For a director who sits on the wrong end of the camera, Clark Johnson is a very recognizable guy.
Movie previewClick to Expand
Starring Christopher Walken
● Opening in theatres Oct. 9
That’s because he is also an actor, known for his work on classic contemporary TV series including The Wire and Homicide: Life on the Street. A dual Canada/U.S. citizen, the Philadelphia-born, Toronto-raised Johnson doubled his recognizability for Canadians by working on both sides of the border, both as an actor and a director (The Shield, Flashpoint, Homeland).
Still, it might have seemed a little out of character to see Johnson working in the summer and fall of 2018 on the movie Percy, a film telling the story of embattled Saskatchewan canola farmer Percy Schmeiser, given Johnson’s propensity for more urban drama.
But the director points out, during a phone interview from Manhattan, that Percy is a story of activism, recounting Schmeiser’s battle with the giant agri-corporation Monsanto, and activism runs in his family.
"The reason we moved to Canada was my parents’ big mouths," he says. "My parents were civil rights activists.
"I don’t actively try to do something completely different when I head out to the job," he adds. "I did a show on Broadway, a musical, a year-and-a-half ago where I sang and danced with James Earl Jones and I haven’t done (a musical) since I was a kid," he says, referring to the recent revival of the 1979 musical Kurt Vonnegut’s God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater.
"But I’m always looking to tell an interesting story and be involved in a different story," he says. "I found that this was an intriguing story that I knew nothing about.
"I didn’t know the difference between corn and canola when I started," he says. "But now I believe I can get a crop up. It was liberating."
The production chose Manitoba over Saskatchewan because of Manitoba’s tax incentives, he says.
"Manitoba fit in beautifully and the Matheson farm (near Stonewall), where we filmed all our farming stuff, was six generations of canola farmers, so we were really able to represent all the seasons of farming, including winter.
"Your Prairies became the star of the movie, as they should be."
Johnson’s distaste for typecasting applies to the movie’s star, Christopher Walken, whom Johnson admits might not have seemed the right fit for a Saskatchewan farmer.
"A guy from Queens gets typecast as a farmer from Saskatchewan all the time!" he says with a laugh, adding that the actor is always looking for new and different roles to add to his repertoire.
The much-imitated Walken also asked Johnson not to try to play up his acting trademarks.
"He said, ‘Don’t Walken-ize me here.’ He’s fully aware of the eccentric expectations people have of him.
"He didn’t want to play everyone’s expectations of him doing something funny, doing some cool tap dance or whipping out a harmonica. He just want to play this guy," Johnson says. "He actually drove the combine."
Once, when he saw Walken turn up in the same wardrobe he’d worn the previous day of the shoot, Johnson attempted to intervene.
“He (Walken) didn’t want to play everyone’s expectations of him doing something funny, doing some cool tap dance or whipping out a harmonica. He just want to play this guy. He actually drove the combine.” – Director Clark Johnson
"I told him, ‘Chris, you can’t wear the same freaking clothes every day!’ And then I looked at the Matheson family on this farm… and they all wore the same clothes every day. So I said, ‘OK I’ll shut up.’"
Curiously, Johnson had worked with Walken 35 years earlier, on David Cronenberg’s 1983 thriller The Dead Zone, on which Johnson worked in the special effects department.
"My task on a daily basis was to get ready to light the bed on fire on the set, put bullet hits all around him, or blow smoke in his face," Johnson recalls. "I was around him all day, every day.
"I also happen to be nominated for a Genie for best supporting actor that year for one of my first films," Johnson recalls. "I found out Walken was going to be giving out an award, so I said, ‘Hey, Chris, you’re giving out an award tonight? I’m up for one. Do you want to go in together?’ He says, ‘Sure that sounds good.’
"So I got in my rented tux, jumped in my pickup truck and went to this hotel pick him up, and he and I went to the Royal Alex," Johnson says. "I didn’t win and he gave out an award… and we went back to work.
"He didn’t remember me, but I told him that story and we had worked a couple of other times together as actors. So it’s a unique relationship I have with Chris, though this was the first time I’m directing him," Johnson says. "He’s a pro."
Percy opens in theatres on Friday, Oct. 9.
In a way, Randall King was born into the entertainment beat.