While Steven Spielberg searched for his next movie, flirting with “American Sniper” before giving way to Clint Eastwood, famed cinematographer Janusz Kaminski was vigorously pursued by David Dobkin to shoot “The Judge.” The two-time Oscar-winner (“Saving Private Ryan,” “Schindler’s List”) was impressed with Dobkin’s passion and ambition for this film about father-son estrangement. It was a far cry from Dobkin’s earlier “The Change-Up” and “Wedding Crashers,” and the powerful odd couple pairing of the two Roberts (Downey Jr. and Duvall) proved too irresistible for Kaminski to turn down.
“I like David’s movies, but he made sure this movie had autobiographical elements from his life [humbled by taking care of his estranged mother], which is always very uplifting to me,” Kaminski explained by phone from New York, where he’s currently shooting Spielberg’s “St. James Place,” the true-life ’60s Cold War thriller starring Tom Hanks as attorney James Donovan, who’s sent by the CIA to retrieve a captured American U-2 pilot.
Downey Jr. plays a variation of his famous persona: a fast-talking, snarky Illinois attorney who gets an unexpected comeuppance when returning to his Indiana hometown to attend his mother’s funeral and winds up staying longer than expected to defend his father, the town’s esteemed judge, on a hit-and-run murder charge. Duvall plays a variation of his abusive “Great Santini” (1979) but with a more vulnerable twist.
“It’s got closure,” the Polish-born cinematographer adds, “which I believe is important in storytelling. With this movie, at this point of my life, it was a very good experience. We made a visual statement about the world that Downey has to look for: neighbors greeting you on the street and people having the same jobs for decades, and being happy with their jobs. I didn’t clutter the images with modern life. There are no cell phones, no tweeting. It’s an America that still exists but is hard to find.
“We found this lovely town in western Massachusetts called Shelburne Falls. The town is actually picturesque. I make movies where I tell stories through light and shadows with the camera and I’m not very subtle about it. It’s homage to movies from a different era. And I like doing that.”
Kaminski confirms that Downey and Duvall are completely different artists. Downey likes doing more takes and is more open about script changes and improvisation, while Duvall sticks to the script as a blueprint and likes to nail it in one or two takes. There was great creative tension but mutual respect between them. It wasn’t so much about discovering the characters as finding personal connections and bringing them to the surface.
Kaminski shot on Kodak film in Panavision but used modern lenses. He beautified a world that people in their 50s and older still remember, but didn’t have to dress the town too much. One of his favorite moments occurs when Downey returns home to Indiana. “There’s a high-angle shot of the car arriving. We went on top of one of the buildings with an American flag and we decided to have the car driving towards the camera and the bridge and going past the American flag and seeing the miracle, nostalgic America. And that set the direction of the movie.”
However, Kaminski took great license with the courtroom scenes. It’s not a realistic movie, he notes. It’s too sterilized in real life. “But I used smoke, hard light, shadows, all those things that you don’t see in the movies anymore simply because they are lit with soft light and using digital cameras. And, as we know, digital cameras are not too friendly to hot sun and shadows. I wanted to make an old-style movie where you feel the light. I wanted to use the void of light or having the sun streaming through windows and telling the audience: pay attention because something important is going to happen.”
And that something important is coming to terms with mortality, and owning up to the sins of a bad childhood and even worse parenting. In one of the best scenes, Downey gets a reality check about his father on the porch while Duvall plays with his granddaughter in the background. “It’s a very tender moment and the first time that he’s experienced as a child the moment between his daughter and his father. Kids don’t see [the complexity] of their parents because of their own agenda.”
Later on, Downey struggles to help his father into the shower, where he washes him. “It’s a personal moment that Downey experienced with his father but not to this extreme, witnessing him getting sick and being helpless, and I think he wanted to bring that to the movie,” Kaminski suggests. “It’s very human and something we don’t see anymore in modern society. You don’t do that with your parents — you bring in a nurse to do that. You feel repulsed by that, you feel distracted by that. But that’s life, man. There’s nothing pretty about getting old and helpless. What’s necessary is to show compassion for your own parents.”