Clint Eastwood: Ten years of sequels also gave us one hot old man of Hollywood
On a late March morning, the sun sits high in the Cape Town sky, illuminating the trapezoidal monolith of Table Mountain in the distance, while down by the city's busy waterfront, the players of South Africa's national rugby union team — the Springboks — go for a training run. Only the careful observer might notice that, on this particular morning, the team's signature green-and-gold uniforms aren't of the most recent design, and there's a familiar if incongruous figure standing off to one side, tall and slender in a golf shirt and chinos, watching the scene transpire on a small, handheld video monitor. After a moment, the figure looks up and almost imperceptibly signals his approval, not with the traditional "Cut! Print!" but rather a small nod of his head and a whispered "That was good. Let's move on."
It's the 24th day of filming on Clint Eastwood's Invictus, the 30th film he has directed in a career that spans more than a half-century. As usual on an Eastwood set, it's not easy to tell they're shooting a major Hollywood movie. No trailers and equipment trucks line the streets — they're parked at a "base camp" a few miles away — and by the time a small crowd of onlookers begins to form, Eastwood has gotten what he needs and is on his way to the next location. Of his storied speed and efficiency — the discipline of a veteran actor who knows that long stretches of waiting around can wear out a performer — Eastwood says it's simply a matter of trusting his instincts. "If you have five answers to choose from on a multiple-choice test, usually your first choice is the right answer," he tells me during a break between shots.
The pace at which Eastwood moves through a movie is the same one with which he greets life itself, as if mindful of the adage that an idle mind is the devil's playground. In January this year, on the eve of his 79th birthday and less than two months before beginning the Invictus shoot, he was busy promoting Gran Torino, which became the highest-grossing film of his career as actor or director. When I showed up in South Africa this spring, Eastwood was already several days ahead of the planned Invictus shooting schedule. Before postproduction wrapped earlier this fall, he was already shooting a new film on location in Paris and London. Keeping up with Clint Eastwood, I discover, can be an exhausting task for all but Eastwood himself.
Based on journalist John Carlin's superb nonfiction book, Playing the Enemy: Nelson Mandela and the Game That Made a Nation, Eastwood's film returns us to a moment in South Africa's recent past, when the country took its first steps as a free nation after 46 years of segregationist apartheid rule. It was a moment symbolized by the 1994 election of Mandela (who is played in Invictus by Morgan Freeman) and celebrated the world over. At home, however, there was much work to be done. As Carlin explains in his dense and deeply reported account, Mandela's election was the culmination of a decadelong series of secret negotiations among the future president, the reigning National Party government of F. W. de Klerk, and the leaders of the pro-black African National Congress designed to bring an end to apartheid while forestalling the civil war that threatened to erupt between extremist groups on both ends of the political spectrum. Still, as Mandela took office, some members of the former ruling class suspected him of being a "terrorist" who wanted to "drive the white man into the sea." Similarly, certain Mandela supporters wished he would do exactly that.
"Don't address their brains; address their hearts" had long been Mandela's personal credo when it came to dealing with his jailers and political opponents. While incarcerated at Pollsmoor Prison in the 1980s, Mandela had boned up on the predominantly Afrikaner pastime of rugby in order to work his patented charm offensive on one of the prison's senior officers — a strategy that resulted in Mandela's getting a much-desired hot plate for his cell. Now, in a display of the uncanny prescience and insight into human nature that defined his political career, Mandela would again turn to the secular religion of sports as a way of unifying his nascent "Rainbow Nation." With the Rugby World Cup scheduled to be hosted by South Africa in little more than a year's time, he became convinced that the Springboks — who had been banned from international tournament play during the apartheid era — could win the World Cup and, with it, the hearts and minds of the country. The result was an intersection of athletics and politics as dramatic as Jesse Owens's performance at the 1936 Berlin Olympics or the U.S. hockey team's defeat of the USSR in 1980's so-called "Miracle on Ice."
