Exclusive : On The Set of Gran Torino

It is warm and humid on this summer afternoon in Highland Park, a half-hour drive from downtown Detroit, and Clint Eastwood is back in front of the camera for the first time in four years, an event that his fans feared might never happen. But there he is – cool and utterly relaxed as the camera rolls on the set of Gran Torino, entirely filmed in Michigan. His 29th film as a director-producer, and the 23rd time he has directed himself.

The call sheet indicates that is day 15 of filming. Twenty more to go.

Scene 26. EXT: Walt’s House – Driveway: Walt begins waxing his car.

Eastwood plays Walt Kowalski, an aging Korean War veteran whose forced proximity with the Hmong family living next door will impact his life forever in ways he could never imagine.

The crew has set up in a small street lined with modest two-story houses. Most of them look run-down, at best unkempt. Only one stands out with its nicely painted façade and well-maintained front yard, with its neatly trimmed bushes and, tucked in a corner, two jolly garden gnomes with red pointy hats. An American flag is proudly displayed. This is Walt’s house. In the driveway, gleaming under the sun, the eponymous Ford Gran Torino is parked. The 1972 model is in mint condition. Standing by the driver’s side, Eastwood, dressed casually in dark khaki pants and grey polo shirt, is holding a rag in his left hand, ready to give it a shine. Two takes are enough. True to his reputation, Eastwood doesn’t like to waste time and money. His crew is used to the fast pace that usually results in Eastwood wrapping production early and under budget.

“I didn’t particularly want to act again,” he explains a little while later during a break, sitting in his director’s chair and watching the crew setting up the next shot across the street.  “After Million Dollar Baby, I thought, ‘That’s enough.’  But it’s a role that was my age. Rob [Lorenz, his long time producer and trusted partner] thought it was interesting and asked if I wanted to look at it and, yeah, it was. The story was set in a different culture, of which I didn’t know too much. I had to read about the Hmong history and their culture just like everybody else.”

Gran Torino – the first-ever produced screenplay by Nick Schenk (from a story by David Johannson and Schenk) – centers on Walt Kowalski, a bigoted, cantankerous man. He lives alone with his dog in a neighborhood that has gone from middle-class and lily white to working class and Hmong. One such immigrant family lives next door to Walt and he is far from happy – especially when their sixteen-year-old son Thao’s involvement with local gang bangers disturbs Walt’s routine. After the teenager tries to steal his vintage car, Walt takes action. Despite the generation and immense cultural gap, a connection is ignited between Walt and his young neighbor Thao, and the two form a tenuous friendship that will lead to unforeseen consequences.

“After having worked at a Ford plant for fifty years, he is retired,” says Eastwood of his character. “His wife has just passed away and he is estranged from his children. His older son is an executive at a Toyota dealership. He thinks they have counted him out. He doesn’t know how to relate to them. Actually, he doesn’t know how to relate to anybody. He just doesn’t fit with modern times and is very much out of touch with society as it is today. He doesn’t like the changes that he sees around him, the fact that his nice Polish community, which was made up mostly of automobile people, has disappeared and been replaced by Asian people he deeply resents.”

And how did Eastwood, the actor, prepare to go back in front of the camera? “It was okay,” he responds with a knowing smile. “I’ve been doing it for 45 years. It’s like anything. You get the character in your mind, and then you’re there doing it.” As usual, Eastwood prefers not to overanalyze anything he does. He likes to keep it light. Even if he has a method, it is a no-nonsense approach – a unique way to make it appear simple and fluid, always rich and substantial.

Watching him act again, it is impossible not to be impressed by his ease, the naturally confident way he becomes the character once the camera is rolling.

Walt Kowalski can be seen as another variation on some of the protagonists he has played before, at first anyway.  He is not a very sympathetic person, someone who obviously doesn’t care what people think of him, a loner too proud to show his hidden scars, struggling to adapt in an ever-changing environment; and, in the end, a touching human being facing the end of the line.

“Walt is sort of stuck in the past, with his old cars and his old way of doing things,” says producer Rob Lorenz.  “And the Hmong family next door, they’re stuck in their own cultural way of doing things.  Walt finds himself in the very unusual position of actually having to teach people about something when, in fact, technology is passing him by.  People don’t consider his way of doing things necessary or useful anymore.  But here’s an opportunity for him to teach what he has learned and see the relevance of his life.”

An assistant approaches and respectfully informs Eastwood that everything is ready for the next scene. He walks over to talk with Tom Stern, his director of photography, and to check the choreography of the shot. It’s a brief conversation and, a few minutes later, Eastwood is sitting on the porch as the summer sun is starting to set. He’s now back to playing Walt, who, by now in the scene, seems slightly drunk as the several empty beer cans on a side table imply.  He mumbles a few chosen curse words, lights up a cigarette and exhales, gazing at the horizon, lost in thought. As he slowly and somewhat unsteadily stands up, he calls his dog, Daisy, a good-natured golden retriever.

“Clint is very comfortable in his own skin,” marvels Tom Stern. “He told me before we started, ‘I am my age. This is what I am.'”  But Eastwood certainly doesn’t look 78. He is amazingly fit. His quiet authority on set is impressive; it’s no wonder he inspires respect and admiration from his crew members – most of them have worked together before on previous Malpaso productions. They know that he rarely seems to agonize at length over a take, the movement of the camera, the choice of a lens or the trajectory of a dolly track. All these elements make for a unique approach and well-oiled mechanism that contribute to maximum efficiency. It is a highly collaborative effort but there is also no doubt who is the boss. Even though he never raises his voice, never says, “Action,” he is always in control.

