Interview: Director Jesse V. Johnson and composer Sean Murray

Film Music Institute > Film Music Magazine (Current) > Composer Profile > Interview: Director Jesse V. Johnson and composer Sean Murray

By Daniel Schweiger

Director Jesse V. Johnson

Composer Sean Murray

Gibson and Glover. Spencer and Hill. Eastwood and Burton. Niven and Peck. Van Damme and Rodman. All actors who’ve singularly, and repeatedly kicked ass to memorable cinematic effect. But go behind the camera of today’s action-centric, often small screen thunderdome that often has indistinctive carnage to spare, and you’ll see and hear a directing-composing duo who take names – no more so than for an especially charismatic body-wrecking machine. Over the course of six films (in a total of eleven together), filmmaker Jesse V. Johnson and composer Sean Murray have provided the visceral moves for Scott Adkins, an English-born martial artist who used a stomping ground in Hong Kong cinema to translate himself to international stardom. 

With kinetically staged fights, energetically punishing rhythm and a feel for character and emotion, Johnson and Murray have brought the genre critical honor with an energy that blows up the notion of the VOD ring.  The Johnson-Murray-Adkins team has included the hard-ass “Savage Dog,” “Triple Threat” and the brilliantly punishing “Avengement.” But while they might have a penchant for brutal, beat-driven body counts, Johnson and Murray have also found quirky humor in Adkins’ abilities with “Accident Man” and “The Debt Collector,” a 2018 movie that had his martial artist “Frenchie” butt heads with “My Big Fat Greek Wedding’s” Louis Mandylor as the Zen Mook brawler “Sue.” Now the two are back in a sequel that’s anything but usual business given Johnson and Murray’s unique set of skills as the buddy bruisers go about gathering payment from a motley bunch (including a man-eating Marina Sirtis) with often humorously punishing results as a result of Sue forgoing violence.  

Scott Adkins and Jesse V. Johnson

Reprising the offbeat tone of the movie’s first withdrawals in a way that can go from laughs to tears and ultra-serious gundowns, Johnson (a nephew of action staging legend Vic Armstrong) works his deft, stuntman-learned moves that knows when how to equally play character with the bone-shattering goods his audience expects, no more so than a friendly beat-down here that tries to top the roundhouses of “They Live.” Murray, the son of acting icon Don Murray (“Deadly Hero”) certainly has made his genre bones in the game arena of “Call of Duty,” “Counter-Strike” and the films “Boone: The Bounty Hunter,” “Maximum Impact” and “Wild League” among nearly 100 scores and counting. 

Beyond the atmospheric dark grooves that are the straight man of “The Debt Collectors,” Murray’s strikingly thematic score reprises his “Debt Collector” grooves while adding new signatures. Yet right from the South American rhythms, voices and winds of Sue’s opening dance-walk, the free for-all of Spaghetti Western grooves, crime jazz, rapid-fire percussion and dramatic heart make this a particularly juicy soundtrack that avoids expectations while delivering them – in exactly the same way as Johnson’s repertoire that’s now reached 20 propulsive credits. Together, this a duo that continues to deliver stand-out beat-downs, returning once again to make you gladly fork over your money, or else.  

Jesse performs a stunt in Spielberg’s “Lincoln”

Tell me how you both began your respective careers? And what attracted you to action in particular?

Jesse: I came to the US with the intent to become a director. I was writing scripts, drawing comic-books, directing shorts, I’d dictate and act out a pitch if asked. I became a stunt man to pay my bills, and surprisingly became quite successful. I got on well with people and was quick on my feet and didn’t get injured easily. I enjoyed stunt work and when you’re busy, it pays very well and is a fine living. It established many of the relationships with cast and crew and producers, that would carry through to my directing. Through stunts, I learned to deliver a level of action on a budget, a talent that has made me valuable to producers. 

Sean and Don Murray

Sean: My dad Don Murray is an actor and director and I was inspired by a score for the film he was working on, “Damien’s Island” which was written by “Terminator” composer Brad Fiedel. I loved it so much that I learned all the themes on the piano. I was 10 and that’s when I decided I wanted to be a film composer. At the age of 16, I started writing music for student films. By the time I was 19 I had scored over 75 short films and was able to use that experience to land my first movie – an action film called “Scorpion.” 

