Nick Schenk just didn’t know how to quit. The onetime Fine Arts major, who nevertheless took a bunch of film classes, just knew he wanted to make movies. Like many, he crawled up the ladder through cable-access comedies, then cable access comedies with experienced collaborators, then writing, writing, writing.
Hollywood nibbled a little. Then it didn’t. The Columbia Heights, MN native knew he could drive a truck or work construction, so he did. And he hung out in blue-collar bars, and listened to stories. And then he wrote a story that Clint Eastwood liked, and Gran Torino was the result.
Schenk’s and Eastwood’s 2009 film, about a retired bigot who learns to support his Hmong immigrant neighbors—with a little violence—got attention as Eastwood’s last acting role and won Schenk an award from the National Board of Review. Some grumbled because the film was set among an otherwise unseen immigrant culture, yet it was Schenk’s biggest break so far and was widely praised.
He’d oscillated between California and Minnesota for years; he was a member of the Teamsters and the Screen Writers Guild simultaneously. But his cable-access projects were actually pretty funny, and his early scripts got some attention. “I was too stupid to quit!” he explained to an interviewer.
And the self-effacing Schenk learned a fame-management lesson from his director. On location, he saw Eastwood walk past some unsuspecting citizens. “Didn’t that guy look like Clint Eastwood?” said one of the citizens. And Schenk says, “But Clint just kept on walking!”