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We had a quick Q&A with DAVID DOBKIN (Director), SUSAN DOWNEY (Producer), DAVID GAMBINO (Producer) and NICK SCHENK (Screenwriter) about The Judge.
QUESTION: Susan, can you tell us about making The Judge as the first project at Team Downey?
SUSAN DOWNEY: We were really fortunate to get The Judge for the first Team Downey project. Robert and I had already made like six movies together. We decided that if we’re going to keep doing this and enjoying ourselves, we had to do something more official. When we started Team Downey, I got a phone call from David Dobkin who said he had a picture he wanted to produce with me. Even though it was still a first draft, the story was really solid. I could tell the type of movie David wanted to make and the themes and characters he wanted to explore. David and I were able to take our time and develop the material without a lot of pressure like Robert and I experience on bigger tent pole movies that have a release date. We had the luxury of getting a great script, taking our time and letting it marinate.
QUESTION: Was there anything personal for Team Downey about this father-and-son story?
SUSAN DOWNEY: Robert and I didn’t say, ‘Let’s tell a family story first.’ But we definitely wanted to do character-driven material. We’re not genre specific. Team Downey has a whole slate of projects, from horror to big action adventure. What we want to do is to tell really interesting stories. We were fortunate enough that The Judge came our way. The process became very collective and very personal without it being something we set out to do when we started the company. Because David, Robert and I were able to get together over dinner for literally a year-and-a-half, without pressure, we really talked about what this movie could be. So even though the movie is inspired by David Dobkin’s personal experience, we all contributed.
QUESTION: David, could you just talk a little bit about your personal experiences that prompted this story?
DAVID DOBKIN: I lost my father in ’99, and, in 2005 or early 2006, my mother was terminally ill. I had a very rough relationship with her when I was a kid and for most of my life.
And when she called and told me, I realized I was going to have to become close with her. The realization that I was going to have to parent my parent really struck me. The week after she passed away in 2007, I started to formulate a story idea for this family and this father-son relationship.
When I got something sketched-out enough, I started looking for a writer. I read this script, Gran Torino that Nick [Schenk] had written. It hadn’t been made into a movie yet, but the authentic details and characters profoundly moved me. I loved how real and gritty and humorous it was. So I pitched my story to Nick and he loved it. He started sharing what was going on in his own life, which had some overlapping similarities with mine. Over the next year, Nick really helped me shape The Judge into a movie.
NICK SCHENK: My mother was close to passing away at the time. David and I kind of bonded over that to the point where we were having script meetings and he was letting me use his office to take calls from oncologists, getting updates on my mom. I was flying home as my mom was getting sicker and I could barely get in the airplane anymore. Every time I went home, it was worse. A lot of that got channeled into this script.
One of the main ideas is when a mother goes first, she’s kind of the pin in the hand grenade. The pieces fly further than if dad goes. I could see it coming. When dad goes first, everyone is still there for Thanksgiving, but losing Mom changes everything. The script and the movie have gone to beautiful places from there, but that was one of the main ideas—going home and dealing with all that.
QUESTION: What were some of the unique production challenges of this film?
DAVID GAMBINO: Susan and I had worked for fifteen years together. When we started this movie, we’d already done a lot of big genre films and action movies. Those movies present different challenges. You’re dealing with a lot of physical stunts, big set pieces, and explosions. In this movie the explosions are human. They are people in rooms arguing and fighting. They have their own challenges and you’ve got to make sure that you’ve got the actors into position.
We were shooting out in this town called Shelburne Falls in Western Massachusetts where we all went for a four-week retreat and camp-out in Bed & Breakfasts. Susan and I felt like we were going back to film school. The crew was reduced and we were out there having a blast.
Dobkin would do these rehearsals to have everybody know exactly what they’re playing, trying to make a very human story—exciting, but without the explosions and car chases. It was a very smooth shoot. Everyone came really prepared. We have the best of the best working on this both behind the camera and in front of it.
QUESTION: For David and Susan, can you tell us about the first scene that Robert Downey Jr. and Robert Duvall shot?
DAVID DOBKIN: I could already feel the dynamic between Duvall and Downey on the first day. So much humor came out of their interaction, that the tension of their relationship was really funny to watch. It’s not always funny in the movie, but the humor is certainly there.
SUSAN DOWNEY: David Dobkin insisted on rehearsal, which in a movie with actors of this caliber usually doesn’t happen. And everyone was so game and did a number of rehearsals. They’d all gotten to know each other so well. They brought this natural familial quality on set.
But what was very exciting for all of us was to see what these two actors would do with these moments, because both Roberts are, in many ways, unpredictable. You just don’t know quite how they’re going to block it or what their instinct is going to be.
I knew how the story sounded in my head, but when I saw it, things that I thought were going to get to a screaming fever pitch they played very quietly, and sometimes the reverse. Because they knew those characters so well at that point, it felt exactly what we were going for: real people acting like real people.
DAVID DOBKIN: It had to be authentic. There’s nothing worse than being in a drama where people are ‘acting.’ You don’t want to know what’s going to happen. It’s almost like a boxing match. They can prepare as much as they want, but until they start hitting each other, no one knows which way it’s going. And that was what made the shoot exciting every day.
QUESTION: Nick, when you were writing this, did you have anybody in particular for that character of Joseph Palmer? Robert Duvall totally inhabits this character.
DAVID GAMBINO: We knew we were writing for Downey the whole time. That was very clear. There were people that we would bounce around and different names, but we knew it had to be an icon. Because Duvall’s so grounded, he allows Robert to be more Robert. Otherwise the movie would have become something different.
NICK SCHENK: When I wrote Gran Torino I didn’t have Clint in mind. I just wrote the part for this movie too, but they couldn’t have cast it better. Duvall is a national treasure. He should be on our money.
The Judge will be available on Blu-ray™ and DVD, both include a digital version of the movie with UltraViolet Digital Copy from 2nd March.