Gran Torino (2008): How Eastwood Shot the Film

Though the screenplay of “Gran Torino”¬†was initially set in Minneapolis, director-star Clint Eastwood felt Walt’s past as a 50-year auto worker would resonate most as a resident of “Motor City”–Detroit, Michigan. Production set down in locations including neighborhoods of Royal Oak, Warren and Grosse Point, with the once affluent Highland Park standing in for Walt’s own neighborhood.

“The neighborhood of Highland Park has changed,” Eastwood comments. “It used to be a big neighborhood of all automobile people–families that were all interconnected somehow when the automobile manufacturers were in their heyday. The factories are now not as active as they used to be, but the new people that are moving in are quite comfortable there. Highland Park has gone through its hard times, but there are a lot of nice people living there.”

Rob Lorenz notes, “We were there for several weeks in this neighborhood doing construction and so forth and then shooting, and we tried to have as little impact as possible. The people we interacted with were thrilled to have us.”

Part of the economy and artistry of Eastwood’s films can be attributed to the respect and loyalty the filmmaker inspires from his close team of collaborators. Though he never raises his voice, never says, “Action,” and encourages autonomy, Eastwood is always in control. “Clint is very comfortable in his own skin,” attests Tom Stern, making his seventh film with Eastwood as director of photography, following many more as chief lighting technician. “He told me before we started, ‘I am my age. This is who I am.'”

But his team considers his age and experience part of the alchemy that makes him such a singular visionary filmmaker. His unique approach and the well-oiled mechanism of his team allow him to move deftly through the production schedule.

Reuniting on “Gran Torino” are his other longtime collaborators: costume designer Deborah Hopper, editor Joel Cox, and production designer James J. Murakami, who worked with the legendary Henry Bumstead on Eastwood’s prior films before taking the leading role as production designer on “Changeling.”

“I’m familiar with their work, they’re familiar with my work, so we don’t have a lot of explaining to do,” Eastwood states. “It’s always built around eliminating as much intellectualizing or discussion as possible. There’s enough discussion when you’re making a film without adding more to it and making it more complicated than it is. I’m not one of those guys who likes to show that there’s a lot of magic in it. If there is any magic in filmmaking, it should be very subtle. But, for the most part, it’s just everybody doing a good job and participating. It’s a fun process. When it’s not fun, you won’t see me doing it anymore.”

“Gran Torino” also marks the seventh Clint Eastwood film Rob Lorenz has produced, and fellow producer Bill Gerber attests, “Clint couldn’t ask for a better producing partner than Rob. Looking at locations with the two of them and seeing the stuff that Rob had pre-selected, there was so little back and forth. Rob just knew what Clint wanted. They have a great relationship, and the Malpaso machine is an extraordinary one. It purrs along well.”

“Clint is 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,” Lorenz remarks. “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.”

An example of Eastwood’s innovations is a wireless portable video monitor he had tailor-made for him to allow maximum efficiency in directing scenes in which he’s also a player. “It allows me to actually see the scene as it’s going on, without having to squint through the camera,” he explains. “I can be half a block up the street and see what’s going on.”

For the two key houses in the story–Walt’s house and the home of Thao and Sue next door–the location managers and production designer managed to find two neighboring houses that fit all the requirements. “What we were looking for in Walt’s house was a house that could look like a person had cared for it all his life,” Lorenz describes. “We ‘aged’ the rest of the homes on that street to show the disrepair that had taken over the houses around him. Jim’s sense of what both houses should look like was so well-developed that he and his set decorator, Gary Fettis, set to work immediately. By the time Clint got there to see it, he took a walk through each of the houses and said, ‘I love it. Don’t change a thing.’ It was perfect.”

To inspire the design for Thao and Sue’s house, Murakami researched through photographs and visited numerous Hmong households. “We brought in our technical adviser and she was just in awe because everything made perfect sense,” says Lorenz. “She had a couple of minor changes but overall told us, ‘You nailed it.'”

Likewise, costume designer Deborah Hopper did internet research and attended a Hmong festival where she consulted numerous vendors to help ensure authenticity in the Hmong costumes. “We attended the festival where the Hmong women would buy their contemporary and traditional Hmong clothing,” Hopper notes. “One of the things I learned is that the mothers teach their daughters how to make their traditional clothes. In fact, Ahney Her brought in her own handmade costume for research for the film.”

In addition to the “Soul Calling” ceremonies at the house, Sue and Thao also have occasion to wear their traditional ceremonial costumes to honor Walt. “They’re very ornate,” Hopper describes. “They have coins hanging all over them, which signify the wealth of the family. The ceremonial dress is also very colorful: the women wear turbans and the men can wear a vest or cross-belts. I thought they were so unique and beautiful. It was something I had never seen before.”

The blend of cultures in “Gran Torino” is also reflected in the music. Eastwood’s own connection to music makes the score and soundtrack of particular importance to the filmmaker, who conceives basic sounds and melodies for his films as he shoots them. “You just hear different sounds for a picture, and then work them out on the piano, write them down, or orchestrate them,” he explains. “Sometimes I’ll have somebody else do it; sometimes I do it myself. There’s no rule there. It’s just when you hear it, it feels right.

“It’s nice when you get to the music part because you are no longer shooting the film, the film is what it is,” Eastwood continues. “So, then, you’re enhancing the film. You do music, sound effects, all that sort of thing. It’s exciting when all of a sudden you go from working with 50, 60, 70 people down to one or two people in a room with an Avid computer.”

The title song for “Gran Torino” is performed by British jazz singer/pianist Jamie Cullum and Don Runner. It was co-written by Eastwood; Cullum; the director’s son, Kyle Eastwood; and Kyle’s writing partner, Michael Stevens. “Together they came up with the song,” Lorenz relates. “And then Kyle and Mike used that as an inspiration for the music throughout the rest of the film.”

Kyle Eastwood and Michael Stevens composed the score, which was then orchestrated and conducted by Lennie Niehaus, whose association with the director dates back to the film “Tightrope.”

The soundtrack also includes Hmong and Latino rap, reflecting what the characters are listening to, including one track by cast member Elvis Thao’s rap group, RARE. “Some of the folks that came in to read were rappers,” says Lorenz. “Some did get roles and some didn’t, but they all submitted their music. It was so appropriate, so we put as much as we could throughout the movie.”

In every aspect of production, the Hmong community a
s a whole ultimately provided tremendous support to help bring a unique and truthful coloration to the project. In addition to casting, Hmong advisers assisted with dialogue, customs and design elements, and Eastwood hired numerous Hmong artisans and assistants to work as part of the crew.

“They wanted to be a part of this film and were so generous to us,” Eastwood states. “It was a real pleasure for me to work with them. I hope the Hmong people are happy with the way the film tells some of their story through Walt’s eyes.”

With “Gran Torino,” Eastwood adds Walt Kowalski to his legacy of indelible characters. “Clint is always interested in progressing and not doing something that he has already done,” Lorenz reflects. “This script seemed to offer just that. It suited him in terms of his age and his character, and it seemed to draw from his past, his life as Dirty Harry and the outlaw, the hard-edged, uncompromising character. And yet it advances further. It takes him into a little bit darker territory, but also allows him, through his character’s redemption, to explore something new.”