Interview: Jean-Claude Van Johnson Director Peter Atencio

Amazon’s pilot for Jean-Claude Van Johnson not only seems like Jean-Claude Van Damme’s guaranteed comeback, but it is a love letter to JCVD’s loyal fans for decades. With references to his splits, his movies from Bloodsport to Timecop and even a twin, Jean-Claude Van Johnson leaves fans wanting more. It will be up to the fans whether or not Amazon orders a full series, as they can vote on Amazon’s pilot season.

Van Johnson stars Van Damme as himself, a retired actor who comes back not only to Hollywood but to his true job as an undercover agent. Thanks to his agent Jane (Phylicia Rashad), Van Damme takes a role on the action-packed Huckleberry Finn reboot Huck as a cover for his latest mission. We spoke with the pilot’s director and potential series executive producer Peter Atencio about where Jean-Claude Van Johnson could go and how he made the ultimate Van Damme movie in the pilot. Hit the jump to read our interview with Interview: Jean-Claude Van Johnson director Peter Atencio.

Interview: Jean-Claude Van Johnson Director Peter Atencio

I have to thank you for paying off 22 years of my frustration with Timecop. I always thought their philosophy of “like matter can’t occupy like space” was bullsh*t because Ron Silver 10 years in the future is not the same matter as Ron Silver 10 years ago. 

[Laughs] I totally agree.

So have you been waiting all this time to comment on that?

Yes, absolutely. We finally got ours.

Are there plans if the series goes for Van Damme to have more encounters with twins and lookalikes?

I have to say I don’t think we’ve seen the last of Philippe. We enjoyed that far too much to let him be a one-time thing.

So Philippe himself would recur?

We’ll see. We definitely want to play to Jean-Claude’s strengths of playing multiple characters in some way or another. If you’re going to do something with Jean-Claude, you really have to take advantage of that.

Was there any limit, anything Van Damme didn’t want to joke about?

No, he’s game for whatever. He’s a very good sport about all of this.

Did you get to both spoof the Hollywood industry, and the action movies themselves?

Yeah, the wonderful thing about Dave Callaham, the creator, and writer, he has so much experience writing big studio action movies for so long, he’s got plenty of material for fun ways to take the piss out of the craziness of that world. He comes armed with a lot of stories.

 Jean-Claude Van Johnson

Did you get to make an actual Van Damme movie through this show?

Our kind of secret goal would be to actually get to make Huck. The show is a lot of fun but making Huck would be the real goal. Ideally, we’d get to live out our fantasies of the kinds of crazy Jean-Claude Van Damme movies that we would always want to make.

Would you actually shoot more of Huck than is featured in the series as a bonus?

Well, if we get to make enough of them, maybe we can put it together and release that as its own standalone feature.

So will Van Johnson continue working on Huck or will there be more movies he’s making?

The plan would be to stick with Huck for at least the mission that he’s on in the pilot, but our hope is that if we got to do the show for long enough that we would get to play with many different movies that he would star in and just kind of keep upping how ridiculous they are.

Was Huck Dave’s idea of what a Hollywood remake would be?

Yes. I mean, it really is just one no even big step away from the kinds of things that are being made now. When you can turn Snow White into an action movie, I think Huck and American classics are probably next on the list.

Did shooting Keanu prepare you to do the action scenes?

Yeah, that was definitely a big, nice primer for doing action. This is my first time doing more hand to hand combat action. I’ve done more shootouts and things like that, but that was definitely a good primer. Our stunt coordinator from Keanu recommended the guy who ended up being our stunt coordinator for this, a guy named Don Thai who’s from the 87eleven stunt group and did an amazing job coordinating the fights. I was really happy with the action we got.

 Jean-Claude Van Johnson

Did Van Damme have any tips for how to make it look like a Van Damme movie?

Yeah, he was definitely involved in the fights. The idea we wanted to have with the final fight in the movie was it should kind of feel like a greatest hits album of all of our favorite Van Damme moves. He fell into the choreography extremely quickly because as he put it, all of his memories were being used in that fight. He really got into it because it was little takes of everything he had done and had made him famous.

If those were all of his memories, would you have to create new Van Damme-isms moving forward?

What we would like to do going forward is keep playing within the world that has been established through the movies that he’s done, but also introduce new Van Damme-isms and find new ways to do some really exciting fights. We’d like to keep escalating the quality of the fights and find some interesting stuff, and hopefully, make some new favorite Van Damme fights for people.

