BY DENNIS KING
NEW YORK – As an actor, Clint Eastwood has dispatched more than his share of fictional adversaries into the great beyond. But as a director, when it comes to the mysterious passage from life to death, he admits he doesn’t have any answers. Only questions.
And those are posed with admirable art, rigorous curiosity and glancing uncertainty in his new film “Hereafter,” a moody, yearning examination of life’s most nagging question: What happens to us after we die?
At a press conference hosted by Warner Bros. before the film’s closing-night premiere at the New York Film Festival, director Eastwood and his cast engaged in a rambling exchange with film journalists that sometimes smacked of an airy New Age seminar on the afterlife.
“Most religions seem to ponder the afterlife, but I thought this was interesting because it wasn’t really a religious project,” Eastwood said. “It had a spirituality about it, but it was not necessarily tied in with any particular organized thought.
“And I think everybody, whether you believe in the afterlife or the chance of this near-death experience and coming back, whether that has really happened or not, I don’t know, certainly everyone has thought about it at some point in time,” he said. “And it’s a fantasy that if there is anything out there like that it would be terrific. But that remains to be seen.”
“Hereafter,” which stars Matt Damon as a self-questioning San Francisco psychic, interweaves the stories of three unrelated people in far-flung locales struggling with the overwhelming tragedy of sudden death and seeking to find answers about eternal life.
“It was a terrific script,” Damon said of Peter Morgan’s speculative screenplay. “It was really tight. It read like a play in a sense where sometimes when you do a play you just explore the material and every answer you need is there. I’m somebody who does a lot of research normally on my own, but in this case I really didn’t want to go down the rabbit hole. It was really all on the page.”
“The film is really a story of inquiry and curiosity and a feeling of incompleteness and a feeling of living with mystery,” said Morgan, whose resume includes celebrated scripts for “Frost/Nixon” and “The Queen.” “And that’s something that unites every one of us. Other than the act of being born, none of us know where we’re going. None of us has any idea, and we’re going to do all of it alone. I thought it would be quite interesting just to provoke those questions without offering any answers. You know, it’s very private.”
Eastwood emphasized that the film poses mysteries with no concrete solutions.
“The questions are there,” he said. “You pose the questions and then it’s up to the audience to meet you half way and think about it in terms their own lives and what their thoughts are or what experiences they might have had.”
For his part, Eastwood said he has had a couple of brushes with death that left him vaguely wondering about eternity.
“I remember when I was very young, my dad was taking me into the surf on his shoulders and I fell off,” the director said. “And I can still remember today, even though I was probably 4 or 5 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 about (death).
“And then years later, when I was 21 years old, I was in a plane and we had to ditch off the coast of Northern California in the wintertime,” he recalled. “And I must say that as I was going in to shore I was thinking that I should be thinking about my demise, but all I was thinking about, as I saw some lights in the far distance, I said, ‘somebody is 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,” he continued. “but there was no sense of fate out there. I don’t think you get a chance to think that much. When you get that much time to think you’re usually going to be OK.”
Eastwood, 80, whose burgeoning resume has put him in the director’s chair for both personal, human-scale dramas and epic, action-packed sagas, said he had to perform a delicate balancing act in “Hereafter.” The film opens with a stunningly realistic, large-scale depiction of the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami that killed more than 230,000 people before segueing into the more intimate, intermingling stories of his characters’ tortured questing.
“I thought an unusual aspect of the script was taking actual events and placing them into a fictional story,” Eastwood said. “And so the tsunami of 2004 out in the Pacific was one and then the London bombings of 2005, of course. I thought that was a unique thing to do.
“But the tsunami sequence was very difficult to do,” he said. “I thought that would be prohibitive and where would we do that. In the old days I suppose you would have done that on the set and you’d have done little set pieces and turned a lot of water lose.
“But with the element now of computer-generated effects you could go ahead and do it. Even though water is probably the most difficult thing to do in a CGI basis,” he said. “I have a guy named Michael Owens who worked with me on ‘Letters From Iwo Jima,’ ‘Flags of Our Fathers’ and back as far as ‘Space Cowboys,’ and he kept very much hip on the technology as it had been improving over the years. And we went through it and figured out what shots we would need to do live, and then we did it. But it took us a lot of different places.”
Eastwood said they shot some live sequences in a giant water tank in London and then went to Maui and shot in the ocean and on the streets of Lahaina.
“From then on it was piecing all the elements together with the connective shots,” he said. “If you don’t pre-plan, CGI is 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 this time it worked out rather well.”
Eastwood admitted the tonal difference between the tsunami sequence depicted in the film’s preview trailers and the smaller-scale story that follows might be confusing to some film goers.
“With trailers you’re most of the time fighting the studio because they want to tell the whole story in a matter of 30 seconds,” the director said.
“Any marketing department is always going to want to show the scope,” said Damon. “And (the tsunami) is an incredible sequence. I understand 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. With ‘The Informant’ I kind of jokingly went on David Letterman and intercut scenes from ‘Transformers’ into the trailer to try to get people to go, just to say, ‘yeah, it’s about a whistleblower but a lot of (stuff) blows up, too.’”
“Yeah,” Eastwood agreed. “I would have preferred not showing the tsunami (in the trailer) and just having it 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.”