INTERVIEW: Director David Dobkin on <i>The Judge</i>

We see it as a beautiful mosaic, and you're really lucky when it all comes together and you walk back and all those little specks, that Seurat painting, when you step away from it, it all takes focus and becomes one beautiful thing.
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Thanks to such films as Wedding Crashers and Fred Claus, David Dobkin has earned a reputation as being primarily a comedy director, but as he revealed in our chat discussing his new project The Judge, in theaters now, starring Robert Downey Jr. and Robert Duvall, his interests as a filmmaker are fare more eclectic.

The intergenerational family drama, written by Nick Schenk and Bill Dubuque from a story by Dobkin himself, features Downey as hotshot defense attorney Hank Palmer, who is forced back to his Indiana hometown following his mother's death, and must work through lingering issues with his father, no-nonsense Judge Joseph Palmer (Duvall).

The Judge also has such respected performers as Vincent D'Onofrio and Vera Farmiga in the cast, and my first question for the director was regarding the top-tier talent he had lined up in front of the camera, including two of the greatest actors of all time headlining. Read on for his answer, as well as other highlights of our conversation:

You're on the set, you're directing Robert Downey and Robert Duvall. How do you fight the urge to just sit back and just let them do their thing? What do you see your role as, in that situation?

I'm the director. Honestly, it's like telling a football team to go on the field and just play the game and never get any advice from the sidelines as to what you're seeing. Actors and directors have a symbiotic relationship, because actors, if they're smart, will want to be directed. They'll want to know how they're coming off. They need to be blind to how they're coming off, so that they can perform and stretch and take risks and chances and play the edge, but they need to check in and know what's going on.

I spend three weeks rehearsing before every movie. I break down the scenes. I break down the characters. I break down the backstories. We go through this entire process. We do improvisations until there is a trust and there is a deep understanding of the material. When we get on set, it's my job to pay attention to what is going on. Most things on a movie are not shot in chronology.

It's my job to come in and remind everyone of exactly where we are in the move, to orchestrate how big or how small the tone is going to be at that point in the movie. in some scenes, you're going to yell at each other in this one, or is it going to be underneath your breath? Where are those modulations going to come from?

So, if great actors didn't need directors, every one of their performances would always be great, and they're not always great. There are ones that are stronger than others. These guys happen to be brilliant, and when I was on set, they needed very little direction, overall. But, you need to be there. I care about nothing more than my movies and their performances. It's really the thing I like the most.

It's what I pride myself on, and I know that my role is to listen and watch. Once we've done our rehearsals and we set our goals and we know where the target is, is to watch and see if they're hitting the target. Also, watch to see if they're doing something brilliant, that's even better than what we made our target to be. But, also, to see if we're off-target and to make sure that we have some variations. When I get to the editing room, we have what we need to tell a great story, because you're still telling a story.

This film is a change of pace for you, in terms of, you've built a reputation as doing comedies, and you said you didn't ever see yourself as being "The Comedy Guy," necessarily.

It's unexpected. I went to film school, and I studied, and the movies at that time in my life that I loved and adored, part of the reason I went to film school, were Apocalypse Now and Dog Day Afternoon, Coming Home, The French Connection, Deer Hunter. Those were the movies I really loved and responded to, and when I was in film school, those were the movies I was interested in being a part of. Came to Hollywood...first I came and lived in San Francisco for six months, avoiding Hollywood. I actually had to go to Hollywood, and when I got there, it was the moment of Pulp Fiction, so there were some really cool things happening, but I didn't know how to get in.

I loved what was happening with music videos at that time. It was kind of the heyday, and I ended up getting into that world. Then, Ridley Scott took me under his wing, and I missed working with actors, so I said I'd like to do some commercials. The first commercial that he got me as a spec commercial was a comedy. It was what we could get. I directed it dramatically, but I knew where the laughter would be, and what ended up happening was it won some awards, it got some recognition, and because I had succeeded at that, that's where I got the work.

I continued, for the next twenty years, to be a comedy director, all the time, always wanting to come back and do a little more of this. And by the way, there's a lot of comedy in this movie. There's a lot of humor. It's a very entertaining, fun movie, but it's got drama and it's got pathos, and it's got a deep, emotional movement to it. It's been a long time coming, and by the way, when I was a kid, I loved Lenny Bruce, I loved Richard Pryor. Irreverent comedy, especially. Eddie Murphy. What really spoke to me, and through the course of comedy, I did find my way back to that, certainly, with the R-rated work.

