Prolific producer Susan Downey (ORPHAN, KISS KISS BANG BANG) may be married to one of the biggest stars in Hollywood, Robert Downey Jr, and run a production company with him, but that doesn’t mean their projects are greenlit easily. Directed by David Dobkin, THE JUDGE is the dynamic duo’s newest passion project, that took four years to make it to the silver screen. The film follows high-powered defense attorney Hank Palmer (Downey Jr.) as he returns to his small-town home to deal with his mother’s death, and to help his estranged father Judge Joseph Palmer (Robert Duvall), who’s accused of a murder he may or may not have committed.
At a special Q&A event hosted by “The Moms,” producer Susan Downey spoke about everything from which actor originally turned them down, to the picturesque location, to the origins of the script. And here’s the most fascinating things we learned about the emotionally stirring drama.
There was no courtroom scene in the original draft of THE JUDGE. Downey explains, “It was a very different script; there was no courtroom at all. There was no C.P. Kennedy. There was Dwight Dickham. There were a number of things that were quite different. But at its core, and what inspired David [Dobkin], was the experiences he had with his mother was there.” Other members of Team Downey (Robert and Susan’s production company) helped build upon that original idea. She says, “It went from this personal experience and became something more universal.”
The film begins on troubling news about Hank’s mom – not dad. And this was done for a precise reason. Downey says, “The mother in the family is kind of the pin in the vein and when that’s taken out, everything can explode. So if Mom is still there, but Dad passes, people are still getting together for Thanksgiving. If Mom passes – probably not happening. Even though hank hadn’t been back to Carlinville in twenty years, he’s still connected with his mother. She’s still the glue that held this family together. Once she’s gone all bets are off. It’s the one thing that would draw him home.”
THE JUDGE is Robert Downey Jr.’s and Susan Downey’s 7th collaboration. She states, “Even if we weren’t working on something together, we’d still be talking about this stuff. The nature of what we do is incredibly time consuming and energy consuming.”
Robert Duvall originally passed on his part and the role of Dwight Dickham was created specifically for Billy Bob Thornton. The film boasts a tremendous ensemble cast, each bringing an earthy-groundedness and organic nature to their parts. Downey mentions that most of their cast was their first and only choices. “We created that character and he [Thornton] was the prototype. Vera [Farmiga] was always Sam. Vincent was the only person we talked about for Glen. Jeremy Strong was a discovery for Dale. Dax Shepard sent me an email saying he could throw up on command better than anyone else. With Duvall, there’s very few guys who could play this role. We said, we gotta get an icon – you need to believe he can go toe-to-toe with Robert and be this mountain to climb. Once we landed on Duvall no one else made sense. We actually learned later he has passed. But once his wife and agent talked him through the things that scared him a little bit, by the time we got the ‘yes,’ we didn’t know it had been a ‘no.’ He didn’t ask for any changes, but whatever was scaring him off he thought, ‘I need to go towards it.’”
The filmmakers treated Carlinville as a character. She says, “We did research what Southern Indiana looked like, knowing we wouldn’t be able to film there – it’s all about incentives these days. We actually shot in Western Massachusetts, in this incredible little town called Shelburne Falls. We shot there for 4 weeks and went there 3 weeks early and all stayed at these little bed and breakfasts’. We became a family and took in what small town America was like. We had to do very little to change its aesthetic. It was Carlinville for us. We picked up other locations along the way and eventually landed in Boston in this old Reebok factory we retrofitted as a soundstage. That’s where we did all the interiors of the house and the courtroom stuff.”
Robert Downey Jr. didn’t know what Robert Duvall was going to do in that pivotal bathroom scene. Downey says, “We did like two takes. We did not know what they were going to do. We knew that they needed to start at the toilet and that they had to end at the shower. Robert didn’t know what Robert was going to do and Robert didn’t know what Robert was going to do – and I think you see that.”
THE JUDGE is inspired by KRAMER VS. KRAMER and Eugene O’Neill’s writing. Says Downey, “We referring to titles like TERMS OF ENDEARMENT, KRAMER VS. KRAMER, even RAINMAN. This is inspired by all those great films but also by great storytelling of Eugene O’Neill and Tennessee Williams.”
Robert Downey Jr. cries every time he watches THE JUDGE. It’s easy to see this is a very personal film for Downey Jr. as audiences will be able to see some ties to his real life within the character he plays. So it’s no surprise to learn he cries during the film. “There are like 2-3 places every screening he cries when he sees it.”
The final scene is open to interpretation. Downey states any way you look at it is correct. “It’s sort of our spinning top [INCEPTION reference].”
THE JUDGE will create conversation. Downey says, “This is a human experience movie. It plays incredibly well with audiences. It does create conversation in a way that you don’t normally get from a big Hollywood movie. This one, people would come up and talk to us about what it was like with their dad or mom. Or what it’s like to go home and that experience. If we can touch people in that way, we’ve done what we were trying to do.”
THE JUDGE opens on October 10 and is rated R.