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Reginald VelJohnson

Sioux City native and writer and co-director of "The Formula," Joe Clarke, left, with star Reginald VelJohnson, executive producer Ravi Patel and co-director Thomas Beecher.

SIOUX CITY | Sioux City native Joe Clarke was able to live out his "T.G.I.F." dream of directing an icon from childhood.

The Iowa City-based filmmaker was able to call the shots in scenes starring Reginald VelJohnson, the portly actor who played Carl Winslow on the long-running 1990s sitcom "Family Matters."

"It was absolutely surreal," Clarke, writer and co-director of the just-completed comedy "The Formula." "I couldn't believe I'd have a chance to meet an actor of Reggie's caliber, yet alone direct him."

Clarke, a 2006 Bishop Heelan Catholic High School graduate, isn't a newcomer to making movies. In fact, he's been doing it since he was a kid.

"My brother gave me his old camcorder when I was in the seventh grade," the 24-year-old University of Iowa graduate remembered. "I've been working on my films ever since."

"The Formula," which he describes as a cross between "Weird Science" and "Goodfellas," is Clarke's third feature-length film in the past three years.

His 2010 "Kung Fu Graffiti -- a parody of 1970s karate flicks -- has been signed for sale and distribution with Los Angeles-based production house Entertainment 7. 2011's "The Wedge" -- a movie depicting an "Ocean's 11"-like casino heist -- recently took home three awards, including Best Professional Feature, at the Cedar Rapids Film Makers Festival.

Like Clarke's previous cinematic forays, "The Formula" was filmed predominantly in Iowa City.

But unlike his other movies, "The Formula" -- which follows two nerdy engineering students who uncover a mathematical formula to pick up women -- is Clarke's first film cast with seasoned Hollywood actors.

In addition to VelJohnson, the cast includes Brandon Baker (Disney's "Johnny Tsunami") and Sasha Jackson ("One Tree Hill," "Blue Crush: Wild Coast").

Rounding out the cast were Midwest-based actors including Mike Schminke (a Fort Dodge native who is also a member of Chicago's Second City) and Clarke's mom Kathleen Clarke.

"My mom has played a part in every one of my movies," he explained. "Guess she's part of my entourage."

Yet, it was with VelJohnson that Clarke was hoping to make a good impression.

"Before we picked Reggie up at the airport, I realized I hadn't done any laundry and didn't anything clean to wear," Clarke said.

A quick trip to Wal-Mart gave Clarke the chance to pick up a pair of shorts and a "Super Mario Brothers" shirt.

"Well, Reggie didn't get on the next flight back to Los Angeles," Clarke said,  "so I guess I didn't make too bad of a first impression."

Still Clarke warned film's starstruck cast and crew against peppering VelJohnson with questions about "Family Matters" or any of his former roles.

Apparently, Kathleen Clarke didn't receive her son's memo.

"As soon as my mom saw Reggie, she ran up to him and said she loved him in 'Die Hard,'" Clarke said with a laugh. "Our coolness factor was shot from the start."

But Clarke is already looking for the next property for Backrow Studios, the production company he formed with fellow University of Iowa graduates Ravi Patel and Tim Nash.

"The Formula," he said, will likely premiere in Sioux City by the end of the year.

Though he'd like to stretch his wings with more dramatic fare, Clarke said his movies will always incorporate a healthy dollop of comedy.

"I grew up watching what I'd call 'popcorn movies' -- films that were fun, accessible and never took themselves to serious," the self-admitted "Rocky IV" fanatic explained. "That's the sort of movies I love making today."

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