A Twin Cities writer's 'Gran' slam

  • Article by: COLIN COVERT , Star Tribune
  • Updated: January 8, 2009 - 6:20 PM

The framework for "Gran Torino" -- Clint Eastwood's latest Oscar vehicle -- was built in Minnesota by jack-of-all-trades Nick Schenk.

"Gran Torino" writer Nick Schenk

Photo: Brian Vander Brug, Los Angeles Times, Dml - Tpn

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Clint Eastwood has his pick of A-list screenwriters, so it was a surreal moment when Nick Schenk -- a former Minneapolis Teamster -- heard that Eastwood would direct and star in his drama "Gran Torino." The script had humble roots in Schenk's friendships with old soldiers he met while clerking at the St. Anthony Village Liquor Warehouse and with his Hmong co-workers on the night shift at a Bloomington factory that packaged videotapes.

Hollywood's call came in February, and Schenk met Eastwood in April and flew to the set in Detroit in July as filming began. The movie opens Friday in the Twin Cities amid considerable Oscar buzz. It still seems like a dream, Schenk said in an interview.

"Warner Bros. sent over a poster that Clint Eastwood signed. It's hanging on my wall. You look at that and think, 'Wow, that's really something.'"

Schenk's script, centering on Walt Kowalski, a racist Korean War vet, and his Asian neighbors, won the National Board of Review's award for best original screenplay, just as Diablo Cody's "Juno" did a year ago. "The importance didn't dawn on me until people started sending bottles of Dom Perignon and 16-year-old Scotch," said Schenk, who favors Summit Pale Ale. "I couldn't be more pleased, but I don't watch the Golden Globes. I'd rather be in an ice-fishing house."

The movie's original setting was Minneapolis, but shifted to Detroit when Michigan offered Warner Bros. a 42 percent production rebate. "Gran Torino" retains some Minnesota flavor, however.

Several Twin Cities actors play significant roles. The pivotal part of Thao, a Hmong teenager whom Walt protects from predatory gangs, went to Bee Vang, a 17-year-old junior at Robbinsdale Armstrong High School in Plymouth with no stage experience. When Bee won the part at a May casting call at a Hmong community center in St. Paul, his family and friends were incredulous.

"I told them I was cast for this role and they said, 'Until I see you in the trailer, I'm not going to believe it.' Now everybody's like, 'Remember the little people.' My friends all call me a prima donna like I'm a big shot or something, which I'm not."

'Too stupid to quit'

While it sounds like a Cinderella story, Schenk's good fortune at age 43 isn't beginner's luck, but the culmination of years of ups and downs. His beginner's-luck episode was his first feature film script, a 1994 comedy about slackers running a day-care center. Disney bought the script and put it on the fast track. But when the studio's head of production left a few months later, the project "died that same day," Schenk said. "And nothing happened for years and years and years."

For the next decade-plus, he never stopped writing. "I was just too stupid to quit. I remember watching that first one go and thinking, this is easy, and spending all the money just like a drunken sailor. I bought all my redneck fishing buddies sushi. And at the end of the year, it was gone."

Schenk had plenty of practice living broke. He attended high school in Columbia Heights, "where you get a hard hat and a lunchbox instead of a diploma when you graduate." He enrolled at the Minneapolis College of Art and Design and graduated with a degree in fine art, "which is useless. I think I painted a fence since I got out of school. I did a pretty good job because I didn't get much paint on the grass."

Odd jobs paid the bills. "In Minnesota you could live on 16 grand a year" with housemates, he recalled. "We lived like children for years and years and years."

He roomed with comedian Rich Kronfeld, collaborating on "guerrilla-style cable access" shows and the syndicated TV sports spoof "Let's Bowl." His first agent "thought I was an actor because we all were appearing in these things, because we couldn't afford performers."

Schenk spent years commuting between Los Angeles and Minnesota. "I just wrote things that amused me. I ended up having no agent and no manager, but I kept writing.

