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.
"I've kinda been slowly withdrawing (from acting)," Eastwood acknowledges. "But every time I say I am not going to, somebody gives me a role. That's what happened with (2004's) "Million Dollar Baby,' and that was four years ago now. When 'Gran Torino' came along, it was a fun and challenging role, and it's an oddball story."
With Eastwood attached, the film rapidly got a greenlight from Warners. The studio suggested he consider shooting in Michigan, which had just enacted a generous tax rebate in an effort to lure film and TV productions to the state.
"The script was written for Minnesota, but it was well-suited to Michigan because Clint's character is a retired auto worker from a Ford plant," notes Lorenz. "So we went to the Midwest and looked around at a number of different locations in Minnesota, Chicago and Michigan. We brought back the pictures, and Clint chose Michigan," specifically the Detroit suburb Highland Park.
If finding the right location was easy, casting was a whole other matter, a task made more daunting by Eastwood's determination to cast actual Hmong. Casting director Ellen Chenoweth set up open casting calls in Detroit -- and in Fresno, Calif., and St. Paul, Minn., the cities with the nation's two largest Hmong communities. She also enlisted the help of various Hmong organizations.
In St. Paul, she found Bee Vang to fill the key role of Tao, a teenage boy who tries to steal Walt's prized 1972 Gran Torino, initiating an unlikely friendship; and in Detroit, she found Ahney Her to play Tao's older sister, Sue.
"When Rob and I sat down with them, it didn't seem like they totally grasped the enormity of what had happened," Gerber says. "They hadn't really seen that many of Clint's movies, so they weren't intimidated by his oeuvre."
Her, who had studied acting for a short time, had never been in a movie before, so she was understandably nervous when she showed up on the set in July. But Eastwood immediately put her at ease. Indeed, one of the surprising things about the star is how quickly he elicits a feeling of comfort in those who work with him.
"The first time I was going to shoot, he said, 'Be yourself and do what you have to do,'" Her recalls. "And it applied to all the scenes that I did."
Filming commenced in Highland Park in July. Even though most of the Hmong cast members had little or no acting experience, Eastwood stuck to his policy of no rehearsals. "Clint likes things to be fresh and spontaneous and not overly rehearsed, because then they become stale, particularly with someone who's new at it," Lorenz observes. "He doesn't want them to formulate specific performances that they will be unwilling to change, so he'd rather do it on the day."
Eastwood has a reputation for working swiftly, but on "Gran Torino," he outdid himself. With the action restricted largely to two neighboring houses, he was able to shoot most of the film in sequence and wrap principal photography two days shy of the scheduled 35 days.
The older Hmong on the set were deeply appreciative of his efforts. "I was sitting at lunch with Clint one day and I remember the Hmong extras coming up and saying to him how much they appreciated him making a movie that included their culture," Gerber recalls.
Whether that culture will draw a wide audience remains to be seen. But Warners' decision to release "Torino" in awards season, just when Eastwood is also out with "Changeling," bears similarities to two years ago, when "Letters From Iwo Jima" bowed just after "Flags of Our Fathers." In the end, it was the smaller picture that had legs.
Much attention will be paid to Eastwood, who may finally stand a real chance of being recognized for his work as an actor, as well as director. But just as important, the movie will also draw attention to the plight of the Hmong.
"To (Eastwood's character) Walt, all Asians are the same," Schenk says. The Hmong just happened to be the prevalent Asian ethnic group living in the sort of community he envisioned Walt living in. "But I did my best to make sure everything was true to them, because I respect those people. And the Hmong people I talked to on the set say I nailed it pretty well."