For decades, Clark Johnson has quietly but firmly established himself as a fascinating talent. Born in Philadelphia and educated in Canada, Johnson has lived much of his life refusing to see borders as barriers. One of his earliest gigs was as a special effects tech David Cronenberg’s 1983 film The Dead Zone, moving on to appear in films and television shows as disparate as Cancon classic The Littlest Hobo, Adventures in Babysitting and the Dennis Hopper-directed cop film Colors. His most high profile break was playing Meldrick Lewis on the groundbreaking show Homicide: Life On The Street, based on the non-fiction book by David Simon.
After directing several episodes, Johnson would join up with Simon to direct the pilot of The Wire, considered by many the greatest series in television history. Johnson helped set the tone for the show throughout its run, and would appear on screen as a newspaperman Gus Haynes in Season Five and helmed the finale. He’s spent the years since directing episodic television and features, including 2003’s S.W.A.T. and the Alfre Woodard starrer Juanita.
His latest film, Percy, is a bucolic story of a Saskatchewan farmer, a “seed saver” whose crop is inadvertently infiltrated by GMO crops from his neighbours. When the agro-titan Monsanto sues for the contamination Percy takes his fight all the way to the supreme court. With a quiet, understated lead performance by Christopher Walken, the film manages to delve into the politics of the situation without ever devolving into polemicism. (Percy Schmeiser, the inspiration for Walken’s character, died this week on October 13.)
I spoke to Johnson over Zoom from his apartment in Chelsea, New York. With sirens echoing from the street below it was a very different view from the windswept fields and quiet dignity portrayed in Percy, belying all the more any prejudicial box one may wish to use in simplify and stifle Johnson’s interests and talents. Speaking just before the first presidential debate during this tumultuous season, we delved into questions of identity, storytelling, and how he’s navigated decades in an industry with an impressive, quiet tenacity.
The following has been edited for clarity and concision.
This is a reunion for you and Christopher Walken. In your early days, you worked on the Dead Zone and here you’re directing him on the Canadian prairies. There seems to be a big divide between these two poles of your career. Can you talk about this film coming to you? The subject of a Saskatchewan farmer isn’t the most obvious from the outside.
Well, you know, we’ve got Chris Walken, an actor from Queens, NY, typecast as a Saskatchewan canola farmer. And here’s Clark, the Wire guy, the cop guy, yadda yadda. It’s a no brainer! We were born to do this! [Laughs] Well, this is just such an interesting story and the more I delved into the research and the more I learned about farming and the Schmeisers’ story, the more passionate I was to get in and tell the story.
How did the story come to you? Had you seen the documentary?
You’d have to ask the producers, because I’m still confused as to why they came to me. But they did, and I said, oh, this is interesting. I went to my local Whole Foods and learned the difference between corn oil and canola oil. The learning curve went way up from there! What struck me was the nature of the story and what the guy was up against, while trying to avoid the clichés of a run-of-the-mill David vs. Goliath story.
How much interaction was there with the reality of the situation versus the pressures of telling a fiction film that nonetheless is based on a true story? How did you balance that? Was that all in the script, or was it shifted once you became involved?
That’s the most interesting thing about the project. Because it’s such a contentious story and there’s so much at stake in the telling of it. The writers really dug deep in the transcripts of the trials and really stuck to a lot of what actually happened. Where the story lived for me was in the relationship between Percy and his wife Louise [played by Roberta Maxwell], with their relationship to the land and to the community. That’s a universal thing and very relatable, whether you live in Chelsea, New York and learn about corn and canola oil at a Whole Foods, or whether you actually live on a farm.
Do you have any farmers from your background that you drew upon?
Oddly enough, yes. I guess it must be visceral or in the blood. My mother was born in Clark, South Dakota. My grandfather left the farm at the age of 9 in Maryland to go to Philadelphia, which is where I was born. So I’m really one-and-a-half generations off the land myself, although I couldn’t grow a cactus!
The way the film plays out, we get into Percy’s life and his decision-making. We empathize with his keeping of the seeds, but we also realize the forces he’s battling against seem infinite in terms of resources. It’s easy to simply see him as a “good guy” and Monsanto as this completely malevolent force, but there are extenuating circumstances here. Were there subtleties of both performance and staging that allowed you to not have the big evil corporation and the little guy that make it much more sophisticated than that?
