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.