What led you to collaborate with each other?

Jesse: I met Sean when I first arrived in the US. He’s a kind, generous and gentle human being and I liked talking with him. He doesn’t compete or try to one up you. He listens and genuinely enjoys listening. He’s not precious. Unfortunately, I am.  I am selfish, pig headed and arrogant, perhaps less so now. Pig-headedness is not a bad thing for a director, and it is a necessity for a young filmmaker, you never really grow out of it, you just learn to hide it, to appear polite and gracious. 

The will power it takes to generate a film comes at a cost, you’re not a normal person, you’re slightly mental, slightly unhinged. So I gravitate towards people like Sean, the calm within the chaos. Creative without being arrogant. Hard working and disciplined without being precious or peculiar. We found we liked many of the same films, and styles of music, a slightly similar way of looking at the world. Sean’s father is old school Hollywood, Sean grew up listening to the stories of the old Hollywood, the way it was, I have always been obsessed with the Studio era. The old greats: Errol Flynn, Bogart, John Wayne, Steve McQueen, Jimmy Cagney.  Sean’s father, Don, worked with most of them and has the stories to prove it. For this second grade educated, English vandal, it was a chance to feel a little closer the Hollywood of yesteryear. I have often found myself hunting down technicians and crew who worked with my favorites. My gaffer in the UK was Kubrick’s gaffer, I worked with Peckinpah’s assistant director for a few years. Sean is also extremely good at understanding my needs. I’m not a musician and my musical direction is based on emotion, grunts and clicks and quoting other movies, Sean puts up with me patiently

Sean: We met through a mutual friend who suggested we get together. Jesse showed up to my place in Malibu on a vintage motorcycle wearing the old-style goggles and a half helmet, very rugged and cool looking. Being a bike rider myself we instantly hit it off. Jesse was filming a short film called “The Hunted” and asked me to score it. We really worked well creatively as his wide range of music influences, some familiar some not, pushed me into different areas that were sometimes out of my comfort zone. We went on to collaborate on Jesse’s feature film “The Doorman” (retitled “The Honorable”) starring Dominique Vandenberg and Timothy V. Murphy. This score still sounds fresh to me today because we weren’t trying to be trendy

Vic Armstrong with his nephew Jesse in Prague on “The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles”

How do you think your English and American backgrounds contribute to your synergy, especially in respect to how your countries view action films and their scores?

Jesse: I have never thought of myself in terms of an “English” filmmaker, when I left England I was a stuntman, I became a filmmaker in Hollywood. Sean and I are internationally minded because both of us travelled the world from an early age. We both enjoy a very wide scope of cinema and cinematic style. We push each other to go outside of our comfort zones. I’ll force Sean to listen to everything I can find by Roy Budd or Fumio Hayasaki, while Sean will show me this instrument he found in Vietnam and the performer he located who can play it. The key for both us is not to be swayed by the zeitgeist, meaning current trends, but to go to the source, instead of the barrel, go to the tree.  Dig deep, for our inspiration.  Old 50’s 60’s records. Turkish love sonnets, unpublished Irish terrorist pub songs.  

Sean: Jesse and I are allies in our interest in World War II and the impact it made on the world. Mid-century composers’ music reflects the pain, adventure and pathos coming out of the wake of that war. Many of the films out of post war Japan show that psychological impact and is perhaps why Jesse and I like the films and scores of Akira Kurosawa. The score to “Throne of Blood” by Masaru Sato offered some of the inspiration for our latest film “Debt Collectors”.

As respective masters of the VOD action arena that have often gotten good mainstream critical notices, what do you think is the trick to making these movies more than cookie-cutter?

Jesse: I haven’t once made a film for the VOD action arena. I make each film as finely and as carefully as time and money will permit. As the filmmaker I have little say in how or where the distributor sells the film or how much energy or money he puts into the selling. I made a black and white art film called “The Beautiful Ones” that won a ton of festivals and I lost my shirt. I learned a lot about what people will not pay for. I learned to make sure to please the mass-audience that has come for “blood” and then to layer in the finer aspects of the poetry and art carefully. 