"I was told not to write 'Gran Torino.' It's not commercial, it's too racist, it's about an old guy. Someone said the lead character would be great in a nursing home comedy. It was unsellable, it was uncastable. By that point I'd had so many near-misses that I didn't listen anymore because what's the difference?"

In 2005, he was living on a friend's couch, working construction jobs, driving a fruit truck, and on the outs with Hollywood. "It was crazy," he said. "I was paying dues to the Teamsters and I was in the Screen Writers Guild at the same time. I'd get a few small jobs in L.A., then come back to Minnesota and put the tool belt on.

"Loading trucks every day, your back was tired but your mind was fresh. And I had met all these old vets at the liquor store. They came in every day for a pint of their 'medicine,' with stories they couldn't tell their wives and children. I was the outlet. So I'd just roll into Grumpy's [Bar, a northeast Minneapolis dive], where my friend was the bartender, and write the stuff longhand on a pad of paper.

One joke in "Gran Torino" came straight from the bartender's mouth, Schenk said. It begins, "A black guy, a Mexican and a Jew walk into a bar...." The punch line is unprintable. So much for "Minnesota Nice."

Schenk spent a year polishing the script with his longtime friend Dave Johannson of Shoreview, a furnace salesman for CenterPoint Energy who shares a story credit on the film.

"We'd act out the parts," Johannson recalled. "We're not brilliant performers so it wasn't the most compelling entertainment, but Nick is very funny and fun to be around. We'd read the part where Walt is on his porch holding his M-1 rifle and telling his neighbors, 'Get off my lawn!' We probably shouldn't have, but we just found that incredibly funny."

"Everybody knows a guy like Walt," Schenk said. "It's the perfect time for a story like this because everything's changing. These old guys and this mind-set's going away. Walt's problem is not that he's an unrepentant racist; it's that his soul's hurting and he's got to heal that before he meets his maker."

Bragging rights for his parents

"Gran Torino" feels tailor-made for Eastwood. Walt is an aging tough guy who loves his guns, growls toss-off wisecracks and owns the same classic '72 coupe as Dirty Harry. That was all sheer coincidence, Schenk said. "I'm not a car guy. I just wanted one that sounded like a movie title. It could have been 'Gremlin.'"

The screenplay bounced among 70-something actors, including the late Paul Newman and Gene Hackman. Anthony Hopkins passed (to Schenk's relief; that would have been epic miscasting). Eastwood snapped it up, hustled it into production and shot it verbatim.

"When Clint got on board, it was great bragging rights for my parents," Schenk said. "They could finally see the end point of all this work. He's one of their peers. It's not like I'm trying to explain who Jake Gyllenhaal is or something like that," said Schenk, who now lives in Los Angeles.

Relocating the film to Detroit was not a seamless transition, he said.

"There's a scene in [the original script] where the son calls up Walt and says, 'You know that guy at the plant who's got the Vikings season tickets?' That doesn't translate to the Lions. They don't sell out."

Another Hmong actor in the film, Ahney Her, a native of Lansing, Mich., who plays Thao's bossy older sister, noted that Detroit, with 8,000 to 10,000 Hmong residents, has a "pretty big population, but nowhere near the Twin Cities'." She knows that firsthand. An avid soccer fan, she travels every July 4 to the national Hmong soccer tournament in St. Paul. She hopes to return this summer because she and Bee are "like family now."

Johannson, who accompanied Schenk to the premiere on the Warner Bros. lot, glows at the memory of the celebratory mood when the lights came up. "You show the movie and there's kind of a cocktail social afterward. I think we were the last two guys to leave because we were having so much fun. [Schenk] made a joke about it that we were the Minnesota guys, standing around draining the keg and getting thrown out of there."

Schenk, who regularly visits Minnesota, likes Midwestern flavor in his movies. His next script, already in preproduction, is a romantic comedy about a Type A New Yorker who flees to an icebound North Woods cabin when her life implodes. And he's currently working on a story set in North Dakota.

"That one will be all meat raffles, beer and snowplows," he promises.

Colin Covert • 612-673-7186

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