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INT: Clint Eastwood

10.20.2006
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Perpetual Oscar-winner Clint Eastwood returns to theaters this week with FLAGS OF OUR FATHERS, the story of the battle of Iwo Jima and the soldiers who raised the famous flag above Mount Suribachi . Joe Rosenthal’s photograph of the event inspired renewed resolve in a war-weary American public and proved to be a turning point in the war. FLAGS OF OUR FATHERS explores the events surrounding the photograph.

Eastwood recently stopped by the Four Seasons in Beverly Hills to promote the film, which opens this week. Here are some excerpts.

Clint Eastwood

You’ve often said that you choose your projects based on subjects that interest you on a personal level. Why did you choose this subject?

Well, there's never been a story — one, there's never been a story on Iwo Jima, even though there have been pictures that have been entitled — using it in the title — but the actual invasion, it was the biggest marine corps invasion in history, the most fierce battle in marine corps history, but what intrigued me about it was the book itself and the fact that it wasn't really a war story. I wasn't setting out to do a war movie. I'd been involved with a few as an actor, and but I liked this, because it was just a study of these people, and I've always been curious about families who find out things about their relatives much after the fact and the kind of people that have talked to me about this campaign and many other campaigns, and the ones who seemed to be the most in the front lines and have been through the most seem to be the ones who have been the quietest about their activity.

It's a sure thing that if you hear somebody being very braggadocio about all their experiences in combat, sure thing that he was probably a clerk typist somewhere in the rear echelon (laughs). But there seems to be a commonality with these kind of people like John Bradley was, that they came back and it was a time in history when you didn't have a lot of psychiatric evaluation and coddling — when they came back they were just told to go home and get over it. and if they didn't have wives or loved ones to help them, they had to adjust on their own, or else they didn't adjust on their own.

So it's just those experiences of being a young man thrown into the ultimate celebrity — and the picture I hope makes a comment on celebrity, of being treated like a president — maybe not always a president, but being treated like a celebrity, and they didn't feel that. They felt very complex about being that, especially when so many of their companions were killed in this ferocious battle. And this was only — and the famous photograph, the Joe Rosenthal photograph, was taken 4 or 5 days into the battle. It was not even a fourth of the way there yet, but it signified a unity that I've always been curious about. So that's it.

Can you talk about working with Paul Haggis, and your decision to use flashbacks and montages, rather than a more linear approach?

We talked very much about that, but it's a difficult book to translate into a screenplay. Paul likes to joke. He said — after our first meeting, he said, I have about an 11 per cent chance of being successful with this. And I said, well, it's going to work out. Don't worry. Just keep things straight ahead and we would talk every day or so over the phone and talk about philosophy. It was a way to get started. He had a trouble getting it into it.

And we talked about doing it like you were suggesting — doing it in various acts — but the trouble is, to show the impact that it has on the three soldiers and their recollection is that it's a very difficult to work with, because you'd go from present day, which would be 1994 in this case, and back to one period of time and up to another period of time and back, and then up to the present day, and the only other time I've done that — I did it with a picture called Bird years ago and I had difficulty in going into flashback, then a flashback within a flashback, and then having to unwind and come back and keep the audience only moderately confused, to get back to the present day of that particular picture (which) present day was in the 40s as well. But we finally decided this was the way to do it — through a journalistic — and because Jim Bradley wrote his book as he was researching — doing literally a detective story — going around and talking to people — it laid out that way.

It just seemed like a logical way to do it. otherwise it's a very big sprawling book, and it covers a lot of chapters on a lot of various items — you have to sit there and figure out, well what story do we want to do? Just the bond drive or the battle. But you have to have the impact of the battle to show the complexities of the bond drive, of the emotions of the guys, and I guess Adam Beach's character sort of sums it up when he's on the train, and says, “We shouldn't be here.” There's a lot of little key places that guide you back — that is one of them.

What was it like shooting in Iceland?

I loved filming in Iceland. When it was first suggested that we work in Iceland, I could not understand how it would work but really there's a lot of similarities between Iceland in the summer and Iwo Jima in the winter time. Iwo is a geo-thermal island, a lot of volcanic activity, a lot of sulphur minerals coming out of fissures in the mountains and what have you. Iceland is not necessarily that way. but it does have some of that and it has tremendous black beaches, black sand beaches, which are very hard to duplicate.

