Directed and produced by the legendary Clint Eastwood, a film whose co-star – in a sense – is a historic Ford automobile, could only be set in the Motor City (with also the benefit of all the facilities that Michigan offers for those who choose to shoot there). Discovering Gran Torino’s locations in Detroit also means exploring the city’s suburbs, off the usual tourist trail.
“What haunts men is not what they are ordered to do, but what they do when not ordered to do something.”
Walt Kowalski, a Korean War veteran and former Ford worker, widowed and retired, devotes himself primarily to his favorite hobby: his 1972 Gran Torino (a car that now really belongs to Clint Eastwood; he kept it after the film for his personal collection), which he jealously guards in the garage of his home in suburban Detroit, in a neighborhood where mostly Hmong Asian immigrants live.
Full of prejudices, stereotypes, and contempt for others, Walt detests his neighbors and his character makes him easily hated. He also has a bad relationship with his family: children and grandchildren are more attached to his wealth than to him. He also hates Father Janovich, the young pastor who insists on convincing him to confess, as Walt’s wife asked him to do before she died.
One night, his neighbors end up fighting with a gang of thugs in his backyard, Walt restores order at gunpoint, a gesture that in the eyes of his neighbors appears to be a brave and valorous act, done in defense of a weak family subjected to constant harassment. To thank him, the family sends him gifts, which Walt throws away, but a few days later, when he sees young Sue, his neighbor’s daughter, being threatened by three African Americans, he defends her by putting them on the run and definitively gets into the good graces of the Hmong community and the family of Sue and Thao, his neighbors. Thao, however, forced by the gang that had threatened them, attempts to steal Walt’s Gran Torino but is caught and as punishment, the family forces him to serve Walt for a week. A forced cohabitation opens Walt’s eyes and makes him discover how the values he believes in are found more in Thao and his family than in his children and grandchildren. So he becomes attached and gets the boy a job, but the gang does not like this and they attack Thao, who is vindicated by Walt himself. The gang won’t take it and attacks Thao’s house, injuring the boy and kidnapping and raping his sister, Sue. Walt struggles to hold back his anger and this time his revenge will be organized in such a way that the gang will not escape justice.
A film that was by no means easy for Clint to make – also considering that production was halted when he had a heart attack – but the great work he did earned him the highest box office earnings of his career ($270 million), as well as a best actor award from the National Board of Review and several nominations for the Critics’ Choice Awards and from the Chicago Film Critics Association Awards for Best Actor, at the Golden Globes the film’s original song, “Gran Torino” (performed by Jamie Cullum) was nominated for Best Original Song, for the Art Directors Guild for Best Contemporary Film. Finally, it was listed as one of the ten best films of the year by the American Film Institute.
All this, despite Clint Eastwood being the only famous actor in the film. Some had already done small roles on TV or in film, but most are first-timers chosen from the Hmong community of Detroit, Fresno, and Saint Paul: the latter two cities are in fact home to the largest Hmong communities in the United States.
Some of them did not even know English well, but they all described Eastwood as a “patient teacher” who gave them many helpful hints and taught them the basics of acting (and anyone who dealt with him on set speaks highly of him, describing him as humble and easygoing). A little anecdote about this: Bee Vang (Thao) related that after finishing the first shoot, he expected a comment from the director but he said nothing. And so every other time. Only later, when he decided to ask, he found out that if Clint does not comment, then all is well and the performance is satisfactory.
Despite the actors’ lack of preparation and the initial delay due to the director’s health, the filming was completed on schedule, so much so that the movie was shot in only 33 days, two days less than planned. Apparently, Clint is famous not only for keeping on schedule for filming but also for staying well under budget. It seems that wasting time and money on set is the only thing that really infuriates him.
A curiosity about the film’s song: in the credits, Thao is seen in the Gran Torino driving down the highway along with Daisy, Kowalski’s labrador. Paying attention, one realizes that it is indeed Clint Eastwood who sings the song Gran Torino, for which he also wrote the music. The official lyric credits for the song go to Clint Eastwood, Jamie Cullum, Michael Stevens, and Kyle Eastwood (Clint’s son), while the soundtrack reports only Jamie Cullum and a certain Don Runner… An online search on Don Runner brings no results but with deeper research, it turns out that Runner was Clint’s mother’s name. It is plausible then that Don Runner is nothing more than a pseudonym for Clint…or his voice! He must like singing a lot because he did it on several occasions: Paint Your Wagon (1969), Two Mules for Sister Sara (1970), Kelly’s Heroes (1970), The Beguiled (1971), Bronco Billy (1980), Any Which Way You Can (1980), Honkytonk Man (1982), and Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil (1997).
