New York, L.A. and Toronto all want a piece of S.W.A.T. director Clark Johnson
THERE ARE very few big-time directors who will let you call them at their Toronto home, then casually meet for coffee around the corner. But with Clark johnson, the 47year-old Philadelphia-born, Toronto-raised actor (Homicide: Life on the Street) turned Hollywood director (S.WA.T.), there’s no publicist, no manager, no supervised meeting in a hotel suite. He just ambles into the café, in a dirty T-shirt and casual pants, straight from his household chores. But fast approaching is the Aug. 8 release date of his huge action movie—a remake of the ’70s cop series S.WA.T., which will star Samuel L. Jackson, Colin Farrell, Olivier Martinez, Michelle Rodriguez and LL Cool J. And Johnson will soon have to face the press in a more structured fashion, right? “No,” he says. “I did my bit. I have 85 movie stars in this movie, guys that are on the cover of every magazine. They don’t need me.”
Such a blatant dismissal of Hollywood’s publicity machine may explain why nobody knows who this guy is. Few people can clearly picture him as Det. Meldrick Lewis, the one with the porkpie hat on NBC’s Homicide (1993-1999). And few are aware that he’s the brother of Toronto jazz singers Molly and Taborah Johnson. A director of a US$80-million film, who also happens to be a handsome actor and a member of one of Canada’s finest performing families, should have way more profile.
Johnson is unconcerned. For the moment, there’s still last-minute behind-the-scenes work to be done. He’s eagerly looking forward to recording the film’s score, because he’s tapped the Oscar-winning composer of Frida, Elliot Goldenthal, to write the music. The director hopes that Goldenthal, who’s married to Frida director Julie Taymor, will bring something special to the action genre, where sound effects are often more highly regarded than music. After spending the past five months editing S.W.A.T. in Hollywood, Johnson says there’s another plus to this phase of post-production. The recording will take place in New York, where Johnson also has an apartment, “out of the
evil clutches of the L.A. robber barons.”
Or so he thought. Fast-forward three weeks to Day 2 of the recording process. Johnson, Goldenthal and a 90-piece orchestra are happily ensconced in the Grand Ballroom of the Manhattan Center, a block away from Madison Square Garden, when the studio brass arrive. The scene becomes a Hollywood cliché. Producer Neal H. Moritz (The Fast and the Furious, XXX) sits in a room full of people, oblivious to their work, screaming into his cellphone: “I hate that scene. I hate it. I hate it. I hate it.” A Sony Pictures music executive, also on her cell, is castigating someone who can’t get her two more tickets to the New York premiere of Charlie’s Angels: Full Throttle. Another member of this Los Angeles posse—which also includes studio head Amy Pascal—refuses to eat with a plastic knife and fork. Soon, two of the theatre’s gofers are also on cellphones, in an exasperated attempt to track down some real silverware.
In this microcosm of the West Coast vs. East Coast power struggle, Johnson is like
‘MY LAST MOVIE was about Martin Luther King-1 didn’t want my next to be S.W.A.T the TV series made into a movie, like The Brady Bunch.'
a neutral northern neighbour—embarrassed by the histrionics of the Hollywood cellphone powerbrokers but unable to fully relate to the neurotic New York music geeks. The six-foot-two former CFL sub sits, cool and relaxed, arms sprawled out, on a leather sofa at the back of the room. Sure, the violas are missing sheet music and there’s film footage in Los Angeles that needs to be in New York by the next morning, but Johnson is not one to join in on mini-crises.
This may be his first feature film, but he’s by no means a neophyte director. After failing to catch on with the Toronto Argonauts
and a handful of other football teams in the ’80s, Johnson went to work in film in Toronto. He was a driver for Lee Majors, a specialeffects guy on David Cronenberg films, and a stuntman before landing acting gigs on Canadian TV productions, including E.N.G. and Katts and Dog. While on Homicide, he directed six episodes, educating himself in the show’s signature vérité style of shooting. Later, he took directing jobs on The West Wing, NYPD Blue, Law & Order: Special Victims Unit and Third Watch—following the predetermined style of each show. His movie about the civil rights movement, Boycott, for the U.S. cable channel HBO, won a Peabody Award. And he helmed the pilot episodes of The Wire and the Emmy-winning The Shield, assembling the casts and setting a distinct visual tone.
