Yes, octogenarian actor-cum-filmmaker Clint Eastwood can do it all. He’s been nominated for a whopping ten Academy Awards and won four – Best Picture/Director for Unforgiven and Million Dollar Baby. He’s directed 32 feature films and tackled westerns, wars, romance, cops and robbers, and outer space. He won the Irving G. Thalberg Memorial Award Oscar – a lifetime achievement award – in 1994, and was nominated for seven of those Oscars after.
It’s his late-career creative renaissance that is particularly impressive, since it’s such an anomaly in Hollywood. Whereas other great directors seem to drop off as they get older (see: Francis Ford Coppola, Woody Allen, Jean-Luc Godard) Eastwood is in his prime.
In the 2000s, he’s directed the brilliant drama Mystic River; the heartbreaking character study Million Dollar Baby; a pair of impressive war films – Flags of Our Fathers and Letters From Iwo Jima, covering WWII’s Battle of Iwo Jima from both the American and Japanese perspectives; the tale of a crabby old kook who comes to terms with his closed-mindedness in the race-relations drama Gran Torino; and, most recently, the Nelson Mandela/Apartheid-themed drama, Invictus. That film introduced Eastwood to Matt Damon, whose role as South African rugby star François Pienaar earned the actor his second Oscar nomination for acting, and first, surprisingly, since 1998’s Good Will Hunting.
One of the only genres Eastwood hasn’t tackled is the supernatural thriller—enter Hereafter, Eastwood’s latest film. In the vein of The Sixth Sense, the film is centered on three people – a factory worker who can communicate with the dead (Matt Damon), a French journalist who survives a tsunami (Cécile De France), and a London boy (twins Frankie and George McLaren) who loses his twin brother in an accident – and how the people are affected by death in different ways.
MMM attended the New York Film Festival press conference for Hereafter where director Clint Eastwood and star Matt Damon dished on aging in Hollywood, an Affleck/Damon reunion, their own brushes with the supernatural, and more.
MANHATTAN MOVIE MAGAZINE: Clint, how did this project come together?
CLINT EASTWOOD: Let’s see. Where were we? Steven Spielberg called me one day and said, “I have script I’d love to send over to you,” and I said, “Fine, send it over.” He and I have worked together on a few other projects, and I read it and I liked it. So I just called him back and I said, “I’ll do it.” I didn’t realize I was last on the list, however, I said,“Yeah, I’ll do it.” So he was going through a minor divorce there with Paramount Pictures or something, so it became a little confusing as to where this would have its life, but I have a relationship with Warners so I said, “Well let me take it to Warners.” Warners liked it and so there we were. I liked the script immediately. There were a few little ideas I had but I just put those in the back of my head. I thought it was good the way it was; it didn’t need rewrites. I haven’t shot a picture with any blue pages in it in a long time; you either like them or you don’t. But I liked this one. Most religions seem to ponder the afterlife but I thought this was interesting because it wasn’t really a religious project. It had a spirituality about it but it was not necessarily tied in with any particular, organized thought. I think everybody, whether you believe in the afterlife or the chance of a near-death experience and you come back and you see some semblance of it, whether that has happened or not I don’t know, but certainly I think everyone’s thought about it at some point or another in time. And it’s a fantasy that if there is anything out there like that it would be just terrific, but that remains to be seen.
MMM: Could I ask you to talk a little bit about the conception and creation of the tsunami sequence?
EASTWOOD: Let me just regress a little bit. I thought the unusual aspect of the script was taking actual events and placing them into a fictional story. And so the tsunami of four years ago out in the Pacific was one, and then the London bombings of course. I thought that was a unique thing to do. But the tsunami was very difficult to do. I kept having fantasies of huge hoses and thousands of gallons of water running down the streets and what have you, and I figured out how to do that. I figured that would be prohibitive; where would we do that? In the old days I suppose you would have done that on the set and you would have done little set pieces and turned a lot of water loose. But with the element now of computer generated elements you could go ahead and do it, even though water is probably the most difficult thing to do in a CGI basis. I have a fellow named Michel Owens who has worked with me on “Letters from Iwo Jima,” “Flags of Our Fathers,” and back as far as “Space Cowboys,” so he kept very much hip on the technology as it has been improving over the years. We went through it and figured out what shots we would need to do live and then we did it. But it took a lot of different places. Cécile was in a tank in London for nine hours without getting out too much, and she had to have a skin replacement afterwards. But then we went to Maui and shot in the ocean and on the streets of Lahaina. We had to preplan it in order to piece all the elements together with the connective shots and what have you. If you don’t preplan CGI it’s the most expensive thing in the world, so you have to plan every single shot and that’s normally not the way I shoot, but in this thing it worked out rather well. We hired a company named Scanline and they did a terrific job.
