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'Gran Torino' a movie made in Minnesota, almost

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Bee Vang with Clint Eastwood
Bee Vang of Robbinsdale stars in "Gran Torino" with Clint Eastwood.
Photo courtesy of Warner Brothers Studios

Nick Schenk thinks he might have been the only truck driver in Minneapolis who was paying dues not only to the Teamsters, but to the Writers Guild of America.

Schenk drove a fruit truck in the day and worked on the script at night. He found his muse at Grumpy's Bar in Northeast Minneapolis, where he and a buddy hashed out the storyline to "Gran Torino" with pen and paper. The movie opens today in Minnesota.

Nick Schenk
Screenwriter Nick Schenk's, a Twin Cities native, movie "Gran Torino" opens tomorrow in the Twin Cities.
MPR Photo/Laura Yuen

"Your back would hurt from unloading the truck but your mind was fresh," he said. "I'd just roll into Grumpy's, and it was kind of a family down there. We'd just roll in, have a few Summits, and just scribble away."

Schenk looks and sounds like a blue-collar Minnesotan. Now living in Los Angeles, he recently made a stop in his hometown, sporting a Twins T-shirt under a couple of layers.

He grew up in Fridley, went to high school in Columbia Heights, and eventually worked all sorts of odd jobs -- from construction to a clerk in a liquor store.

"Other than Michigan, they didn't change a single syllable."

"And in all of those jobs, especially in the liquor store, I would meet a lot of guys who were vets," he said.

Schenk recalls asking customers with military tattoos about where and when they served.

"Little by little, as they came in every day for their bottle of 'medicine,' they'd tell you a little bit more," he said. 

"If you were respectful -- I think everyone wants to get stuff off their chest, and they're not going to tell their wives, they're not going to tell their kids -- and so if they can find an outlet to dump it out off on, that was me. I had a lot of guys telling me stories for years," he said.

Those experiences helped him shape the character of Walt Kowalski, a Korean War veteran played by Clint Eastwood. 

Schenk decided to put the story of the troubled veteran on a collision course with the story of the Hmong. 

And that was yet another connection made in Minnesota.

Schenk says while working 10-hour shifts at a VHS factory in Bloomington, he befriended a number of Hmong co-workers.

"So you get to know guys pretty well, share food," he said. "We would ask them questions like, 'Why do you have the same last name as the same first name?' And they'd ask us why we eat so much and why we have our shirts inside-out. We'd say, 'Because we wore the other side yesterday.'"

That sense of humor and curiosity permeate the script, even though the "Gran Torino" trailers make the movie look, by all measures, a drama.

Schenk says Eastwood's team stayed true to his script.

"Other than Michigan, they didn't change a single syllable," he said.

It's a sore spot for Minnesotan movie fans: Schenk wrote the screenplay to be set in Minnesota, but Eastwood's team ultimately chose the Detroit area because of a 42 percent tax rebate in Michigan.

Schenk says there's one scene where the lines seem misplaced. Eastwood's character, who worked for decades at the local Ford plant, receives a rare phone call from his grown son.

In the original script, the son asks his father: "Do you still know the guy at the plant who's got the Vikings season tickets?" But when the script was adapted to Michigan, the Vikings reference was changed to "Lions."

"They don't sell out in Detroit. And so that bothered me," Schenk says with a laugh. "It seemed really untrue to me."

In the mid-'90s, Schenk thought he had made his breakthrough with a script called "Kevin and Mike's Daycare."

"It was kind of like, a couple of slackers/stoner guys who had nothing to do. Someone inadvertently dropped off their kids, by accident, thinking it was a daycare," he said. "And they have a blast because they were just adult children."

At that point in Schenk's life, "a lot of my friends were either stoner guys, or slacker guys, and the rest had children," he said. "All the children were gravitating to those guys 'cause they're just big kids. So it made sense to write it into a screenplay."

Although the film narrowly missed making it to the big screen, he says he never gave up.

Schenk's next project is a romantic comedy that he says he wrote with the same pen, in the same bar, that produced "Gran Torino."