J.J. Perry is betting you’ve never seen vampires quite like this before.
Sure, many vampire movies have broken from the haunting, deliberate shamble of Nosferatu — the Blade vampires, for instance, or the vampires from the Twilight series — but Netflix’s new movie Day Shift takes things to another creepy level, bringing in contortionist work and an unusual camera technique to amp up the horror element of this action horror comedy.
The movie, which stars Jamie Foxx as a vampire hunter trying to get back in the good graces of the Vampire Hunters’ Union and also make money for his estranged family, was released on Netflix Friday and is the directorial debut of longtime stunt man and action coordinator J.J. Perry.
Perry is prolific. The stunt man turned coordinator turned action director has worked on everything from big franchises (Blade, Avatar, Iron Man, the Fast and Furious franchise), to Oscar-nominated movies (Argo, Warrior, Django Unchained) as well as many, many other excellent action flicks (I’d be remiss not to mention three personal favorites: Blood and Bone, Undisputed 2: Last Man Standing, and the Melissa McCarthy vehicle 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 that is infinitely more difficult and more intricate,” Perry says. “And also you have the burden that somebody could get killed on your set. So on top of having a finite amount of time, and the pressure of the danger and all of that, you have to be able to manage 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.
“Look at [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 for me is the gold standard because he was a stuntman that became an actor, a movie star, and then became an action director that changed the way that we shoot fighting.”
The unique take on vampires in Day Shift leaps out from the very first scene, when Jamie Foxx’s character clears out a house of vampires. One of the vampires, an older woman, packs a mean punch, and when she and Foxx start fighting, she contorts her body similar to “crab walking” or “spider walking” from 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 extra effect, an idea he’s had for nearly a decade.
“I’m a little bit dyslexic,” Perry told Polygon. “So when I’m editing stuff, sometimes I watch it forward, and then I watch it backwards. I was in Hungary doing a movie called Spectral in 2014. And I had a very flexible girl doing a reaction. I was watching and I was like, Wow, it looks better in reverse. So it sparked the idea. I pitched those reactions to every director I’ve worked for since 2014. And nobody wanted to use them. They’re like, I don’t get it. It doesn’t make sense. So when the opportunity came for me to use it, I was like, I got something fresh and new.”
That new technical approach came with its own unique challenges for Perry and the team.
“There’s a lot of tells when you shoot in reverse,” Perry says. “Hair, clothing, smoke in the background. The R&D for that was very extensive.”
Perry hired some of the best contortionists in the business and put them in the movie as vampires, along with mixed gymnasts and rhythmic gymnasts. Add a dash of lucha libre and MMA moves, and you’ve got a fresh 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 was ratcheted through glass, a fight double for the hand-to-hand fighting, and the contortionist for those specialty moves.
That scene, and an old friend, helped Perry get the movie greenlit.
“Once we got the script going where we liked it I used that pre-viz to help me get the movie greenlit,” Perry says. “We took [the script] to [John Wick series helmer] Chad [Stahelski], got him excited. He walked right into Netflix and got it greenlit and bubba, here we are!”
In addition to the contortionism, Day Shift brings an MMA-style set of fighting moves to its vampires. It’s a change Perry has introduced before in Undisputed 2, taking a series that was previously boxing-centric and shifting it to what was at the time the burgeoning world of MMA.
“MMA changed everything, because of the expectations,” Perry says. “You’re watching MMA and you’re watching people really hit each other, then you turn on a movie and all of a sudden the punches are stacked in a weird way. So you have to always be creative. How many times have you seen a right cross in the history of filmmaking? How do we make that cooler and different? It’s how you capture it, how you put it in the choreography. Looking for the next thing is always what we’re searching for.”
That sense of freshness in choreography is vitally important to Perry, something he impressed upon the rest of his team.
“I just basically said to my team […] If we’ve done it before, let’s not do it again,” Perry says. “There’s 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...’ I said if we say that, we die a small 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.
“Getting the opportunity was the big win,” Perry says. “But getting Jamie Foxx was like winning the lottery.”
Perry and Foxx worked together on Django Unchained, with Perry as a stunt performer. The pair are both from Texas and graduated from high school in the same year. Perry couldn’t help but gush about his star’s performance, and says with the exception of a few dangerous wire gags and wrecks, Foxx did all of his own stunts in the movie.
“I want to be Jamie Foxx so bad it makes my damn teeth hurt,” Perry says. “Working with him is a pleasure and an honor. He’s a true master of his craft. He’s good at everything he does. He’s generous. He’s kind. He’s a physical genius. What a master.”
Perry’s worked with many physically gifted stars before, and pointed to his work with Tom Hardy and Joel Edgerton on Warrior, Dwayne Johnson on The Rundown, and Keanu Reeves in the John Wick movies.
“The best way to fake being a badass is just to turn them into a badass,” Perry says. “Make them the character.”
Day Shift is now streaming on Netflix.