We looked at black sand beaches all over the world — next to the 4 Seasons in Hawaii — comfortable places — but it turned out the only way to do it was . . . certain parts of it on Iwo Jima that were not too sensitive because it is considered a shrine, and the Japanese don't have tourism there. Nobody can go there without the Japanese government's approval and the Japanese government feels it's a sacred place because there are still almost 12000 of their men unaccounted for on that island. So we couldn't do the pyrotechnics that we would have to do to actually recreate the invasion, so we went to Iceland, and Iceland was very cooperative, and then we came back and did the various cities here in the States.

Can you talk about the difference between our wartime experience then and the one we’re in now?

As far as World War 2 as compared to — all wars have their problems — it was a different time in history, of course. We were — we had been fighting in the European theatre, we were at war, but then when it came — but when it was brought to us in Pearl Harbor, it became a reality that if we weren't careful — that if we didn't fight this one out, we might be speaking another language today. So it was sort of simple. Most of the young men and women who went to war — a lot of the women went to work in factories and had to give up their life — most of the men gave up their lives but — or gave up their everyday life to go, but most of them were skinny kids out of the depression. Most of the kids, the average age was 19 years old.

You figured they were probably all born in 1928 or 27 or in the late 20s early 30s, and they were over there, but they all had the spirit. And it was important to tell this story for that reason. It told of a time in our history when there was a lot of spirit. I think the icon itself of the flag-raising — a candid shot which was sort of a manufactured shot at the time . . . it didn't have any significance at the moment because it was a separate flag-raising but it was just a shot that was very rare. It's a work of art. It's a work of art because it's people not looking into the camera and smiling at their aunt in Des Moines. It shows the unity of people working towards a common cause.

The hands reach out, sometimes just hands just being seen, and that itself showed a time when people felt they had to — we had to be victorious in this war. How it compares to today — I suppose war is war whenever you're in there. If you're in the front lines, there are always various problems you have to deal with that are hard for us to understand who are in a non-combat situation unfortunately. As this picture shows, there's a commonality — the politicians are still running a certain amount of things — the men obviously were almost as much affected by the bond drive as they were by the combat. But the bond drive was a very strenuous thing for young men — to be sent out and treated like kings and then to have to all of a sudden, the rug's out from under them and they go back to civilian life and there's nowhere to go.

Except for John Bradley who had a profession in mind. They just drifted off into the sunset so to speak. It was time of great effort in the country. I am probably one of the few people in the room here who were around at that time. And I remember the feeling, I remember the Seventh Bond Drive, I didn't know too much about it because I was only 15 years old. You read newspapers and saw a lot of the activity on it — everything was bonds, bonds, bonds. People would give you bonds. Your parents would give you a bond for your birthday or something. Younger kids were disappointed because they didn't get a toy, but they would get a bond that would be worth something later on. So it was a great moment in history as far as American unity.

The country seems much more — I'm sure it wasn't — but it seems in hindsight certainly much more unified than it is today, because the war we're in today — excluding the Iraq War in the front lines — is a different kind of war. Ideology, religion — there's a lot of factors coming in to it that may make the next war much more difficult. But this one was much more cut and dried.

Can you talk about decision to cast lesser known actors? And what did you think of Adam Beach’s performance?

We’re using lesser-known actors because the average age of people sent to Iwo Jima was 19 years old. Except for some of the officers. I talked to one of the officers who was there the day before yesterday, he retired as a general but he was a captain then and he was 24. So the oldest in our group who was Mike Strenck was 26 years old, and the other Marines called him “The Old Man.” It’s hard to be called an old man at 26, but because of his leadership qualities, he was sort of viewed that way. I think because of the age and we had to use young people it lent itself to using lesser-known actors.

And also if you have big name actors coming on the screen in a situation, sometimes it takes a while to adjust and see someone who’s well-known and then adjust to them as a character and its up to that actor to romance you over into thinking that he is that character. I remember years ago seeing Rio Bravo, in a theater and they made the decision to cast Ward Bond as a wagon master and have him ride into town and go “Wagon’s ho!” and this was during the time that Wagon Train was on television and a very popular show, and when he did that the whole audience all came apart and it took another 15 minutes to get back into the movie.