Sean: My goal is always to support the performances with memorable themes, sometimes simple, sometimes complex. We did something intentionally on “Debt Collectors” and “Avengement” that is quite atypical – we did not score the climax fight scenes at all, instead we let the action speak for itself. In chaotic violent scenes, sometimes less is more.

Jesse, when you’re staging fight sequences, do you have music playing in your head?

I usually figure there will be no music in a fight scene, they’re better that way. Though I often have music playing when I write, sometimes the same piece for three months, it drives everyone around me mental. Sometimes there will be a theme or idea in mind when I create the shot-list. But, when you get to the set, you are better served to let the rhythm of the dialogue or action dictate your pacing. Hanging onto preconceptions can be limiting.

What particularly struck you about Scott Adkins that made him different from your typical action star?

Jesse: Scott and I enjoy working together. The chemistry is interesting. He thinks very differently to me, I will lay out a scene and be content with it. He will be looking at it and the questions he asks are completely surprising to me. He looks where I do not and forces me to question aspects of the process I had taken for granted. It annoys the hell out of me, sometimes, but I have learned to listen and think and act cautiously, because, having someone around to offer such a different perspective is inherently valuable. The characters he plays have become more rounded, more skillfully drawn. The action more effective and profound, with our juxtaposition of perspectives.

Sean: One of the things I love about Scott’s work is his convincing use of accents. “Savage Dog” had him as an Irishman. In “Avengement” his cockney accent was impeccable. The sound and cadence of his voice can sometimes really influence my choice of instruments.  

How would you say you’ve tailored your abilities to match Scott’s moves, and charisma?

Jesse: I am a director not a painter, my palette is a living breathing cast of actors, any director worth anything understands this. You are tailoring your movie, your set ups, your shot list, your choreography to best support your cast’s abilities and strengths – meaning what you planned sometimes goes out the window and you have to think on your toes or lose the moment. The best movie experience will result in your absolutely reassessing the script or film to play to the strengths of your cast, to create an environment where they do their best work, allowing them the time to feel the role out, to make a mistake and know it doesn’t matter they have another shot. It has taken me a long time to learn my craft.

Sean: The boxing fight scene in “Debt Collectors” had some shades of humor so I played “The Debt Collector” theme with a loose sounding distorted bass and some Rhodes piano accents. I intentionally kept the sonics and bass frequencies out of the way of those hard-hitting boxing glove punches. It is very important for me to know what the FX will sound like, be it punches or gun shots so I can tailor my music to fit the sonics.

What was your first match up like for these characters on “Debt Collector?”

Jesse: The black and white film I had made, that although it was a passion project and very, very special to me winning dozens of film festivals, was a spectacular commercial failure. The music Sean had written for it was inspired and neither of us wanted it to remain hidden with the film, so, we elected to use it as a basis for “The Debt Collectors,” massaged and up dated it, but, the Roy Budd (“Get Carter”) crossed with Ennio Morricone (“Battle for Algiers”) hybrid worked beautifully with the two collectors. Also, “The Debt Collectors” was a very minimal budget, and frankly I was embarrassed to ask Sean to create a completely original score for what we were paying.

Sean: It was great to use those themes because they fit the fun aspects of the relationship between French and Sue. For “Debt Collectors” I used the original themes but with different orchestrations. Going with the Kurosawa feel I made extensive use of shakuhachi and taiko. We also had a very western theme where I used and amazing giant Peruvian pan flute and bansuri played by the incredible Ashley Jarmack. The men’s choir you hear in the main title and other places is multitracked Murray. Also a challenge was the whistle – it took me many takes to get it right without using auto-tune!

After “Debt Collector,” you collaborated on one of the most emotionally powerful and violent action films I’ve seen with “Avengement.” Did you see this as something that would break the “mold” for you both?

Jesse: “Avengement” was a tremendous break for me, I hope it helped Sean in some way, But Sean is a lot more established than I am, so I would be very arrogant for me to think that. For me, personally and professionally it was a huge step forwards, though I had had many reviews before, in this case they were overwhelmingly positive and gracious. My career changed over the course of about six months. Sean’s music was sublime, and that score will be recognized as something very special as our movies continue to grow. It already has a very loyal fan following internationally.

