JJ Perry bets you’ve never seen vampires like this before.
Sure, plenty of vampire films have broken out of the haunting, conscious confusion of Nosferatu – Blade vampires, for example, or the vampires from the Twilight series – but Netflix’s new film Day shift takes things to another scary level, bringing in contortionist work and an unusual camera technique to enhance the horror element of this action-horror comedy.
The film, which stars Jamie Foxx as a vampire hunter trying to get back into the Vampire Hunters’ Union while also making money for his estranged family, was released on Netflix on Friday and is the directorial debut of longtime stuntman and action coordinator JJ Perry.
Perry is prolific. The stuntman-turned-coordinator-turned-action-director has worked on everything from major franchises (Blade, Avatar, Iron manFast and Furious series), to Oscar-nominated films (Argo, Warrior, Django Unchained) as well as many, many other excellent action films (I won’t mention three personal favorites: Blood and bones, Undisputed 2: Last Man Standing, and the Melissa McCarthy car Spy).
That background went a long way toward preparing him for his directorial debut, Perry told Polygon.
“[As an action coordinator], the technical filmmaking part of it is infinitely more difficult and intricate,” says Perry. “And you also have the burden that someone might get killed on your set. So on top of having a limited amount of time, and the pressure of the father and all that, you have to be able to do all of that and still come out on top. So it’s a pressure cooker.”
Perry comes from a long line of former stunt performers who have moved into the director’s chair, and it’s a history he’s very familiar with.
“Watch [John Wick directors] Chad [Stahelski] and Dave Leitch, and it started with Hal Needham from the American guys, he says. “But it really started with Buster Keaton and then went to Jackie Chan. Jackie Chan to me is the gold standard because he was a stuntman who became an actor, a movie star, and then became an action director who changed the way we film fights.”
The unique version of vampires in Day shift jumps out from the very first scene, when Jamie Foxx’s character clears out a house of vampires. One of the vampires, an elderly woman, throws a nasty punch, and when she and Foxx start fighting, she contorts her body in the same way as the “crab walk” or “spider walk” of movie monsters, like Samara in The ring.
But it’s more than just contortionism – the vampire moves in impossible ways. That’s because Perry ran the film in reverse for added effect, an idea he’s had for nearly a decade.
“I’m a little dyslexic,” Perry told Polygon. “So when I’m editing things, sometimes I see it forward and then I see it backwards. I was in Hungary doing a film called Spectral in 2014. And I had a very flexible and responsive girl. I watched and I was like, Wow, it looks better the other way around. So that sparked the idea. I put these reactions to every director I’ve worked for since 2014. And no one wanted to use them. They are like, I don’t get it. It does not make sense. So when the opportunity came for me to use it, I thought I got something fresh and new.”
The new technical approach came with its own unique challenges for Perry and the team.
“There’s a lot to tell when you’re shooting in reverse,” says Perry. “Hair, clothes, smoke in the background. The R&D for it was very extensive.”
Perry hired some of the best contortionists in the business and put them in the film as vampires, along with mixed and rhythmic gymnasts. Add a dash of lucha libre and MMA moves and you’ve got a new take on one of the oldest movie monsters around.
The older vampire in the opening scene was played by four different performers, Perry shares. In addition to the actor, there was a stunt double who punched through glass, a fight double for the hand-to-hand combat, and the contortionist for those special moves.
That scene, and an old friend, helped Perry get the film greenlit.
“Once we got the script going where we liked it, I used that pre-title to help me get the film greenlit,” says Perry. “We took [the script] to [John Wick series helmer] Chad [Stahelski], got him excited. He went straight into Netflix and got the green light and bubba, here we are!”
In addition to contortionism, Day shift brings a set of MMA-style fighting moves to his vampires. It is a change Perry has introduced before in Undisputed 2taking a previously boxing-centric series and moving it into what was, at the time, the burgeoning world of MMA.
“MMA changed everything because of the expectations,” says Perry. “You watch MMA and you see people really punching each other, then you turn on a movie and suddenly the punches stack up in a weird way. So you always have to be creative. How many times have you seen a right cross in the history of movies? How do we make it cooler and different? It’s how you capture it, how you put it into the choreography. Looking for the next thing is always what we are looking for.”
This sense of freshness in choreography is very important to Perry, something he impressed upon the rest of his team.
“I really just told my team […] If we’ve done it before, let’s not do it again“, says Perry. “There are going to be things that we have to do just because we have to do them, but let’s never say, ‘Well, let’s just do the old thing...’ I said if we say that, we die a little death.”
Perry’s vision was aided by a more than capable movie star leading the way in Jamie Foxx, as Perry will tell you himself.
“Having the opportunity was the big payoff,” says Perry. “But getting Jamie Foxx was like winning the lottery.”
Perry and Foxx worked together on Django Unchained, with Perry as a stunt performer. The couple are both from Texas and graduated from high school in the same year. Perry couldn’t help but rave about the star’s performance, saying that with the exception of a few dangerous wire gags and wrecks, Foxx did all of his own stunts in the film.
“I want to be Jamie Foxx so bad it hurts my teeth,” Perry says. “Working with him is a pleasure and an honor. He is a true master of his craft. He is good at everything he does. He is generous. He is kind. He is a physical genius. What a champion.”
Perry has worked with many physically gifted stars before, pointing to his work with Tom Hardy and Joel Edgerton on WarriorDwayne Johnson on The Rundownand Keanu Reeves in the John Wick films.
“The best way to fake being a badass is just to make them a badass,” says Perry. “Make them the character.”
Day shift now streaming on Netflix.