Despite his advanced age (he turned 80 in May), Clint Eastwood is one of the most prolific, versatile and respected movie directors working in Hollywood today.
Over the past six years, he has made seven films, each different from the others in theme, narrative and visual style. Since 2004, he has directed Million Dollar Baby, which won the best picture and director Oscars, the back-to-back second world war movies Flags of Our Fathers and Letters From Iwo Jima, Gran Torino, his most commercial picture to date, Changeling, starring Angelina Jolie, and Invictus, about South African rugby, in which Nelson Mandela is played by Morgan Freeman.
His latest is Hereafter, a meditation on fate and mortality, life and the afterlife. Released on Friday in the US, it shows that Eastwood continues to take risks with different kinds of texts. It explores the search of three characters for answers about what lies beyond death. “We don’t know what’s on the other side,” says Eastwood. “People have their beliefs about what’s there or what’s not there, but those are all hypotheticals. Nobody knows until you get there.” He holds that “most people want to believe that there’s something beyond, so in one way or another, we can relate to the story’s core emotions – love, loss, loneliness, connection.”
Hereafter follows the trend for storytelling based on multi-plot, multi-character structure, and the film sets in motion three separate but parallel stories. A tsunami tears through a beach town in Indonesia, dragging Marie, a French journalist (played by Belgian actress Cécile de France), to her underwater death. Meanwhile, in London’s harsh housing estates, an accident separates a pair of twins (Frankie and George McLaren). And in San Francisco, the psychically aware George (played by Matt Damon) disconnects from life to shut out the voices of the dead.
Hereafter marks a departure for the writer Peter Morgan, who is best known for his political dramas (the Oscar-nominated The Queen and Frost/Nixon). Morgan, who also serves as executive producer, wrote the script shortly after losing a friend in an accident.
“My friend died suddenly and violently, and it made no sense,” he says. “His spirit was still so alive around us. At his funeral, I kept thinking, ‘Where has he gone?’ ”
He adds: “As I was writing, I was unaware that I’d created three very lonely characters who were seeking completion. It was a very unusual screenplay for me. Normally, my scripts are researched and based on fact, but this one felt very instinctive, emotional and unplanned, and it was thrilling to write.”
After completing the script, Morgan discussed it with the producer Kathleen Kennedy. Kennedy gave it to Steven Spielberg, who upon reading said, “I know exactly who should direct this – Clint.”
Spielberg’s instinct was right. “The way it was laid out, it seemed to be something I had never seen before, and had such great dilemmas and dimensions,” says Eastwood. “I’ve talked to people who’ve had near-death experiences and there seems to be a similarity in their stories. Most people want to feel or to fantasise that there’s something after death, and most religions seem to believe that there is something after death.”
That said, Eastwood is quick to point out that for him, the emphasis is on the here and now. “I don’t think much about the hereafter, because I feel you’re given one opportunity to live in this world, and you have to take advantage of that and do the best you can. That’s the hand you’re dealt and you have to play it out. If you’re worrying too much about the end of it all, you can’t really live the present of it all.”
Eastwood cites a line from the character that Jay Mohr is playing (as Matt Damon’s brother): “A life that’s all about death is not a life worth living.” For him, it’s a profound line: “Even when you’re telling a tragedy, it’s through life that you’re telling the story.
“When you approach a scene in a movie, your intuition tells you to do it a certain way. I like to let stories unfold naturally by getting to know the particular characters. In this film, each of the main characters has something the other one needs, a starting point to get on with their lives. They’ve all just got to do the best they can while they’re here.”
More specifically, Eastwood liked Morgan’s story “because it was about a reticent hero, somebody whose life has not turned out the way he would have liked it to but eventually he becomes beneficial to all the characters.”
Although Hereafter portrays George as genuinely gifted, he is aware that the field of psychics and mediums is rife with phonies. “We try to show the legitimacy of what [George] does,” Eastwood notes, “as opposed to the charlatans out there. Whether there are some who are legitimate and others who are not is in the eye of the beholder, but the story does touch on people who take advantage of those wanting to make contact with the dead.”
In making any film, Eastwood says, the main thing is to cast correctly. “The casting mechanism is the most important because that’s what you start off with. I cast actors that I think are intelligent and agree with my vision. Most actors want to play roles they have not done before. You can instruct them a little along the way. Most actors are very co-operative with that, because they’re always looking for somebody to help them search out certain emotions.”
“I think Matt [Damon] is emerging as one of the most important actors we’ve had in a long time, when you look at the body of work and the array of roles he’s taken on,” Eastwood says. “What I like about Matt is that he’s an actor who is not actorish, and his performances reflect that. He is able to perform very subtly, you don’t get the feeling he’s performing.”
What keeps Eastwood going? “I just enjoy working,” he says, “I thrive on it. For me, a good script is usually the inspiration, and I’m always looking for new subject matters because every film is a new challenge for me.”
He elaborates: “I could have been satisfied to stick with the genres I have been doing for years but, the last decade, I’ve been doing a lot of films that were certainly different for me, experimenting with new issues and subjects.”
Eastwood has no intention of slowing down. He is already hard at work on his next project, a biopic of J Edgar Hoover: “Leonardo DiCaprio is eager to play Hoover, and so we’re going to do it together. We’re in pre-production now, and the shoot will begin in early 2011.”
‘Hereafter’ is in US cinemas and goes on release in Europe in January