Percy Schmeiser was content as a small-town Canadian mayor and lifelong farmer. He shied away from becoming a celebrity or becoming the face of a blue-collar fight against corporate greed.
However, he’s now portrayed by Christopher Walken in Percy vs. Goliath, a big-screen biopic chronicling Schmeiser’s underdog legal battle against agrochemical giant Monsanto. The film is being released in theaters and on digital platforms this week.
“My father was a very principled man. Going through this took a lot of courage, and it wasn’t easy,” Schmeiser’s son John said following the film’s U.S. premiere in Dallas. “He was a big believer in the strength of the community, and now all of a sudden, the community was divided, and he was right in the middle of that.”
In the film, Percy is a canola farmer in Saskatchewan who is surprised with a complex lawsuit claiming patent infringement on Monsanto’s seeds. With help from an inexperienced lawyer (Zach Braff) and a pushy lobbyist (Christina Ricci), soft-spoken Percy maintains his innocence and is forced to fight for his family’s livelihood.
The majority of the dispute played out between 1998 and 2003 — covering such complicated topics as seed harvesting, biodiversity, genetic engineering, and the use of herbicides — and required persistence from Percy and his wife, Louise, who were in their 70s at the time.
“They were very excited to tell their story,” said screenwriter Garfield Lindsay Miller. “The challenge is to find the personal stories within the issues. There were high stakes. They were risking everything to do this.”
More than a decade after the project began, shooting took place near Winnipeg in fall 2018 with director Clark Johnson (The Sentinel) at the helm. Percy died in October 2020, four days after the film was released in his home country.
“Monsanto is a litigious company, and we had to be very careful about what we could say,” Miller said of the firm, which was acquired by pharmaceutical conglomerate Bayer in 2018. “Everything had to be on the public record. We heard other stories that our lawyers wouldn’t allow us to put on the screen.”
From pressuring neighbors to other intimidation tactics, the conflict extended beyond the fields and the courtroom. For example, John Schmeiser found himself trying to protect his father’s reputation on Wikipedia.
“It was a game that was going on for about five years, where Monsanto’s public relations firm was updating his page to change some details,” he said. “It speaks to the efforts that they went to discredit him. One of the biggest lessons that we’ve taken from this experience is don’t let what somebody else is saying about you define who you are.”