[HOLLYWOOD] Clint Eastwood's a "Straight Shooter"
- Straight shooter
In delivering a one-two directorial punch, Clint Eastwood proves he's
still fast on his feet.
By John Horn, Times Staff Writer
About halfway through Clint Eastwood's new film, "Letters From Iwo
Jima," Gen. Tadamichi Kuribayashi (Ken Watanabe) is shown receiving a
handgun as a gift at a prewar American dinner party.
It's the kind of scene that in any other filmmaker's hands would
become a splashy set piece: a parade of vintage cars, scores of women
in fancy dresses, a big crane shot of a magnificent hotel, elaborate
trays of passed hors d'oeuvres.
But Eastwood doesn't think like any other filmmaker so when he went
to shoot the sequence, he ditched those bells and whistles and in
just half a day of filming captured the simple shots he needed.
"That sequence is just a memory in Kuribayashi's mind," Eastwood says
in his darkened Warner Bros. office. "So if I did it with a big
establishing shot, the scene and the picture become about the dinner
party you want to show the building, what kind of atmosphere there
is inside and outside and it's a big deal. There is nothing wrong
with that. But in this movie, it didn't seem necessary."
What was necessary was delivering a compelling narrative about the
largely untold drama of Iwo Jima's defense, a heroic 1945 stand in
which almost every one of the 20,000 Japanese soldiers in the fight
died. And it was to be made almost entirely in Japanese, filmed right
on the heels of "Flags of Our Fathers," Eastwood's other Iwo Jima
movie, with a modest $20-million budget and just five weeks of
It all sounds beyond reach, but Eastwood has proved repeatedly that
he's not much for limits.
In just the last three years, Eastwood has turned out four ambitious
movies: "Mystic River," which won acting Oscars for Sean Penn and Tim
Robbins; "Million Dollar Baby," the winner of four Academy Awards,
including best picture; the Oct. 20 release "Flags of Our Fathers";
and "Letters From Iwo Jima," which opens in the U.S. on Dec. 20.
("Letters" opened last week in Japan.)
'Everything is different'
His wrinkles may be deeper and his hair a mess, but in conversation
Eastwood, 76, is sharper than filmmakers half his age. And rather
than reminisce about the good old days, the bomber-jacket-clad
Eastwood seems more energetic talking about his future as a
filmmaker. Over the course of an hour, he becomes most animated when
discussing the thrill he feels shooting on a new set that he hasn't
scouted or rehearsed on; at other times, he complains about how the
countless rewrites most studio executives demand take the life out of
screenplays. Rather than coming across as a curmudgeon, he sounds
simply like an artist.
"Yes, it is strange," Eastwood says of having two movies released
within two months of each other, each potentially competing against
the other for ticket sales and awards. "But I've never made a
Japanese film either. So everything is different."
Like an academic curious to test an idea, "Letters" was sparked by an
Eastwood question: Why did the Americans struggle for a month during
World War II to take an island that had been predicted to fall in
"When I was doing 'Flags,' I just got interested in what made this
defense so difficult to bust through. One of our generals, Holland
Smith, said the smartest general on the island was Kuribayashi. So I
wondered, 'Who is this guy?' " Eastwood says. He read what limited
Japanese history was available and was particularly moved by
Kuribayashi's collection of missives to his family, "Illustrated
Letters From a Commanding Officer Who Died Honorably."
"You find out what kind of guy he was, and you find out in his
letters that he was like any other father. He was concerned about his
kids' health and welfare. That's what got me interested in the story:
It's a father in any nationality, in any language, in any war,
concerned about his family."
It was an interesting dramatic parallel to "Flags" too: While the
American soldiers struggle in that film with the emotional aftermath
of battle, the Japanese military in "Letters" faces the certainty of
imminent death. So Eastwood told "Flags" producer Steven Spielberg
and screenwriter Paul Haggis (who also wrote "Million Dollar Baby")
he was considering making not one but two films about Iwo Jima. They
knew better than to laugh, as did executives at Warner Bros., which
had only reluctantly backed "Mystic River" and "Million Dollar Baby."
"They have said I was out of my mind so many times in the past that
maybe they thought, 'You know, maybe we ought to go with him on this
trip,' " Eastwood says.
Haggis came up with the framings of the "Letters" story and recruited
screenwriter Iris Yamashita to write the script. While he was
making "Flags," Eastwood would tinker with the screenplay. "On the
weekends, on an evening, if I had a moment and just wanted to get
away from what I was doing, I'd read it," Eastwood says. And even as
cameras were rolling on "Flags," Eastwood would occasionally grab a
few shots for "Letters." "I'd just tell my script supervisor, 'This
is for the other project.' "
Eastwood moved quickly. While sound effects were being finished
on "Flags," he went out and in only five weeks (half the production
schedule for "Flags") filmed "Letters."
Once considered for an early 2007 release, the film was edited and
scored ahead of schedule; Warner Bros. moved it into 2006 for awards
"If I have any virtue and I don't have many it's that I'm very
decisive," Eastwood says. "Rightly or wrongly, whether it's a good
decision or a bad one, I'll make it rather quickly. And that's
probably an asset in making films."
Another asset is having a point of view: Not just because it's in
Japanese, "Letters" unfolds like a Akira Kurosawa film. There's a
patience, and intimacy, that "Flags" doesn't have.
As the dinner party scene shows, there's little window dressing. For
those and other reasons, more than a handful of people are likely to
say it's actually a more accomplished, and emotionally resonant,
"Better is in the eyes of the beholder," Eastwood says
diplomatically. "But I try to be different, and every project has its
own life. I just try to fit into that life, and I try to guide that
life into whatever my feelings are in that moment.
"One movie is much more difficult than the other," Eastwood says
of "Flags," because of its shifting time
sequences. "Because 'Letters' was somewhat more linear, it was a
little easier in some ways, even though we were shooting in a
different language and with a different culture. I know some people
will like it better because it's linear, I guess, or because it's
deeper and darker."
For now, Eastwood will take some time off. "I don't know if I'm
retired as an actor, but I am, probably, unless a great role comes
along," he says. "But how many great roles are there for guys my age?
So I will probably stay behind the camera."
And continue to surprise everybody along the way.