Eastwood's zen sense of calm brings out the best in his actors

It’s ironic that the actor who became famous playing the Man With No Name is the most recognizable talent among this year’s crop of directors.

Also ironic is that the man who has been a Warner Bros.’ icon for so long was told by the studio that he could shop his “Mystic River” script, adopted from Dennis Lehane’s novel by Brian Helgeland, to another studio if he chose to.

If it’s the nature of today’s Hollywood to covet the next high concept hit or franchise series wherein special effects rule, then Eastwood is decidedly old school.

Billy Wilder once described the modern screenplay as one “where you build a set and then you blow it up.”

“Nowadays you have many battles before you blow it up,” Eastwood told the Guardian in a recent interview. “Having directed for 33 years, I long for people who want to see a story and see character development. Maybe there’s not really an audience for that, but that’s not for me to worry about.”

Eastwood calls the story “everything” — so much so that everything else on an Eastwood film is freed up for maximum creative latitude. “I don’t like intrusions or distractions on the set, and I’ll follow the script as closely as I can,” he says. “I try to create a comfortable environment where the actors can do their best work, and the film can be made in the most direct way possible.”

Not since Alfred Hitchcock has a filmmaker had such a reputation for preparedness. His films are routinely shot on budget and on time. Sean Penn, who gives a towering performance as Jimmy Markum, an ex-con faced with the death of his daughter in “Mystic River,” says the movie should have been an 18-week shoot. Eastwood shot it in 39 days. Much of this has to do with not over-indulging his actors, but creating such an atmosphere of calm and confidence on the set that more than two takes of each scene is rarely needed.

“I’ve worked with actors who said, ‘I do my best work on the eighth or ninth take,’ ” says Eastwood. “And I’ve said, ‘Oh really? That’s too bad.’ “

“All of us had the sense that Clint’s storytelling would give the film a clear humility,” adds Penn, “so our readings were done in order to make ourselves as familiar as possible with the material. In that way, whatever had to do with nuances and character choices became just a shorthand exchange with Clint and we wouldn’t have to refer back to the script. It becomes a cleaner, more decisive process because you know with each take that you can give it everything you have.”

The result was a film that, the Oscar-winning “Unforgiven” notwithstanding, has resulted in the most uniformly positive reviews of Eastwood’s career. It generated the widest support in May at Cannes, where it was expected to take the Palme d’Or over Gus Van Sant’s “Elephant.” And its reception at the New York Film Festival was no less than rhapsodic.

In his review, Variety‘s Todd McCarthy says, “In his 24th film as a director, (Eastwood) exerts an evenhanded control that puts the material’s many layers and assorted elements in satisfying perspective and balance, without any feeling of manipulation.”

The New Yorker’s David Denby called the film “fascinating from first shot to last” and “a breakthrough for Eastwood, who, at the age of 73, may be just hitting his peak as a director.”

David Edelstein, in an essay for the New York Times, described “River” as Eastwood’s “most clear-eyed and haunting film,” and that “in the future, it should be ‘Mystic River,’ rather than ‘Unforgiven,’ that marks a shift in Mr. Eastwood’s approach to vigilantism.”

If Eastwood as an actor became known as a man who extracts justice at any price, whether as the solitary drifter in Sergio Leone’s spaghetti westerns or as the rogue cop Harry Callahan, “Mystic River” signals the kind of sensitivity and dimension heretofore not associated with Eastwood’s work, save for, say, “Bird,” which dealt with the filmmaker’s passion for jazz.

“I liked the many-layered part,” he says of Lehane’s book. “The story was a combination of an emotional tragedy with a parallel investigative piece. … It’s about the taking of a child’s life, the stealing of one’s innocence, robbing them of their youth.”

Eastwood has been fascinated with directing since his days as a star of TV’s “Rawhide,” and was inspired equally by Leone’s operatic style as with the B-movie economy of Don Siegel, who directed some of Eastwood’s most compelling performances, including the first “Dirty Harry” and a little-known gem called “The Beguiled.”

Along the way, Eastwood has never aspired to high art, but that might have changed. “In every movie there comes a point when you’re usually about three quarters of the way through when you wonder: What am I doing this piece of crap for,” he told USA Today. “We never had that in this movie because we roared along and got to the end, and everybody felt good about it.”

Snapshot

Previous Oscar noms:Actor, “Unforgiven” (1993)
Oscar wins: Director, Picture, “Unforgiven”
This year: National Board of Review, Best Pic; AFI Top 10 Pic

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