Robert Downey Jr. is front and centre stage throughout almost all of The Judge, and giving a typically high-energy, irresistible performance. I spoke to the film’s director David Dobkin about the practicalities of working with such a full-on, super-confident performer, about creating a space for actors in general, but also about the film’s very specific, carefully conceived look. It was like taking a ten minute film school in everything from lighting to lenses to rehearsal to editing.
When I think back on your film, I can’t not see that colour palette. It’s really controlled.
Yes. I’m glad you noticed that. I think you have to, as a filmmaker, be aware that everything people see or experience is part of the feeling that you create. Colours do create a feeling, an ambience.
The courtroom is very monochromatic, there’s a lot of control inside of that environment and it’s cooler. Outside, in the world, we wanted to bring the greens and the colours a little bit more to life. This small town had a certain feel.
Chicago is very cold and clean, all of the glass and metal, but there’s warmth in the home. Those different colour palettes are important. I think sometimes it’s more about removing colour than adding colour.
And the colour you removed was red!
Yes. True. [Laughs]
But then it punches. There’s that shot of the flag and it really pops.
It grabs your attention. When you look at filmmakers who are really, really good they’ll choose to hold things back for the right moment: certain colours of emotion, certain colours that are used in a way that’s truly figurative, certain ways of using the camera, certain lenses. Then, when something gets used it means something, it has a significance.
For me, the hand held camera in this movie happens at very specific times. It’s usually when there’s real human drama. When Hank and his father start to reach boiling point, it’s like you get into a boxing ring with them.At the very end, in the court room scenes of the third act, we switch over to a hand held camera when Hank finally has to approach his father.
Do you remember your first discussions with your director of photography about this?
One of the things that was very important when I spoke to Janusz [Kaminski] was the idea of ‘perception,’ that our experience of our families is to do with our perception. Sometimes these perceptions are right, sometimes they are wrong, but they’re ours. This movie was going to be told through Hank’s perception and it was very important for me to have layers of information: layers of light, using those flares that Janusz uses; sometimes obscurities; there’s a lot of rack focusing and longer lenses so I could put characters together in the frame and tell a story with how I connect them visually.
Those were the ideas I wanted to pursue, and Janusz was amazing at taking that and creating an abstraction of it, and then executing that in a very specific way.
When you design your shots, do you start by blocking with the actors or do you come in with a list?
The first time I read a script, certain shots and images will come to mind and then, later on, you’ll see real locations and other, different ideas will come to mind. Eventually, I’ll try to block the scenes in rehearsal rooms so I can prepare for certain things.
There are moments – like I knew the father was going to say goodbye to the son at the end of the courtoom, and I knew I wanted a long lens and have Hank watching between them, between the faces, and have it all in the frame.
There was another scene where his father tells Hank to pull over the car and they have a fight, and his father goes walking down the road. When I read it, the scene ended there but I thought it would such a beautiful moment to have him walk in the opposite direction and leave his brother stuck in the car in between. That’s what happens with a family – when two people are at war, everybody else is held hostage by this and stuck in the middle.
You look for things that are visual, figurative and symbolic, though I tend to be sparing with those kinds of ideas. I really loved directors like Stanley Lumet who would stay out of the way of putting their own personality on top of the story and the performance.
Did you think about Lumet particularly on this film, as he left his mark on this kind of stuff?
Of course – Twelve Angry Men was his first movie, and The Verdict, which we watched.
Yes, I was understating the case a little bit there.
Coppola once said “You can’t choose everything to be your first priority in a movie” and you have to know what will rule the rest of the movie. For this, it was the acting. Everything was going to be built and designed for the actors to show up and have career performances if possible.
I’d think that Robert, Vincent and Robert [Duvall, D’Onofrio and Downey Jr.] don’t need a lot of anything. They just need a space, right?
But creating that space and the understanding takes a lot of work. They came in as three people who don’t know each other, we spent three weeks doing a classical style of rehearsal, breaking apart scenes and breaking down character motivations, backstory, history, doing improvisation, talking about our own families and lives until we started to get to know each other, there was a trust and a bond there.
Eventually, what I’m looking for is behaviour. In those improvisations, I’m looking for their behaviour to start to become repetitive with one another, that no matter what scene I put them in, they’re back in the same conflicts, the same situations, and this is coming from who they really are. That takes a lot of work.
If a director does that job well, by the time you reach the set, and you have created a safe environment for them to be able to take risks, you should be able to go through a scene and maybe make four of five notes as you go, try a different ideas that come up along the way, but for the most part, the characters are going to be alive. That’s what I shoot for.
There are no actors that don’t need directors any more than there could be a football team that could hit the field without a couch.
Of course, of course. But I can’t imagine Downey lacking confidence in any minute of any day.
Oh, my god. He never lacks confidence. That’s part of what’s great about him. He’s willing to take crazy risks.
There must be surprises coming from around every corner.
It’s so much fun. That’s what’s great about directing him. And he never pays attention to being likeable. He’s very brave when it comes to “I want to play my character and I want to go over the edge with any idea.” He’s much more curious about how far he can go to get away with something than “This is how the audience are going to respond.” He does not pay any attention to the audience responding to him. Because of this, it’s very exciting to direct him. Most of the time a director is trying to talk people into taking risks, but Downey wants to live in the risk area all the time.
When you try to moderate that performance in the edit you must have a whole range of pieces to work with.
Then you have to go in and tune up the symphony, get everybody working the story in just the same way.
Is there an example, then, of something in this film where, for a moment, the Downey acting butterfly landed on a certain approach but in takes one through fifteen, he was giving you something completely different?
The bar scene with the guys who want to get into a fight with him. We went in with the script written a certain way and he just kept changing it, turning it and turning it, and combining dialogue. The challenge was that he was so smart, he was getting so far ahead of those guys that the scene required a lot of tuning up in the editing room. But once we got it tuned up to what his intention was, if that makes sense – ?
That’s when it started to come alive. Downey is a brilliant guy, and we were always given incredible material to work with. Sculpting that was another part of the process.
David Dobkin, thank you very much.
The Judge is in cinemas across the US and the UK now.
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