Clint Eastwood gives metro Detroit a leading role in 'Gran Torino'
BY JOHN MONAGHAN
• FREE PRESS SPECIAL WRITER •
Long before Dirty Harry rode into town, Berkley dental receptionist Pam Richardson had him on her screensaver at work.
It was Richardson's picture of a gun-toting Clint Eastwood that caught the eye of Janet Pound, the local casting director assigned to "Gran Torino," the movie that acclaimed actor-director Eastwood shot in the Detroit area over the summer. "She told me that she would find a way to get me in the movie, and she did," says Richardson, who lives in Farmington Hills.
Early one morning in late July, she and her husband, Gene, headed for St. Ambrose Catholic Church in Grosse Pointe Park, where they were assigned to play mourners in a scene that finds Eastwood's character, a Korean War vet and retired autoworker named Walt Kowalski, scowling his way through the funeral of his beloved wife.
Richardson has been an Eastwood fan since she saw him in 1971's "Play Misty for Me," his first outing as a director. Though she's miffed that her husband got some extra screen time after he was tapped to walk down the aisle of the church several times during the scene, she says she can't complain too much. She spent most of the day watching a genuine movie legend at work, had a catered lunch and went home with a $75 paycheck for her trouble.
"I think what I like about him is that he's so multitalented," she swoons. "He acts, he directs and, after seeing him up close, he's still really good-looking. What more do you want from a movie star?"
Richardson's encounter with Eastwood is the kind of Motown-meets-Tinseltown moment that is becoming increasingly common. Earlier this year, Michigan lawmakers approved legislation allowing for an up-to-42% tax break on expenses for movies shot in the state, and Hollywood is taking notice. "Gran Torino" was originally set in Minnesota, but the Michigan tax breaks brought about a quick change in its locale.
What makes the $35-million film unusual is the involvement of a major movie talent like Eastwood -- and its quick turnaround time. It was shot over 33 days in July and August.
"Gran Torino" opens locally on Christmas Day at the Birmingham 8 and will open wide nationally Jan. 9. The movie's quick, end-of-year release is partly to make it eligible for Oscars. Eastwood's recent best actor nod from the National Board of Review is now winning him Academy Award buzz.
Grumpy old man
In "Gran Torino," Eastwood's Walt lives in an immaculately groomed home in a run-down part of Detroit. He has a rabid disdain for the changing face of his neighborhood and its growing Hmong population of Southeast Asian immigrants, many of whom arrived in the United States decades ago in the wake of the Vietnam War.
When the teenage Thao (Bee Vang), Walt's next-door neighbor, tries to steal the old man's cherished 1972 Gran Torino Fastback as part of a gang initiation, Walt confronts him with his old military rifle.
But as he gets to know the family and grows estranged from his own sons and grandchildren, Walt learns to respect the Hmong culture. He befriends the boy and his outspoken older sister Sue (Ahney Her) and eventually takes Thao under his wing and tries to teach him the construction trade. Then Hmong gang members, including some of Thao's cousins, shoot up the boy's house and viciously attack Sue, and Walt must decide whether to take matters into his own hands.
If this were one of Eastwood's celebrated Dirty Harry movies of the '70s and '80s, Walt would simply burst into the gang's headquarters with guns blazing, but Eastwood's view of violence has been altered dramatically over the decades. His change in perspective was first evident in "Unforgiven," the 1992 Western that earned the actor his first of two directing Oscars, and it has since been seen in titles as varied as "Mystic River" and "Letters from Iwo Jima." In each case, man's inhumanity to man comes with a heavy price.
Eastwood, 78, fresh from promoting his other fall release, "Changeling," and now working on a Nelson Mandela biopic in Africa, has granted few interviews to discuss "Gran Torino." Critics, who have had generally kind words for the film, call it among his most personal works.
In October, Eastwood told USA Today that he was initially attracted to the "Gran Torino" script because it provided a rare leading role for an actor his age. In addition, Eastwood, like Walt, is a Korean War veteran. His show business career began a few years after the war, and he became a TV star on "Rawhide" in the early '60s.
Though Walt uses racial epithets, especially in addressing his Asian neighbors, he is a familiar and likable character, particularly when he begins to learn some lessons about tolerance and redemption.
"We all know someone like him: the racist uncle at Thanksgiving or your shop teacher in high school," says screenwriter Nick Schenk. The movie is about a "dying culture," he says, "not about an unrepentant racist, but a man who gets his mind and heart straight."
Schenk was surprised when Eastwood announced that he wasn't going to change a word in the script, which was the writer's first big Hollywood sale. The only major difference was the change of setting from Minnesota to Michigan. Schenk thinks the movie translates well, except for one thing. "It's the part where the son calls Walt for connections to get Lions season tickets," Schenk chuckles, "like they are so valuable and hard to get."
A lively barbershop
Ted Widgren, who turns 90 next month, has seen his quaint Royal Oak barbershop used for everything from photo shoots to small, independent films. The storefront business on 11 Mile Road near downtown Royal Oak is something of a local time capsule. Its fake wood-paneled walls are lined with World War II-era photos of Widgren in uniform during his days as an Army Air Corps lieutenant.
He says the set dressers left his Widgren's Barber Shop pretty much as it is, replacing only some of the photos and painting a new sign on the front window glass that reads "Martin's Barber Shop" in the film.