Critics took notice, as did Sony’s Pascal and hot-shot producer Moritz. They approached Johnson with S.WA.T. “I passed on it,” he says. “My last movie was about Martin Luther King—I didn’t really want my next one to be about S.WA.T., the TV series made into a movie, like The Brady Bunch.” Butjohnson knew that in order to make more personal projects he’d have to earn someone a lot of money first. If S.WA.T. is a hit, he’ll use his clout to get financing for a film about his parents—an interracial couple who were civil rights activists. “They weren’t in the front of the charge. There was Stokely Carmichael and Malcolm X and King, and in the back were my parents throwing pamphlets.”
But right now he’s the hired gun, trying to put his stamp on a tightly controlled studio movie. Johnson shot a lot of the film from different perspectives. Some of the footage looks like it comes from a camcorder, the same way the L.A. police attack on Rodney King in 1991 was captured on tape. Other scenes are shot from above, just as helicopter news crews filmed O.J. Simpson’s fleeing white Bronco. “I call S.W.A.T. a reaction movie instead of an action movie,” says Johnson. “We never set up five cameras waiting for something to explode; the cameras run along with you
and all of a sudden something explodes, and we’re just as scared as you are.”
The other thing Johnson did to make this movie his own was fight for the right music. Goldenthal’s score delivers more atmosphere than thundering crescendos. And Goldenthal has employed a variety of genres—jazz, hip hop, heavy metal and orchestral movements—to go with the film’s changing tones and emotions. In the control room during the recording, one TV screen shows a scene that needs musical accompaniment, while another gives a live feed of the orchestra. The string players produce rich, warm
sounds to match the confidence and beauty of Martinez, who plays a drug lord. Seconds later, the musicians hack and saw and beat their instruments for a piercing noise at the exact moment Martinez’s character slits someone’s throat. And a lone tuba makes a slapsticky hiccuping noise when, during a lighter moment, an officer grabs a prisoner’s behind. Film-score humour.
Johnson roams around, sitting with the orchestra or fielding concerns from the studio.
He is also tending to home matters. The single father of two is fiddling with his cellphone, trying to reply to a text message from his older daughter, Casandra, 20, who’s in Toronto. And he needs to get to a computer store to buy a graduation present for his younger, Michaela, 17, who’s in New York with him. The three of them are in almost constant contact.
“He’s amazing,” says the director’s little sister, Molly Johnson. “He has these big things going on down there in the U.S. and he still manages to coach the basketball and baseball teams at [Toronto girls’ private
school] Branksome Hall.” Johnson sloughs it off. “I helped out, coached baseball and basketball. That’s what dads do. I just had to do it while travelling back and forth, but that’s not the girls’ problem. I don’t know how you get dad of the year for that.” He adds the girls spent more time on the set of S.WA.T. than they had on any of his other movies, with Casandra even taking a production assistant position. But Johnson admits that was likely due to the presence of Farrell (Phone Booth) and Martinez (Unfaithful), two of the world’s most desirable men. “Casandra and I have this thing now,” says Michaela, “whenever it’s hot outside we say, Tt is so Olivier out here.’ ”
Not long ago, Johnson was one of the sexiest men on TV. And he could be again, if he wanted to. It’s 5:45 p.m. at the Manhattan Center, and the orchestra is packing up for the day, when Johnson announces to no one in particular: “I just missed my Sex and the City audition.” He now has the attention of a room hill of New Yorkers. “Yeah,” he says, “it was to play the redhead’s boyfriend.”
Johnson doesn’t sound regretful, even though he was recently complaining about his disappearing acting career: “I was in Boycott because an actor didn’t show up, and I was in S.WA.T. for a goof. But I’m the only director who hires me.”
Later that night Johnson is back at the theatre with Michaela in tow. Goldenthal has called in heavy metal guitarist Page Hamilton, formerly of the ’90s band Helmet, to add some power chords, wankerish noodling and feedback to the lush score. Hamilton also does a one-minute take on the S.WA.T. theme for an early action sequence, with
banshee guitar cries that make it more mournful than the original 1975 version. “That’s perfect,” says Johnson, “because one of the S.W.A.T. guys is going to really mess up here and lose his job.” Even the brooding Goldenthal is enthused, affectionately referring to Hamilton as “the professor of satanic funk.”
A phone call from Moritz around 11p.m. interrupts the revelry. Johnson holds the phone in the air so the high-maintenance producer can hear a playback of Hamilton’s riff. But Moritz is on a cellphone in a loud bar and can’t hear a thing. Goldenthal, a Brooklyn native, looks pained. The East Coast-West Coast tension has returned, which means it’s time for Johnson to retreat north—if only to his Upper West Side apartment. So the laid-back director reverts to his other favourite role as dutiful dad—and takes his tired daughter home. PI
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