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Producer called to majors to direct Clint Eastwood in ‘Curve’

Updated: October 17, 2012 6:23AM

Look between the white lines of “Trouble With the Curve,” and you see that it is more than a baseball movie.

Clint Eastwood plays an aging baseball scout who is developing macular degeneration, among other ailments. Amy Adams is his daughter who takes on life’s curves as her father needs more attention. There’s also a couple of young, computer-savvy front-office types (the Theo Epstein parallels are too obvious to ignore) as a conflict becomes clear: the ability to embarce technology without neglecting the human touch.

“Trouble With the Curve” (opening Friday) is directed by Robert Lorenz, who grew up as a Cubs fan in Palatine. It is his directorial debut after serving as assistant director and producer on Eastwood’s “Million Dollar Baby,” “Mystic River” and “Gran Torino.”

Lorenz, 45, understands the parallels between a scout’s eagle eye and a director’s eye for detal.

“It is the idea of observing life closely and trying to figure out what makes it real,” Lorenz said. “I was trying hard to make the story feel real, and a strong point of the film is casting. I didn’t want people to be hokey or phony, and I didn’t want the situations to seem hokey.”

As is often the case in baseball movies.

Like home runs to the heavens and ghosts in cornfields.

The “Trouble With the Curve” supporting cast includes Justin Timberlake as a washed-out pitcher turned scout and John Goodman as the scout’s boss, who understands the human touch can trump computer programs, especially with old employees. It is Eastwood’s first acting role since 2008’s “Gran Torino.”

Lorenz has worked with Eastwood for 20 years, but this is the first time he’s directed the iconic actor.

There’s a Mount Rushmore of actors, but Eastwood can be even bigger — like the Crazy Horse Memorial across the South Dakota way.

“Directing him was a little daunting,” Lorenz admitted. “Obviously we’re friends, so that made it a bit easier, but my biggest concern is that he is a take-charge guy. He’s been doing it so long and it is second nature. I was afraid if I showed even a moment of hesitation, he would just jump in and start trying to direct. A couple times he tried to, but I came in very prepared every day, thought out blocking and had every detail of the shot in my head. That established confidence in him, so he fell in. Within a few days he was asking me what I wanted to do.”

In the film’s production notes, Eastwood said, “We’ve talked about him directing over the years, so when he showed me this script I thought it was a perfect opportunity. I had no doubt he’d do a terrific job, and he absolutely did.”

The script came to Lorenz and Eastwood before the hit computer-friendly baseball film “Moneyball” was released in 2011, and Lorenz thought the original version was too sentimental. .

“I cringed at stuff,” he said. “We stripped out as much of that as we could. So it was the story, and sentimentality hopefully came out of the actors. Then we gave the script to Clint. I like the nostalgic aspect of baseball and was trying to draw a contrast of what we enjoyed about it as kids and joking around vs. the commercial aspects that take away from the fun.”

The scout Eastwood plays isn’t just at the end of his career, Lorenz said. He’s at the end of everything.

“His life is winding down,” he said. “That makes the story between he and his daughter more powerful because their roles are reversing. She has to start thinking how to care for him, which is something my wife and I are going through and so many other people of our generation are going through with their parents. I was concerned it would be similar to many of his roles like ‘Million Dollar Baby’ and ‘Gran Torino,’ so we talked about ways to make it different, like smoking a cigar.” And the old scout drinks Schlitz beer, a keen tie-in with the pedigree of his team, the Atlanta Braves, whose roots are in Milwaukee.

Lorenz found a difference in directing an older Eastwood and a younger Timberlake (“The Social Network,” “Friends With Benefits”). “They are different actors, of course, and have different styles,” he explained. “Justin loves to talk about what he’s going to do and run ideas by you and get feedback. He had great ideas I didn’t think worked, but a lot of his stuff made it into the movie. I was happy to get him because that role needed his energy and charm. On the other hand, I didn’t say much to Clint unless he asked or I felt it wasn’t going where I wanted, which is the style he prefers.”

“Trouble With the Curve” was shot over 39 days beginning in March in Georgia. Some scenes were shot at Luther Williams Field, built in 1929 in Macon, Ga. Luther Williams Field is the second oldest minor-league baseball stadium in America, and scenes of the upcoming Jackie Robinson movie “42” were shot there as well as 1976’s “The Bingo Long Traveling All-Stars & Motor Kings.”

Lorenz was born in Chicago and attended Fremd High School in Palatine. His father, Chuck, worked for an insurance association, his mother Mary Jo was a graphic artist. He still has family in the area. For a time Lorenz was a maintenance man in the corporate headquarters of the Chicago Bulls, then on North Michigan Avenue. “I used to change the toilet paper and mop the floor,” he said. “I cleaned [then Bulls coach] Phil Jackson’s office.”

Lorenz studied film at the University of Iowa, known more for its literary curve than film. “The great thing about it,” he said, “is they had all this great equipment and there wasn’t as much competition to get in there and make movies.” In 1989 he moved to Los Angeles.

“I started working my way from the bottom,” he said. “I worked for free on movies. I decided assistant directing was a good way to learn, to observe and get to know the job.” Lorenz met Eastwood through an associate in 1995 when the director was making “The Bridges of Madison County” in Iowa. Lorenz received his first Oscar nomination in 2004 for producing “Mystic River.”

Eastwood realized his protege had his eye on the prize. “What it comes down to is, I always wanted to direct on the set,” he said. “I was always thinking about what the director must be thinking about, and I think it became obvious to him very quickly that he got what I was trying to do. We share a similar sense of humor and a similar taste in films. We don’t share politics, things like that. We’re a good example of how people with different political views can work together successfully in America.”

Like a young hitter with an old batting coach, Lorenz has steadily grown with every year he has worked with Eastwood. “I slowly understood the subtleties of directing, and him being an actor he has such a keen sense of what’s going through an actor’s head,” Lorenz explained in measured tones. “He shared that with me because I’m not an actor. And he’s been around so long he’s had the advantage of observing some of the great directors throughought their career. We talk about John Ford all the time. And John Huston. He said Huston told him to treat every scene like it was the most important scene. That seems like such a simple thing, but it is powerful advice.”

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