I was lucky enough to be able to participate in an interview session with director David Dobkin (Wedding Crashers, The Change-up). Dobkin is an established director in Hollywood mainly known for his comedy films however he directed the upcoming film The Judge, a dramatic feature which premiered as the opening film of TIFF 2014. The Judge opens in Toronto on Friday October 10th. The following is the transcript of the audio recording broken up into various excerpts by question. The questions were asked by various other college writers, including myself, from across the US and Canada.
How did you get involved in the project?
I got involved with the movie…first of all I had studied at NYU. And I had thought I was going to be a director of dramatic work. More along the lines of Dog Day Afternoon or Deer Hunter or… you know…Taxi Driver. And I, along the way, somehow turned into a comedy director, which is a whole other story. But for many, many, many years I’ve always wanted to try and get back to this. So when I went through some personal experiences inside my family and my parents ageing, getting sick and passing away. It really kind of hit me on a personal level, I found myself, at least with my mother, in a situation of having to parent one of my parents. And I felt completely unprepared for that, and a little bit overwhelmed…more than a little bit. And after she passed away, a week later, I started to sketch the story of a family whose mother passes away, and the men in the family, that are all kind of broken shards of glass, that try to get pulled into the vacuum of her being the buffer between them and them coming, being sucked into that vacuum and colliding again. So that became the sketch of how this story began.
Does the Judge purposefully try to be a more classical style film?
No, it was…we really felt like, you know, I think inherently what happened is…I love Sidney Lumet movies, you know I mentioned Dog Day afternoon but I love the Verdict and those kind of movies as well. I think that we wanted to make a movie that felt like the acting style and the photography and the story itself was something that was out of a more classic time. I mean, I always kind of harkened it to, if this story was written as the great American novel. I wanted to feel like this movie was the adaptation of something that was literary because so many great movies in the past, I mean the real past, came from that place. So we were aware of that and then along the way another kind of color came in, which is that, we realized that, the movie…I think it was just inherent in my personality and Downey’s personality that is, slowly but surely became more and more entertaining. Neither of us kind of wanted to be stuck in a truly difficult movie the whole time and it kind of swung more in the direction of Rainman or Terms of Endearment and movies like that, that had a dramatic center but really also had laughs and a whole range of emotions to the experience as a viewer.
What was it like working with WB (Warner Brothers) on a film that was not part of a franchise, an adaptation or a sequel/reboot?
Yeah I feel….you know… you are campaigning so hard to get a movie made that you forget about all the risks for a little bit in the beginning of the process. I think this week I am feeling it. Uh, just that sense of “wow we made a movie, we’ve seen audiences respond really extremely positively .You know, there is a testing process you go through and the movie tested through the roof. We were a little bit shocked, I was, and I had tried to tell everybody that we were never going to get good numbers. It’s too dramatic; it’s too much of a downer at the end. And people felt uplifted at the end and it totally went in a little bit of a different direction that I thought it would…I mean it scored like a big commercial movie and we were surprised. I think I felt relieved at that moment because I knew the movie worked for audiences but you also have to open and granted it’s not based on a book, it’s not based on…as much it is like a book, you know what I mean in, the sense that its novelistic in the way we tell the story, in the way we take our time with the characters to build everything but, it’s not a franchise it’s not a brand and it’s not a novel that’s out there so I…those thoughts have come to my mind this week as I see, you know a title like Gone Girl explode last weekend at the box office, and granted I have, you know, a movie star in a seminal role in his career, back at this role but it’s a little nerve wracking to be honest.
What do you want audiences to take away from the film?
I can tell you what’s been happening and it kind of is my best, the best of what I could hope for. You know, I hope people come for two hours. First of all I don’t believe in people coming to a movie for 2 hours and not having a good time. And maybe that is just inherent in my, you know, my DNA…my Wedding Crashers DNA has always been the same, so I you know, there is a lot of that in the movie…and I want you to have fun but it’s also a very thoughtful movie that makes you think about your family, makes you think about your home and where you came from and I hope that people come out of it and they just feel a little bit better and a little bit more of weight off their shoulders and they see possibility in their own families and their own relationships. We had this really cool screening that we walked out of one night, very early on, where we talked to people in the audience and all these people were talking about how much fun the movie was, because at that point it was only a drama, there were no marketing materials, and we padded ourselves on the back and then as we were walking out of the theatre, the theatre was empty at the end of the night, there were tissues littering the isles. And we were like “oh wow it did that too”. So, it’s kind of cool to have a movie that, you know, takes you on a full, you know the full spectrum of your experience when you come to a movie. I mean obviously there are no car chases, there are no explosions, there are no aliens but aside from that we have a lot.
