-Interview by Nic Brown-
The tag line for writer/director Jesse V. Johnson’s new film reads: “Charlie Valentine was a gangster, a gunfighter, a womanizer and a pretty fine chef.... He was also the most dangerous, irresponsible scoundrel you ever met.” However, CHARLIE VALENTINE the film is much more than that. It’s Jesse’s labor of love that was inspired by one of his favorite genres of film and by events from his own personal life. Now Jesse talks about some of the challenges of making CHARLIE VALENTINE, why the film is so personal to him and why you sometimes have to just let the scenery breath to get a memorable shot.
Nic - Jesse, your new
film CHARLIE VALENTINE recently had its world premiere in
Jesse - It's a film about a father and son reconnecting. It's also about how a man who has survived a dangerous life as a professional criminal, by always being able to run away - that is, he has survived by running away from his responsibilities, his goals, his dreams, and his first love - it's hopefully a film about how even a man like that can change. That within the darkest and bleakest of us all there is that shred of hope, of decency, that possibility of creating a state of grace. For me it is ultimately about the strength of the human species. It's a film that hopefully doesn't judge; all of our characters have strengths and weaknesses, reasons for doing what they do. It's a film I've wanted to make for some time. I'm very pleased with how it has turned out.
Nic - So how did premiere go?
Jesse - The screening was a cast and crew screening really, and it went very well. It was a nice turn out and the grand old Crest Theater in Westwood is a brilliant location for this movie, being a project that has many stylistic links to a past era; our aspect ratio was Technoscope 2:35. We shot on the same format that Sergio Leone made his epics. We moved the camera slowly and attempted to give the film a stately grace. There has been a trend lately towards using a lot of handheld camera, assaulting the audience with unfocused imagery to give urgency, a documentary flavor, and it works well for many movies, but my cinematographer, Jonathan Hall, and I decided to go in another artistic direction: to pull back, to let the scenery breath.
There's a fight scene in William Wyler's "The Big Country" between Charlton Heston and Gregory Peck. As the fight progresses, the camera gradually gets further and further away, until the two men are specks on a hillside. There is something audacious about this. It's a powerful statement too, on the futility of violence. We tried to use movies like this as inspiration. Our titles start in black and white, a fancy filigree font against a velvet curtain, hopefully evoking the old studio "A" movies. So, that said, the premiere felt correct, playing in this fabulous 1940's cinema.
Nic - Where did you get the idea for this film?
Jesse - I've been obsessed with the French gangster movies of the 1950's and 60's for some time. I think that a group of French film worshippers looked at the American films of the 1930's and 40's, the Cagney, Bogart and Robinson films, and tried to adapt these films to their city, Paris and their characters. I think their films are the greatest fantasy films ever, because they don't represent anything that ever happened or existed in
The actual story for CHARLIE VALENTINE came from a personal
experience, which just happened to take place close to the time
of writing. My wife found out I'd never met my real father, and
had done an internet search for him, finding him a retired art
teacher in the South of France. Our trip there, but mainly the
Nic - What was your biggest challenge in getting CHARLIE VALENTINE made?
Jesse - I was very lucky in that I wrote it for a producer Ed Robin, who wanted to make a film with me, and had enjoyed a previous "criminal noir" style script that I'd written. I pitched this story in detail and it met with his approval. As I mentioned the writing was quick, so it worked out very well. Casting was stressful, but Raymond Barry came into the equation quite early on. When we finally woke up to the fact that he would be the best Charlie, it certainly got smoother. We had a very experienced casting director, Ted Warren, who is also one of the film's producers and we fought like dogs and cats about the cast. Raymond was his choice and I fought him like mad, but the moment I started working with him, it was as if a weight had been lifted from my shoulders; he was Charlie Valentine, and I grew to love him.
We had an actor come in, notorious for his ad libbing and paraphrasing; he started to drift off book, turned to Raymond and asked his opinion of the writing. Now I usually encourage this, especially in rehearsal. I like it; it's healthy to pull apart the script, but Raymond looked at him and said, like someone running a flint across a granite block, "I signed on for this script, so I'm going to say just what the **** is written and that is all, and that's how it's going to be!" The poor fellow looked pale, Raymond can be an intimidating presence in his own way, and we went on. It was exciting rehearsing with this cast; they enjoyed it, and watched Raymond, who was performing at a very high level and realized they had to work to keep up, or be left behind. It is good when this happens; it inspires me and everyone who is a part of the process. Raymond signed on for opera lessons, learned to shave with a straight razor, learned to fight with a straight razor. A different teacher was required for these two crafts - he learned how to draw and shoot a revolver in the manner of the 1960's - they trained differently then. Small things, but character traits are born of this research. It's good and I encourage it.
Time and money are always looming over you when you make a movie, and this one was no different. Thankfully the producers trusted me; I plan very well, and run an organized set, that's how I work best, so we did OK. There were several shots which took a long time to set up, but we knew that and planned accordingly. The writers’ strike helped us, I'm a little ashamed to say; actors and crew who we usually could not afford were available to us. I feel a pang of guilt about this, but hopefully the WGA got what it wanted from its strike. The toughest thing really with a passion project is the time it takes to complete in relation to the fee you are paid, but get over this hump, and they are worth the stomach rumbling and spousal complaining.
Nic - You’ve been working in the film industry for some time now. What are your impressions on how the internet and technology in general are changing the movie business?
