(PCM) The dramatic new film, The Judge, tackles major issues: the complex relationship of fathers and sons, hidden truths, and whether or not you can go home again.
In the hands of a less masterful director, The Judge, might be cliché. But director David Dobkin, (Wedding Crashers, and Shanghai Knights), was up to the challenge… and then some.
The Warner Bros. film, which opened on Friday, October 10, begins with a well-written script, evoking a powerhouse of emotion, and also portrayed by a stellar cast.
Henry “Hank” Palmer (Robert Downey, Jr.), is a successful lawyer, who returns to his hometown of Carlinville, Indiana, for his mother’s funeral only to discover that his estranged father, Judge Joseph Palmer, (Robert Duvall), is suspected of murdering a local man he once sentenced, who was recently released from prison.
Hank, trying to adjust again to small-town life and reacquainting with his long lost high school sweetheart, Samantha (Vera Farmiga), now has to defend his father in court against Dwight Dickham, (Billy Bob Thornton), a prosecutor determined to see the father put away. The family dynamic includes Hank’s two brothers played by Vincent D’Onofrio and Jeremy Strong.
“No matter how old we are, within five minutes of walking back into our childhood home, we are exactly who we were when we left there,” Dobkin recently explained. “We fall back into those routines; we’re subject to the same behavior and communication patterns of our youth, the same unspoken misunderstandings and unresolved issues, however great or small, which wind up driving us for the rest of our lives.”
Dobkin, 45, is a writer, director and producer, with several major film credits under his belt, including The Change-Up, Fred Claus and Clay Pigeons. The father of two young sons, is also known for creating entertaining and insightful movies that help his audiences connect to them – both comedies and dramas.
In addition to being a film-maker, Dobkin is an award-winning commercial and music video director. He has directed music videos for such major recording artists as Elton John, Robin Zander, John Lee Hooker, Extreme, Sonic Youth and Blues Traveler.
The themes of The Judge resonated with Dobkin as well as his leading men, especially Downey, whose filmmaker father was often a difficult act to follow. “My dad was this brilliant artist,” Downey recently said. “When I started thinking I might want to [act] for a living, I felt like my dad was ‘the judge,’ because he runs everything. He’s on the bench and the rest of us are just suspects,” the actor recalled. “I have a great relationship with him now, but any dad of character casts a shadow because you are railing against what you don’t want to be, and you wind up becoming it anyway –basically it’s because you haven’t resolved stuff.”
The movie The Judge spoke to me about complicated family ties and not having regrets in our lives once we become adults. Please tell me what messages you honed in on?
DAVID DOBKIN: That’s very much for this movie was about for me. Certain movies come to mind, like Rain Man, Terms of Endearment, Kramer vs. Kramer and Ordinary People. These are movies that are all about people, but they are all built around something important that is going on in our lives – the cultural situations relevant to the time.
Please tell me more.
DD: When I started writing I was concerned about what happens when you have to take care of a parent that you didn’t get along with. We don’t live under the same roof as our parents in this culture. We move away and don’t move back in. So these were issues that were important to me. And trying to make sense of it. All of these movies I mentioned all have one component – a universal much better human drama with a lot of entertainment in it. Those are the thoughts that were in my head.
I have to admit I was also moved to tears several times during the film.
DD: I love when people say that my film moved them and had them thinking. A lot of people have told me that they called their parents after they saw the movie.
You have a stellar cast in this film. Please talk about working with Robert Downey Jr. and Robert Duvall – it doesn’t get much better than that.
DD: You are right. It was in a word – amazing. Robert Downey, Jr. was on my mind. I met him a year before I wrote the story. I was kind of blown away by him. His talent is so apparent and I saw his hunger to do great work, as well as his Vulnerability. And he is this really good guy – and I hadn’t seen that specific facet of his humanity on the screen in a long time. I believe he is one of the greatest actor’s alive and I wanted to build on this. Robert is truly a triple-crown thoroughbred and I want to build a track he hadn’t run on in a long time.
Tell me about choosing Robert Duvall for the role of the tough-as-nails judge.