You touched on it a little bit there. It’s all grey, and there’s no black cape and twirling moustache character from Monsanto. Similarly, with Percy, some seeds blew off a neighbour’s pickup truck and it enhanced his own crop. The guy’s a seed saver, and he’s been doing that since the old country as we expressed in the movie. He employs a very scientific and very thoughtful progression that he plants his own seeds every year. The fact that some blew on to his land, he thought ,”What’s the worst that can happen?” Well, they can sue you for intellectual property theft for some freaking seeds. Who knew?
If you look at Christina Ricci’s character as the activist. She’s certainly noble, and she’s certainly driving for something, but in many ways, she’s the most problematic character. She’s somebody who is blind to his position and is trying to take his story and make it her own. When push comes to shove, she’s unable to be fully supportive of him because she’s worried about her own stake. Can you talk about who her character was based on and how challenging it was to humanize that character?
Would it freak you out if I said I’d sort of modelled her after my mother? I’ll explain why. My mother had her whole career with Save the Children, the Peace Corps and other big NGOs. She started her own group, Match International, which supported women’s issues around the world. I grew up in that NGO world on my mother’s side, with the pragmatic idea about whether the end justify the means. In the case of Ricci’s character, her group has to get this story out and stop wheat from suffering the same fate as the other crops. Every act of civil disobedience, from Gandhi to MLK to John Lewis on the [Edmund] Pettus Bridge has resulted in some people having their heads knocked. There’s gonna be some damage within the ranks, and there’s going to be some casualties. That’s kind of how I saw her motivation, and that’s what makes her arc interesting to me.
It’s a complicated thing.
It is. And that’s the story of that kind of action, when you’re dealing with these big companies that have unlimited resources. We did a Q&A earlier for some film festival and had a rep from Farm Aid, someone from the Guardian newspaper, another from the United Nations. They all had stories about walking that thin line. The Guardian journalist mentioned that she had been threatened with lawsuits more than 200 times.
We spoke of the grey, earlier, and your work with The Wire is one of the most brave and nuanced look at the complexities of the American experience. During these deeply divided times are you finding it more challenging as a storyteller to engage with nuance when people really want good guys and bad guys?
I think living in the grey is more menacing and more problematic and more dangerous now than it ever was. There’s so many people, including ourselves, that can just tap on our computer and get our opinion up there. When I was the patron saint of journalism on The Wire it was interesting to talk to the journalists in those times who were just on the cusp of this Internet explosion where everybody’s the expert. Back then you had more fact checks, you had more discipline. I never did an interview without someone calling me up afterwards – Did you really say, can I attribute, etc? Now, anybody can spew out, so it’s harder, and it’s a little scary. Orwell was right, man – “four legs good, two legs bad”, and his writing was in the 1930s! It’s hard to tell the good vs. the evil, but it’s also universal struggle. Percy’s story is universal, and so it also lives there in the grey.
Are you finding it easier or harder to tell stories these days to an audience that’s expecting things to fall into a particular narrow box?
There are so many stories that are out there now. When I was a kid we had the networks. If you want to make a movie you have to go to Hollywood. Now, if with everyone using their iPhone to make a movie, it’s harder.
It’s never been easier to make a story, yet it’s never been harder to speak on a more universal basis because the universal basis is such that people have siloed so much,. If the only people who watch your film are the people preconditioned to believe Monsanto’s evil they are not getting everything out of that film.
Yeah, and I have to put it in an American context, if you’ll forgive me. I always switch back between Fox and CNN or MSNBC, because I want to see what the Fox people are saying. When there’s another catastrophe, from Trump, another blatant lie, you switch to Fox to see what their reporting is. It’s interesting who you listen to and there’s so many different venues, so many different avenues to get your story out, and anybody can have an opinion, it’s really hard to get the sustained answer. I’m really curious to see how these debates go. I don’t know if you know it, but the Donald cannot finish a sentence without a lie. And so I’m curious to see how the Fox side of things, when they watch this debate, how they play it.
There’s a collision between the reality versus the ideal that’s always been at play coming to the fore. I think if you look at the arc of your career, everything from your portrayal of police, which you have done numerous times, to your portrayal of media, touches on these ideas.
