S.W.A.T. : The Action Behind The Action

Another undeniable attraction to police dramas, according to S.W.A.T. director Clark Johnson, is the action. “There’s nothing quite like the adrenaline pump you get from a great car chase, a spectacular explosion, or a death-defying feat,” he says. “That’s really what it’s all about. But in order for it to have true impact, you have to be invested in the characters as well.”

Producer Neal H. Moritz is no stranger to breathlessly exciting action films with XXX and The Fast and the Furious among his most prominent credits. For S.W.A.T. he turned to Johnson, a veteran of the police action genre on television. For several years, Johnson was an actor, and eventually a director, on the acclaimed series “Homicide: Life on the Streets.” He then went on to direct episodes of “NYPD Blue,” “Law & Order: Special Victim’s Unit,” “Third Watch,” “The Wire” and “The Shield,” among others.

“When we first started talking about making this movie, we wanted it to show both the honor of being a S.W.A.T. member and the danger,” says Moritz. “We really needed someone who could take us into that world. When you look at Clark’s body of work, you see that he’s always been able to take situations and make you feel like you’re actually in them.”

Johnson came to the project well versed in the realities and challenges of police drama. His award-winning work as a director of critically acclaimed police series, along with his earlier background in special effects, provided him with the technical and logistical ability to effectively handle the film’s demanding schedule.

He could also boast of having played “so many cops in my career as an actor, that I know more about cop work than some real cops do,” Johnson laughs. That hands-on experience proved to be invaluable in shaping the scenario for S.W.A.T. Although inspired by the ‘70s television series, the only similarity to the motion picture is four of the character’s names -- Hondo, Street, T.J. McCabe and Deke -- though the filmmakers do pay homage to the series in subtle ways. Steve Forrest, who played Hondo on television, makes a cameo appearance as a S.W.A.T. truck driver and Rod Perry, who played Deacon, returns as his character's father.

“As we were working on the script,” says Johnson “I would ask questions as if I was an audience member --- such as ‘how would a S.W.A.T. team board a plane with hostages on board?’ We did research and it led to one of my favorite scenes in the movie, a training exercise aboard an old plane in the Mojave Desert. We show, step by step, how they go in there and defuse the situation without harming innocent bystanders. It was a great deal of fun showing the audience how the team functions.”

Another question Johnson asked was “if you can’t get inside a house safely, how do you catch the perpetrator?” The answer was simple: You use a ‘molly,’ which Johnson describes as “a device that looks like a giant fishhook and once it penetrates the wall, yanks it out from the inside.”

“If you’re going to make an action movie about S.W.A.T. you should come away knowing more about what these guys do,” he continues. “And it should be plausible. Even in the finale, where we land a Lear Jet on a bridge, we checked with the FAA and the Lear Jet company and came up with the specs. It’s actually possible.”

Johnson’s experience as an actor influenced his approach to casting the central roles. “This isn’t a spectacle of special effects. This film is about character development and what separates S.W.A.T. from other police action films all comes down to the casting,” admits Johnson. “When you have superior actors like Sam Jackson, Colin Farrell and Olivier Martinez, they add a full-bodied dimension to every role and bring the element of real human drama to the action. More importantly, they have all come together on this film as an ensemble. So you root for them as a team as well as individually, not because it’s scripted that way, but because of the complexity they bring to their respective characters as well as to how they work together as a unit. The teamwork is what elevates the material to another level.”

From the start, the cast expressed comfort with a director who was also an experienced actor as well. “I knew I’d be in an open and responsive environment with Clark,” says Van Holt, who comes from a family of cops. "My uncle ran S.W.A.T. for a while, my cousin's in S.W.A.T. now as we speak," he continues. "My other cousins are regular cops throughout the L.A. area. From what I have learned from my family it takes a special person to be a cop, and especially a S.W.A.T. team member. Many of us have no idea the pressure that cops face on a daily basis. Not a lot of us could handle it.”

Rodriguez signed aboard as Sanchez because she appreciated Johnson's ability to present a clear vision of what he wanted while, at the same time, allowing the actors some wiggle room in creating their characters. "I wanted the freedom to play," says Rodriguez, "but it was also important that I understand the guidelines of what Clark wanted and he was great at explaining them.”

Having worked with Jackson on the producer’s first movie Juice and, subsequently, on the blockbuster XXX, when it came time to cast the pivotal role of Hondo, says Moritz, “I knew that if I was going to have somebody lead a team of actors, Sam’s the guy.”

Johnson couldn’t have agreed more. “If you look up the word ‘cool’ in the dictionary, you see Sam’s picture,” he says. “He is about the coolest actor on the planet. And he brings all that to the role.”