Widgren, who has been cutting hair in Royal Oak since 1938, doesn't appear in "Gran Torino." Instead, the producers flew in John Caroll Lynch, a character actor best known as Frances McDormand's husband in "Fargo," to play Martin the barber. Three of the film's most entertaining scenes take place in the barbershop, including one in which Walt and Martin have a profanity-filled exchange about the rising price of a haircut. Later, Walt brings young Thao to the shop so he can learn to curse like a real man.
Eastwood allowed Widgren to watch the action from his shop's back room -- until Widgren interfered with one of the scenes.
"They had this guy playing the barber, and I heard him say 'son of a bitch,' " Widgren remembers. "So I said, under my breath, 'I wouldn't say something like that in my shop.' The next thing I know, someone yelled cut, and they had to do it all over again. They were very nice about it, but they needed quiet on the set."
Widgren spent the rest of the day's filming in the parking lot behind his shop.
Though he didn't ask for any financial compensation, he and the building owner received $2,000 each from producers for the day's shoot. "They treated me very well," Widgren says.
Courting a community
One of the trickier parts of making "Gran Torino" in the area involved getting the local Hmong community to be a part of it. That task fell largely to Cedric Lee, 27, whose half-Hmong and half-French family owns a number of Asian markets and restaurants, including Sy Thai restaurant in Birmingham. He advertised for local actors and extras through community newspapers, Internet postings and word of mouth.
"Many weren't sure at first," says Lee of Rochester Hills, who has juggled work with his family businesses while pursuing a career as an independent filmmaker. "They were concerned that the Hmong people would be depicted by nothing but gang violence, though you can find that in almost any community."
Lee introduced crew members to different Detroit-area Hmong homes and even took them shopping for items to decorate the sets. Look close, Lee says, and you'll see his family pictures on the walls. Lee even appears as one of the people who leave food on Walt's front steps in appreciation of the way he stands up to Hmong gang members who are preparing to pummel Thao in front of Walt's house. ("Get off my lawn," the old man snarls at the troublemakers as he squints over his M1 rifle -- a line that's certain to be a part of all future Eastwood highlight reels.)
Though extras were assembled from the estimated 8,000 to 10,000 Hmong people living in the Detroit area, the actors who share significant screen time with Eastwood were cast through Eastwood's Malpaso Productions in Hollywood. Neither Bee Vang, from Minneapolis, nor Ahney Her, from Lansing, had any experience in front of the camera. It is this authenticity that Eastwood was striving for.
Rob Lorenz, Eastwood's producing partner since 2002, says that although Minnesota has a large Hmong population and would have made a more logical location for "Gran Torino," tax incentives in Michigan proved too generous to pass up.
"We realized that this would make the right place," he says. "If it didn't work, we wouldn't have filmed there."
Because "Gran Torino" is such an intimate, character-driven drama, cast and crew members were able to work mostly under the radar, filming a day, or maybe two, at various local businesses, churches and street corners. Most nights, Eastwood and his Hollywood team headed back to Birmingham's Townsend Hotel or to production offices in Troy.
On the monthlong shoot, the most time was spent in and around the house that is used as Walt's residence in what Walt's sons refer to as "the old neighborhood." Several spots were considered before Jeff and Dana O'Farrell's well-manicured, red-brick colonial home on Rhode Island Street in Highland Park made the final cut. The two also own the house next door, which serves as the home of Walt's Hmong neighbors.
"It's important to keep a low profile," says Jeff Spillman, managing partner at S3 Entertainment Group, the Ferndale production company that handled the physical details of the "Gran Torino" shoot. Everything from catering to prop and set design and security went through the S3EG offices. Shooting schedules were often kept under wraps and e-mailed to key cast and crew members the night before. Security was employed to protect expensive equipment and to keep gawkers from disrupting a scene.
"You have to get in, get out, then move on to your next location," Spillman says. "Movies have to work efficiently, and Clint Eastwood is one of the most efficient filmmakers in the history of Hollywood."
Despite following procedures that often recalled a spy movie, Eastwood proved consistently charming to those who got to meet him.
Kim Lundy, whose Grosse Pointe Shores house was used as the home of Walt's son, didn't believe producers' promises that Eastwood would appear after the shooting to pose for photos with her neighbors. "I thought they were humoring me," she says, "but there he was, around 5 p.m., and he couldn't have been nicer."
On Tuesday night, local cast and crew members for "Gran Torino" braved a snowstorm to attend a screening of the film at the Birmingham 8 theater. Though the audience was mostly silent while watching, applause erupted during the closing credits as local cast and crew saw their names appear on the screen.
Such local screenings will be common next year, when a slew of made-in-Detroit movies, from the Drew Barrymore-directed "Whip It!" to the Michael Cera-Justin Long comedy "Youth in Revolt," will enjoy national release. For adviser Lee, the "Gran Torino" experience has opened doors to other Detroit-filmed features, including "The Butterfly Effect: Revelation" and "America," starring Rosie O'Donnell and Ruby Dee. Lee was flown to Hollywood this fall by Eastwood to proofread subtitling of Hmong dialogue and oversee the looping (or rerecording) of some characters' lines.
"The whole auditorium was brimming with a sense of pride for a job well done," says producer Spillman of the Tuesday screening. "No one, me included, could have dreamed while growing up that we'd be in Detroit and making a movie like this, especially one with an icon like Clint Eastwood. ... It's important to see something this positive coming out of Detroit right now."
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