What was it like working on a drama with a personal connection instead of a lighthearted comedy?
You know it is interesting; you always try to put a little something of yourself into a movie. Obviously as you get into a real drama you can do that on a much bigger scale. So there is part of it that is really, really satisfying. But you know Wedding Crashers, when I read the script, didn’t have the, what I guess I now coined as a, bromance between Vince (Vaughan) and Owen (Wilson). And that was something that I had put in for five scenes that were added to the movie because, one of the things I was attracted to…As a young man I was really attached to my guy friends, and I was a little bit of a geek and not so comfortable asking out girls and that kind of thing so…you know…my friends being part of what made me feel secure was a big deal and eventually one of them falls in love with a girl and your friendship starts to get rocky, so that story line between them was based on something that I experienced growing up here in Washington D.C. So I have always tried to get something in there but certainly nothing that’s exposing a part of me that, or part of my experience that was, as challenging as this was. But I would say for me it has been a really corrective experience , it’s been pretty great to see other people come-up after the movie and talk about what they’ve been going through.
Why did you decide to shoot on film? Were there any challenges?
I was kind of lucky because I had…you know… the studios try to push you towards shooting digital these days and they don’t make a big fight over it but it’s an expense thing. It’s getting harder and harder to shoot, to keep shooting on film, but again we were hoping we were making our version of a movie that harkened back to older movies. And they had a feel that came from being shot on film, a more classic feel and we really stuck to it. And luckily for me, as I was saying, I had a cinematographer who has won two academy awards and once he said he was shooting film nobody really put up a fight.
What was it like working with the legendary Janusz Kaminski?
It was amazing. You know I’ve worked with a lot of great cinematographers and I have never worked with anybody like him. He is a one of a kind; he looks at light differently than anyone I have ever worked with. He uses light differently and light in general and he has a…he’s just so deeply gifted. There would be times when I really wanted to shoot something that was… you know my composition was specifically what I wanted to shoot but I could tell that it wasn’t necessarily going to be a beautiful image and he would always find a way to make the lighting, the composition better than it was even originally. He just…he’s a painter, light is painting you know? It’s about what you see and what you don’t see and it felt like every day you were going to set with Caravaggio or something. So I just kind of geeked out and watched him the whole time
Do you think audiences will relate to the fraught family relationships?
You know…look I think that no matter what the relationship is in your family, that there’s always parts of us that, no matter how well, how successful you are in getting through life and not stepping on others toes and being respectful, we all share regrets. We all share the experience of lost time; we all share the experience of leaving home, and returning and having to re-evaluate who we are. So much of the movie has to do with that and the feeling of wanting to please your parents. So I think there is a lot of it that is very universal. I think that most people, on some level, their family, the experience of family is a challenging one that we all struggle through. Even if it is not as volatile or intense as what is portrayed in the movie. I’m hoping that people…you know…I think that people, and I have been experiencing this from all the audiences, as I go across the country, who have recently been seeing the movie, it’s a very cathartic experience for people. I don’t know if I expected that or knew that was going to happen but it has been a great reward to have people…I mean it’s very crazy…I come out of some of these screenings and people are like sharing their stories about their fathers and their mothers and what they’ve been through, what they lost. What they didn’t say to them, what they wish they had said to them. It’s been amazing in that way and we are all going to live with watching our parents get older and die. And through their reflections be able to try and frame our own lives…..That are still part of our story, our chapter. You know it’s a rite of passage movie about those kinds of moments.
What was it like working with Team Downey (production company of Susan and Robert Downey)?