Gran Torino and the representation of Hmong culture
Given the film’s subject, I feel it is appropriate for me to talk about the criticism (no film is immune from it, like anything else that is fed to the public) of the portrayal of Hmong culture.
The film’s screenplay was written by Nick Schenk (the same screenwriter of The Judge and The Mule).
In the early 1990s, Schenk worked in a factory in Blomington, Minnesota, and there he learned about Hmong history and culture, befriending many of them. Years later, he decided to develop a story about a widowed Korean War veteran facing changes in his neighborhood. He placed a Hmong family next door specifically to create a culture clash.
Every night, while he was at Grumpy’s, a bar in Minneapolis, with pen and paper he devoted himself to writing this script, and he remembers writing twenty-five pages in a single night. When he had some insiders read it, they told him that a story starring a racist elderly man could not be sold or told on film. Instead, the story appealed to Bill Gerber of Warner Bros. and to Clint Eastwood, who was able to shoot it thanks to the postponement of the filming of Invictus. In the end, Clint declared that the one in Gran Torino was a “fun and challenging role” and that he “loved the idea of dealing with the theme of prejudice, of never being too old to learn.”
This introduction to talk in more detail about the film’s main theme: culture clash. Kowalski witnesses the change in his neighborhood–Highland Park, where the film is set, also filmed in other parts of Detroit–where old American neighbors leave, replaced by new Asian families. Kowalski is a racist elderly man, bound by several prejudices about religion and other cultures, gruff, with harsh and, at times, contradictory behavior, but it is thanks to his neighbors that he will understand that with friendship and understanding can come to the change that is good for himself and others. In the film everything is told with the rawness of reality, there is nothing politically correct, and this is precisely what pleased Clint Eastwood, who stated in an interview:
“I enjoy being politically incorrect because I think political correctness is kind of boring. I mean it’s kind of… you talk to people who are walking around on eggshells all the time and it’s kind of boring…”
Gran Torino is the first mainstream American film to feature Hmong people. To best represent their culture, the production used consultants and staff belonging to the community and let the actors improvise freely to translate the script’s phrases from English to their native language. In addition, Schenk had input from the Hmong during the writing of the final script and from cultural consultant Dyane Hang Garvey for advice on the people’s traditions.
Despite this, criticism of the film and the portrayal of this culture was not scarce. Even Vang, the actor who plays Thao, stated in an interview (which I link to here for completeness) that the Hmong culture had no special relevance in the story, that they were confused with other Asian ethnic groups, and that they were excluded and treated differently on the set, also complaining that the failure to subtitle some of the phrases spoken in Hmong gave people a distorted perception of the people. On the accuracy of the portrayal of their culture, however, he said that “The movie is not a documentary, you cannot expect a 100% accurate portrayal, but the portrait that comes out is generally correct.”
As in all films, some things were exaggerated for the dramatization of the story, although the Hmong cultural advisors tried to adjust, the inaccuracies and distortions left in the film are several: ceremonial scenes are rendered in an exaggeratedly exotic way, it is not true that they are offended if a person touches them on the head (only sometimes if strangers do… but doesn’t being touched by strangers bother pretty much everyone? ), they don’t wear traditional clothes at funerals as shown in the film, they don’t chew nuts, the chicken sacrifice ceremony, in reality, would be less dramatic and ceremonial, the Hu Plis ceremony is depicted with some inaccuracies, dialects are used inconsistently, they don’t use favors as a method of atonement and don’t shower people with gifts in gratitude, they are not aggressive toward other clans nor would they commit violence against a member of the same clan.
In short, as always, don’t take everything you see on the screen as an account of reality, because cinema also needs to romanticize and dramatize, script requirements… of which reality has no need!
In my opinion, cultural accuracy aside, the movie conveys an important message: stereotypes are stupid and discrimination is broken down with knowledge, by going to meet the other and not by creating walls. It’s all about Walt’s metamorphosis: he starts out with a deep disdain for Asians, from which he slowly deviates, until he gets rid of it altogether as he begins to get to know and hang out with them, discovering that racism is nothing but ignorance.
Itinerary on the locations of Gran Torino in Detroit: a day exploring the suburbs of the Motor City
As mentioned earlier, the film is set in the Highland Park area but was also shot in Grosse Pointe and Royal Oak, all areas in the Detroit suburbs. The original story of widower Walt Kowalski and the Hmong community was set in Minneapolis, but Clint Eastwood felt that Kowalski’s background as an auto worker made the Motor City the perfect setting… and how can you blame him? Plus there were the Michigan benefits, it all added up!
