- Filmmaker Jesse V. Johnson discusses his long-gestating passion project, Boudica: Queen of War, and how finding the right person to play Boudica was crucial for the film’s development.
- Johnson highlights the unique challenges of directing Boudica, a historical epic, compared to his previous action and martial arts films, emphasizing the need for authenticity and realism in portraying ancient warfare.
- The director expresses his admiration for leading lady Olga Kurylenko, praising her performance as Boudica and her ability to embody both the wife and mother as well as the warrior aspects of the character.
Filmmaker Jesse V. Johnson is a well-seasoned stuntman and stunt coordinator, which prepared him well for the travails of directing action movies. Johnson is well known for such action movie hits as Accident Man, Triple Threat, Avengement, and The Debt Collector movies, with his films often teaming him with high-level and respected martial arts stars like Scott Adkins, Michael Jai White, and Daniel Bernhardt. Johnson’s latest movie takes his talents as an action moviemaker into the past with the historical epic Boudica: Queen of War, which is now available on streaming and VOD outlets.
Boudica is famous as the queen of the Inceni tribe of Britain in the 1st century A.D., in which she led an unsuccessful revolt against the Roman Empire’s conquest. Despite her defeat, history remembers Boudica as a strong warrior woman and a capable leader in her stand against the much larger Roman forces. Boudica: Queen of War captures her tale as a rousing and enthralling period epic.
Screen Rant interviewed Jesse V. Johnson on the making of Boudica: Queen of War, how the film came about as his long-gestating passion project, and working with leading lady Olga Kurylenko to bring the historical warrior Boudica to life.
Jesse V. Johnson Talks Boudica: Queen of War
Screen Rant: How did Boudica: Queen of War come about for you?
Jesse V. Johnson: Boudica I’d been developing for about 20 years. It’s a story that I’ve wanted to tell for a long, long time, but it had to have certain elements come together for me, which all sort of manifested in the last year or so, the first of which was finding someone who was the right person to play Boudica. And I worked with this wonderful actress Olga Kurylenko on White Elephant, got to know her, got to become friends with her, and I’m a huge admirer of her work and her work ethic.
Then, looking at the script, I don’t know if it was through meeting her or just aging and maturing to a point in my life where I was able to actually finish the script, which sat dormant and stalled at the second act for almost 20 years, to be honest. So, it had been around for some time, and my daughter’s name is Boudica, so it had been something that I’d been very interested in and passionate about sharing my take on it and having a spiritual connection with this woman and with what she did in Rome 2,000 years ago. So, it was and is a passion project in every meaning of the word.
Olga is incredible, she’s a machine, and she has a very linear way of working, which I hadn’t worked with an actor like that before. I think I may have said elsewhere online, but if I could just direct movies with Olga, I’d be totally fine for the rest of my career. She’s a joy to work with and has a way of bringing these characters to life, and Boudica is a really difficult role to play. You play the wife and the mother, and it was something I leaned on Olga’s intuition a lot for. I told her ‘I don’t have a lot for you, this is going to have to be something you create’, and then we have this mid-act event that creates the second Boudica, which is the warrior. That one I knew a little bit more about, but I knew what I wanted, but it takes a very rare actor who can play both of those parts, and we got very lucky with Olga and the performance she gave. It’s phenomenal, and I’m very proud of the work she’s put into Boudica.
Boudica is a bit different from a lot of your previous movies, such as Avengement and The Debt Collector, in that it’s a period epic. How was the process of realizing Boudica different compared to other movies you’ve directed?
Jesse V. Johnson: Well, I think it’s quite similar to Avengement, if you think about it. In the movie, Scott [Adkins] character starts as a fairly innocent man, and through betrayal and a crime he didn’t commit and a prison sentence, he became the monster that he became and was hellbent on revenge. That could actually also describe Boudica, so I don’t know that it’s a million miles away in tone. I really like the innocent every man or woman put into a scenario where they’re forced to become or act in another way stronger and more powerfully because of their circumstances. I’m not a big fan of the special forces guy who now has to do this and this, what I find more interesting is the every day person who, through a chain of events, has to rise to become something they aren’t, whether that’s a monster or a warrior.
The essence of this film is that I’ve been sort of charting the departure from the sort of smaller action films for some time with films like Hell Hath No Fury and White Elephant and One Ranger, which were far larger casts than I’d worked with before. Then with Boudica, I went back to a financier I’d worked with before, Ehud Bleiberg, and he’d financed Savage Dog, which got me back on the round after an unwanted holiday from directing, and he financed Avengement and the Debt Collectors films. I went to him with this project and he and his son Ariel, who is also a producer on the film, are big history buffs, and they saw my passion in this, and we’re also planning another history epic now, as well, which will be a bit bigger with a larger cast. They understood what I could do and the pitch I gave, I made a huge look book and they knew what I wanted, and they said If I could get Olga for this one, we can fill the rest of the cast with actors from appropriate TV and films, stuff like Vikings and Game of Thrones, they would be interested, and it was actually quite quick.
Now, having said that, I did go to a few American financiers before Ehud, but the problem with the Boudica story and an American financier is they are looking to a certain type of film and the feeling from a lot of them was ‘Well, she loses!’, but that’s the whole fun of the story, that’s the whole magic of it. But in America, everything is about the winner, and I got notes asking if she could live through the ending and not die. But the door was left open to other projects, and I could probably have financed this film in the U.S. with a happy ending for Boudica, which I think would have ruined the whole thing. So, I was very lucky to find Ehud and Olga and I was able to make the film I actually wanted to make. I never tried to make an epic, I was trying to make a small story against a large backdrop, so I focused as much as possible into this human story, which I found very, very touching, and hopefully it affects people.
