Eastwood recognizes Hmong immigrants with new film

Wed Dec 10, 2008 11:59am EST
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By Todd Longwell

LOS ANGELES (Hollywood Reporter) - Back in the early 1990s, Nick Schenk was working the night shift at a factory in Bloomington, Minn., packaging VHS tapes. It seemed like a lousy job at the time, but it would lead him to the biggest break of his career.

Many of his co-workers were Hmong, an Asian people from the mountainous regions of Southeast Asia and China who fled to the U.S. in the wake of the communist takeover of Laos in 1975. "We had a lot of time to talk," Schenk recalls. "They'd ask us stuff like, 'Why do you guys eat so much?' And we'd ask them things like, 'Why do you have the same first name as last name?'"

Schenk also learned deeper things about the Hmong, such as how they had sided with the U.S. in the Vietnam War, only to wind up in refugee camps, at the mercy of communist forces, when American troops pulled out. And he learned about how they came to the U.S. thinking they'd be seen as heroes, only to find nobody knew they existed. But that was as far as it went. When the job ended, the plight of the Hmong slipped to the back of his mind.

Years later, however, after Schenk found himself stuck trying to develop a story about a recently widowed Korean War vet who is embittered by the changes he sees in his neighborhood, he stumbled upon the idea of putting a Hmong family next door to his main character, setting up a clash of cultures. Schenk bounced the idea around with his brother's roommate, Dave Johannson, and by the mid-2000s, they had pounded out an outline for the story.

Insiders told him, "You can't write a movie with old people in it. It's not sellable." But through a friend, he was able to get the screenplay to Bill Gerber, a producer and former studio executive based at Warner Bros. Then, in late 2007, Gerber set up a meeting with Clint Eastwood and producer Rob Lorenz.

Eastwood was in the final weeks of shooting Universal's "Changeling." Work on "Changeling" was on track to wrap in May, but then the actor-director planned to segue to "The Human Factor," with Morgan Freeman starring as Nelson Mandela. Even if he liked Gerber's pitch, he was thoroughly committed for the next year or more.

Luckily for Schenk and Johannson, production on "Human Factor" was pushed back to early 2009, leaving Eastwood just enough time to squeeze in a summer shoot for "Gran Torino," which opens in theaters on December 12.

Quite quickly, he announced that it would be his next project. Better still, despite having claimed he would no longer act, Eastwood now said he would play the lead role of Walt Kowalski, as well as direct.   Continued...

<p>Nick Schenk, screenwriter of director Clint Eastwood's new film "Gran Torino" poses at the film's world premiere at the Warner Bros. studio lot in Burbank, California December 9, 2008. REUTERS/Fred Prouser</p>