EASTWOOD: What was the old John Ford thing; ask him a long question and he went “Cut.”
MMM: There’s a really interesting theme in your films about remaining relevant as one gets older in any profession, in things like “True Crime,” and “Absolute Power,” and as far back as “Unforgiven” really is where it starts I think. It’s just a really interesting theme that runs through your films and I was just wondering if you have any comment.
EASTWOOD: I like to think there are different themes in every film. I don’t know if there’s an ongoing theme. Is that what you’re suggesting?
MMM: There seems to be. Even as far as “Letters from Iwo Jima” there’s a real sense of people struggling for control and respect as they get older, and it’s not always an easy battle.
EASTWOOD: You know, it’s very subjective. That’s a very difficult one for me to answer. I think it would be easier for someone else to evaluate than it would be for myself because I don’t think of it in that way. Everything to me is spontaneous. “Unforgiven” is probably an example of a script where I like it right away but I said, “This is great but I’d like to do this when I’m older.” So I stuck it in the drawer for 10 years and then took it out. Other projects just come to me. “Perfect World,” or whatever, they just sort of fall. And I have no real rhyme or reason; I wish I could give you some sort of pseudo-intellectual thing that would be great, and maybe if this was a French cinema class I’d have to fake something. But I’m not really the person to ask on that. If I start evaluating myself I would be afraid that I would not be able to think intelligently about every project and the various meaning thereof.
MATT DAMON: I actually asked a similar question of him on “Invictus,” but it was about directors as they got older why was it that they historically seem to fall off? I said what is that? I remember asking him because he’s obviously completely avoided that. And he thought about it for a good 10 seconds and then just said, “I don’t know. It doesn’t make any sense to me.” Because it never did to me either because presumably the older we get, the wiser we get, the more knowledge you have about filmmaking, the more different types of films you’ve made. That whole CGI thing, he kind of just plowed into it with utter confidence and that sequence is incredible. And so it is kind of mystifying to me that historically the great directors, not all of them, but many of them, kind of fell off as they got older. And it never really made sense to me so I asked that question of him.
EASTWOOD: I was always sort of shocked. I knew Frank Capra a little bit and I spent some time with him at June Lakes, where he lived in the summertime. He was always so bright I always figured why isn’t this guy still working? And I also knew Billy Wilder somewhat and he had actually stopped working in his 60s, and I thought god, that’s amazing. Here’s a guy who is bright and lived well into his 90s and didn’t work. I never could figure that. I figured your best years should be at a point when you’ve absorbed all this knowledge. Now, maybe they just didn’t keep up with the times, or they picked material that didn’t work and they have a few pictures that don’t do so well. People are very fickle, Hollywood is very fickle, and they kind of move on. There’s a Portuguese director [Manoel de Oliveira] who is still making films at over a hundred years old, and I plan to do the same thing.
MMM: Could you please talk about the two young brothers, who I feel are kind of the heart of the film, and directing them through scenes of such sadness and getting such wonderful performances out of them?