Sean: “Avengement” had an incredible mix of emotion, dark humor, visceral fight sequences and starkly beautiful cinematography. The way the main title was presented gave me the opportunity musically to show many aspects of Scott’s character in a short couple of minutes. Particularly powerful was the reveal of his dead mother. But the music almost plays against the visual so as not to give away the back story. Jesse and I made that an intentional music choice. Cain’s scarred face gives you enough of a clue that the back story will be fascinating.

Given just how unrelentingly serious that “Avengement” was, was it good to get back to something lighter with “Debt Collectors?”

Jesse: I actually thought “Avengement” was quite amusing, he was a man who really took nothing seriously, but it was a darker shade of humor than “Debt Collectors.” I try to approach these things from the perspective of characters and situations, less, with an overall tone in mind, as I mentioned that has to define itself. I think the only time it did, was with the death of Felix. In “Avengement” we might have shown her being blasted by the machine pistol, whereas in “Debt Collectors,” I felt it was a different kind of story and the bloodletting would feel out of place. Otherwise I don’t think about tone too much. It’s an instinctual and gut thing.

Sean: The colder cinematic look of “Avengement” was a contrast to the sunny Los Angeles look of “The Debt Collectors”, so the music was definitely influenced by that. Apart from “Avengement’s” lyrical melodic main title “Me Mum” the rest of the score is very late seventies early eighties synth score inspired. One fun thing was that Jesse called me from London asking if we could work in some steel drums as he had just heard a street performer playing them. So we used steel drums to provide a mood lightening aspect to the dangerous brother’s theme when “Lincoln Arrives”. It plays very nicely as musical contrast to the visual.

Louis Mandylor as Sue” and Scott Adkins as “Frenchie”

Right from Sue’s opening footwork, there are many homages to Ennio Morricone with “Debt Collectors” – both to his crime scores and spaghetti western ones. Why did you think he was the right composer in particular to draw from, and what inspired that?

Jesse: Sue’s opening scene wasn’t actually inspired by Morricone per se, but by the piece “Nicaragua” from Jerry Goldsmith’s “Under Fire,” a score in which he might have very well have been inspired by Morricone. We did not listen to or look to Morricone for Sue’s theme. “Under Fire” was a South American score, and we used very real and particularly huge panpipes from South America. I think people are so used to Morricone as an influence it is easy to read him into any vaguely European or exotic piece of music, which is testament to his masterful talent and sheer body of work. 

“The Debt Collectors” theme, not used in the opening of the film, is repeated from the first movie, it’s genesis was “The Beautiful Ones” theme, and it was inspired by Morricone, but not one of his Westerns. Instead, it’s from “The Battle for Algiers,”  a film I have seen possibly twenty times, I worship it. The music is so concussive and mesmerizing, I am still not sure what instruments are being used, or even if they are musical instruments. We used it as a raw basis, a fundamental inspiration for the theme. Of course Sean made the music his and the inspiration is only vaguely there, but these are pieces of music which spike you and allow you to fly, where you go is up to you.

Sean: Other composers from the mid-century crew had more of an influence on the score for sure. I like to refer to those composers as “The Wild Bunch”

How did you want other contemporary crime grooves, as well as darker percussion to play a part in the score?

We tried not to look at anything too contemporary. We had a pervasive theme from the first movie, that Sean called “Beatle Boots” – after the type of shoes the gangsters wore in the first film. We used that like the “Jaws” theme whenever there was a sense of threat or malevolence in the air. I loved it. Scott got annoyed at it, because he felt it was too dark during the lighter moments, but I liked it. The humor in this film is quite dark and I think it works beautifully.

Sean: “Battle for Algiers” had a great percussive drive that I tried to capture for a few cuts on the first movie. But really, the goal for me was to give it an early 70s sort of sound. I listened to a lot of Lalo Schifrin, Jerry Fielding, Dee Barton and Michael Small scores from the period to get a sense of their sound, stereo imaging and recording techniques. To get that feel I decided to be a little loose with some of my guitar and keyboard performances with the goal of capturing the feel of a recording session on the clock, with budget limits!

