If you’ve followed big-budget action movies over the past decade, you’ve probably seen JJ Perry’s work. Known for his stunt work in movies like that John Wick series and the Fast and Furious Franchise, the stunt coordinator-turned-second-unit director now makes his directorial debut with the Netflix action-comedy day shift.
Set in Los Angeles’ San Fernando Valley, the film stars Jamie Foxx as a hard-working father who needs some quick cash to support his daughter. His job? Hunt and kill vampires.
“Getting that movie was a big win, but getting Jamie Foxx was like winning the biggest lottery in lottery history,” says Perry The Hollywood Reporter Foxx to score for the lead role. “It changed everything for me. I thought someone was prompting him when he called me.”
The couple briefly worked together on Quentin Tarantino Django Unchained, where Foxx acted as a bounty hunter titled Gunslinger and Perry acted as a stunt performer in the film. When they found out they are both from Texas, they hit it off right away.
“I want to be Jamie Foxx so bad my frigging teeth hurt,” Perry says with a laugh.
With a martial arts background dating back to childhood – he got his black belt in Tae Kwon Do at the age of 12 – Perry never intended to join the Hollywood scene. Before working in film, he enlisted in the US Army. After the end of his military service, he embarked on a stunt career with a future John Wick Filmmaker Chad Stahelski as one of his early friends in the industry.
In conversation with THRthe day shift The director reveals the fighting idea he’s wanted to use for years (“I actually tried to pitch this to the last 35 or 40 directors I’ve worked with,” he says) and why he doesn’t expect stunts to get an Oscar Category.
There is an intense action sequence in the first few minutes of the film before any dialogue is exchanged. It really sets the tone for the rest of the film and your style as a director as well. Which influenced the decision to open day shift like that?
When I first got the script, it was a much smaller film. It was like an indie film. It won the Slamdance Film Festival Award for Best Screenplay, but it wasn’t really an action film. I really wanted to throw the audience off balance. Like, OK, you know, it starts in a pool. He’s a pool cleaner. Oh wait, he’s a thief. But wait a minute, he’s a killer. Oh, he’s a vampire killer. As a kid who had a few amateur fights, I always came out with momentum in the first round. My whole attitude towards everything in life is: “He who hesitates meditates horizontally.” You just have to attack immediately. That’s always been my vision, to come out really swinging and have my hook in the audience right away.
And having vampires in the mix adds a whole new element to the fight sequences because the day shift Vampires can bend their bodies in any direction. How much fun was it directing these scenes?
I’ve done so many action movies over the last 32 years. I was a stunt coordinator, a second unit leader. You’re always trying to help other directors achieve their vision of the story. I stumbled across this reverse photograph of contortionists in 2014 on a film I was shooting in Hungary. I tried to pitch it to the director but he didn’t want to. I actually tried to pitch this to the last 35 or 40 directors I’ve worked with, but they [didn’t get it.] And I was like, OK, cool.
So when my time actually came [incorporate] Contortionists and their moves are arming and reacting – you know, we shot the movie in 42 days in the midst of a pandemic. So we didn’t have a lot of time to put huge, elaborate makeup on the vampires. We had to decide who would get the most makeup and how we would present them. But I really wanted to lean into the movement in what they were doing. I found this to be a bit different than what we’ve seen in other vampire movies. I kept working blade, I was working on a lot of vampire movies back then, and vampires fight like humans fight, but only stronger. I wanted it to be a little bit different. We didn’t have the visual effects budget or time to do big makeup effects, so I went ahead with the movement instead.
Also tell me about the career path from stunt coordinator to second unit director and now director of your own film. Was that always the plan?
Coming out of the army I didn’t really have a plan, so when I moved to LA I was like, ‘I’m going to be a stuntman, I’m going to do my best, and I’m probably going to screw this up and end up back in the army.’ Me am with Chad Stahelski, the director of the John Wick movies. He was one of the first people I met when I got out of the army. He was also a budding stuntman and we both started out in the business.
Being a stuntman led me to become a fight choreographer because as a stuntman I would be choreographing my own fights, then people would take notice. And then stunt coordination came right into play. As a stunt coordinator, you become the head of department, which sort of informs what you have to do as a director, because you have to communicate with all these different departments.
