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Clark Johnson, Director of ‘Percy’: “This Is an Homage to the Schmeisers”

Director Clark Johnson during the making of Percy.

Filmmaker Clark Johnson epitomizes the notion of the journeyman actor-director. He has sat behind the camera in countless TV shows, going from superhero fare (Luke Cage) to prestige productions (The West Wing) and everything in between. Not only that, he directed four episodes of The Wire, the cult HBO hit he also appeared on, and got an Emmy nomination for handling the The Shield pilot, the one in which a character in the opening credits gets offed and set the tone for the rest of the series.

Percy is far from Johnson’s first foray as a film director. Most notably, he was at the helm of S.W.A.T., the Samuel L. Jackson-Colin Farrell big screen adaptation of the 70’s TV staple. The story of the Saskatchewan farmer Percy Schmeiser who battled biotech giant Monsanto features a different kind of fireworks. The legal kind.

FarmAid and the United Nations have gotten behind Percy, increasing the film’s chances to get eyeballs around the globe. Sadly, just as the movie was unrolling in theatres across Canada, Schmeiser passed at age 89, presumably from Parkinson’s disease. There’s no word whether he got to see the movie before his death.

Clark Johnson phoned from Chelsea, New York. Really pleasant dude, we didn’t start talking about Percy until exchanging immigrant stories. Turns out the pairing of filmmaker and subject was meant to be.

I learned a lot about farming watching Percy. I presume this mirrors your own learning curve.

As kids, we weren’t allowed to have grapes, grape jelly or lettuce because of César Chavez and the action for micro-farm workers. My parents’ activism was my first connection to farmers. Jump forward 45 or so years and I get to tell the story of Percy Schmeiser. Being a city guy, I went to Whole Foods and learned the difference between corn oil and canola oil, and moved from there.

I know the answer to this, but I want to hear your take: Why was Percy shot in Manitoba and not Saskatchewan?

That’s a fair question. Tax deals. A good portion of our crew travelled to Manitoba to shoot because there’s no work in Saskatchewan. It was not lost on us we couldn’t shoot a SK movie in SK. 

Was it useful to have the real-life referents at hand?

Oh, yeah. This is an homage to the Schmeisers. We relied heavily on their interactions with our writers in early stages. When you are in the farming community in the Prairies, you find a similar discourse. We shot at a farm north of Winnipeg. Everybody had the same intimate connection with the land. We felt totally engaged with the story. 

How did you manage to have all four seasons on screen?

I have a lot of pull in the film industry, Jorge (laughs). We were in Toronto and our locations people called us in early June (2019) and asked us if we were planning to travel anytime soon. The canola was blooming and that would last a week or so. Our director of photography, Luc Montpellier, jumped on a plane, grabbed a camera and a drone, and shot that beautiful yellow-blooming late-spring canola. Then it snowed in September, a whole foot of snow, so we got a crew and shot, instead of coming back in January.

Don’t Ask Christopher Walken to Dance

It’s been a while since Christopher Walken has had a role as meaty as Percy Schmeiser. You would have to go back to 2015 to find the actor headlining a movie (the little seen One More Time).

Walken and Clark Johnson go way back. The filmmaker’s first film as a special effects technician was the David Cronenberg classic The Dead Zone (1983), starring Walken. Their paths crossed two more times before Percy.

How hard is to direct Christopher Walken?

He’s very conscious of how people perceive him. Like any good actor, you don’t want to be judged by what’s expected of you. He said “I’m not going to dance or anything”. I kind of wished he would. It was his suggestion that his wife would be played by Roberta Maxwell, because they started together in Stratford. The cast kind of came together in support of Chris.

I don’t think I’ve ever seen as many executive producers in a movie as in Percy.

I’m glad you said that. You can always tell it’s an indie by the number of EP credits. Nobody can get paid, but if this movie ever makes any money, you get EP points. I stopped counting after 18 or 19 EPs.

Mumbai Via Winnipeg

There was a lot of ingenuity at play in the making of Percy. As a good independent film, financing came down to the wire and Johnson wasn’t sure if they would be able to go to India to shoot a pivotal scene. Clark Johnson managed to make Winnipeg play the part of Mumbai, at least the interiors: “It was a wonderful surprise to find such a diverse community there.”