DAMON: Well he cast them, and I remember talking to him during that process. I think we were pretty resigned to the reality that we’d have probably non-actors in those roles, because it’s an 11 or 12-year-old kid you’re looking for, so you’re not going to find a Julliard graduate. And Clint just loved their faces. I remember talking to him and he said, “I think these faces of these boys are really just terrific,” and they seemed to be from the same neighborhood that these kids are actually from. They went and shot the first two stories without me, so I would get reports about how the boys were doing. But obviously the movie comes down to that scene in the hotel room, and there’s a lot made of how few takes Clint does, but he does the number of takes that are required. We both went into that day going we’re really going to have to get this from these guys. And one really smart thing that Clint did was he interchanged the twins. Even if he was only going to use one of them he let them both do the scenes. So I think that took a lot of pressure off both the boys. And it also for that scene allowed us to play them off one another. I would take one of them aside and get all of this information, like did his brother have a girlfriend or whose farts were the stinkiest, things that they would think were funny. And then when the camera was on them Clint and I would start asking them and revealing these things so that we got really real reactions from them. Little tricks like that just to help them, because movie sets can get tense and people can get nervous pretty easily. Never on his sets, but that’s all by design. And so he kind of created an environment where they wouldn’t know that they really shot a movie. I think they had a really good time and they’ll probably be surprised when they see the movie.
EASTWOOD: The interesting thing with child actors is kids are natural actors. They’re wonderful actors and most kids are acting all the time. They’re out in the yard playing and they’re imagining things happening and they can get very vivid. But unfortunately, once they’ve been organized into acting and you get a stage mother sitting there saying, “No, do it this way.” And I’ve watched many times over the years in other films that I’ve done where a director will try to undo a lot of bad habits that had been instilled. And so when I looked at people for this picture, young kids, I picked the two that were the least experienced. In fact, they had no experience; they’d never been in film before. They said they’d been in some grammar school plays but I doubted that. But they had the faces and I’m one of those guys who believes if you cast a film correctly, and that’s with professionals or with amateurs, you’re probably 80 percent there. If you cast a film incorrectly then you’re going to be fighting an uphill battle. But I just figured I could pull things out of them without them knowing it better than trying to get somebody organized. And we auditioned about three or four sets of identical twins. They looked great but there was a lot of acting going on, and so I said these guys have the right face, they’re from the right neighborhood, they had certain elements that these kids needed to have built into their system, so they didn’t have to get in there and act like something else that they weren’t.
MMM: How did the film affect you? It had to raise questions in your mind or you had to feel something that you responded to because anyone in the audience has to react in one way or another.
EASTWOOD: Yeah, it raises a lot of questions, but that’s where it ends. The questions are here and you pose the questions and it’s up to the audience to meet you halfway and think about it in terms of their own lives and what their thoughts are or what experiences they might have had. There may be some near-death experiences out there and it would be interesting to see what the answers were, but they’re going to have to come up with those answers. As far as the technical thing, like doing the tsunami, I took all the imagery footage that had been shot on that particular tsunami when it was happening, we took that and used that as our influences to get going. But everything else has got to be in the imagination of the performer. Cécile talked to anchor people in French too, or what have you. Everybody has their way of preparing and I just allow everybody to do that on their own, and then if something isn’t working it’s another thing. But if you have people that do that inner research they bring that to the table. So I’m a firm believer in research, but I’m also a firm believer in utilizing the instincts that are within your soul or your body or in your stomach or wherever they reside.
DAMON: It was a terrific script, too. It was just a terrific script. It was really tight. When anybody asked me about it I said, “It’s just a really tight script.” It read like a play in a sense where sometimes when you do a play you don’t have to do anything, you explore the material and every answer you need is there. I’m somebody who does a lot of research normally on my own and I didn’t feel, for one, as Peter said, I didn’t really want to go down the rabbit hole. If somebody was recommended to me as like this guy really is fantastic, then I would have gone and spoken to him, but nobody like that came up and it was really all on the page in terms of getting ready. I had to do some forklift training; that was about it.
MMM: Have any of you experienced an otherworldly experience that you could talk about?
EASTWOOD: Everybody’s had some kind of a…I remember when I was very young my dad was taking me into the surf on his shoulders and I fell off. I can still remember today, even though I was probably four or five years old, I can still remember the color of the water and everything as I was being washed around in the surf before I popped to the surface again. But at that age you don’t think too much, I mean you’re just kind of going…well you hadn’t learned any obscenities yet but a lot of them were running through your mind. And then years later, when I was 21 years old I was in a plane – we ditched a plane off the coast of Northern California in the wintertime. And I must say that as I was going into shore I kept thinking about should I be thinking about my demise, but all I was thinking about was as I saw lights in the far distance I said, “Somebody’s in there having a beer and sitting next to a fireplace and I just want to be in there. So I’m going to make it.” And that was the determination, but there was no sense of fate out there or anything like that. I don’t think you get a chance to think that much. When you get that much of a chance to think you’re usually going to be okay.
