Since his days as Det. Meldrick Lewis for six years on NBC's "Homicide: Life on the Street," Clark Johnson has cut his teeth on police dramas. Establishing the tone for such trend-setting series as "The Shield" and HBO's "The Wire," directing the pilots for both, Johnson has become one of TV's sharpest directors of police dramas.
That expertise expands to the big screen on Friday with the release of his first theatrical feature, Columbia's "S.W.A.T.," based loosely on the 1970s hit TV series of the same name.
But the explosive new "S.W.A.T." is as far from TV drama as they come. "I just call it an 'old-fashioned summer action movie,' " Johnson said. With mind-boggling practical effects shot in the streets of downtown L.A. (such as shooting a real helicopter out of the sky and landing a Learjet on the 6th Street bridge), the director notes, "This is pretty much reality-based."
Starring Samuel L. Jackson and Colin Farrell, the film, like most of Johnson's police productions, pays homage to the real work the men and women in blue do every day. "With as much cop drama as I've done, it's a relatively accurate portrayal of how these people do what they do. Usually, the detectives are the stars, and you just see the SWAT guys run by in black in the background. You never really see anything specifically about those guys."
While the real world of police work is filled with paperwork and procedures, you won't see any of that here. "If we did exactly what the cops do, people would be leaving the theater in droves. But, generally speaking, this is the kind of life these guys live."
Johnson found making the jump from directing TV series to features didn't require too big an adjustment. "There's obviously a bigger budget, and the action you're capable of presenting is more complex. We spent more time shooting one helicopter crash than it takes to prep and shoot two television episodes."
Though he expects to move on from the world of police drama after "S.W.A.T." (he also directed the 2001 HBO Martin Luther King Jr. drama "Boycott"), Johnson felt compelled to make the film. "Though I usually hate tag lines, I like the one we have: 'Even the Cops Call 911.' These guys come in after the fact."