“Clint is pretty unique,” Lorenz observes.  “He’s old school and he recognizes the value of the old ways of doing things, because he has been around long enough to see them work.  At the same time, he embraces new technology and wants to keep learning, moving forward and progressing.  That’s really what drives him, and I think that’s why he’s such a pleasure to work with.”

“You have to live with what you have,” muses Eastwood, with typical understatement.  “Whatever you committed on film, you are committed to. There it is, so you have to put it together. If it doesn’t work, it is your fault. If it works, it’s partly your fault.”

It is almost 7:30 PM: time for “lunch,” which marks half-time in the shooting day. Along with everybody else, Clint Eastwood stands in line like he always does, a tray in hands waiting to discover what Tony, the king of movie business catering and a long time Malpaso regular, has prepared on the menu. His choice made (grilled salmon, assorted vegetables, salad and a piece of pumpkin pie), the director eats slowly, keeping the conversation to amiable and minimal chat with Rob Lorenz and Steve Campanelli, his camera operator.

Gran Torino did not come on Malpaso’s production schedule until late last year when Rob Lorenz gave the script to Eastwood while they were finishing filming onChangeling [Eastwood’s recent release starring Angelina Jolie].  They were supposed to start prepping for their next project, The Human Factor with Morgan Freeman and Matt Damon, which was quickly postponed to the spring of 2009 in order to make Gran Torino first.

It is the first time that a major studio film deals with the Hmong community, who made a difficult transition to America following their involvement in the Vietnam War.  “I didn’t know too much about them,” admits Eastwood. “They are from Laos and were brought here as refugees after the end of the Vietnam War. Because they had helped the Americans during the conflict, the communists started to kill them, and they fled mainly to the Minneapolis-St. Paul, Detroit and Fresno areas.”

To ensure maximum authenticity, it was decided early on to only use an exclusively Hmong cast (the majority has never acted before) and not settle for other Asian ethnics groups, like Hollywood often does.  Several Hmong advisers were also contacted and are here to help to make sure the dialogue sounds right, as well as customs and looks. Some Hmong are also part of the crew. The Hmong community has been very impressed and grateful to be so involved in the overall making of Gran Torino. Their unanimous welcome and input has been a tremendous support and helped bring a unique and truthful coloration to the project.

One hour later, equipment has been moved for the next sequence.  Dusk has fallen and the temperature is slightly cooler. The next scene will be filmed with the Steadicam and is more intricate. It takes place inside Walt’s garage. A noise has awakened Walt in the middle of the night and he has come down to check on it. Someone has broken in and that someone is none other than his neighbor Thao – obviously here to steal the Gran Torino.

Thao is played by Bee Vang, a sixteen-year-old who has never acted before and was cast after an extensive search in the Michigan Hmong community. He has an open face and intelligent, dark eyes with a becoming smile. He listens eagerly when Eastwood talks to him. He has an undeniable charismatic presence and seems at ease and unaffected, a natural in front of the camera. A winning mixture of touching innocence and resolute defiance, Vang always knows his lines and has impressed everybody.

As for specific directions to his novice cast of young actors, Eastwood prefers not to be too intrusive. “I give them a lot of freedom,” he notes.  “I tell them that they don’t have to stick to the words literally. And anyway, I don’t understand what they say when they speak Hmong. So, I just try to get them into the mood, to make them think of what their motivation is, what stimulates them in saying whatever they have to say. And not to think too much. Let it come up out of instinct.”

Having worked with an all-Japanese cast on Letters From Iwo Jima, Eastwood eased into working with the Hmong cast.  “With this project, most of the folks had been living here in the United States, so they spoke English or at least had some understanding of the language,” says Lorenz.  “I think it was easy for a lot of these folks also because the story is just so real, and for many of them, it is their story.  Chee Thao, who plays the grandmother, said it was no trouble for her to get into this character because it was her.  She’d had all these struggles portrayed in the film, so when she was out there basically ad-libbing her way through a lot of the scenes – because a lot of their Hmong dialogue wasn’t spelled out – it was no trouble.  She just went on and on, saying all the right things and bringing her own story to it.”

After a brief rehearsal, Eastwood and Vang find their marks. Armed with his Korean War riffle, wearing sweat pants, Walt enters the garage and bumps his forehead on a light fixture hanging from the ceiling. His weapon ready to fire, he manages to corner Thao, but the young boy charges toward him…

On the wireless portable video monitor, a gadget especially built and tailor-made for him, Eastwood’s face is framed in close-up.  As he aims at Thao with his weapon, he stares the boy down with one of those famous squinting look of menace. This is simply iconic Eastwood acting, in the vein of “Go ahead. Make my day.”

After the take, Eastwood jokes around as the crew gets ready for a different angle. This time, Walt will be on his back on the floor, crestfallen after firing a shot that has missed his target and Thao barely escaping him.

Clint Eastwood seems to relish playing such a provocative character, as he has often done in his career. “Yes, he is definitely a racist,” he acknowledges. “But he also learns a certain amount of tolerance through his forced relationship with these Hmong people, who he despises at the beginning of the film. But, then, he turns around and starts helping them out, takes this young kid under his wing, and saves him from the gang life.”

As a director, he also has a very clear idea of the trap to avoid with Gran Torino:  “To go soft with it,” he answers. “It’s very non-politically correct and that’s good. There is just no pussyfooting around in it. If you don’t play it all the way, or if you just do something half-way, then it becomes a Hollywood bailout. And if you’re gonna play this kind of guy, you gotta go all the way. You can’t try to be Mr. Nice Guy. He’s tough on everybody.”

GRAN TORINO is now showing

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