I knew both of them before the success that they’ve had together, Ironman forward, and they’re both…they bring an incredible sandbox that everyone gets to play in. And as producers what you are supposed to provide for a filmmaker is; you listen to what the filmmaker is trying to do, you support it and embellish it and improve it. You protect the filmmaker from the outside forces that are trying to make those creative risks...less risky and at the same time you make sure you are also pushing the director to be realistic and keeping things on time and on budget, work within the means you have to make the film. My experience on the movie was, by a long shot, the best experience I had as a filmmaker. And they do all those things at a very high level and in an outstanding way that makes sure you are always really focused on…you know… the creation of the film and not on anything else. There are a million things when you are making a movie that become incredibly distracting and disruptive and they really kept all of that away from me and Robert and Susan was great at it. Robert…you know Robert’s cache right now as an actor really gives him a lot of respect and a lot of weight as a filmmaker and as a producer as well. And you need that…Look we were doing something at a movie studio that’s just not done anymore. I know they sit there and tell you that they make Argo and all these other movies, and they do by the way, there are one or two or three a year that they may do like this but making a people oriented movie with movie stars in it? Independents don’t do that either, you’re not going to see RDJ in an independent movie right now. So, it was really cool, it was something that only this kind of a situation, this kind of a set-up could have really shepherded and it put us under more of a spotlight for the studio. Susan and Robert just did a great job of shepherding the movie.
Did the actors influence their characters?
The movie was written, from the very beginning, with Robert in mind. So the character was very much him from the beginning. So it was always his personality and that kind of a character, that kind of arc that was always inherently there. And his father was just written as this mountain of a man that was impossible to get through to and impossible to climb over….or get his attention, his affection or any kind of approval. Robert Duvall is an incredibly brave actor and a really powerful man and he was the guy we talked about a lot. It needed to be a man like that; there are a couple of them in Hollywood. Very few names can pull-off that role; it’s a very difficult role to play because you could be incredibly unlikeable for a long time in the movie. He does it in a very beautiful way because you see his vulnerabilities and you see that he is struggling with it. He did it in a very sophisticated way; through all his years of experience as an actor he knew just how to play it. But…Duvall was just perfect…I really am a director who believes there is only one person for every role and I’ve walked away from movies when I don’t get the casting that I want, even if I love the movie, and this one we really…you know…I think we really got it right.
How was you TIFF experience?
It was really fun. It was very exciting…Look it’s a very commercial movie and I know that there are parts of it that are award worthy, especially the performances, but we made the choice to go to Toronto because it was a non-competitive festival and we felt like it was just really audience centered and a celebration of the movie. A lot of the journalists really got the fact that it was special to see Hollywood make a movie like this again. So it was really fun for us. I think that it may have put us underneath a very intense microscope. I didn’t realize how much was expected beyond that you just enjoy the movie from being the opening night movie or that Toronto was going to be under such scrutiny, for locking off their world premieres for the first four days. That was an interesting thing to be in the middle of.
What are your favorite film/films?
Man, that’s hard. It would be like a ten title tie between Dog Day Afternoon, Apocalypse Now, Star Wars, Close Encounters of the Third kind, the Godfather. I’m one of those weird kids who loved the popcorn movies of my time but then just got a little bit older, probably too young to see all these R rated movies, but then fell in love with all those movies too. I’m a kind of a weird blend of that thing. I’m sorry I can’t give just one…I can tell you for many years Apocalypse Now was my favorite movie…. I also like movies with ordinary people, like Kramer vs. Kramer that were movies that were really sitting in a specific time period. When our society or our culture was struggling with certain ideas like divorce and therapy and could you go to therapy and not be called a basket case, how were you supposed to get through divorce as a husband, as a wife, as a kid when people are starting to split up in the late 70s and that whole generation was starting to experience that and what we did was; we all went to the movie theatre. And we got to have that dialogue, in the privacy of a movie theatre, but in a group. We learned a little bit more about ourselves when we came out of it and we thought like we understood something different about our lives and we probably didn’t feel so alone. That’s the power of filmmaking and what it can do that no other art form can do. There’s no question that this whole idea of healing our families and trying to return home and “can we ever get back home again once we grow a little bit older”, are we going to have to parent our parents, what does that look like. I mean those are some of the question that, at least for us, for myself and Robert and Susan…we really felt, we were starting to…those were the issues that were alive in our own lives. We wanted to make something that reflected that.