Was he pretty adept at the slapstick comedy?

Yeah, I think his natural state is being a clown. He wants to be funny. He wants to make people happy and laugh. He’s so aware of his own physicality that it’s very natural for him to be able to use his body to do things that are funny. For instance, the spin kick in the gym during the training sequence where he misses the bag and slams his face into the bag and crumples to the ground, that was 100% his idea. He was like, “Oh, let me try something” and he just showed us what he wanted to do and it was hilarious. He’s very physically adept at doing comedy.

 Jean-Claude Van Johnson

The split joke at the beginning, we obviously know he can still do the splits because we all saw the Volvo commercial. Was that something he wanted to make fun of?

That was all Dave’s idea but he was definitely on board for that. That’s so his signature move and so many people know that move that it felt like a really great way to establish where his character is at by the fact that he’s not able to do it in the beginning.

I noticed a poster for The Quest in his house. Who picked the posters that would be there?

That was a group effort. We were all geeking out on our favorite Van Damme movies. That one felt like it should especially get a place of honor because he directed that movie. That was definitely one of the ones we were most excited to get in there. There was a few that we would have loved to have had in there in addition to the ones that are seen, but the clearances on some of his movies are extremely complicated.

I appreciate any mention of Nicolas Cage, but I don’t quite get the “real retired, not Nicolas Cage retired” joke because I don’t remember Nicolas Cage ever claiming to be retired. Did I miss something

No, I think the more is just if you’re not up to date on Nicolas Cage’s straight to video run, you might’ve thought he retired. He’s still very busy in the straight to video realm of course and occasionally theatrical. No, just playing on the idea that straight to video is kind of the space where action stars go to soft retire.

That’s why I never considered him retired because I’ve seen every single one of those movies.

Well, good. You and me both.

If the show moves forward, will we see more of Bar Paly?

Yes, absolutely. Any scenes where we can get Bar in we would love to. She’s really a joy to work with, and she was really funny as Thomasina Sawyer.

Would she just be the character in Huck?

Yes, and I’m certain we would see some of their interactions behind the scenes as well. The character that she plays in the world of making Huck is Krisztina. There’s definitely some possibilities for some romantic entanglement there between the two of them.

Could Phylicia Rashad end up in the field?

That is a dream that Dave and I have, to see Phylicia Rashad just murder as many bad guys as possible. So we would love to get her into the action.

Would we see deeper flashbacks of Moises Arias’s backstory?

Oh yeah, there would be a lot of exploration of Luis’s history. He’s actually got quite the tale to share with people.

I imagined that montage could be elaborated.

Yeah, there’s a more fleshed out version that Dave has that’s pretty awesome. We would definitely be exploring that.

Do you have a series bible or a season mapped out for Amazon?

That is something that Dave had ready to go before we ever made the pilot. That was actually part of his original pitch, and we’ve continued developing it since the pilot. There’s a whole laundry list of things that we’re very excited about doing.

Have you gotten any indication since the pilot’s been available?

Nope. Amazon has their process, and they take their time. We’re just waiting to get word.

Is there a date when that would happen?

Nope. It’s kind of whenever they make their decision.

Have you gotten feedback just from the fans and the public?

I’ve probably heard from more people on Twitter and things like that about Jean-Claude Van Johnson than anything else I’ve ever worked on. It’s been really overwhelmingly positive. It seems like people are really excited about it and happy with it. It’s really cool to hear so much great feedback from people.

Did you direct the Gremlins 2 sketch on Key & Peele?

I did.

Was that a personal favorite movie of yours that you wanted to comment on too?

Oh yeah, very, very much so. I’m a huge Gremlins 1 and 2 fan for very different reasons for each of those movies. Jordan is as well, and that was a sketch that he’d originally done on stage with a sketch group that I worked with years ago called The Midnight Show at the UCB theater. It was always a dream to do that for the show. For the last season, we decided why not, let’s do it? We got the cast from The Midnight Show to also be in the sketch on TV. We were angling to do that one for a long time.

It really becomes its own thing when you put all of that in one short scene.

Yeah, and so many people don’t know that it’s actually true, so we added that graphic at the end that says all of those were actually in the movie. Even so, I meet so many people that don’t realize we’re telling the truth. All of those gremlins really are in that movie. That movie is just completely insane. I love it.

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