I created the itinerary by dividing it into zones. It is doable in a half day but I recommend taking advantage of it to also visit nearby attractions (such as the Ford House in Grosse Pointe or the Ford Piquette Avenue Plant in Highland Park), so you can optimize your time.
Location of Gran Torino at Grosse Pointe, Detroit
The film’s opening scene takes place at St. Ambrose Catholic Church (Hampton Street, Grosse Point), where Walt Kowalski attends his wife’s funeral. It is an imposing church – like the majestic 2400-pipe organ it houses – and of recent construction: the first mass here was celebrated on Christmas Eve 1927. Its architecture was praised by American Architecture Magazine for its attention to detail, renovated precisely because of the money received to be part of the film.
In the opening scene of the funeral, when the ceremony is about to end, an elderly woman is seen walking down the aisle with the help of a cane: she is Bernice, a local resident who during filming was invited by a friend of hers, the church secretary, to attend.
Clint Eastwood noticed her immediately, calling her “beautiful and striking” for the part he had in mind and wanted her in the film for that very scene. Quite a way to start her acting career!
St. Ambrose was also the setting of a funny little scene: the real pastor of the church, Father Tim, had a poster of Clint’s previous film, “Unforgiven” Just before the confessional scene was shooted with Kowalski and the priest, Tim attached the poster to the confessional wall behind the actor playing the priest (Christopher Carley). When the confessional curtain opened, Clint Eastwood, sitting on the other side, saw the poster and laughed, before saying they should take it down.
We move to 15020 Kercheval Avenue, where the Pointe Hardware&Lumber store (in the film C.M. Young Hardware&Lumber) is located, an important place in the film because it is where Walt and Thao begin to befriend each other by shopping together. The place where Walt subconsciously begins to realize that he had to lose his prejudices.
During the filming of this scene, a crowd of onlookers and fans formed on the opposite side of the street: they were all waiting to catch a glimpse of Clint Eastwood.
When he noticed, he interrupted the filming and graciously approached the fans to sign autographs and take some photos. A rarely found courtesy!
A mile and a half away, there is 13140 Charlevoix Street, the spot where Walt sees the gang harassing Sue and rescues her, scaring them away.
We then arrive at Artona Tailoring, at 17834 Mack Avenue. In reality today it has become a pizza parlor and is very unrecognizable from the movie. Here, in the tailoring store, Walt has his custom suit sewn – the tailor you see in the scene is the real owner of the shop – in one of the final scenes of the film.
The ride to Grosse Pointe ends along Lakeshore Drive, the road that runs along Lake St. Clair, which Thao cruises on the Gran Torino in the film’s touching final scene.
Gran Torino locations in Warren, Royal Oak and Highland Park, Detroit.
Moving toward the eastern suburbs to reach Royal Oak and Highland Park, you first cross Centerline, where another location from the film is located: it is the Veterans of Foreign Wars Richard Menge Post No. 6756, the local bar where Walt argues with Father Janovich and, sitting on the porch steps at the beginning of the film, drinks a Pabst Blue Ribbon (which you can order at the real bar and drink at the same spot).
Next stop is Royal Oak, at 204 West 11 Mile Road, where Widgreen’s Barber Shop is (was) located (in the film it is Martin’s Barbershop). At the time of the filming it was a real barbershop but closed its doors shortly thereafter. Martin’s is Walt’s favorite barber – Italian – and appears in more than one scene. He also brings Thao here to teach him how “real men talk.”
The tour ends in Highland Park to see Walt and Thao’s neighboring homes at 238 Rhode Island Street (private homes, so if you go use the utmost politeness and respect for others, as I always recommend).
In the first scene showing the house, Walt is sitting on the porch next to his dog, Daisy, a yellow Labrador. When they tried to shoot the scene the first time, the trainer put the dog next to Clint, who observed her commenting that she was very beautiful. He bent down to pet her and threw kisses at her. She immediately reciprocated, jumping on him and starting to lick his face. The trainer tried to stop her, but Clint signalled him to stop and not to worry, because she was just being a dog. At the end of the shoot, Clint also thought about adopting Daisy but had to give up because of her allergies.
(Sorry for the image quality but I took it with an old smartphone).
The tour ends here, but I want to leave you with a quote from film the critic Roger Ebert:
I would like to grow up to be like Clint Eastwood. Eastwood the director, Eastwood the actor, Eastwood the invincible, Eastwood the old man. What other figure in the history of the cinema has been an actor for 53 years, a director for 37, won two Oscars for direction, two more for best picture, plus the Thalberg Award, and at 78 can direct himself in his own film and look meaner than hell? None, that’s how.