‘Darkness of Man’ Interview with Director James Cullen Bressack

Director James Cullen Bressack’s new film, Darkness of Man, is now out on digital. It’s an action thriller that stars Jean-Claude Van Damme along with Kristanna Loken, Emerson Min, and Sticky Fingaz. Darkness of Man is the story of a a washed-up former Interpol operative named Russell Hatch (played by JCVD), who has seen some things and now must protect a young man named Jayden (Emerson Min), who is caught in a deadly gang war. It’s got action, heart, and there’s even a cat.

Over Zoom, we sat down with the director to chat about bringing the movie light. Cullen Bressack shared how he got the talented cast to come on board (hint: it involved old-fashioned letter writing!) and how noir movies inspired the project. He talked about working with Jean-Claude Van Damme and Emerson Min and reflected on how the idea of fatherhood plays a big role in their characters’ journeys. This was such an interesting conversation, so you’ll want to read ahead for the full interview and then check out Darkness of Man on digital.

The Interview with Darkness of Man co-writer and director James Cullen Bressack

[Editor’s note: This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.]

Ayla Ruby: So I’m super excited to talk. I watched the movie two days ago. And I have a lot of questions.

James Cullen Bressack: Oh, thank you so much. Yeah, I’m ready to answer them.

Ayla Ruby: Cool. So I’d love to know how the idea for this project came to be. You obviously directed it, but you also co-wrote it. And that’s very cool.

James Cullen Bressack: Thank you so much. Yeah, so I grew up on noir movies. So Maltese Falcon, The Third Man, Angels with Dirty Faces. So many of these movies I grew up on when I was a kid, and I really wanted to see what would it be like if we combined action with noir? And that’s the original idea. And then from there, I was like, “Okay, well we need a flawed character like all these noir movies. So a flawed alcoholic character, and it’d be fun to have an action star do that.” So I reached out to J.C [Jean-Claude Van Damme] and I was like, “Hey, are you game to play somebody who’s playing their age, flawed, alcoholic, out of shape? You don’t do the splits.” And he was excited by it. So I thought was really cool because I’d seen his movies like JCVD and all that. So I felt like he was very self-aware to be able to take down a character like this.

On creating Russell Hatch and bringing the other cast on board for Darkness of Man

Ayla Ruby: Now, in coming up with a character, was there back and forth with creating Russell himself, or how did that come about?

James Cullen Bressack: Yeah, there was definitely a lot of conversation there. And I think the collaboration shows. And it’s very exciting.

Ayla Ruby: So you partnered with him, but you have all these other super talented actors in your film. How did they come onto the project? What was that whole process like?

James Cullen Bressack: So I cast movies very differently than a lot of people. I grew up watching movies. So I don’t really believe in auditions, I just watch things and go like, “Oh, this person would be good in this role, and this person would be good in that role.” And then I just start writing them letters and going like, “Hey, do you want to do this?” Or do people I’ve worked with before. So I wrote letters to Kristanna [Loken] and Sticky [Fingaz], who I had not worked with before, and was like, “Hey, I’d love to have you do this. And I think you’d be good because of this, and I loved doing that.” But Shannen Doherty, this was our eighth movie together, so it’s impossible for me to read a script without going, “Oh, well what role is Shannen playing?” And Zack Ward, I think this was our seventh or eighth movie as well.

James Cullen Bressack: And so actually when I met him, this was back when he was doing Resident Evil 2: Apocalypse. And he played a Russian mercenary. So I was like, “Oh, he could totally play this character.” And then Andrey [Ivchenko], I reached out to as well, because I’d seen him on Stranger things. And I was like, “Oh, he would be really great as this character.” Ji Yong Lee, I had seen the movie, The Valet. So literally, I just watch movies. When I’m writing something and when I’m getting into casting, I spend every day watching 30, 40 movies. And I’ll just watch half of them, skim through the things that I like the best, look for cool scenes, and then start going, “Oh, that’d be fun to cast that person. Let’s see if they’re interested.” And luckily on this movie, all My first choices said yes.

On how the script to Darkness of Man changed once the cast was set

Ayla Ruby: Now with your cast, did any of the scripts change once you got these people signed on playing to their strengths?

James Cullen Bressack: Yeah. Yeah. So a film is a living, breathing thing. It’s a collaborative medium. So I look at every single character as a blank canvas. And so I take my ideas about the character, and then they take their ideas about the character. And we throw them at the canvas. And whatever works for both of us, we use to paint the picture of who that person is. So I give my actors a lot of latitude to bring their special tool set, or their special paintbrushes or whatever to the project. And so we collaborate on those roles and expand them, or tweak dialogue based on what we decide together of what makes this person so full rounded beyond what’s in the script.

