'Percy' director on adding fictional elements to Saskatchewan farmer's Monsanto fight

TORONTO — The director of a new film about a Saskatchewan grain farmer's legal fight with biotech giant Monsanto says the drama has some fictionalized characters.

But Clark Johnson adds that the team behind "Percy," which hits theatres in several cities on Friday, is telling what they see as the truth of Percy Schmeiser's story.

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Christopher Walken stars as the farmer from Bruno, Sask., who was sued and taken to court by Monsanto starting in the late 1990s for using its genetically modified canola seeds without a licence.

Schmeiser denied intentionally using the U.S. company's herbicide-resistant Roundup Ready seeds, saying they could have blown over from a neighbour's farm or passing trucks.

The Supreme Court of Canada eventually ruled that Schmeiser infringed on Monsanto's patent, although he did not have to pay the damages.

"It's fictionalized in the sense of the relationships of the movie, between Percy and his wife, Louise; it's fictionalized in the farming community," Johnson said in a recent phone interview.

"What's not fictionalized is what we see as the truth of the story -- that Percy Schmeiser was working in this field ... and a neighbour drives by with some seeds that blow on his land."

Some in the agriculture industry have criticized the "Percy" trailer on social media, saying it contains inaccuracies, including its depiction of Schmeiser as innocent.

Johnson calls such arguments "fair."

"That's what movies are for, is to get a debate and a conversation going," said the Emmy Award-nominated director of "The Shield" series, whose other credits include "The Good Fight," "The Walking Dead" and "Homeland." He is also an actor, with credits including "The Wire" and "Homicide: Life on the Street."

"If you want to take the position that he knew all along and he did it on purpose, take that position, that's fine."

But the filmmakers didn't "put words in Monsanto's mouth," and Johnson doesn't think Schmeiser would risk everything he owns "to make up this lie," he added.

"That's what our story is, that's what he's telling, and that's what Percy was up to," Johnson said. "Some seeds had blown onto his land, he mixed them in with his seeds and then suddenly it's intellectual property that's not his. That's the everyman story, right there."

Garfield L. Miller and Hilary Pryor wrote "Percy," which opens in select theatres Friday in Toronto, Vancouver, Winnipeg, Regina and Saskatoon. It will hit other cities throughout the fall.

Roberta Maxwell co-stars as Schmeiser's wife, and Luke Kirby plays their son. Other cast members include Zach Braff as Schmeiser's lawyer, Adam Beach as his field hand, and Christina Ricci as a fictitious anti-GMO activist.

The film was shot mostly in Manitoba but also a bit in Mumbai, to depict Schmeiser's attendance at an agriculture conference there.

Johnson had worked with Walken before, first as a special effects technician on the 1983 film "The Dead Zone" and then as an actor on the film "Nick of Time" together.

Walken had one request of Johnson: "He always says, 'Don't Walkenize it,'" the director recalled, noting the actor didn't want his signature comedic eccentricities to be a part of this role.

"He learned how to drive the combine, he totally dug into it," said Johnson, who was born in Philadelphia and moved with his family to Ontario when he was young.

Johnson said his upcoming projects include the series "Your Honor" with Bryan Cranston for Showtime, and season 2 of "City on a Hill" with Kevin Bacon.

He's also writing a film on the story of his parents, who were activists in the civil rights and antiwar movements in the 1960s.

"That's part of the reason why we came to Canada," he said. "We were always on a bus going someplace and everybody was singing 'We Shall Overcome,' etc. And to see this unfolding, again, is tragic."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Oct. 6, 2020.

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