"He just had some instinct — almost like somebody touched him on the shoulder and said, 'This will work,'" Eastwood says with the awe that seems to creep into people's voices whenever Mandela is mentioned. "How the hell he figured that, I don't know."
By early August, barely two months after returning from South Africa, Eastwood has already finished a first cut of Invictus, save for some 600 visual-effects shots that would be finessed before the film's release earlier this month. At the Warner Bros. lot in Burbank, on the film scoring stage that bears Eastwood's name, a large orchestra is recording the Invictus score — a simple piano melody, plus some traditional African choral music and a couple of original songs. Toward the back of the stage, Eastwood gives occasional notes on the placement of a cue but mostly nods approval as sound and image come together before his eyes.
Already, there is much discussion about Eastwood's next movie, Hereafter, which began shooting in early fall. Based on an original script by The Queen and Frost/Nixon writer Peter Morgan, the film links three stories, each in some way about the border between life and death, this world and the next. (Invictus costar Matt Damon will play an auto factory worker who was once a spiritual medium.)
"It's unexplored terrain," Eastwood tells me when I ask what drew him to the material, and indeed, though he has twice cast himself as something like an angel of death — in the existential westerns High Plains Drifter and Pale Rider — he has never made a film on an overtly supernatural subject. "I liked the way Peter Morgan incorporates real events like the [2004 Indian Ocean] tsunami and the terrorist attacks on London into a fictional story," he continues. "Also, there's a certain charlatan aspect to the hereafter, to those who prey on people's beliefs that there's some afterlife, and mankind doesn't seem to be willing to accept that this is your life and you should do the best you can with it and enjoy it while you're here, and that'll be enough. There has to be immortality or eternal life and embracing some religious thing. I don't have the answer. Maybe there is a hereafter, but I don't know, so I approach it by not knowing. I just tell the story."
Two weeks later, early on a Friday morning, visual effects supervisor Michael Owens has a batch of effects shots from Invictus's climactic World Cup Final ready for Eastwood's review. What appears on the screen scarcely seems to be computer-generated. Sweat and dirt have been added to the Springbok uniforms, as have blood and bruises to the players' faces. "Grub 'em all up," Eastwood says enthusiastically, noting that such digital wizardry has alleviated the need for time-consuming makeup touchups during shooting. In addition, a film-processing error that had caused the Springboks' green jerseys to appear brown has been corrected. Owens acknowledges there was a steep learning curve involved in bringing the director into the CGI era. Yet Eastwood has made the leap, and Owens has become one more indispensable player on the filmmaker's team.
"There's a selfishness to it," Eastwood says when I ask him about his well-known loyalty to his collaborators. "They're all people I can depend on. They're people I don't have to start from scratch with just in order to be on the same wavelength with them. They know kind of where I'm headed, and so we just say a few things to each other and we can be sort of minimalistic as far as the intellectual discussion of things."
The next time I see Eastwood is on a brisk, slate-colored morning in early November, when I drop by Hereafter's London set. A small auditorium in central London has been converted into the fictional Center for Psychic Advancement for one of several scenes in which Marcus, a 12-year-old boy from an inner-city housing estate, attempts to contact his twin brother, Jason, who was killed in a car accident earlier in the script. Although Eastwood seems his usually relaxed self, there's a subtle tension in the air brought on by the tight time restrictions governing the use of minors on film sets. Marcus and Jason are played, respectively and sometimes interchangeably, by Frankie and George McLaren, identical twins and screen newcomers who have been learning as they go on the set. Eastwood, who has directed children many times before, confides that some days have gone more smoothly than others, and in contrast to the taciturn, hands-off directing style he favors with stars such as Damon and Freeman, these nonpros bring out another side of the actor turned director: the patient, nurturing mentor. It's a curious sight indeed, the gruff septuagenarian legend with his arm around the diminutive preteens, literally walking Frankie through the paces of one shot and, a bit later, standing just off-camera, breaking down the emotional beats for a closeup in which Georgie must show, without the aid of dialogue, he is losing faith in yet another sham psychic. "You're starting to think this guy's another phony," Eastwood whispers and then, after getting a reaction he likes, "You're feeling like you want to get up and leave."