On fatherhood as the emotional core of the film

Ayla Ruby: Now, you mentioned that this is a combination of noir, there’s action, but there’s a whole lot of heart in this film too. There’s this really interesting, just emotional core to the story. How did that all influence how you filmed it? Can you talk about the filming process?

James Cullen Bressack: Yeah. The heart of the movie is the relationship between Jayden and Hatch. And a lot of it is a conversation about what it means to be a father. And is being a father being present, or is it a choice that we have to make? And it’s a conversation that happens throughout the film. And we realize being present isn’t enough. You have to actually make the conscious choice to be a father. Anybody could be a dad, but not everybody can be a father, if that makes sense. And I think it’s an important thing that happens within the story. And it’s definitely focused, and I think is the through line for Hatch’s character, whereas Jayden’s character is just looking for where he fits in the world.

Ayla Ruby: I thought that Jayden’s reactions to Hatch as being like, “Why are you here? You’re just this guy who had this relationship with my…” I thought that was just very well done.

James Cullen Bressack: Thank you.

Ayla Ruby: It was just really cool.

James Cullen Bressack: Yeah, Emerson’s wonderful. Emerson Min, such a talented young actor. I think he turned 18 while we were filming. So he’s super talented, he has a great career ahead of him, and I was blessed to work with him. He’s a very talented guy.

On filming Darkness of Man’s big car fight scene and how it was inspired by Children of Men

Ayla Ruby: Was there a moment during filming that was really your favorite or super gratifying, or just really fun?

James Cullen Bressack: Yeah. One of my favorite parts of filming was the fight scene that happens outside of the vehicle because we’d built this really complicated rig where we hollowed out the inside of the car and had rails going back and forth so we could be dollying in and spinning, and on a gimbal inside the vehicle. And it was inspired by that scene in Children of Men, but the car was stationary. So we were like, “How do we build this rig to have these long shots?” Because I felt it was very important, this is the first time Jayden’s character is seeing why this guy has been around him all the time. So it was important to understand it and put the audience in Jayden’s perspective during the fight. So that’s why the whole thing takes place inside the vehicle.

James Cullen Bressack: And I feel like it’s a big risk we took because it’s not necessarily written that way. But as a director, it’s a risk I took because I was like, “This is how I want to tell it.” And it could have either worked out or been boring because you can’t quite see the fight. But I felt it works. So I feel like the risk was worth it. So that was exciting for me. The other thing that was really fun was just the whole situation with the sniper. That’s a really fun sequence and dialogue up in the middle of the streets. So I really enjoyed shooting both of those. Those are two of the moments when I was filming, I was like, because I grew up watching movies, I’m like, “Wow, this feels like it’s a movie.” I’m like, “This feels like something that I’d be watching and going, ‘Wow, this is awesome.'”

On how James Cullen Bressack’s filmmaking approach has evolved over time

Ayla Ruby: Obviously you’ve directed and you’ve written a ton of stuff. Has your approach changed from when you first started to now, or how has it evolved?

James Cullen Bressack: For sure. Yeah, it’s evolved. I evolve every time I make a movie. I’m a better filmmaker by the end of it every single time. And that’s because I’ve been blessed by being able to work with such talented, wonderful individuals that helped me grow as the projects advance. I didn’t go to film school, I made movies. So straight out of high school, my first movie-

Ayla Ruby: The best education.

James Cullen Bressack: 18 years old. For sure. And so I’ve worked with people that were more talented than me that I learned from. And that was a blessing. And started at 18, I’m now 32, so I’ve been evolving as the process goes on. And it’s been a fun ride. So I’m very blessed.

On what people should know about Darkness of Man

Ayla Ruby: Well, that’s awesome. And I know we’re just about at time, but is there anything you want people to know about the film, this project, or anything coming up?

James Cullen Bressack: I hope people enjoy it. It’s not your standard action movie. It’s a noir. It’s got action. It’s fun, it’s gritty, it’s dark, it’s got a lot of heart. It’s out May 21st, so check it out. And it’s Van Damme like you’ve never seen him before. But trust me, he’s back.

Ayla Ruby: That’s awesome. Well, thank you, and I hope you have a really great day.

James Cullen Bressack: You too. Thank you so much.

Darkness of Man is now available to purchase on digital.

Find out more about the film, including how to buy it so you can watch, at the official website for the title.

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