Sean, tell us about “Debt Collectors” main themes.

Sean: When I watched the title sequence for the first time, the slow motion and the flirtatious footwork by Sue felt like a cowboy coming back into town after a long absence. When he kicked open the bar door, it reminded me of a cowboy slinging open those western saloon doors. Using the Peruvian pan flute and nylon guitar and my Murray choir that crescendos with trumpets, gave it the 70s sound and feel we were looking for. We wanted the audience to be queued up for a good time. 

How did you want the music to differentiate the characters of Frenchie and Sue here?

Sean: I viewed them mostly as a unit so that the differentiation musically was really to emphasize the bad guys chasing them. The gangsters got the taiko drums, piano with bass clarinet and shakuhachi, while Sue and Frenchie had their heavy tremolo guitar and groovy Rhodes sound.

There’s unexpected emotion when it comes to Sue’s character. How did you want the music to play him remembering the loss of his daughter?

Sean: I used a somber reflective theme from “The Debt Collector” tying the two films together. It is subtle, so I used some soft electric piano, strings and pedal steel guitar to keep it light but mournful.  I just love the performances in that scene! 

Jesse, one of “Debt Collectors” best fights is a no-hold barred tribute to “They Live.” Could you talk about choreographing what’s essentially a giant beat-down, best buds dance that just keeps on going?

Jesse: Well, Stu Small and I wrote the script very carefully, with the dialogue beats carefully arranged throughout the fight. Luke Lafontaine, Louis and Scott then choreographed the fight, and placed the dialogue as best they could to match what we had written. They spent a long time choreographing it carefully. I was involved minimally, watching some video, and watching rehearsals. Then we shot it over three intensely hot days in Van Nuys. The key was getting the level of communication right. The choreography is always going to be solid with these guys. Scott pushed himself very hard, he would scream his first take dialogue and gradually take it down in emotion, giving Matt and myself a choice during editing. Louis always tends to underplay with Sue, which works well in contrast to Scott. They were both extremely good, it was a killer few days. Music was used minimally and carefully, and only towards the end.

One of the longest music pieces is a “massacre” piece that plays the giant climactic club gunfight in slo-motion even as the bullets are flying. Why take that approach as opposed to have the music be just as fast as the gunplay?

Jesse: Sean and I were faced with a bit of a predicament because our two heroes are only vaguely involved with the fight. They and the audience are watching the other characters duke it out, but we’re really not invested emotionally in anyone but French and Sue, who are just trying to get out of there alive. We felt it was wiser to keep the shoot-out slightly distant and not try to involve the audience emotionally or viscerally with the supporting players drama. It’s background noise. Our boys and their ironic situation are what we’re looking to focus on.

Sean: There is so much gun fire and sound FX that I really wanted to stay out of the way of that. I didn’t need to add excitement with the score, but I wanted to add some musical pain. We wanted the focus on getting the guys out in relatively one piece.

Does Scott Adkins have any opinions when it comes to his films’ scores?

Jesse: He has a few notes and they’re usually REALLY good. He didn’t want music under the “Avengement” fight. He was right, and we all agreed on this. I did joke a couple of times and said that we’d scored it all and it was wonderful. Scott almost had a meltdown, but I agreed from the get-go not to score it. He listens to tone a lot, too upbeat or too downbeat. He doesn’t like it working against his dialogue. On “Accident Man,” which was his baby, he was very involved with the music, and he and Sean worked very closely, he always ultimately acquiesced to me, which was kind, but I liked his ideas on that movie and we all worked very well together. He loves Oasis, and that was his inspiration on “Accident Man,” I am not as enthusiastic about the band as he is, so I let him guide that soundtrack.

Sean: Scott wanted to go with an 80s synthesizer score sound. I was very happy to oblige. We used my old Emulator II, Korg M1, Roland D50, Yamaha Dx7’s, Korg MS2000 and every synth in the book! It’s really a colorful score, just like the artwork for the film poster. I think of that score as pure fun – violent fun!