Eventually Johnson, Walken and crew made it to Mumbai to shoot exteriors, some time after they finished principal photography. “That was a bonus. We learned from the Indians they revere Schmeiser too. The farmers knew who he was, they all had stories about dealing with the agroindustry. That was enlightening to us and I believe added to the story.”

Monsanto is known for being litigious. Was this a concern during the creative process?

For sure. Garfield (Miller) and Hilary (Pryor, the scriptwriters) sticked fairly religiously to the trial transcripts, so we wouldn’t get any backlash from people not interested in us telling the story. 

Having done so much television, is there any aspect of that process that has made your work in features more efficient?

Absolutely. You learn expediency when you’re on a TV schedule. You become highly disciplined. I use those principles to make my days. I can be spontaneous because I’m getting my meat and potatoes done as I go. Also, from being an actor, I know what that entails. It all adds up.

Percy is now playing at the Scotiabank Theatre in Saskatoon.

31 Days Of Horror: Day Of The Dead

George Romero’s third zombie film was originally planned to be much more epic than what was eventually filmed.

What was made is still good but nowhere near as good as his previous two films.

The zombie outbreak has ravaged the world and the human race is barely surviving. A small group of scientists are trying to find out what caused the zombie virus and are searching for a remedy. The army soldiers that have been assigned to protect them are tired and burned out.

Dr. Logan (Richard Liberty) has been experimenting with the zombies. Instead of finding a cure he decides that zombies can be domesticated. He has managed to tame one zombie named Bub (Sherman Howard).

Naturally things fall apart. This was one of Romero’s weakest entry in his zombie movies. But after watching it a couple of times over the years it holds up pretty good.

31 Days Of Horror: The Signal

Mya (Anessa Ramsey) is having an affair with Ben (Justin Welborn). Ben gives Mya a mix cd that she listens to on her way home from Ben’s.

Unbeknownst to Mya, a signal is being transmitted over TV, radio and cellphones. The signal has infected everyone who hears it driving them crazy. Acting crazy, paranoid and extrremely violent. Mya’s husband Lewis (AJ Bowen) has heard the signal and has gone crazy. He threatens Mya and murders one of his friends as Mya flees and hides in another apartment.

This excellent low budget horror movie is told in three parts and each part is directed by one of three directors David Bruckner, Dan Bush and Jacob Gentry.

31 Days Of Horror: The Return Of The Living Dead

Freddy (Thom Mathews) is working his new job at a medical supply warehouse. His co-worker Frank (James Karen) shows him some cannisters in the basement that have bodies in them.

The bodies have been infected by a gas that turned them into zombies back in the 1960s. The government had stopped and covered up the incident but the containers got lost and ended up at the warehouse.

Frank accidentally cracks one of the containers and both Freddy and Frank are gassed. A cavader comes back to life and destroying the brain doesn’t kill them.

Frank calls his boss Burt (Clu Gulager) and Burt helps clean up and takes the cadaver over to his friend Ernie’s (Don Calfa) crematorium.

Frank and Freddy are sick and getting worse. They burn the reanimated cadaver and the burning releases the gas into the atmosphere causing it to rain and the rain soaks the local cemetery and reanimates all the dead.

Meanwhile Freddy’s girlfriend and their friends have been hanging out in the cemetery and the zombies chase them into the warehouse.

Writer/producer John Russo helped co-write and produce George Romero’s classic Night of the Living Dead. Russo and Romero parted ways soon after and each retained partial rights to future sequels. Romero went and made Dawn of the Dead. Russo wrote his own sequel in 1977 called The Return of the Living Dead which was published as a book. Russo went to make it into a movie and had hired Tobe Hooper to direct. Hooper left the film and screenwriter Dan O’Bannon was given the directing job. O’Bannon rewrote the entire script not want to rip off Romero and made the film less serious and more of a black comedy.

The movie introduced the running zombies as well as the concept that zombies eat brains.

31 Days Of Horror: The Grapes Of Death

A vineyard in France is spraying a new pesticide. One of the workers complains that its making him sick. His boss tells him it’s nothing and go back to work.