But just the presence of somebody that’s well known, and also people are going to the movies to see their favorite actor, in this case, that may be the case in this movie or any other movie, but this time you can kind of accept in a faster fashion the fact that these people are the characters. Adam Beach, the story of Ira Hayes has been told before. But Adam Beach is a North American Indian, so we don’t have a Caucasian playing it or somebody of occidental background. I had seen him do some other smaller roles but he came and he did a reading on tape and it was very good. You could see a lot of possibilities there. I hired him. He turned out to be even better than I expected because Ira Hayes was a complex person, a person who did sharecropping, a kid from Arizona who went to the Marine Corps, suddenly he’s in the Marine Corps and he’s got a uniform and he meets a lot of friends.

He found sort of a family in the Marine Corps. He liked it to the point where he wanted to stay there. Everything in this picture is true. Sometimes that’s an advantage and sometimes it’s a disadvantage. But everything happened. He did threaten Gagnon that he’d kill him if he told them he was on the flag. He didn’t want to come back to the States after combat and do what they’re doing. He had a problem with alcoholism and everywhere they went, they were serving him drinks. That could be not conducive to a good situation for a person with his feelings, attraction to alcohol. The Keyes Beech character also had attraction to alcohol and he was assigned to Ira Hayes, which made it worse because he was the liaison for the three boys. The other boys seemed to be able to handle it. But Rene Gagnon had problems on his own.

What do you want the audience to get out of this film?

Well, I just wanted them to get to know these people, know what they went through. Maybe give the audience a feeling of what it was like in that time, what these people dedicated their lives or donated their lives for. The feeling of false celebrity, something that we’re seeing quite common these days. Just in general, just find out these kind of people. There have been books written about it, and Brokaw’s book of course, The Greatest Generation and a lot of people, a lot of talk about the greatest generation so it was fun to just try to visualize the greatest generation. We live in a time now where it’s different. We have an all voluntary military. The country’s a lot more comfortable now as far as economically. Those times would come out of rough economic times. The country in fact right now we’re probably a lot more spoiled than we were then, so the idea, war is more of an inconvenience now where then it was an absolute necessity.

This film explores a recurring theme of yours: deconstructing the hero myth.

Yeah, that’s very important in this movie because we, in the era we live in now, everybody’s being considered a hero. In that particular era, the ‘40s, heroes were people of extraordinary feats. They’re people, human beings, that Americans do heroic deeds every day. You probably all read and saw that news last night where that fireman jumped out of the car and he saved these two people who were burning in the car. He was on his way back from work. People do deeds like that all the time. People also, some people say, “Well, it’s not my problem.”

There are exceptions, but growing up, I’m trying to think of who’s heroic? Joe Lewis, maybe in the war, there was General Patton of course. Maybe Eisenhower, the head of the allied forces. Gary Cooper. There were a few people, there was a handful. Movie actors that were celebrities were a handful, a handful of men and a handful of women that were names. Now you have to decipher everything because everybody’s a star so you have to have superstars. But people are stars who are just heiresses or something now. [Laughs] I don’t have an example of that. [Laughs]. But it’s a much different era. They didn’t have that sort of thing then.

Propaganda is a powerful weapon. What do Americans learn from that?

Well, I think you could learn- - I think what we tried to tell is that the propaganda, we tried to show the propaganda machine as it actually appeared. Yeah, growing up, we watched all the war movies. War movies always were very propaganda-istic. There’s always the bad guys and the good guys. Most of the servicemen were portrayed by actors who were at least in their 30s, sometimes in their 40s and on up. That is inaccurate because the majority of them were in their teens and early 20s. I think the oldest person in the campaign, the oldest guy was Howling Smith who was 60 years old. He was the oldest officer, but most of the officers were probably in their ‘20s and most of the infantry people were in their teens.

Questions? Comments? Manifestos? Send them to me at thomasleupp@joblo.com.

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Source: JoBlo.com

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10:39AM on 10/20/2006
I will be seeing this movie this weekend. Always love Eastwood's work and I'm a big WWII buff so I'm going to get the best of both worlds.
I will be seeing this movie this weekend. Always love Eastwood's work and I'm a big WWII buff so I'm going to get the best of both worlds.
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