The attraction for Jackson was the sheer drama inherent in being part of a S.W.A.T. team and an admiration for its overriding philosophy. “They're put in situations that are very tense, mostly life threatening, but their approach is always as members of a life-saving organization, not a life-taking organization,” he says. “We generally see S.W.A.T. guys as snipers who are assigned to take the shot if they have it. But that's not their job. Their job is to make sure everybody comes out of situations safely. It takes a special kind of guy to be under that kind of pressure and still have the sensibility not to act like a cowboy.”

Just as Hondo is the unequivocal leader of the S.W.A.T. team on screen, Jackson felt a responsibility to be a leader on the set. "It was incumbent upon me to set an example for these young actors by showing up prepared, ready to work, with a great attitude, and to help from time to time to make adjustments in terms of getting a shot and making it right," says Jackson. "And it was important that I not do a star turn, but show that I really appreciated this job and the opportunities that come with it. So yes, there is a correlation between me and Hondo: I try to lead by example."

As he has demonstrated in films as varied as Tigerland, Daredevil and Minority Report, Colin Farrell not only possesses star magnetism, but says Moritz, “like Jim Street, he’s a guy who could be a maverick and still be part of a team, someone who could be a leader if you needed him to, or be there by your side to back you up if you were in a dangerous situation.”

Farrell also brought a great balance to the role of Jim Street, whom Johnson envisioned as a “charismatic cop with the kind of quiet nobility of a Steve McQueen in Bullitt,” he says. “But he also had to suggest to the audience that, like other S.W.A.T. members, he made it to the elite force by first working his way up through the ranks. Guys who are mavericks, free-thinkers, rarely conform very well, which makes it all the more amazing that they can make it through all the years of grunt work required. Colin makes you understand the character’s righteousness without being showy about it, so you understand how Street worked his way up to S.W.A.T. and is now working his way back.”

Johnson and Moritz turned to James Todd Smith (aka LL Cool J) for the role of Deke, “because I just felt we needed somebody with a lot of physical strength as well as a natural sense of humor, and LL completely fit the bill,” says Moritz.

“LL has the physical presence and the attitude for Deke,” chimes Johnson. “He’s got great street ‘cred’ as a human being. You don’t question for a moment that he could be a S.W.A.T. guy.”

Deke is also the only family man on the team and brings a different mindset to his work, according to Smith. "Deke is very tenacious, very focused, but he's also very aggressive and the uniform makes him feel invincible. Since he’s the only married man on the team, with three kids, he also comes with a heightened commitment to protect the innocent and make the world a safer place for everyone.”

The key adversary in the film, Alex, the international drug lord who sets all the action in motion, was an opportunity for Johnson and Moritz to create a memorable foe. “When we started talking about the villain, we wanted to steer clear of the typical henchman type,” Moritz recalls. ”When we saw Olivier Martinez in Unfaithful, we were struck by his charisma. Both men and women alike couldn’t keep their eyes off him. Having him as Alex, seemed a fresh way to go.”

With the cast in place, Moritz and Johnson then turned their attention toward putting together a top-notch crew able to help them create a visually compelling film. A large portion of this responsibility fell squarely on the shoulders of cinematographer Gabriel Beristain. Capturing the scope and enormity of the action sequences, Beristain and his team of operators and camera assistants found innovative ways to follow the characters and action, often turning to the steadicam to capture the grittiness and reality of a scene.

“We shot from two perspectives,” says Johnson. “Many of my masters are shot from a helicopter above, because in Los Angeles there’s always a helicopter with a camera in it as soon as anything happens, running along with the action and observing it. The other approach was up close, with five or six hand-held cameras for that sense of immediacy. Gabriel and his crew did such an amazing job. It was all so well prepared that it looked completely unprepared.”

Johnson, Moritz and their team paid meticulous attention to detail in enhancing the reality of their drama. Integral to this process was technical advisor Randy Walker, a retired L.A.P.D. veteran who spent 16 years with S.W.A.T. Interestingly, says Johnson, he was a member of the S.W.A.T. team that dealt with the infamous North Hollywood bank robbery shootout several years ago, according to Johnson, which inspired the film’s opening sequence. “If you look at the file footage he’s there -- in Bermuda shorts,” Johnson laughs. “I think he was on a golf course when he got the call. So he’s got his flak jacket on, his helmet, his gun and these skinny legs poking out of his Bermuda shorts.”

Walker’s task was to ensure the authenticity of the S.W.A.T. team tactics. Before filming began, Walker instructed the cast in S.W.A.T. history, the division’s objective and its place within the larger police force and the Los Angeles community. The cast also learned special hand signals, eye communications, lingo and demeanor. They were instructed in how to hold, load and shoot a vast array of weaponry.

