From his days patrolling the streets of Baltimore as Det. Meldrick Lewis on “Homicide: Life on the Street” to a recent turn in the final season of “The Wire,” Clark Johnson has carved out an enviable career on both sides of the camera.
Yet “The Shield” retains a special place in his heart.
“It was the first pilot I’d ever directed,” he says. “I felt a sort of bond with that show.”
In all, he directed seven episodes during the skein’s seven seasons, including the first and the last shows. He was tapped by series creator Shawn Ryan to handle the pilot.
“He’d been working on that Don Johnson series (“Nash Bridges”) as a staff writer, but he was a big ‘Homicide’ fan, and had liked what I’d done on that,” the director says. “He’d also seen ‘Boycott,’ which was my first film, so it was a combination of those two things.”
Was the show’s hectic visual style already in place before the first episode was shot?
“Not at all,” Johnson says. “That was a combination of me, Shawn and Ronn Schmidt, our d.p. We were going for what you might call an embedded look, something that was reactive and right in the thick of the action, which for me was an extension of ‘Homicide.’
“You also have to remember that, at that time, no one really knew what the hell FX was, at least in terms of drama. So a lot of the look and the style of the show came out of the fact that we just didn’t have any money, which suited me fine. I don’t really like filming on studio lots, to be honest. I much prefer to shoot on the street, in actual locations. I find you connect with an audience a lot better when you’re coming out of that environment.”
When the offer came to oversee the series finale, Johnson didn’t hesitate.
“I thought the writing was still terrific. So much television is about surface style,” he explains. “You can look at eye candy all day, but a good script beats it every time. Plus, I really liked the cast, and I guess I also wanted some kind of closure, having been there at the beginning.”