Rookie screenwriter finds the right mentor: Clint Eastwood
If it's true that Clint Eastwood is hanging up his acting shoes with "Gran Torino," he couldn't have offered us a nicer swan song. Directing himself, Eastwood plays Walt Kowalski, a crusty retired assembly plant worker who, recently widowed, seems peeved at just about everyone in the world. He's totally exasperated by his family ("There's nothing anyone can do that won't disappoint the old man -- it's inevitable" says one of his sons) and unleashes a fusillade of paint-blistering racial invective on all the Hmong immigrants and people of color who live in his dilapidated neighborhood. I don't want to tell too much about the story, except to say that Eastwood manages to offer us a final reprise of his legendary Dirty Harry character and a heartfelt portrait of human redemption, all in the same film.
The script was so well crafted and understated (and the credits went by so fast) that after seeing the picture, I immediately called Bill Gerber, one of the film's producers, to find out which one of the many A-list screenwriters who must always be knocking down Eastwood's door had penned the story. "Are you sitting down?" Gerber asked. He had quite a surprise. The writer, Nick Schenk, who lives in Minnesota, had never sold a feature script in his life. In fact, the only writing work Schenk had done was for "BoDog Fight," a mixed martial arts TV show, a game show called "Let's Bowl" and some comedy sketches collected in a DVD called "Factory Accident Sex." ("That title doesn't exactly help my career, does it?" Schenk jokes.)
Schenk says he wrote the script, using a pen and a pad of paper, sitting at night in a bar called Grumpy's in northeast Minneapolis. It was a good release for Schenk, who was holding down a series of day jobs, driving a fruit truck and doing construction work. "I just scribbled away every night," he told me. "The bartender there is a friend, so sometimes I'd ask him questions about where I was going with the story as I was writing. When it came, the words just came. One night, I knocked off 25 pages right there in the bar."
Schenk shares story credit with Dave Johannson, another Minnesota guy who's a good friend of Schenk's younger brother. When I naively asked if Dave was also a screenwriter, Schenk laughed. "Not exactly," he said. "Dave sells furnaces for the gas company."
Schenk says he was told over and over not to write a script that had an elderly guy as its center. "They said it would never get made, because you're not supposed to write about old people, especially a guy that sounds like a super-racist," he explains. "But I'm not the kind of person that listens to that stuff. I just knew this character well. When I was working construction, I'd meet a lot of guys like Walt Kowalski. Because I liked history, I'd always be the one that the older guys on the site would tell their stories to.
"Walt is like a lot of shop teachers and coaches that you have in school. He's the kind of guy who's just waiting for you to screw up so he can roll his eyes at you. I had no idea that Clint's character in 'Dirty Harry' drove a Gran Torino. I wanted the car to be a Ford, because there was an assembly line near me. It could've been Crown Victoria, but I liked the sound of Gran Torino better."
Still, Schenk barely knew anyone in Hollywood. How did he beat the million-to-one odds of getting his script to Clint Eastwood? And how many words of the script did Eastwood change before he began filming? Keep reading:
Schenk managed to get the script to two younger producers, Jenette Kahn and Adam Richman, who optioned the story with their own money. Schenk says everyone they took the script to passed. They finally got the script to Gerber, a veteran producer and one-time Warner Bros. production chief who had worked on a number of Eastwood films. Gerber gave the script to Eastwood, who read it and simply said, "I'm doing it."
If the script had been bought by a studio or nearly any other big star, before anyone could blink an eye, the studio would've brought in a veteran writer to do a rewrite or a polish, figuring that a first-time writer couldn't possibly have the craft or sophistication to flesh out a vehicle for a star of Eastwood's stature. But Eastwood operates differently. "He didn't change a single word," said Schenk. "When I met him just before they were going to shoot, I had three tiny changes I wanted to make, but when I mentioned them to Clint, he said, 'I dunno, I kind of like the script just the way it is."
The only thing Eastwood changed was the locale, which moved from Minneapolis to Detroit, largely because by shooting in Michigan, the film -- which cost $35 million -- earned a big tax rebate. Gerber says that Eastwood nearly always goes on his first instinct about a script, recalling that when Eastwood directed "A Perfect World," he used the script by John Lee Hancock, then an unknown writer, without changing a word. Ditto for David Peoples' script for "Unforgiven," which was shot as written.
"There's no doubt that if this had gone through a studio, they would've given it to someone better known to rewrite," Gerber said. "That's why I gave it to Clint directly. No one asked [Warner Bros.] for any notes. We took it to them as a fully set-up package. It was either, you're in or you're out. In my experience, Clint doesn't do much development. When he reads a script, he either wants to do it or he passes."
Eastwood also works incredibly quickly. The movie got a green light in February, shot for 33 days in Michigan during June and July and arrives in theaters
next week December 12 (in LA and NYC) going wide in mid-December January. "Who else would possibly shoot a movie that fast?" asked Schenk. "Clint had a break in his schedule over the summer; where most people would go on vacation, Clint shot a movie."
Schenk is trying to take things in stride. He's going to his first big movie premiere on Dec. 9, when he'll hear his words in the hands of one of the most honored actors of our time. It's quite a leap for a guy who not long ago was writing copy for a ring announcer in a mixed martial arts TV show. "I got to sit right next to the ring, which can be pretty exciting, except that you often get sprayed with a lot of blood," he explained. Schenk said he has another script he wrote at Grumpy's that's in the process of being set up. But what kept him going, writing scripts for years without any success?
"I was too stupid to quit," he said. "Writing is just a great thing to do. It's creative, you get to solve problems and it beats doing construction. I don't recommend writing in a bar. It just worked for me. And I don't know what will happen next, but right now, I'm happy. I know that if your script gets made by Clint Eastwood, it couldn't be in better hands."
Photo: Clint Eastwood in "Gran Torino." Photo credit: Warner Bros.