As the day nears its end, Eastwood and producer Rob Lorenz stand around a computer watching QuickTime videos of the latest effects shots emailed by Owens from L.A., where Invictus is being fine-tuned for its first media screenings.
Despite the presence of Damon as Springboks captain Francois Pienaar — and no shortage of bone-crunching rugby action — Invictus is unmistakably told through Mandela's eyes, with keen attention to the skepticism his policies engendered on both sides of South Africa's racial divide (typified by an excellent scene in which the president reprimands his own party members for plotting to abolish the Springbok team colors and logo, seen by many South African blacks as symbols of the apartheid patriarchy). At the same time, Eastwood's film doesn't suffer from the bleeding-heart rush to canonization that pervaded several lesser, made-for-TV Mandela movies. Although it's far from a comprehensive biopic, Eastwood take pains to show the distance between the public and private Mandela, a man who feels considerably more at ease pouring tea for a former enemy than communicating with his estranged wife and children. It is in precisely this gray zone that Freeman's performance grows large. He plays one of history's great men without losing sight of the fact that he is, as one of Mandela's bodyguards describes him in the film, "not a saint. He's a man, with a man's problems."
After a preview screening late last year of Gran Torino, a fan rushed up to Eastwood and enthusiastically exclaimed, "You've made the first movie of the Obama generation!" Eastwood starred as a racist Korean War vet who rallies to the defense of his embattled Hmong neighbors. Turning to the fan, the filmmaker gently replied he had been born under Herbert Hoover.
But somewhere in that exchange lies a particular truth about Eastwood, whose recent films have seemed ineluctably of the moment, even as the director has turned toward the past as a way to explain the present. (Of his five most recent films, all except Gran Torino are period tales.) Far be it for this intrinsically classical, unpretentious filmmaker to tackle head-on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, but he might give us Flags of Our Fathers and Letters From Iwo Jima, a double-sided postcard of the "good" war, the young men who fought in it, and the atrocities wrought by each side.
Eastwood tends to hold his political views close to the vest, and he's quick to pooh-pooh the parallels. "The material brought that to my attention, but I wasn't trying to sell any American politics in the thing," he says of Invictus when we speak by phone shortly before Thanksgiving. "However," he continues, "Obama is a charismatic young man, and he did talk about change and all this kind of stuff that sounded great. I mean, it sold the nation on him. Whether he's able to deliver the goods or not is another thing."
He then refers to a scene early in Invictus when Mandela, out for an early-morning walk the first day of his presidency, sees an Afrikaans newspaper headline that asks, "He Can Win an Election But Can He Run a Country?" In the film, Mandela responds, "It is a valid question." On the phone, Eastwood says, "That's the same question we all probably have about any presidential candidate who wins an election. So far, Obama is having a rough time convincing everybody. Personally, I'm rooting for the guy. I didn't necessarily support him going in, but I'd like to see him succeed because I want the country to succeed. It would be masochistic to do otherwise."
Although there are those who will inevitably accuse Eastwood of gilding the lily, of telling one of the few optimistic stories to be plucked from a South Africa that remains rife with despair, the counter proof is right there in Invictus itself. For all the celebratory atmosphere of the World Cup Final, the movie ends not with the pomp and circumstance in Ellis Park Stadium or with the crowds of joyous revelers spilling into the Johannesburg streets but rather on the simple, quiet image of the president, seated in the back of his limousine, removing his glasses and massaging the bridge of his nose.
"You see him as a lone figure in the car," Eastwood says. "You can tell he's tired. This is just one hurdle, and you get the feeling he's got a long way to go. You know, he was 75 when he took over as president, which is really old, even by today's standards" — curious words coming from a man who, six months shy of 80, seems committed to a more feverish pace of work than ever.
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