Elizabeth (Marie-Georges Pascal) is traveling by train to go live with her fiance. The vineyard worker gets on the train and has an oozing ulcer on his neck. He attacks Elizabeth who flees the train and runs to a near by town.

Elizabeth runs to a house for help but finds the residents disfigured and murderous. Soon the whole town has become zombies as Elizabeth tries to find help.

The villagers are infected from the pesticide in the wine that they drank at the wine festival.French director Jean Rollin did his take on the zombie genre with pretty good results.

31 Days Of Horror: Ginger Snaps

Teenage sisters Ginger (Katherine Isabelle) and Brigitte (Emily Perkins) are obessessed with death. They live in a surban neighbourhood where something has been killing people’s pets.

One night Ginger and Brigitte are out and Ginger has her first period. The blood attracts the creature who has been attacking the neighbourhood which is a werewolf.

The werewolf attacks Ginger but she survives and flees with Brigitte. The werewolf is killed by a passing van. Ginger starts undergoing changes. She starts growing a tail, hair, fangs and claw-like finger nails.

Ginger has sex with a boy from her class and passes on the werewolf disease. He starts going through the same changes.

Brigitte searches for a cure for her sister as the full moon looms on the horizon.

This Canadian horror does a different take on the werewolf lore. Silver has no effect. In fact anything can kill a werewolf. And it can be transmitted by a bite or sexually transmitted.

31 Days of Horror: Vampire Circus

In what is one of the most thrilling openings to Hammer Horror movie, Count Mitterhaus (Robert Tayman) has been plaguing a small village for some time. After taking his latest victim with the help of Anna Müller (Domini Blythe), the townspeople rise up and attack the castle. Villagers fall and are wounded in the fight with the Count but they succeed in killing him. Before he dies he tells Anna to seek out his cousin Emil and he curses the town.

Fifteen years later the town is suffering from a deadly plague. The town is quarantined. The locals believe the plague is from the curse.

Somehow a circus comes to town, managing to get thorough the blockade. The leader of the circus is Emil (Anthony Higgins) the count’s cousin. He’s there to resurrect the count. The twin acrobats are also vampires. They soon start feeding on the town while plotting revenge.

This is an excellent late Hammer Horror movie. The fast pace works and it’s better than the last couple of Dracula movies that Hammer put out.

31 Days Of Horror: The Girl With All The Gifts

A parasitic fungus has caused a virus outbreak. People infected become zombie like and are called hungries.

Children of infectef are born and they manage to maintain their intelligence while still craving flesh. The army has taken several of these children are experimenting on them.

Helen Justineau (Gemma Arterton) is tasked with teaching the children. One of the brightest is Melanie (Sennia Nanua). Scientist Caroline Caldwell (Glenn Close) wants to dissect Melanie hoping that the find a cure in her.

The hungries attack the compound and Melanie escapes with Helen and Caldwell along with some other soldiers. They travel to London.

Based on a book by Mike Carey who wrote the screenplay simultaneously as he wrote the book, this is an excellent movie

31 Days Of Horror: Cabin Fever

Out in the woods, a homeless man finds that his dog has caught a terrible skin disease and he contracts it.

A group of college students, Paul (Rider Strong), Karen (Jordan Ladd), Bert (James DeBello), Marcy (Cerina Vincent) and Jeff (Joey Kern) all decide to spend the springbreak in a cabin in the woods.

They run into the infected homeless man and accidentally kill him. Soon after the group discovers that some of them are infected.

They start fighting amongst themselves and Jeff tries to make a run for it while Bert and Karen are infected and isolated. Things get nastier when some locals find out.

This was director Eli Roth’s first film and it’s fun, nasty and very gory horror movie.

31 Days Of Horror: Demons

A masked man is handing out movie tickets to a special screening in a reopened movie theatre in Berlin.

Cheryl (Natasha Hovey) and her friend go to theatre where several other people are coming to see the film. In the lobby there are several props from the film including a mask. A woman tries it on and scratches her face.

As the movie plays the woman goes to the bathroom where the scratch has infected her and turns her into a demon that causes her to attack people turning them into demons too.

Cheryl and some the other people try to fight the demons and escape the theatre. One demon does escape the theatre.

Mario Bava’s son Lamberto directed this with Dario Argento producing. The movie was successful enough that a sequel also directed by Bava was made.