Even for the actors who had experience with guns, the training proved to be impressive. "They gave me this huge 50-caliber sniper rifle with huge bullets,” says Renner. “I was so excited to shoot it that I complained about being given only 20 bullets. But after I shot four, I was done. I was cooked. It was like I’d been kicked by a donkey. That’s how intense and overpowering it was.”

Another grueling part of the training was the weeklong session Walker conducted in how to maneuver with agility and speed while wearing the restrictive S.W.A.T. clothing along with 30 pounds of hot and heavy armor. Even the most physically fit cast members were pushed to the limits of their abilities. "
I can’t believe how S.W.A.T. team members operate so efficiently while wearing all that equipment,” says Van Holt. “It was hard for me to walk, never mind run, jump, carry, shoot and crawl through tight spaces. I couldn't even do it without all that body armor and equipment.”

Although physically demanding, the “boot camp” boosted the actors’ confidence and brought greater nuance to their behavior as S.W.A.T. team members. “I was constantly asking Randy Walker if we looked legitimate so that when police officers are watching the film, they can look at it and say, 'That's right',” says Jackson. “It's always a compliment when people who really do the job you're acting on screen tell you that your behavior was honest. They really appreciate that.”

And it would be a lie, confesses Farrell, if he didn’t admit that S.W.A.T. school was like a childhood dream come true. "Here I am getting paid a lot of money to actually get out there and play the kinds of games I did when I was a boy,” he says. “I went onto the range and shot M-4 carbines, .45 handguns, nine millimeters, shotguns, and learned how to hit targets on the run. It was so much fun. At the same time, I wanted to prepare as well as I could, so I really knew how to do the work when it came time to perform.”

As for Rodriguez, her great satisfaction was in not being singled out for special treatment.
“The attitude toward me during training was ‘You want to be S.W.A.T.? Well, then you have to be able to hold your own with everyone else,’” she says. "Randy never treated me differently. It was a good thing. It was grueling at times, but it was a good thing."

For both the audience and the cast, the realistic training paid off, according to Moritz. “In order to effectively play a modern-day S.W.A.T. officer, it was important that the actors and the audience learn some of the techniques they use, like how to enter a home, how to surround someone who has a hostage,” he says. “The training was not only thrilling and educational, but actually brought the actors together as a team, and that added to the reality onscreen.”

Working with his advisor, Randy Walker, Johnson was carefully attentive to details in the weaponry, uniform, skills and strategies of today's Special Weapons and Tactics Teams.

The practical considerations of filming meant some alterations in S.W.A.T. uniform and weaponry had to be made, but they were executed with care. The weight of a regulation issue Kevlar vest added about another thirty pounds to the gear, making the total weight the actors were carrying excessive, so foam vests were substituted. Another problem with the regulation S.W.A.T. gear was that team members are covered from head to toe in identical black, making it hard to tell them apart. So, in some scenes, the actors doffed their helmets or glasses, so they could be recognized.

There were other storytelling demands that required changes. Most real S.W.A.T. units have fourteen officers, not six, with each man specializing in a specific weapon. With far fewer members on the fictional team, all the characters had to be able to use different weapons at different times depending on the demands of the script.

The most significant divergence from reality was the character of Sanchez. To date, there has never been a female S.W.A.T. member in Los Angeles. But Johnson says, that after casting Rodriguez, it could open the door. It’s happened before. “When I was on ‘Homicide’ the Baltimore Police Department was reticent to sanction our storyline because we had a woman homicide investigator and there had never been one in the city,” he relates. “We went ahead anyway. Today, of the 67 or so homicide investigators in Baltimore, 19 are women. I’m not saying it happened because of ‘Homicide,’ but I know it didn’t hurt.”

Rodriguez shrugs off the notion that women aren't cut out for the tough physical challenge of S.W.A.T. "Look at Bruce Lee versus the size of his opponents,” she observes. “It’s all about pressure points, focus and stamina - things that women could easily succeed at with the right training. Usually women are so intimidated by how imposing men are that we forget there are other ways to overpower them.”

S.W.A.T. consultant Walker commends Rodriguez and the rest of the cast in their realistic portrayal of S.W.A.T. cops. "
The film's look and feel is authentic," he confirms. "The clothing and weapons are perfect and the attitude the actors assumed was positive. They were all good students; they have the right moves, the right look, the right attitude, the right demeanor."