We don’t know what’s going to happen after the quarantine. Regarding the cop thing, I don’t think we’re going to see too many Dirty Harry movies coming up. Law and Order: SVU is not going to have a “rogue cop that’s really a good guy” kind of story.
How have you been doing during the life of COVID? How have things been going personally, emotionally? You’ve had certainly time to reflect on stuff. How have you engaged with this incredibly strange time that we’re in right now?
Just prior, I was in New Orleans with Bryan Cranston doing his miniseries. It’s beautiful, and that’s coming out this fall. I was there doing that, and then they went to edit it in L.A. and they shut everything down. There were six people on my flight back to New York.
What’s New York been like during COVID?
It was really strange. One of the refrigerator trucks was parked down a few blocks from here when they didn’t have room for the bodies in the morgue. March and April were a little prickly. My daughters are both in the area, and I didn’t want to come to my place in Toronto because I wanted to be here around my kids. With this latest spike, we’ll hopefully get a grip on it because I don’t know what the new normal will be like. People got a little cocky here in Chelsea when the numbers went way down, and they went oh, ok, so let’s go hang out and breathe on each other and sing and share beer. Toronto’s getting it. We were supposed to premiere and Montreal shut theatres down. Mongrel, our distributor there, is scrambling. We’ve got to find screens that are safe and viable across Canada.
It’s easy to take your own story and simplify it to a particular characteristic of your background, yet perhaps the most surprising thing about you tackling Percy’s story is that it shouldn’t be remarkable at all. Are we investing too much in your own personal story when we’re looking at who makes films like these?
You can invest in my story if you look at the full body of it. I started in effects, and then became an actor. I sang and danced on Broadway to James Earl Jones a year and a half ago. I did a comedy as an actor with John Goodman and Bill Murray for two seasons on Amazon. I directed S.W.A.T. There’s absolutely no way to pigeonhole me — Not that I object to people trying! Percy’s story has a language of its own that we developed as we went. It’s based on a true story, based on real people. It’s a universal idea, whether they’re trying to open up a new drug market in Baltimore, or whether they’re trying to get some civil relief in the courts because of a copyright infringement. It’s a universal story of the everyman being fucked over by the big guy.
I think that your talent speaks to a much larger conversation than you as a skilled person, you’re still going to bring your own politics and your own personality, but we can’t make assumptions that because you have a particular background these are the stories you are going to tell.
There was something interesting in the New York Times Magazine this weekend in one of those Q&A things. An Asian-American woman was asking if it was appropriate for her to accept a staffing job on a show that’s based on African-American characters. Does her Asian-Americanness invite or preclude her entrance to the club to write? When Norman Jewison wanted to direct Malcolm X and Spike stepped up and said, “Oh come on, that is our iconic story”, that’s embarrassing. You’ve gotta let us tell that one. Yet there are other stories within the diaspora that can be told. Right now, people talk about “People of Colour.” It used to be if you called someone a coloured person, it would piss you off. We’re getting so caught up in the rhetoric, so caught up in the name calling and the identity crisis and the culture wars, that we’re having that we lose sight of the fact that it’s a universal situation we’re in right now.
When Quincy Jones hired Stephen Spielberg to do The Colour Purple his response was that Stephen didn’t need to be an alien to do E.T. That’s a complicated answer to a complicated situation.
…yet there are no aliens Quincy could have hired instead! [Laughs]. Well, I would argue that Trump is an alien from another planet come to destroy us, but that’s another issue.
How do you think Percy is going to shift the type of stories you’re going to tell in the future, and how has it shifted the way you look at food?
It hasn’t shifted anything. I’m trying to tell my parents’ life story, which is also a universal story, about their journey from the United States to St. Thomas. It takes place in the 50s and 60s and the premise there is those who don’t understand history are doomed to repeat it. My parents were civil rights activists. The marches that I was dragged along to as a kid are playing out in Black Lives Matter now. Moving forward, I don’t want to see a freaking movie with somebody wearing a COVID mask, look at us, postmodern. But we are going to be telling stories that reflect what is happening now. It’s going to freshen things up.
So you still have hope for the future cinema?
Since everybody’s locked down there’s going to be a wave of writing. I don’t want to just see Brady Bunch 3 on the big screen. I’d love to see people getting out to the cinema and catching Percy, and then down the road, we get our mojo back and find a vaccine and find a new reality where we can commune together and stop walking down the street looking at your fucking phone and look around.