David Dobkin has been involved in some of your favorite comedies and screwball action movies, from "Wedding Crashers" to "Shanghai Knights." But his newest movie is a more serious, adult venture — "The Judge," a family drama starring Robert Downey Jr. and Robert Duvall.
Dobkin dropped by The Frame's studio recently, where he talked about constructing a story from real life, creating a film that's in the awards discussion, and watching Robert Downey Jr. work his magic.
On the personal elements within the story of "The Judge":
The movie was conceived the week that my mother passed away, and I had a very challenging relationship with my mom. We didn't get along for many, many years. And I realized when my mother got sick that I was going to have to parent my parent ... And I think that is a really strange, unexpected, challenging moment in life when you go, Oh wow, I didn't think I was going to do this. I assumed a nurse in a hospital would do this. Changing your parent's diapers will stop you in your tracks.
On drawing from real life but still turning it into a separate story:
At first, it began being written as a way of kind of expunging my feelings about something and trying to live with them and come to grips with them, and then it started to take shape into a story that was the kind of movie that I always loved as a kid. I loved "Kramer Vs. Kramer" and "Ordinary People" and those kinds of movies. And when I came to Hollywood I thought I was going to be making "Dog Day Afternoon," these much more artsy movies, and I really was very naive about the path I would take eventually. But I think any story that I'm developing is something I could possibly direct. And I've had a very fortunate and unusual career in many different genres and different areas of having opportunities, but this story came together in layers. And the first layer was my personal experience, and the second layer was me writing a story about a family like this.
I'm a huge fan of "To Kill a Mockingbird," and I in no means mean to put ["The Judge"] on the same pedestal or compare it both to the literary work or the movie. But it was something I adored as a child when I read it, and I loved that movie when I saw it, and it was, again, about a child that's growing up and understanding the world of adults. And I had a moment when I first sat down with Robert Downey Jr. to talk about the movie: I remember pitching it to him as a great American story, that it was going to be novelistic in that sense, it was going to be literate. But I pitched it as a Western. I really believe that all American stories are about home: we're all immigrants, we're all trying to understand [that] we left somewhere and we came to somewhere, and we're trying to reconcile that sense of home in some way or another in our selves, and I said, "Look, he's a young gunslinger who left town and his father's the sheriff and his mother dies and he comes back for the funeral and he gets caught into all the old things and the problems he walked out on and he finds he has to stand by his father's side and defend him." And it was always the cleanest lines of what the movie really is, in its own strange sense; it's not that genre but it is those lines.
On the artistic satisfaction that comes from doing "more serious" films:
I kind of have to ignore that part of it. I have to be honest: you don't get to label your movies. You know which ones you like for what reasons, and to be totally honest my taste goes along with a lot of other people's tastes. I love "Wedding Crashers" as well, and I love them all for different reasons, but I certainly understand why certain ones worked in certain ways and other ones did not ... I had the pleasure of experiencing ["The Judge"] with two test audiences and seeing them love the movie, which was a relief. I usually experience more relief than a sense of winning a championship whenever something succeeds, but the goal was never for awards. It's too personal a story for me, it was just something that came up and I had to tell it, and I wanted to talk about it. Hopefully it connects with people and it moves people.
I wanted to see Robert Downey Jr. take on a dramatic role, I wanted to see him work his magical way through an obstacle course that seemed impossible, with every turn making it more and more difficult for him, and to do it in a way that was elegant and adult. His performance is amazing in the movie, and I don't know what the response will be when the movie comes out, but the one thing I said to Robert was, "The thing that's always going to go against you in these situations, as far as acknowledgment goes, is you make everything look so easy." And he worked and he did it brilliantly and he took on this role with all of his vigor and all of his commitment. He's just so talented. You've seen the movie — he does move through it effortlessly, even though it's incredibly emotional, and his choices are incredibly not showy. That's the other thing — for a guy who knows how to put on the flair and the pizzazz the way he does, he made incredibly sophisticated decisions in his performance, and I'm proud of the movie and I'm proud of him for that.