When did day shift get into the mix?
When I read the script for day shiftI had been given a lot of scripts after that [working on] JOh Wick 2. Most of them were like, ‘Oh, you know, it’s a sniper with PTSD. You were in the army, you’ll be good at that.” I thought it was dark. I don’t want to do this. “Well, let’s do another one John Wick Movie.” I said we already did that. As soon as I read day shift, I knew immediately. It was action, comedy and horror and those are the films that I enjoyed as a viewer. Big trouble in Little China, The Lost Boys, Terrible night, evil Deadfrom the mid 80s.
There aren’t that many standalone original action movies these days compared to what you might remember from the 80’s or 90’s. Think a movie like day shift is perhaps a revival of this dying breed?
Absolutely. I decided day shift for it is the world of the hunters, hiding in plain sight. And then there’s the world of vampires hiding in plain sight. Technically, when you think of vampires, they don’t actually do anything wrong. They do what they do – they eat people. The story is really about a man who keeps his family on a collision course with a vampire boss who is trying to avenge their daughter’s murder. I knew right away – this is what I want to do because it reminds me of the films that most appealed to me in the 80’s when I was a young audience. The difference is that we take a modern approach to action.
In your career you have been nominated for your stunt work and won awards. It’s a long-standing movement to have stunts recognized by the Academy and in mainstream awards shows. What do you think of the art of stuntwork this way?
I’m an Academy member, but I’d tell you I don’t think we’re going to get Oscars for stunts. And look, I’m not doing this job for trophies. I do it because it’s a lot of fun and it’s a business and I can do all kinds of wild shit. I never have to grow up. I am 54 years old. But I also think a lot of my stunt brothers and sisters want Oscars and I hope they get them. But I suspect that the moment you say the stuntman did it, you’re taking something away from the actor. The moment you say that a stunt coordinator choreographed or performed the action, you take something away from the director. Right? So I don’t think we will get it. For me it’s not why I do it.
You mentioned that getting Jamie was like winning the lottery, but he’s also starring stars like Dave Franco and Snoop Dogg. What was it like putting this ensemble together?
I always had Snoop on my mind. I immediately said Snoop and [Jamie’s] head explodes. Snoop looked just like my old platoon sergeant. When he’s not making great music or hosting the Super Bowl, he’s now an action star. And I’ll be honest, I was scared to death of who would play Seth. As soon as Jamie signed up, I was like, “OK, who can volley this guy?” You can’t put a lightweight in there with Mike Tyson. It was Jamie who said, “Hey, look at Dave Franco.” When I met Dave, I knew I had the right tool. We had a cast read through on Zoom. As soon as we did that, everyone knew. Dave came with laced gloves. He came out swinging and throwing fastballs. I’m texting along the way, “Oh my god, oh my god, this is happening!”
The film takes place in the San Fernando Valley. Why choose the valley as the setting for this story?
If you come to this city without money, without knowing people, you have to start small. I moved into a small studio in the Valley with three other guys. I’m from a small town [called] Stafford, Texas, outside of Houston. and [The Valley] was this cool, trippy, exotic place. You could hear different languages, you could smell the Korean barbecue in the air, the tacos. I was blown away by how cool this place was. It was hot in the summer, you’re not far from the water. I really wanted to capture that day shift. wrote Tyler Tice [the screenplay] and he’s from the east coast, but he used to work in the valley. That’s how we worked it in there.
And right now it’s New York, London, Atlanta – they’re the most crowded filming locations in the world. Oh, it’s Big Ben again, right? Nobody films in LA anymore. Oddly enough, when people look at it, they say, “Oh my god, that valley looks cool.” Because nobody films there anymore. So hopefully if we can do another one day shift – a night shift or night shift – we’re going to get over the hill and do it in Hollywood and downtown.
Speaking of potential sequels, what’s next for you?
I never expected any of this. I wake up every morning and can’t believe I’m still not in the army. It’s been 32 years and I won the lottery. I just want to keep directing. Whether it’s the first unit or the second unit, I would love to do another film. I feel like I’ve learned what not to do now that I’ve done my first film, which I think will make me infinitely better on my second try. I understand now that I saw behind the curtain. And again, I’m super grateful for all these opportunities. So whatever happens next, I’m ready for it.