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The Judge: R.Downey Jr. & R.Duvall

Noah - Russell Crowe

The Judge

Noah - Russell Crowe

The Judge: R.Downey Jr. & R.Duvall


   "Judge" jury: When Warner Bros. and Village Road show Pictures' "The Judge" goes before a moviegoer jury this weekend they'll be judging a type of film that once was one of Hollywood's most popular genres.

   Directed by David Dobkin ("The Change-Up"), the R rated drama that was the opening night selection in September at the Toronto International Film Festival, stars Robert Downey, Jr., Robert Duvall and Vera Farmiga.

   In recent years, the studios' emphasis has shifted from big star driven original dramas like this to special effects driven action adventure fantasies with big stars that are based on comic books. The serious dramas that still get produced are typically low budget indie films that go into limited release during the awards season hoping to attract Oscar consideration for their filmmakers and stars.

   It's a far cry from Hollywood's Golden Age when original dramas with major stars of the day like Garbo, Gable, Bogart, Cagney, etc. were constantly playing in theatres.

   Moviegoer votes for "Judge," which is opening at over 2,700 theatres, could prompt Hollywood to return to making original star driven dramas. It's tracking best with 25-plus women and also doing well with men under and over 25. That three quadrant marketing interest could translate into good playability for "Judge."

   In "Judge" Downey plays a big city lawyer, Hank Palmer, who returns to his childhood home where his estranged father, the town's judge (Duvall), is now suspected of murder. Hank sets out to learn the truth, reconnecting along the way with the family he left years earlier.

   "Judge" boasts Oscar pedigree talent in front of and behind the camera. Downey's a two-time Oscar nominee – in 1993 for best actor for "Chaplin" and in 2009 for supporting actor for "Tropic Thunder." Duvall won the best actor Oscar in 1984 for "Tender Mercies" and has been nominated five other times – for supporting actor in 1973 for "The Godfather," in 1980 for "Apocalypse Now" and in 1999 for "A Civil Action" and for lead actor in 1981 for "The Great Santini" and in 1998 for "The Apostle."

   The film also stars Vera Farmiga, a supporting actress nominee in 2010 for "Up in the Air" and Billy Bob Thornton, an Oscar winner in 1997 for writing the adapted screenplay for "Sling Blade" and an Oscar nominee for lead actor for "Sling" and in 1999 for supporting actor for "A Simple Plan."

   Among the key behind the scenes creative team members are Oscar-winning director of photography Janusz Kaminski (in 1994 for "Schindler's List" and in 1999 for "Saving Private Ryan") and 12 time Oscar nominated composer Thomas Newman -- most recently for "Saving Mr.Banks" in 2014 and "Skyfall" in 2013.

   The film's original screenplay by Nick Schenk ("Gran Torino") and first time screenwriter Bill Dubuque gave the actors great material to work with that audiences can easily relate to.

   "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 observes in the film's production notes.

   "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."

   The film explores the role reversal people undergo when through emotion or circumstances they must parent their aging parents and come to terms with their own personal history. The focus is on how, as adults, people suddenly find themselves in unfamiliar familial territory where even the best intentions don't always lead to the best course of action or the best results.

   "What I love about this story," Downey says, "is the incredible sense of place, of going away from home and having to return to face all the things this guy had been avoiding for years, which all come flooding back at once. How failures and successes in life can be perceived so differently by people who are so alike, even if they can't see it or admit it. And it's told with a lot of twists and surprises and humor.

   Dobkin says the role of Hank Palmer was conceived with Downey in mind: "I had met Robert about a year before, and were ally hit it off. If I have a reaction to an actor and admire his talent, somewhere in my subconscious I start looking for or developing a piece of material that I think could be right for him. So when this movie began to bubble up in my conscious mind, Robert was always there in it."

   The primary relationship Dobkin wanted to explore was between Duvall's character, a strong patriarchal father, and Downey's character, the son who left home years earlier and due to an ongoing, seemingly irreparable rift between them, had never returned to face the skeletons in his boyhood closet.

   Duvall, who plays the tough-as-nails judge, explains that he signed on because "it was a smart script, very well written with wonderful characters – definitely an actor's film. On top of that, I felt the people involved would be great to work with. David really brought his own passion and commitment to it in a very positive way, so it was an enticing project for me."

   Downey and his producing partner and wife, Susan Downey, who'd recently launched their own production company, Team Downey, chose "Judge" to be their new company's first production.

   "Robert and I had a lot of other things in development that we'd been considering to go out with, and this was kind of flying under the radar," she notes."It's one of those pieces that you only do if the script is fantastic -- and it was."

   Dobkin recalls that the story first occurred to him when, after experiencing a personal loss, he began to think about how adult children relate to their elderly parents in the U.S.

   "In many parts of the world, multiple generations live in the same house their entire lives, it's totally natural, "he says." But for the most part, we Americans don't live with our parents, so in away we're anesthetized from their aging, both physically and emotionally. I started envisioning these three brothers and their father, coming together after the mom passes away, and what that would be like."