DD: I have always loved Duvall. And both Robert and I loved the movie Get Low that he made with Bill Murray and Sissy Spacek a few years back. I would say that 50 percent of my job as a director is getting the casting right. The rest is can we get them to connect together, and find the right chemistry for the story we are telling.
What surprises ensued? Please take me behind the scenes of this film.
DD: I would say that there is a lot camaraderie. We had a three-week rehearsal process for the film which is a traditional theater-style process, and some that I do even in my comedies. We would break down scenes, we did some improv and really studied the material so the actors would get to know each other. Whether its an improv or not, their behavior becomes increasingly consistent with their character. I also want that to happen on the set. There’s always an element of surprise on set. We are looking for Coach very authentic moments that have pure integrity to them.
When the judge is arrested and his son has to defend him for murder it struck me how emotional it was for Hank to literally have everything in his life on the line. Have you ever felt that everything was on the line in your life?
DD: Unfortunately, I think I live there every day. I have that sense of urgency to everything that I do.
What has been the early audience reaction to the movie?
DD: I have had this overwhelmingly positive response to the film and it tested at film festivals like my crowd pleasing comedies. While it is entertaining and a pleasurable time, it is still a truly cathartic experience that makes us relate to our own family dynamics. It’s still a Hollywood movie, so I feel the pressure for it to succeed. And a lot of people don’t go see dramas about people. It’s not a big larger-than-life event, so that feels like a lot of pressure. But it’s a drama about people; it’s about big ideas and revolves around the two titans of acting – so that’s a good combination.
What kind of father are you?
DD: I am the dad of two boys, ages three and seven. And I have the same fears and concerns for them that my parents didn’t want me to pick up from them. As parents we are all just trying to change the course of the future by trying to find our own way of navigating our world.
I loved that while Duvall’s stoic character couldn’t emotionally reach his three sons, especially to Hank, he was such a loving grandfather to Hank’s daughter. Those scenes between grandfather and granddaughter were especially touching.
DD: I agree that was really special. The judge has just lost his wife [of 50 years] and this little angel comes into his life. When a family loses a member I believe that it immediately changes the dynamic. The entire family becomes collateral damage of that brokenness. When the mother dies a vacuum is created. You know that she was the buffer that holds everyone together. In a way, this little girl gives him a connection to his wife. She is a symbol of something more pure and simple and the best of him comes out. We see a glimmer of hope. There’s something special there.
I also love the line that Hank’s former sweetheart, Samantha, says to him: ‘Be the hero of your own story.’
DD: Yes, I agree. Samantha’s character is authentic. You just believe she was a woman who went it alone and went on with her life. I’m always attracted to strong female roles, and to show incredible strength through vulnerability.
Do you believe in second chances and that you can re-write your past?
DD: I want to believe that you can. I think you need to work at it. The past is populated by a lot of people but I believe in making amends and cleaning up the things and taking the opportunity to say the things you need to say. We are all here and struggling so hard to connect. We fear for each other more than we care for each other.
Here is the big question – can we go home again?
DD: Yes, I do think we can go home. But it’s not the same place that it was. Home is a place in the world where you will be accepted and that’s what I call home.
That’s what we are all yearning for – right?
DD: Yes. At the end of the movie Hank realizes that the possibility of home is there. It reminds me of the line in the Beatles song from Abbey Road, ‘Once there was a way to get back home.’ I just want to believe. It makes me move forward – and I also think that that place can be recreated and rediscovered again.
What’s next for you?
DD: I know I am supposed to have my next movie lined up but I have to look forward. I am doing a film biopic for Warner Bros. on Hugh Hefner. He is a fascinating man, who changed the culture of the world. His life is about women’s rights, civil rights, Playboy, and while he was involved in all of this he was labeled a pornographer. My mother was a staunch feminist who was extremely involved in that movement, so I think I have a unique perspective for doing this film.
Since the theme of The Judge is the relationship between fathers and sons – tell me the best part of being a dad.
DD: My favorite part is in the morning when they wake me up and crawl into my bed. It’s priceless!
Since you are filmmaker what movies do you watch as a family?
DD: My seven-year-old is a Star Wars fanatic who has seen all of the movies. And my three-year-old loves Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.
The post Director David Dobkin Talks To PCM About ‘The Judge’ also appeared on PCM Reviews.