You’ve done many action and martial arts films before and you’re very well-versed in doing fight scenes. For something like Boudica where there are big battle scenes and ancient warfare. Was that a big jump for you as a director?
Jesse V. Johnson: Well, before the films that I’ve directed, I was a stuntman and stunt coordinator for 20 years, so obviously, I’ve done movies like Cutthroat Island with swords and jumping from ship to ship and many, many sword-fighting movies and films where I’ve been working in armor. I did the Battle of Stanford Ferry in Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln where we had to teach 500 people how to fight with an 1861 musket and bayonet. So, I’m used to that, I’m used to delving deep into the past to bring that to life, and working with Luke LaFontaine and Dan Styles – who actually did Avengement and who I’ve worked with many times – we were very respectful to history and the fighting styles and the codex of the times.
We were as authentic as we possibly could be, and I wanted to show the messiness and the gore and the panic and what went on with hand-to-hand combat. It’s awful, and you get PTSD from that more than anything else. So, we really delved into the effects of that, and I didn’t want it to be bloodless. I didn’t want it to be gratuitous either, but I wanted it to be as visceral as possible, and I think the guys really pulled it off pretty well, but it took a lot of training, but Olga really rolled her sleeves up in the training, and she’s a fantastic mimic, so the stunt coordinator would work with her double, and then she’d emulate that and it was pretty amazing to see. But we approach from whatever the tone of the movie is. Is it a martial arts films, which is 50 percent fantasy with the choreography and 50 percent reality, or are we going with something more reality-based, which is more 10 percent fantasy and 90 percent reality. We watch martial arts films for escapism and the physicality of it, which is the same as going to see WWE, so you decide that when you’re choreographing the fights of what is the ratio of reality to fantasy. when it came to Olga fighting, she’s also possessed in the movie, which adds a certain fantastical element to it.
What was the most memorable aspect of directing Boudica for you compared to the rest of your filmography as director?
Jesse V. Johnson: Well, there are a few things. First, I adore working with Olga, and the way she played these roles was just magical to me and incredible. So, I loved working with her and this cast, but also, we shot completely by happenstance at my old school friend’s farm, which lent itself to the production a lot more than a lot of the places we’d seen on location scouting. It was easier to deal with financially, and also, we could leave the sets standing on weekends and leave them for pick-ups. Also, the remains of the Temple of Claudius, which she burned down, are about 20 miles away from there, and they have a museum over it there now. So, knowing we were so close kind of put an obligation on us to treat the story as honorably as possible. We understood that we were probably walking on ground that she had walked on 2,000 years earlier, and I’ve never woken up in the morning with the feeling of wanting to do my characters as proudly and honorably as I ever have done, and this really felt like a burden of responsibility, and I’ve never had that before.
There were a couple of strange moments, like when Olga is giving a speech just before the final battle and she’s yelling and shouting to the sky and holds her sword up, this rumble of thunder came and it cracked just as she was finishing her speech. She asked me later if we made the thunder, and I told her it was completely natural, it didn’t have anything to do with us. I ended up using that particular take in the movie, although not for the thunder but for some other things, and those kinds of things happen on films where you have strange little moments like that, but on this one, there were enough that really stuck in my mind as being rather special, so those are the things that will really stand out to me when I look back on this movie in 20 years time. It was a very, very magical experience making this movie.
What other projects do you have coming up in the future after Boudica that you can talk about? Are you interested in making more period movies after Boudica?
Jesse V. Johnson: Well, I love period piece movies, I love immersing myself in the past. Just a simple sentence like ‘they’re having a picnic together and chatting’ opens questions like ‘What food are they eating? Where are they? Were those two people allowed to talk in that era? What did they wear? Would there have been someone else there keeping an eye on them?’, so everything becomes quantifiable and researchable, which is really exciting. It feels like you’re going back in time and you immerse yourself in it. We’re basically the same as we were 10,000 years ago when civilizations first formed, we haven’t changed that much and our desires are still the same – money, love, family, to try to have faith in something, whether it’s Christianity or whatever it is – our human species is subject to the human condition and doesn’t change much. And that’s exciting to know, because you can place it against ay backdrop as long as you research that backdrop.
So, I love period pieces, but let’s be straight, you cannot have a career of passion projects. They’re too much of the Roulette wheel, so you have to go and forth with films that are financed and pre-sold and packaged by companies. So, on that, I have a film called Chief of Station, which is about spies and intrigue shot in Budapest that’s coming up with Aaron Eckhart, Alex Pettyfer, Olga Kurylenko again, and that’s hopefully coming out relatively soon. I also have four films in pre-production, two of them are period pieces and two of them are present-day action movies. And then, with Bleiberg Entertainment, who produced Boudica, I have another period piece, a much, much bigger one with a much bigger cast, and a subject matter that has been very close to me for a long time, and budget-wise, we now have the wherewithal to do that. That will be coming up about the third or fourth quarter of 2024, and it’s something really exciting that involves a king who dies and leaves no heir, but three of the front contenders have to duke it out, and I use the term ‘duke’ purposely.
Boudica: Queen of War is now available on streaming and VOD platforms.