A prolific stuntman turned writer, producer and director, Johnny Martin has worked with some of Hollywood’s biggest names; most recently directing Al Pacino in the serial killer thriller Hangman.
He spoke with STACK about his experience working with the screen legend, and how a chance encounter at a car wash set him on his career path.
What inspired you to get into the movie business?
I’ve always loved movies, and I love fast cars. When I was eight years old I was at a car wash where I used to watch all these ‘70s cars pull in. One day a beat-up yellow Mustang pulls up on a trailer and a guy named H.B. [Halicki] got out. He told me he was the director, producer, stuntman, actor and financier of a movie called Gone in 60 Seconds. We sat for three hours and he told me everything. I said, ‘I want to do what you do.’ So from that point on I started training, and then moved to LA when I was 18.
Director Johnny Martin
How did you progress from stunts to writing, producing and directing?
The key to becoming a great filmmaker is to learn everyone’s job. Once you do that, you’ll know every answer and you’ll be able to make the best films.
I stayed a little bit longer than I wanted to in stunts, because I wanted to be trained by the best directors. Every time I did a stunt job, on my days off I’d sit behind the director and try and learn their style and everything else. Tony Scott was a big inspiration to me – I try and make my films look a little bit like his.
How did you become involved with Hangman?
I had directed Vengeance: A Love Story with Nic Cage. It was a movie about rape, and when I did that movie, it was really hard for me to work out how I was going to shoot a rape scene that would be intense but different from everyone else’s.
I was asked if I was interested in doing a movie like Seven, with Al Pacino? I read the script and I didn’t think Al was going to accept me, being an ex-stuntman and all that, but he had seen the rape scene from Vengeance, which he said sold him to meet with me.
I went to his home and we sat for about five hours, and before you know it we were doing dialogue together. We were playing the movie out together, and I got really lucky in that we got on great together.
I imagine he wouldn’t require a lot of direction…
He definitely liked to be told what’s going on in my head, because I’m the one that’s going to be editing it and he wants to make sure what he’s delivering is a part of the story that’s being told.
Poor Al was sick for most of the movie. He had a bad flu but he still worked his butt off, even though it was hard for him at times. He’s such a kind, beautiful man who really cares about films.
When making a serial killer thriller, it must be a challenge to bring something fresh and new to the genre?
I was nervous going in because everyone told me I was making a Seven, and I didn’t read that in the script. I read it as being about three people struggling with their own lives and having to help each other.
I felt it was more of a character piece, and not the scary horror thing everyone thought it was.
It was important to give [the characters] their own identity. That’s where we started. When I direct my movies, I usually like to do two or three takes and then put the script away and start to improvise – what we all feel this movie is. With Karl Urban having such a strong presence, it allowed Al to do a high and low moment, and that mixed well together.
What do you have lined up next?
I wrote a movie about the second gunman in the JFK assassination. It’s an action movie, because that’s what’s selling really well these days, but I also put every conspiracy theory in the script. That’s really my passion project.