   Dobkin worked with writer Nick Schenk to perfect the story, create the characters and produce the initial script:"I really like his writing, so I called him. We sat down, I told him the idea and he sparked to it and put together this personal emotional journey."

   "Thethingthatstruckmethemostwh enDavidtoldmetheideawasthatwehadanimmediatebondarou ndthelossofourmoms -- he'd just gone through it and I was in the middle of it, "Schenk says.

   "It occurred to me that in most families, the mom is really the pin that holds the hand grenade together, so when she passes first, the pieces fly further. But it also can be a rallying point."

   Once the Downeys were on board, they and producer David Gambino of Team Downey met periodically with Dobkin to continue flesh in gout the plot and characters.

   "It was important, " Dobkin points out, "to explore the whole back story of guilt and remorse – both the father's and the son's -- and how the women now collide while they're trying to unravel this present-day mystery in the middle of a murder trial, with the son having to defend his father."

   "From the beginning, we really liked working with David, and things tend to finish like they start, "says Downey." It was his drive, his vision that we really got behind, and it went from there."

   The film makers then brought in screen writer Bill Dubuque to pull it all together. Dubuque grew up in Middle America and easily connected with the story of a judge being a small town real power house, and understood his relationships with his sons.

   "I knew they wanted a Midwestern sensibility, and they felt that would be right up my alley, "Dubuque says." It also called for a very dialogue-heavy verbal combat, which is my cup of tea. It is set largely in a courtroom, but it's not a courtroom drama -- it's a family drama – so it was important to know where these people are coming from. Why are these two men, in particular, so different and yet so similar? And what the hell went wrong? I knew if I could capture all of that, it would be something people could relate to."

   "I remember finally reading Bill's draft," Susan Downey observes, and, at about page 60, I told Robert I was scared to read the rest because there was no way the second half was going to be as good as the first. But it was."

   "Bill has a real swagger in his writing, "Dobkin adds." It's very clean, sharp, and succinct. His characters are not afraid to make mistakes and make things messier. It's very literary and, at the same time, very entertaining.

   During pre-production the cast had the luxury of extensive rehearsal time that included a90-minuteimprovsession with the immediate "family" members -- Downey, Duvall, Vincent D'Onofrio and Jeremy Strong – navigating through their respective characters together before the cameras rolled.

   "We set a scene in motion, "Dobkin says, "and because we had all massaged that family dynamic down to something so specific, it worked. It was a very exciting and fruitful process, and amazing to witness how much comes out of just the classic techniques, that old-school acting approach. Anything I threw into the mix would just cycle through their personalities perfectly and open up a whole new path to go down, created through them. It's like bringing together great basketball players or football players: you know when you put the greats together they're going to know how to play. They've got the moves, the chops and the experience to get into a real groove.

   "Joseph Palmer is a man who represents the old world, the old guard. He's about honor; he believes that how a man walks through life has everything to do with where he ends up and how he is remembered. His legacy, that he helped people, that he protected an ideal, is important to him. Hank, on the other hand, believes you do whatever you need to do to get to the top, and once you're there and as long as it was legal, it's okay, even if it was manipulative.

   "As long as the court tells him he wins, he doesn't care if his client actually did terrible things, or whether he has to do terrible things to help his client. The law decides whether he's right or wrong. His father views this not as something to be proud of, but as just more bad behavior from the rebellious teen Hank was growing up."

   "The Judge would rather go to prison than lose his honor, definitely," Duvall acknowledges."And that complicates things for his sons, Glen, Hank and Dale. For Dale, because he lives at home, and Glen, because he doesn't want to take on the role of Dale's father, but especially for Hank, who subconsciously thinks he'll win his dad's approval by winning the case."

   Duvall says he enjoyed exploring such a complex character: "He has many contradictions, like we all do in life. He's a family-oriented guy, and he loves his sons, but heal ways left the showing of affection to his wife, and now she's gone. So he's very deficient when it comes to relating to the son his own, particularly Hank. They've had no contact for years; everything went through Hank's mother, so they don't have a way of interacting. And the Judge has never really forgiven Hank for something that happened in the past – or if he has, he can't admit it, not even to himself, I'd suspect. So he gave me a lot of interesting things to work with, to find within myself."

   "The first time I read the script, the Judge felt like Bobby Duvall, "Dobkin confides."There are very few men who could play that role, I think – very few who are that powerful, who are willing to hit as hard as the part required – and not be concerned about looking good. Duvall is really something else to watch, his acting is incredible and I believe this could be one of the great performances of his career, and that's saying a lot. And it's no credit to me, it's just him. He showed up and did things in his scenes that left me speechless everyday. There wasn't a take we couldn't use."

   Downey agrees:"I learned a lot from watching him just be so still and yet so commanding. I'm completely the opposite, we have very different styles. We all did, really. I got to see all these different ways of working come together and really gel, and I came away with an even deeper respect for the work thanks to this experience."

   Duvall admired Downey, as well, noting, "He's very, very talented, and he was relaxed and in control of both his performance and his off-camera work as a producer, so it was a pleasure for me."

   Bottom line: A moviegoer thumbs-up verdict for "Judge" could lead to more big star original dramas.