seen positive ones but I am pleased whenever a stunt man makes the step successfully.


11) Action-Flix:  Can you tell me why it seems that independent action films seem to be better then the blockbusters that come out? Why is the action so much better?

Jesse:  Who knows. One is a $700 meal at a French Restaurant and the other an In N’ Out burger. They are both delicious under the right circumstances but you just don’t want all of one or the other.  There is a responsibility with a $100 million budget to deliver a gloss, sheen and polish, which in my opinion can damage and reduce an action scene’s veracity and honesty to what amounts to advertising photography.  If you’re not careful, they all end up looking the same.  Especially if your characters can fly or are invincible.

12) Action-Flix:  Finally, I know that you are working with Scott again on The Pay Up. Can you give us a little more info on that project and what to expect?  Obviously there’s Accident Man and Triple Threat but what else is on the horizon for you?

Jesse:  The Pay Up is a story about two bad guys who are forced to rethink their existence, it is more performance and character driven than usual, it is violent and there are fist fights, but in this film violence has a price.  I have another project in development which will shoot later in the year, which can only be described as a tone-poem to violence, almost no dialogue whatsoever, it is unlike anything I have done before, and quite unique in fact.  I also in development with several significantly larger budgeted action films.  I loved making Savage Dog, but if I was to be honest, low budget action is brutally hard work, and the results are often hit or miss, at no fault to the filmmakers, luck just becomes a huge factor when the budgets go down.

Action-Flix: Thank you so much Jesse for taking the time to talk, this has been great!

Jesse:  It was really a pleasure to talk to you John and I’m glad you loved the film!

To keep up with Jesse V. Johnson and to find out about all of his upcoming projects, visit his social sites at:

Facebook: Jesse V. Johnson

Instagram: actionjessevjohnson

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