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Crookston native co-writes story for Clint Eastwood film'Gran Torino'

Clint Eastwood stars in "Gran Torino." Eastwood plays Walt Kowalski, a cranky, bigoted retiree who doesn't like his Hmong neighbors.

In his very first movie writing project, Crookston native Dave Johannson can find his name just below Clint Eastwood's on the publicity posters for "Gran Torino," the Hollywood icon's latest movie.

That's because Johannson, who works in sales for Centerpoint Energy, a Minneapolis utility company, shares story credit for "Gran Torino" with screenwriter Nick Schenk.

Did we mention this was Johannson's first foray into the movie writing business?

"It has been crazy, but in a good way," Johannson said of having his story become a Clint Eastwood movie. "It's been exciting. It's been overwhelming. When it comes out in general release, we'll see what's going to happen."

"Gran Torino" opened Dec. 13 in limited release and is scheduled to open nationwide Jan. 9. The reviews so far have been favorable. (See what Associated Press Movie Critic Christy Lemire had to say about it on Page A7.)

Noted film critic and author Roger Ebert said "Gran Torino" was about two things.

"It's about the belated flowering of a man's better nature," Ebert wrote. "And it's about Americans of different races growing more open to one another in the new century."

In the movie, Eastwood (who also directs) plays Walt Kowalski, who Roger Ebert's movie review describes as "a cantankerous, racist, beer-chugging retired Detroit autoworker who keeps his shotgun ready to lock and load. Dirty Harry on a pension."

Kowalski, whose wife has just died, can't stand his kids or grandkids. You can imagine what he thinks of (and calls) his ethnic Hmong neighbors.

Then, a gang convinces one of the teen Hmongs to try to steal Kowalski's prized 1972 Gran Torino, and Kowalski slowly becomes part of his neighbors' lives.

"The world is changing, and he's just not really happy about it," Johannson said of Eastwood's character in the movie. "He doesn't like Asian people, and he is a bigot. In a lot of ways, it took a lot of courage for Eastwood to play this guy because he starts out the film as not an appealing character at all."

Johannson, who was born and raised in Crookston, has lived in the Twin Cities for about 20 years. He said he always was interested in writing. Then, he met Nick Schenk, the brother of his good friend from college.

"I had done some TV writing and had some previous attempts at screenplays," Johannson said. "(Nick and I) were talking one night about the Korean war -- we're both kind of history geeks -- and just how brutal it was and how tough it was on our soldiers there and how very few people knew anything about it. He said, 'This would make a very great beginning of a script.' He asked me if I would like to collaborate on it, and I said sure."

That very week they began exchanging story ideas and before long their story had morphed into the tale of a Korean war veteran living in a changing neighborhood who didn't like his new Asian neighbors. Originally, the story was set in St. Paul, Johannson said, because it had an auto plant and a large Hmong community.

They spent months hammering out details, planning the story scene by scene, and developing the framework and plot of the story. The prep work paid off because the script was written in weeks.

Then, Johannson and Schenk spent more months trimming and editing and going through the script line by line. The whole process took the better part of a year. They finished it in December four years ago.

"We thought it was great. We were real proud of it," Johannson said. "Nick had some contacts in the industry and we showed it to them." Shopping the script took a couple of years.

"We heard there was some interest from Clint Eastwood," Johannson said. "Obviously, that was exciting, but you can't let yourself get too excited."

Then, a week later, Johannson got a phone call from Schenk, saying Eastwood liked the story and script, and wanted not only to direct it, but to star in it, too. Johannson said he remembers screaming into his cell phone and nearly driving off the road.

"I pretty much lost my mind," he said.

Once the script gets to the filmmaking stage, the movie producers can do anything they want to it. But "Gran Torino" the movie is pretty much the story Johannson and Schenk finished writing four years ago.

Eastwood began filming the movie earlier this year in Detroit and Johannson spent one day on the set and got to meet Eastwood briefly.

"He's just an all-around nice man, very straightforward, gracious and polite," Johannson said of their meeting.

And what of the rewards beyond having your name on a Clint Eastwood movie poster? Just how lucrative is getting story credit for a major motion picture?

"I appreciated the money when it came because, as it was, Diana (his wife) and I were building a house," Johannson said. "It was a very, very good day, but it was not life altering in any way."

"Gran Torino" has generated some awards buzz, too. Eastwood won the 2008 Best Actor Award from the National Board of Review for his role in "Gran Torino." But the Golden Globes snubbed the movie when it announced its major award nominations. Academy Award nominations have yet to be announced.

"A lot of that buzz is Clint," Johannson said. "His track record is so good in terms of telling good stories."

Johannson said he had collaborated with Schenk on a couple of other things. So far, nothing has happened with those projects, he said.

"I certainly hope to do this again," he said. "Whether this happens again, you can hope. I'm deep in research for the next one, and we'll see where that goes."