Jesse -I started out as a teenager shooting in 16mm, splicing my own dailies and I even tried my hand at my own negative cutting. Remember, a "dissolve" cost $250, a "custom length cross fade" could cost significantly more. Now of course they are free, and a myriad of wonderful choices is available to you on your Avid final-cut system. This is great, it is as it should be. But I must say, when you had to pay and live by your cut, you certainly thought hard and long before committing. But now you must do this through self discipline - which is fine. I love special effects technology, but anyone who gets too wrapped up in modern CG should study the old masters, see what is possible with miniatures, with 50% mirrors, with photo plates, double exposing, matte paintings, done right and planned correctly. It's still cheaper than CG and often more effective. But you mustn't get caught up in the past; modern CG is wonderful too, offering amazing opportunities, but it all comes down to the script, the actors and the director, sometimes in that order.
I actually switch off when people start talking to me about computer programs or HD camera technology. I'd prefer to talk about a great story, or an interesting premise. I use finaldraft, which I love, but if my computer breaks down I write on a pad with a pencil. The camera we shot CHARLIE VALENTINE on was 40 years old, older than me, but we took the negative and transferred it to HDCam SR and colored it in the most modern Datacine system available. You familiarize yourself with what's available and choose the best tool for the job. It's no easier to make a good movie than it was eighty years ago, just as it's no easier to paint a great painting or write a great novel.
The internet has empowered anyone with the time on their hands to build a website, to become a critic. I don't know that this is necessarily a good thing, but it's unavoidable, and we just have to deal with the fact that there are now no qualifications necessary for someone to write a review on a movie that may or may not get thousands of people reading it; no study of film theory, or film history, no experience in journalism, or even basic writing skills. What I hope will happen is that a few persistent names will rise from the pack, names known for their intelligence and study, fairness of opinion and judgment and these names will - by Darwinian process of elimination - become the standards by which films are judged. Film criticism was important to me when I was learning to make movies: the Cahiers du Cinema, Truffaut's writing on film, Pauline Kael, Peter Bogdanovich's books on filmmakers. For some reason film theory has become unfashionable. I think watching a good film should take a commitment, a seat in a theater, a viewer’s full mental focus. What self respecting filmmaker wants his films viewed on an iPod? But it will all work itself out; it always does. I think it's important that a filmmaker should endeavor to embrace both the past and future of his art.
Nic - How do you think technology is affecting the way audiences watch films? You mentioned the fact that people can now watch a movie on an iPod, but going the other way home theater systems are now approaching a level where they are often compared to the cinema experience for presentation. Do you think theatrical presentation of films will survive?
Jesse - Home theater is great, but to watch a film without distractions, it's still necessary to go out, to make a nights entertainment out of watching a movie. It's a shared collective experience, that's a great part of the attraction. You can drink wine at home, but people will always enjoy going out and sharing, we're a social species. The movie theater isn't going anywhere, but the manner in which the film is projected will of course continue to evolve, whether it's a vapor based 3d experience, no glasses necessary, or a completely holographic experience. The important thing for the filmmaker - I believe - is to know your film history and to embrace change, but always to realize it is the story that is of primary importance.
There were people who were saying the motion picture as an art
form was finished with the advent of sound; they said the same
thing when color was introduced. TV was supposed to destroy the
theater experience, then the VCR threatened everyone’s
livelihood. There are some serious issues right now with free
downloading and ripping of movies, but they'll work out a way to
regulate it. People have to realize they're destroying the
economy of the very industry they love by using these sites. But
their ravenous hunger to watch movies is still exciting to me. I
just wish that they could satisfy their need in a way that
actually benefitted the filmmaker. My film “Greenstreet 2”, a
little hooligan picture I made last year has been ripped 10s of
thousands of times and it hasn't even been released in the
Jesse - Charlie Valentine has been a great success for me. It has validated a lot of my suspicions regarding my strengths and weaknesses as a writer and director; I really want to do another film about a subject matter that I am passionate about, intimate with and can live, eat and breath for a year or two. I'm a journeyman director, meaning this is how I make my living. Assignments come and go. My challenge with a project is always to find a way to get excited, curious, sometimes passionate; but I have scripts that were written from the heart and I will focus on getting those made. If I can do one of those to every two assignments, I will be a very happy fellow.
Ed Robin, the producer of CHARLIE VALENTINE, has bought another script of mine, and it's set in a similar world to CHARLIE VALENTINE, the underbelly of Los Angeles, the Universe of Raymond Chandler and Dashiel Hammet, but realized in a modern context - I love this world; Nirvana for me is watching a double bill on TNT of “The Maltese Falcon” followed by “The Big Sleep”. It's a terribly moving story, and really has some interesting characters in it - these are based on events and fellows I knew and ran with when I first arrived in LA. When you're struggling for a foothold you tend to gravitate towards folks of a similar age and in similar financial jeopardy - poverty is a great equalizer - I met some of the most interesting and vital characters when I was broke and struggling to pay bills, working any job that I could. When I say any job, I mean it by the way. So that project is certainly on my horizon. I'm on a scriptwriting assignment right now, which is requiring a lot of international intelligence agency research, which is really quite exciting, spies and spying during the first Gulf War. I enjoy doing a lot of ghost writing, the research keeps me interested; it's really where I learned my craft, and how I pay a lot of my bills. I'll keep putting my heart and soul into making pictures. The budgets seem to be increasing - I know my pay check has been going up, which is a relief - but not as important to me as my wife would like. Most importantly it seems the level of cast associating themselves with my work is rising. You can make a great film with the wrong level of cast and never go anywhere with it.