In the ‘90s, Jean-Claude Van Damme was at the peak of his action-hero game, starring in hit after hit like Double Impact, Universal Soldier, and Time Cop. But, as was the case for most action icons of that era, the Belgian box-office machine saw his career take a downward slide by the end of the decade, victim of a string of flops. He was relegated to direct-to-DVD projects for about a decade, until JCVD was released in 2008. The film was meta, with Van Damme playing himself during a bank robbery/hostage situation. It earned him some rave reviews, and also attracted the attention of writer Dave Callaham.
As the screenwriter responsible for The Expendables and the story for 2014’s Godzilla, Callaham was well aware of what Van Damme could bring to the table, with his legendary splits and fight choreography. But JCVD opened up a whole new narrative angle for Callaham: a TV series about Van Damme playing Van Damme the actor, who is also a secret spy using his movie career as a cover.
That provided the germ for Jean-Claude Van Johnson, which premieres on Amazon on Dec. 15. The show is equal parts straight comedy, biting Hollywood satire, poignant exploration of aging, and a send-up of action film tropes. And somehow it all works.
SYFY WIRE sat down with Callaham and executive producer/director Peter Atencio (Keanu) about how this crazy series came to be, and what it was like working with the "Muscles From Brussels."
How did the germ of this idea become what it is today?
Dave Callaham: The idea when I first started thinking about it was "What would a comedy with action look like?" I mean, when you have access to Jean-Claude Van Damme, you want to make use of all of his various skills. But also, because I grew up as such a huge fan of him, I wanted to refer to the things that he does. You know you're gonna do the splits. You know you're gonna do certain action. It would be a shame not to be able to refer to those things. And from there, you very quickly land in the space of: He's probably gonna play himself.
Did JCVD influence you a lot?
DC: I'd seen JCVD, the movie he did. I love that movie, but my immediate knee-jerk upon seeing it, was "This didn't go far enough." I thought, "Can I take a version of Jean-Claude playing himself to much stranger places?" That's what we did.
His reputation is legendary back in his heyday for maybe not having as much of a sense of humor. Do you think JCVD opened him up to seeing that side of himself?
DC: I don't know how influential it was. Seeing that movie made me realize that I wanted to do a version of Jean-Claude playing himself. But we didn't refer to that movie in any real way.
Peter Atencio: It's interesting, because now I look back at his career, and I've watched old interviews with him. I think he actually never did have that much self-seriousness. I just think it's hard for people to understand his sense of humor. Or it was more difficult back in the day, because he actually is remarkably ego-free.
PA: Yeah. He just wants to entertain people. At his core, he just wants to make people happy. He loves making people laugh. And he's just kind of this goofy, weird guy, who's totally down to open himself up on camera in really vulnerable ways.
Was that easy to get from him from the top? Was there anything that he wanted to pull back on?
DC: No, we had absolute total freedom to tell the best story version of the show possible. Obviously, there's nothing he won't wear. But in the pilot and then later in the season, there's a lot of introspection that happens within the character, within Jean-Claude. And that can be challenging and scary for a lot of actors. But he didn't shy away from that stuff either.
PA: I think he responds really well. Once he felt safe and that Dave was not going to do anything that was mean-spirited, or coming from a place to humiliate him, that safety allowed him to feel very comfortable doing everything that we asked of him. And once he realized I was a safe director and I wasn't gonna lead him astray, he really had a lot of trust. And that means the world to us.
Peter, was it important to dive into Jean-Claude’s back catalog to be able to do your own riff on what he’s done before, or were you looking to do things with him that hadn't been seen before?
PA: It was a lot of diving into his back catalog. There's an idea of an arc through the series of the journey that he's on. There is a point during Episode 4, actually, where you are most in the world of a classic Jean-Claude Van Damme movie. So it was important to me, to have elements from his work. You feel like you're kind of at home in that world. And you let yourself get swept away by it. And then at the end of that episode, the rug gets pulled out. Five and six are where it gets even more emotional, and he really gets pulled into a much more modern sensibility. We wanted the visuals and the aesthetic of the show to kind of mirror that journey for him.
What was the most interesting thing about deconstructing an action hero, and in a way, rebuilding him for a new era?
DC: For me, it was his willingness to do all of it. Peter and I knew very early on that we were on the same page in terms of how we wanted to approach it. But you couldn't pull this show off without the guy being willing to do the thing. The whole thing lives or dies by that. The plan was always that we were gonna bring the strangest version possible, and then just make him tell us no.
PA: I think educating the people around the project as to the tone and the intent was probably most challenging. And it was never a conscious "We want to redefine him for today." It was just really, what type of storytelling do we both respond to, and enjoy? What are our own personal sensibilities? How can we take the love that we have for this man as an icon culturally, and have fun with that and turn that on its head? It was finding a back-door justification for telling this really interesting, funny, weird, character story, using that mythos around him as a backdrop.
Was there an episode, or a moment, where you were like, “I never thought I'd see that from him?”
DC: Yeah. I'm not going to refer to a specific scene. We cross-boarded and shot out of order, like a movie, because of the nature of what we did. We ended up shooting a scene on the very first day where he ended up doing something that I was surprised by. Very pleasantly surprised by. It was not necessarily planned. We just shot it, and I believe it's in the show. There were a lot of those moments with him.
PA: It's funny. The first day of the pilot, and the first day of the show after it had been picked up for full series, both ended up being days dictated by the necessity of logistics and scheduling, where we asked him to do his most heavy lifting in terms of emotional deep dives into himself. On both of those days, there was a moment on each of them where I was watching the monitor, going, "Holy s**t, he's really going for it!" I was so moved by what I was seeing that I just knew that part of the show was gonna work. If all else fails, he was still delivering an emotional performance that moved me. I got teary-eyed at the monitor.
I have to say that the Huck Finn film used as Jean-Claude’s cover project is also beyond amazing. How did that come into existence?
DC: The idea was always going to be because it's Jean-Claude, and that's the kind of movie that he makes. We always knew there was going to be a movie-within-a-movie, because I have been writing action movies for a long time. I was basically looking for an opportunity to make fun of all the dumb s**t that I get asked to do on a daily basis. A lot of the stuff in Huck is not that far off. And that's where the comedy comes from.
Did you create a master narrative for the Huck film?
DC: No. Actually, I told the writers, because we each wrote an episode. "If you have a Huck scene in your episode, do not tell the other writers what scene it is. Just come up with a scene from Huck, and they will not have anything to do with each other. I don't care how disjointed." It just made the joke funnier, and most of those scenes are in the movie that you see. I think our ultimate dream was always that we'd actually have time to shoot the entirety of the Huck movie, and release it as bonus material.
Well now, I must see that.
DC: If your readers wanna start a Kickstarter or something … (Laughs)
Jean-Claude Van Johnson is available on Amazon Prime Dec. 15, 2017.