What have your respective lock downs been like? And do you think there’s a kind of exhilaration to a movie like “Debt Collectors” that cooped-up audiences really need now?

Jesse: I think it is human nature that people should seek out vicarious adventure through movies, and the world in lockdown amplifies this, I think this is why the film has scored so well and found such an incredibly positive audience, though we did create a lot of good feeling with the first film, and people tend to gravitate towards what is familiar. I knew we had to go bigger and bolder in certain areas than we did with the first which was difficult, because bigger and bolder usually costs money, so we had to be subversive. 

Sean Murray in “Accident Man”

Sean: I’ve been binge watching “The Office.” And since I’ve never worked in one it’s a refreshing distraction. “Debt Collectors” is fun and I think people are looking for that. Hopefully, this down time will have brought new audiences to Jesse V. Johnson’s films. 

How do you see the “new normal” affecting action films and their scores? And have you been figuring out a game plan to adjust to it?

Jesse: I make films I love, I encourage Sean to write music that I love, so there is no strategy or attempt to guess what an audience wants beyond my own gut instinct and tastes. I’m not in marketing, and writing isn’t a boardroom, with ideas being tossed around. It’s a gnarly, angry, lonely process of laying a story out over six months tearing it apart and rebuilding it, turning it on its head and looking at it from different angles. If I follow what’s in the theaters now as a guideline, my films will be three years behind the eight ball when they come out. I have to trust my gut, in that I am ahead of the curve or creating my own curve or catering to an audience that I understand. I don’t over think it, I just try to make a film I’d pay $50 to take someone to go see. 

When it comes to the covid issue, I’m not a doctor, but as long as there is testing and care taken with regard the hiring process I don’t see it being an issue for making action sequences. When you choreograph action you know everyone who is there on set and they’re only there if they have a specific job to do, it’s just not an environment that a stranger can wander into. we don’t encourage spectators, or visitors – this is for the safety of everyone concerned and has always been the case. It’s one of the easier environments to police. You’d limit the interaction of the performers to people who had been tested and tested again – I don’t see it being an issue.

Sean: During the lockdown I considered having musicians record remotely, but in the end, I just waited until they could record in person. I need to be in the room with them to get the performances I want. I am sure things will get back to normal soon enough. 

After eleven movies together, what do you think continues to make your collaborations work? And where would you like to see them go?

Jesse: Sean is very easy to work with. He has no ego and listens. He collaborates, which is important. I had a composer recently who wouldn’t change a beat. He scored the movie and was intending to deliver it to the recording session, I listened and had some notes. Instead of having me into the studio and hammer out my notes, he wrote me a four-page email on why the music was fine and didn’t need to be changed. I am a trusting collaborator and I let this composer deliver to the recording session, his long email had stated the score would be great. It wasn’t, and Sean had to come in and fix the job. I have had several experiences like this with composers. When you meet someone like Sean you keep them close and happy, and make sure you use him whenever you can. The next three productions on the books are much bigger scale and significantly larger budgets, we have had three very successful and excitingly productive years with a surprisingly successful output. For my part I would like to slow down the pace, and take a little more time, on larger pictures from here on out. here.

Sean: We share a love for mid-century composers and the bravado from those timeless action films and it comes through in the work. I greatly appreciate my friendship with Jesse and the trust he affords me with his amazing films. It’s always an adventure working with him and I’m sure we will be doing something completely different on the next film. 

Sean Murray (R) in “Savage Dog”

A unique thing Jesse has done – going back to “Savage Dog” – is having me play cameos. Hint, Jesse puts me in the thick of the action onscreen in “Debt Collectors” as well! I have seen up close how hard and physical it is and the dedication it takes to make Jesse’s films come to life. It’s always an adventure working with Jesse V. Johnson.

Watch and listen to “Debt Collectors” at:

Visit Jesse V. Johnson’s web site at:

https://www.jessevjohnson.com

Listen to Sean Murray’s scores at:

https://www.amazon.com/s?k=sean+murray+soundtrack&ref=nb_sb_noss

Visit Sean Murray’s web site at

http://www.seanmurraycomposer.com
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