Spring 2015

Rick R. Johnson

Atlanta AD

First AD Rick R. Johnson says it's a long way from South Central L.A., where he grew up without any access to the film and TV industry, to his current home in the booming production hub of Atlanta. Two things, he says, have been the keys to his success.

"Think outside the box," Johnson says in between answering questions from his crew as they wrap another day on BET's Being Mary Jane. "And treat everyone with absolute respect."

With regards to the former, Johnson points to his approach to setting backgrounds. It's one area, he believes, where ADs can leave a creative mark.

"I study people for hours—at malls, baseball games, bus stops—to have that knowledge in my back pocket," he explains. "I've held on-set raffles and hired magicians and hot dog vendors to keep extras motivated to come back day after day.

All the extra homework has paid off for Johnson, who recently celebrated his 30th year as a DGA member. His resume includes everything from '80s primetime soaps (Knots Landing, Dallas) to family features (D3: The Mighty Ducks [1996], George of the Jungle [1997]) to one-hour dramas (Dirty Sexy Money and Detroit 1-8-7), as well as "about a thousand" commercials.

Johnson's ultra calm demeanor ensures nobody ever loses his or her cool on the set. He's helped corral an escaped bull that was running rampant around the castle location of Martin Lawrence's Black Knight (2001), and he was the first man on George of the Jungle's second unit team to climb to the top of the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge, 500 feet above the water.

Going to Extremes, which shot in Jamaica in 1992-1993, was one of his toughest jobs. "We had to cut our own roads through the jungle and travel on country busses," he recalls. But being African-American, he says, helped him "1,000 percent. They called me the 'Big Bamboo,' which was a title of endearment. They'd never seen a man of color like that in a position of authority, and they worked their tails off for me under very difficult circumstances."

Johnson moved to Michigan for Detroit 1-8-7 in 2010 and then to Atlanta, after being offered three features back to back and two TV shows.

"Right after I finished The Game, BET moved me to Being Mary Jane," he explains. "It's a challenging show because we prep and shoot the entire season [eight episodes] at once. I spent five seasons on Dallas, where we had to cross-board 12 episodes, so it didn't scare me too much," Johnson says with a laugh.

Working with friend and mentor, Atlanta-based line producer and UPM Paul Garnes, has made a lasting impact on improving diversity on sets.

"I've worked with so many wonderful black directors, producers, and actors over the years," Johnson concludes. "But Paul is the first co-worker who has brought kids from local high schools and colleges to the set and made us all take the time to speak to them. This past season we had a PA who heard me give a talk three years ago, and now he's in our art department. What a fantastic feeling."

(Photo: Guy D'Alema)

At Work With

Short profiles of Guild members in all categories sharing their experiences at work.

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