Also adding to the precise detail in the film were production designer Mayne Berke's sets. Primarily a location picture, using more than 75 sites in and around Los Angeles, Berke’s job was not only maintaining a consistency in the film’s look, but also adhering to budgetary and shooting schedule restraints. "
The solution was to group as many locations together so as to minimize the need for company moves which are both expensive and time-consuming," he says. "We were quite successful in the end. In some locations we were able to shoot as many as six to eight different scenes in the same place by making minor adjustments.”

Berke and director Johnson collaborated on their approach to color and texture. "We wanted it to be as real and gritty looking as possible," says Berke, "so I suggested to Clark that we use a very tight color palette, staying with dark tones, particularly earth tones, and using bright colors only to show off the gaudy nature of Los Angeles and some of its architecture."

The most demanding sequence of the film was the action packed finale, which was shot on the 6th Street Bridge in Los Angeles over a four-week period of nighttime shooting. The bridge was selected after Berke had scouted several other L.A. area locations suitable for landing a plane. "Someone suggested the 405 freeway (which intersects California from San Diego to Sacramento), but then I saw this book Above Los Angeles and decided that if I were a pilot, I’d consider the 6th Street Bridge in downtown. Visually, I also saw it as a potentially great shot, because the bridge is about 3,000 feet long and once you’d landed, you’d have the twinkling lights of the downtown skyscrapers as the scene’s backdrop.”

Johnson shared Berke’s enthusiasm. “We got about 100 yards onto the bridge and I knew it was the right spot,” he says. “Downtown looked like Oz from there. It was magical.”

Lighting the mock aircraft for nighttime shooting was Berke’s main challenge. "I've done a lot of dance lighting in my career," explains Berke. "Dance is like moving sculpture. And the ‘plane,’ to me, was a moving sculpture. I knew that it needed side light. The film’s gaffer came up with a practical solution, fixtures he had picked up at Home Depot for $20 a piece. It was then just a matter of putting the necessary framework around the existing fixtures. And I came up with a design that was somewhat Art Deco to match the style of the 1930s bridge.”

Even with the modifications, it was too dangerous to land a real plane on the bridge, so every night a mock jet was pulled out of a warehouse not far from the location and delivered to the 6th Street Bridge.

At one point real life interrupted the production, when the real L.A.P.D. engaged in a multi-vehicle high-speed chase across the bridge, with real L.A.P.D helicopters competing with the ones being used for the production. “We were up on the bridge rehearsing the scene,” Johnson recalls. “The jet was there on its side and there was a big stretch limo, leaving just enough room on either side for a single car to get through. Then we get a report from one of the production assistants that there’s a real high-speed chase coming our way. And this stolen car full of kids comes flying past us, followed by 15 police cars, through that narrow gap, like something out of ‘The Blues Brothers.’”

One location that was off-limits to the film was Los Angeles' vast network of storm drains. The script called for a scene in a storm drain but the city wouldn't grant permission because of fears of flash flooding, particularly during the winter rainy season when the film was being shot. Berke was required to build a storm drain. "I had to come up with something that could sustain all the different action that was scripted, a versatile section of a sewer system that was not unlike a jungle gym and presented a lot of options."

Berke’s research led to a web site by ‘drainers,’ enthusiasts who illegally go into storm drains all over the country and photograph themselves (they put a black band across their eyes to conceal their identities) and then post them on the net. Along with the photos, the drainers discuss how they got into and out of a specific drain, and what they found when they were in there. "Their photographs," says Berke, "became a wonderful resource.”

Berke was surprised to learn that there are certain consistencies in sewers. "
All sewers seem to have an algae that grows on the ceiling, and thousands of cigarette butts. There are lots of cans and those plastic bags you get in the supermarket. We even found a telephone pole, a Dustbuster, shopping carts, hubcaps, car tires - it was a wonderful opportunity to work with different textures and shades,” he says. “It also fit very well into the film’s concept. The drains are dark, gritty, scary, and ominous. You never know what's around the next bend."

In the script, the characters travel through a half-mile of storm drain. Unable to build an actual half-mile of sewer, Berke devised a design that could sustain multiple angles. "Storm drains are so much bigger than most people imagine. Research showed you can drive a truck through some of them. So the set had to be not only versatile, but huge."

Berke and his team started with culvert pipe for the round tubes. Next they built wooden ribs, and applied lathe, over which a soft concrete, one that could be sculpted, was poured. To get the algae growing from the ceiling, a latex mold was cast and covered with several layers of different colored paints. To make the set look wet without actually wetting it, glycerin was applied to the ceiling, transitioning to clear shellac on the sides of the walls. The actual water that builds up on the sewer floors was created through the magic of special effects. In all, the set took weeks to build, paint and dress with garbage.