MMM: Matt, I’ve heard it’s been reported that you’re going to reunite with Ben Affleck on a movie and that you’re going to be directing it. I wonder if there was a part for Clint Eastwood?
DAMON: What movie is this? That would be a project I’d love to do.
MMM: So it’s not true?
DAMON: No, I think he and Casey were going to write this movie and I guess he was quoted recently as saying he’d love to have me direct it, but there’s no script yet.
MMM: Clint, in terms of any films that you’ve directed what was the hardest during production and what was the easiest, and why?
EASTWOOD: I don’t know. I was thinking back on doing “A Perfect World” years ago, where I had a kid actor [T.J. Lowther] and he had some experience, but he was a kid that had great body English and everything, but kids are like animals; they’re good for one take and then their attention span, they kind of go off into another little journey in their head. But then I had professional actors working with them and they wanted to rehearse and they wanted to be organized or feel in a comfort zone, so that became a big dilemma of how to do that. So I had to cover the kid mostly by himself at the beginning or at least favored the kid, because I knew that eventually, when we got around to other coverage of the professional actor the kid was going to be bored with it all. So you have to make adjustments on every project. In this case it was no problem, and Cécile does speak English well so it was no problem. She knows French very well, too. And Matt?
DAMON: Some English.
EASTWOOD: It all just comes together. It’s amazing that any of it ever comes together; I guess that’s why I’m still doing it. I’m always amazed that this is actually kind of working. And then of course, as I’ve told Matt many times, let’s not think too much about this. Let’s just go and roar with it.
MMM: What’s the easiest film you’ve ever done that you’ve directed?
EASTWOOD: This one. Except some of the technical stuff, but it was easy because the people were all great. It was the best ensemble I’ve worked with.
MMM: When I saw the trailer I was a little disappointed that we saw the tsunami in the trailer. Did you fight the studio on that?
EASTWOOD: Well I don’t know if I want to go too far into the explanation of what it’s about and what they’ll see, but the trailer, you bring up an interesting point. Most of the time you’re fighting the studio a little bit because they want to tell the whole story in a matter of 30 seconds, and so they try to put a little bit of everything in there so you end up with a lot of nothing, really. They made some trailers that had accentuated the story and then some that accentuated the tsunami. The problem with accentuating the tsunami is all of a sudden it becomes an action movie and everybody goes there with the expectation that maybe they’re going to see two hours of flooding, and that may not be the case so much. But if you go into the stuff with the kids and you go into a lot of detail then they’ll think maybe this is a story that doesn’t have as much action-adventure.
DAMON: It’s a tricky story to sell.
EASTWOOD: Yeah, it’s a tricky story because this particular screenplay you have to flesh out all the characters and it’s tough to do. It’s tough to market a film like this.
MMM: Would you have preferred it without the wave in the trailer?
DAMON: Well any marketing department I think is always going to want to try and show the scope, right? And it’s an incredible sequence. I understand obviously you want people to be totally surprised by it, but at the end of the day they’re in that situation where they want people to come see the movie too. I remember with “The Informant!” I kind of jokingly went on David Letterman and intercut scenes from “Transformers” into the trailer to try and get people to go. Just to say, “Yeah, it’s about a whistle blower, but a lot of shit blows up too.”
EASTWOOD: Yeah I would have preferred to not show the tsunami and have it just sprung on everybody, but that’s just not the practicalities of life. You do want people to come in and see it, and hopefully they’ll enjoy it.
MMM: Have you ever gone into a project and been concerned how it would be received?
EASTWOOD: No, you try to put it on the way you perceived it when you first read it yourself, and so you get your own opinions and go with it.
DAMON: He said something interesting to me about being a director. He said, “I’m a tour guide, and I know why I’m giving the tour and you’re invited to get off the tour if you want. I’ll invite you on the next one but I’m making the tour for me.”
HEREAFTER is now playing in theaters nationwide.