It’s a return to the Van Dammage of old, with a hearty dose of laughter — intentional, not ironic. The new Amazon series Jean-Claude Van Johnson is a heady comeback vehicle for high-kicking, splits-centric ’80s and ’90s-era action hero Jean-Claude Van Damme, with a twist: while the five-episode series lovingly painstakingly puts the 57-year-old star through the same kind of martial arts paces that he made a cottage industry in films like Bloodsport, Double Impact, Hard Target and Timecop, it does so with tongue firmly in cheek.
Van Damme plays a take on himself, an aging and significantly cooled-off movie star looking to make a comeback, but in the field he excelled at before becoming a box office idol: an undercover agent. Ably assisting Van Damme in his transition to comedy star behind the scenes are series creator Dave Callaham — the screenwriter whose has worked on the scripts and stories for Doom, Ant-Man and the upcoming Wonder Woman sequel, as well as the original screenplay that served as the basis for the first Expendables film — and director Peter Atencio, who mined cinematic action clichés for comedy gold in film Keanu with his longtime collaborators Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele.
The trio joined CBR for a peek at how they turned the Muscles From Brussels into a comedian with a kick.
CBR: When you decided to go in the comedy vein, were you prepared for Jean-Claude’s response? Were you apprehensive that he might not want to go in that direction?
Dave Callaham: I didn’t know what to expect when I pitched initially to Jean-Claude. I had written a document that was sent to him that I wanted to do a comedy and I wanted him to play himself. With actors you don’t always know if they’re willing to do those things, so I was definitely apprehensive.
I knew that he could do it. I knew that he could do comedy, I’ve been watching him my whole life, and I knew that he could do a lot of things that no one had ever seen before. Of course I didn’t know what he was going to say. I don’t know what that experience was like when he heard about it.
Jean-Claude, was it something that was in the back of your mind, that maybe comedy is the way to go? Or was this a revelation and you decided to lean right into it?
Jean-Claude Van Damme: It is always the way to go, comedy, because life is funny, in a sense. Action is one thing, but comedy can give lots of avenues: it can be serious, it can be funny, it can be aware. To create happiness, to create fun, to create timing for comedy, you need to be in a kind of normal situation to a point I’m laughing. With Jean-Claude Van Johnson, I was able to go in to those different types of character.
We had six weeks of shooting, so we didn’t have the time to really have different characters with different comedy… We followed the script, but the comedy was there on every different types of character — except one was very serious, and the other one was serious but he’s doing lots of mistakes. But he’s serious, he means well.
Peter Atencio: He was always very on board and very committed to portraying all the characters, and comedy came very naturally to him.
What I love about it is it’s not a full-on Naked Gun approach — it’s five feet outside of the movies that we love of his. Tell me about landing there and mining that territory in just right way.
Callaham: Peter and I were on the same page about that approach, and I’m sure he can speak a little more to the accomplishing of shooting it that way, but it was very important to both of us that what we were doing was simultaneously somewhat of a satire of the world of it but also an homage.
We love Jean-Claude’s movies, the point was never to make fun of them so much as refer to them lovingly — but also point out that the world has moved on from some of those tropes. The goal was always to be sort of telling a Jean-Claude movie just turned a little, five degrees off.
Atencio: Yeah, you always want to do it lovingly and respectfully, that was always a big thing for us. We were not trying to make fun of that world or anything. Tonally, I like things that have a heart, that have a grounded feel to them so you can still get invested, the characters are still a core emotional through-line that I care about, and then I’m also laughing because as JC said, that’s life: life is funny, life is painful, life is exciting. All of those things is kind of the tone we hope to make the show.
Jean-Claude, you got a real acting challenge in this too, in playing the different undercover identities and their counterparts. Was that part of the allure for you, to get to do some serious acting and play new characters?
Van Damme: Yeah, it was a huge challenge because to go to that level, at least for me, I need to believe I’m that person, playing that real life story event to the point that they are trying to shoot my story, my universe. To go there and to get to be that character, then I get to go to another one, and I wanted to tell them when the movie’s finished, “I’m, like, dazed, when am I going back,” really, for sure.
You have a close-up in the trailer, if you see the scene in the trailer when [one of my characters] Filip is trying to find the microchip and with the gun, and you can see the sweat going for real out of the nose. There’s no water pump behind me, it’s real sweat so you can see the intensity of my truthful, I would say, not-acting!
Atencio: He really embodies those characters in such a real way, it’s really amazing to watch. As Filip he gets nervous and sweats, and all of these physiological changes born out of him as an actor embodying that character.
Peter, we’ve seen you do action and comedy so great together already, but how much of his style of filmmaking was in your DNA and how much did you have to assimilate and be ready to recreate?
Atencio: I had never shot a martial arts action scene before, that was an entirely new experience for me — that was an entirely new skill. I immersed myself in his movies before we started shooting, I also watched a lot of other action movies that I love. It was a really remarkable education, both in the prep for it but then shooting with him, seeing how hard JC works.
He’ll go in with the set team and he’ll give them tips, and he’ll make adjustments to stuff that they’re doing that makes it better. You just get that experience that he has that elevates it. What would be, hopefully, a pretty good action scene, he comes in and it’s just that much better. You watch it and you go, “Holy crap I’m making a Jean-Claude Van Damme action movie — that’s amazing! That’s a lifelong dream!”
You have a lot of fun in the show with JC not being prepared to dive back into this lifestyle as an undercover operative. Jean-Claude, were you fully ready to to dive back in to this level of exposure?
Van Damme: Yeah because I know that with a platform I’m going to 248 countries, I’ll go maybe to 52 to 54. Spanish, English, German, French, American. This is my chance now to have my bigger type of Bloodsport, and a different audience — 15 to 25 — and also have their parents. Dave’s mom, she’s Chinese and she watches my movies, Peter’s father loves my movies. He knows my movie by heart because they spend that time together. That generation, they’re going to come back.
It’s a huge thing, so of course this is the best movie for me to do in terms of career move. I was, for 10 years, where? In the gutter — no budget, all that shit, and respect to those because sometimes they come out as a miracle, but today no. Suddenly [executive producer] Ridley Scott and these two guys here equal quality script, good crew, 15 day shoots, lots of money, and now everything’s perfect.
The first six episodes of Jean-Claude Van Johnson are available now on Amazon Video.
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