After Wedding Crashers, which just blew up, The Change-Up obviously didn't achieve that level, so you've referred to that as, it allowed almost for a course-correction for you?

The truth is that this was in development before I even made Fred Claus. I met Downey in 2006. He'd come to interview for Fred Claus and we really hit it off and we had a really good connection, but I knew the role he came in for, I was like, "I want to work with this guy." I knew the minute he walked out of the room, I was like, "This guy's amazing." But, I looked at him and I saw a heavyweight champion, and I was like, I'm not going to put him in the ring until he's got a prizefight.

And this was '06, so he was hungry at that moment.

He was hungry. Many years later, he said to me, when we started this movie, he said "Dobkin, why didn't you hire me for that thing?" I said, "That wasn't the right thing for you. This is the right thing for you." My love for him as a performer and this kind of movie was in there, and honestly, we made this movie when the script was great. The minute we got the great script in our hands, we went off and we made it. We committed. It was really, I'd say, between every comedy I did, I launched a ground campaign to get back into something more dramatic, and the powers-that-be, just by sheer coincidence, it just never happened until here.

You've mentioned a little that the origins of this story started percolating after the death of your own mother?

Yeah, a week after.

What's the through-line from that event to the larger structure of this story?

Well, my mother and I had a very caustic relationship. I feared her, a lot of the time, and what happened was, when she fell ill, I was suddenly in a position where I was going to have to be closer to her. Physically close, sometimes, emotionally, more open and available and closer, and that proximity scared the shit out of me.

All of a sudden, I realized I was going to have to parent my parent, which was another piece of the puzzle that had not occurred to me. Of all parents, it was the one I had the real volatile relationship with. After going through that experience, and my sister went through it, too. She went through a lot of really hard stuff, probably a lot more than I did, but she didn't have as crazy a relationship with her as I did.

After going through that, the week after this story of this family where the mother dies, and the vacuum, the collateral damage that's been left in the wake of their history as a family, and these men that are also suddenly pulled into the vacuum. She was the buffer the whole time. Now, all of a sudden, they collide with each other. It dramatically came into my mind, and it became this story. Slowly, I sketched out a treatment for it, and then I found a writer to continue working on it with.

At what point did you bring Robert Downey into it?

Once I got that first draft, about a little over a year into developing it. I brought it to Susan and Robert, and they joined on. We worked for two and a half years, just between writers, on our own, working on it, talking about it. When we had a chance between movies, whether I was busy or they were busy, we would keep pushing it ahead. Then, we brought on Bill Dubuque, and he handed us this magnificent draft. We game him an outline and the old script and talked about what we wanted it to be. He digested all that and he came forward with this movie. It's really brilliant.

The scene in the shower was just draining. Not just literally, but emotionally. In terms of the performances, that's what I was thinking when I asked how you fight the urge to just let these two great actors make magic.

It doesn't just happen. You don't just put actors in a room and it's magic. You need a script. You need story points laying at the right time. You need all those things to happen, and they need to still fulfill an incredible performance moment, but you know, it's not just...that happened, there were takes and cuts and discussions, and we shot very quickly in preparation to capture it in a very documentary-type way.

There was an intention for that scene to be shot out by lunch. We didn't want to come back from lunch and have to continue. There was a lot of psychological preparation, conversations, and as much as I really love for my actors to feel like I've built a beautiful sandbox to really express and take risks, because that's when great work happens, you need to orchestrate it. Actors don't just show up and because Robert's funny or Duvall's intense, or vice versa, it doesn't just happen like that.

By the way, it doesn't happen that way with each other, either. They work off each other. They feed off each other. The history of the story is in that movie. Duvall says, under his breath, "Mary," he says, very lightly, calling for his wife. He's been left alone in this moment, and the only person in that room with him is this kid that he doesn't know how to get on with. But, yeah, look, there's no question that scene would not be that scene without these magnificent, amazing actors.

You have to have everything working the right way. The writer gets credit. The cinematographer gets credit. The director, the actors. Everybody that goes and gets behind that. The studio gets credit for not telling me to cut time out of that scene and letting me let it happen in real-time, the way that it did. So it's all kinds of stuff. We see it as a beautiful mosaic, and you're really lucky when it all comes together and you walk back and all those little specks, that Seurat painting, when you step away from it, it all takes focus and becomes one beautiful thing.


Many thanks to David Dobkin for being so generous with his time. The Judge is now playing at a theater near you. To hear the audio from this interview, check out the latest episode of the MovieFilm Podcast at this link or streaming below:

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