Clint Eastwood is still directing at the age of 80 — which should make him feel pretty lucky. His latest film, “Hereafter,” starring Matt Damon, Cecile De France, Jay Mohr and twin newcomers George and Frankie McLaren, deals with the afterlife, specifically near-death experiences and communicating with those who’ve passed, all wrapped up in the larger issue of fate. Written by “The Queen” scribe Peter Morgan, “Hereafter” incorporates real-world events into its fictional story, including Eastwood’s biggest filming challenge: The Indian Ocean tsunami of 2004.
Here Eastwood talks about his own brushes with death, the challenges of working with young actors, and why his film isn’t exactly religious.
OLSZEWSKI: Were you hesitant to take on a semi-religious film?
EASTWOOD: Most religions seem to ponder the afterlife. But I thought this was interesting because it wasn’t really a religious project. It had a spirituality about it, but it was not necessarily tied in with any particular organized thought. And I think that everybody, whether you believe in the afterlife or the chance of this near-death experience, certainly everyone’s thought about it at some point. It’s a fantasy. If there is anything out there like that, it would be just terrific. But that remains to be seen.
OLSZEWSKI: The script raises a lot of questions.
EASTWOOD: Yeah, it raises questions. But that’s where it ends. You pose the questions, and then it’s up to the audience to meet you halfway and think about it in terms of their own lives and what experiences they might have had.
OLSZEWSKI: Have you ever had a paranormal or near-death experience?
EASTWOOD: I remember, when I was very young, my dad was taking me into the surf on his shoulders and I fell off. I can still remember today, even though I was 4 or 5 years old, I can still remember the color of water and everything as I was being washed around in the surf before I popped to the surface. But at that age, you don’t think too much. I mean, you’re just kind of going — well, you haven’t learned any obscenities yet, but a lot of them are running through your mind.
And then when I was 21 years old I was in a plane crash off the coast of Northern California in the wintertime. I must say, as I was going into shore, I kept thinking, “Should I be thinking about something?” I was thinking about my demise, but I also saw some lights in the far distance. I said, somebody’s in there having a beer and sitting next to a fireplace and I just want to be in there, and so I’m going to make it. And that was the determination. There was no sense of fate out there.
OLSZEWSKI: Talk about filming the tsunami.
EASTWOOD: Cecile was in a tank in London for nine hours without getting out too much. She had to have skin replacement afterward [laughs].
The tsunami was very difficult to do. I kept having fantasies of huge hoses and thousands of gallons of water running down the streets and what have you. But I figured that would be prohibitive. In the old days, I suppose you would have done that on a set, have had a lot of set pieces and then turned a lot of water loose. But with the element of computer generated [imagery], you can go ahead and do it. Even though water is probably the most difficult thing to do with CGI. And if you don’t pre-plan CGI, it’s the most expensive thing in the world. You have to plan every single shot, and that’s normally not the way I shoot.
OLSZEWSKI: You interchanged the twins, having each do all the scenes. Was it difficult directing such inexperienced young actors?
EASTWOOD: The interesting thing with child actors is that most kids are acting all the time — they’re imagining, they’re out in the yard playing. Unfortunately, once they’ve been — “organized” — into acting, often a lot of bad habits have been instilled. And so when I looked at kids for this picture, I picked the two that were the least experienced. In fact, they had no experience. They had never been in film before. They said they’d been in some grammar-school plays, but…I doubted that [laughs].
But they had the faces. And I’m one of those guys who believes that if you cast a film correctly — with professionals or with amateurs — you’re 80 percent there. We auditioned about three or four sets of twins, and they looked great, but there was a lot of “acting” going on. And so I said, These guys have the right faces that says they’re from the right neighborhood. They had certain elements that these kids needed to have. So they didn’t have to get in there and act like something they weren’t.
OLSZEWSKI: Any thoughts about retiring?
EASTWOOD: I’m always sort of shocked when directors retire. I knew Billy Wilder somewhat, and he had stopped working in his 70s. And I thought, God, that’s amazing. Here’s a guy who’s bright and lived well into his 90s and didn’t work. I never could figure that. Your best years should be at a point when you’ve absorbed all this knowledge.
There’s a Portuguese director, Manoel de Oliveira, who’s still making films at over 100 years old. And I plan to do the same thing.