When Nick Schenk wrote the screenplay for the 2008 movie “Gran Torino,” he said that star and director Clint Eastwood didn’t change a word — a highly unusual occurrence in the land of endless rewrites.
The Minnesota native had a different experience with “The Judge,” a courtroom drama opening Oct. 10 that pairs two big Hollywood Bobs — top box-office draw Robert Downey Jr. and heavyweight elder Robert Duvall. Downey plays a hotshot Chicago defense attorney estranged from his family who returns to his small Indiana hometown for his mother’s funeral, and stays to defend his judge father (Duvall) on a murder charge.
Schenk wound up sharing credit with another writer brought in after the first draft, but most of his original story remains, and the end result “exceeded my expectations,” Schenk said.
The seed for it began when the mother of the film’s director, David Dobkins, had recently died, and Schenk’s mother was also dying, “so we were both in that frame of mind,” he said. “You only get one mom. They’re the hand grenade holding families together, and when they die, that pin gets pulled out, and the pieces fly.”
When they first pitched the idea to Warner Bros., they went in “knowing they don’t make ’em like this anymore,” Schenk said. “There aren’t any werewolves or zombies or comic-book heroes. There were only two guys who could’ve gotten this made, Downey or Tom Cruise, so I’ve got to hand it to Downey.”
Schenk didn’t spend much time on the set — writers usually don’t — but calls Duvall “a national treasure. He should be on our money.”
He was also impressed at how closely Downey and his wife, producer Susan Downey, worked: “They were connected like Legos, and you’ve never seen a nicer, sweeter guy.”
Schenk, 48, went to Columbia Heights High School and Minneapolis College of Art and Design. He lives with his wife and two small children in Los Angeles’ tony Silver Lake neighborhood, “but instead of skinny jeans I still wear cargo shorts to work every day. That’s a win in my book.”
Though “The Judge” is his first major credited film since “Gran Torino” came out six years ago, he’s been getting steady work since then, including TV projects and a staggering 21 drafts for the remake of “RoboCop” — none of which were used.
“I didn’t even get my name on it,” he said, his tone circumspect. “But it’s almost a miracle to get any script made, and to get one made well like ‘The Judge,’ that’s worth three of the other ones.”
Kristin Tillotson's fall movie picks
"Gone Girl": Based on Gillian Flynn’s popular 2012 novel, this thriller with a bender of an ending stars Ben Affleck as Nick Dunne, husband of missing Amy (Rosamund Pike, in what could be her American breakout role). As the story unfolds, it’s clear that nobody’s blameless and that everyone has sinister secrets. Director David Fincher has altered some of the action, no doubt to attract the millions of book-club members who know how things turn out. (Oct. 3)
Films with Minnesota connections: Partly shot on location in snowy Brainerd environs, “Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter” (Sept. 19-20 at Walker Art Center) was inspired by the bizarre true story of a lonely Japanese woman who, believing the movie “Fargo” was factual and revealed a treasure map, journeyed to central Minnesota to seek the money stashed by fictional kidnapper Carl. In “The Good Lie” (Oct. 24), Reese Witherspoon takes in one of the “lost boys” of Sudan who fled to America, and Augsburg College grad Kuoth Wiel costars as a female refugee. Sundance buzz generator “Dear White People” (Oct. 24) is a satire about “being a black face in a mostly white place.” Gee, wonder why they shot it in the Twin Cities?
<>“This Is Where I Leave You”: A dysfunctional-family comedy setup is boosted by a barrage of star power. Bickering siblings Jason Bateman, Tina Fey, Adam Driver and Corey Stoll come home to sit shiva for their late father with mom Jane Fonda. Rose Byrne, Timothy Olyphant, Kathryn Hahn and Connie Britton also appear as love interests past and present. (Sept. 19)
“Tracks”: In one of alarmingly few films this season to feature a woman in a top-billed role, Mia Wasikowska plays Robyn Davidson, who in 1977 trekked 1,700 miles across the Australian desert accompanied only by her dog and a few camels, with occasional help from a photographer played by the ubiquitous Adam Driver. (Opens in some cities Sept. 19; Twin Cities date TBD)
“Jimi: All Is By My Side”: André Benjamin (aka André 3000 of the hip-hop duo Outkast) emerges from the shadows to portray Jimi Hendrix in a biopic that focuses on the pre-fame period leading up to the historic 1967 Monterey Pop performance where the rock god burned his guitar and blew minds. Written and directed by John Ridley, screenwriting Oscar winner for “12 Years a Slave.” (Sept. 26)
“The Judge”: Jaded big-city lawyer Robert Downey Jr. squares off against his crusty old father in small-town Indiana, then winds up defending him when Dad’s accused of running down a local ne’er-do-well with his car. The movie got mixed reactions when it opened at the Toronto Film Festival on Sept. 4, but most early critics agree that the RDJ/Robert Duvall chemistry is formidable. (Oct. 10)
“Fury”: Writer/ director David Ayer’s unsparing World War II film promises to stand out from the crowd by depicting U.S. soldiers as heroic but no less brutal than their enemies in their fight to survive. Five men in a tank include leader Wardaddy (Brad Pitt) and Shia LaBeouf. (Oct. 17)
“Birdman”: Michael Keaton’s back, baby. The dark comedy about a has-been actor seeking redemption by staging a Broadway play was met with an enthusiastic reception upon opening the Venice Film Festival last month. Costars Emma Stone as the daughter and Zach Galifianakis as the producer/ best friend. (Opens in some cities Oct. 17; Twin Cities date TBD)
“Interstellar”: “Batman” director Christopher Nolan takes Matthew McConaughey, Jessica Chastain and Anne Hathaway through an outer-space wormhole to save earthlings from pending annihilation. (Nov. 7)
“Foxcatcher”: The stranger-than-fiction true story of how a mentally ill Du Pont heir (played against type by Steve Carell) murdered Dave Schultz (Mark Ruffalo), who along with his brother Mark (Channing Tatum) was an Olympic champion wrestler. Director Bennett Miller (“Capote,” “Moneyball”) won top honors in the main competition at Cannes. (Opens in some cities Nov. 14, Twin Cities date TBD)