After 24 films, Clint Eastwood never ceases to amaze as a director, advancing the art of classical storytelling and applying valuable lessons from his two mentors and friends, Sergio Leone and Don Siegel. Mystic River, certainly his best movie since the Oscar-winning Unforgiven, represents a fitting apotheosis about the impact of violence and its tragic consequences on individuals and their community. Three childhood friends (Sean Penn, Tim Robbins and Kevin Bacon) from one of Boston’s toughest neighborhoods confront their tainted past during a brutal murder investigation.
Eastwood discusses working with his veteran crew and orchestrating what some believe is his richest and most mature movie to date.
Below the Line: Mystic River was very powerful. I think in many ways you do for the crime thriller what you did for the western with Unforgiven—getting at it from the inside out.
Clint Eastwood: Yeah, it was a powerful book and I just felt that it was an opportunity to maybe do that. Get it from the inside out—you don’t get that opportunity too often. You get some comic strip thing and that seems to be where the business has been lately. There’s nothing wrong with those; it’s just I don’t like to do it.
BTL: In looking over your crew, it wasn’t surprising to find people who have worked with you over the years, but I didn’t come across anybody new to this film.
Eastwood: Yeah, you know, I try. Whenever you get people that you really have faith in and do terrific work for you, you always try to get them back again. I worked with [production designer Henry] Bumstead back in 1973 on Joe Kidd, and then I got him for High Plains Drifter, but then I could never get him again. Nowadays Hollywood reveres the youth thing, so they’re all looking for some young guy, but I’d rather have an old guy with his brains than a younger person who doesn’t know half of what he knows. I bet he’s forgotten more than a lot of people will ever know.
BTL: As the production designer, how was Bumstead able to create the local Boston flavor that was so vital to the story?
Eastwood: Of course, a lot of it was real, but a lot of the interiors were made. You always build some sets to make sure you’ve got cover in case of weather or some snowstorm or some wild thing. But Bummie—he just has a knack, which is why we work extremely well together. [Art director] Jack Taylor and [set decorator] Dick Goddard and all of them are just top of the line, I think.
BTL: Black Emerald Bar really stood out during a rather dark and crucial encounter.
Eastwood: Yeah, that was the tough one because when we got back there to Boston —actually I sent [first assistant director] Rob Lorenz and Bummie back there first and I said, get [novelist] Dennis Lehane to show you exactly all of the places he wrote. Well, it turned out that a lot of places didn’t exist. Black Emerald Bar was one of them. So they were all in a quandary. So I came back there and we went through it all, and I went through all the spots they did have, which were terrific, and then all these diagrams for the interior sets. And for Black Emerald we built exterior and interior—all practical building—and it was great. Somebody should have brought it up to code, built it and kept it.
BTL: That reminds me of how they kept the little town they constructed for Big Fish on the private estate in Alabama. They’re going to use it for weddings and other events.
Eastwood: It’s a great idea. In fact, when we built the town in Alberta for Unforgiven, somebody bought the thing and dismantled it. I don’t know whether they’ve assembled it or not. And then when we did Bridges of Madison County, the building was kind of run down inside so we refurbished the whole thing. We told the guy who owned the building, we’ll take and re-do the thing to code and then you can keep it for a lesser price, or we’ll pay a certain fee and just put it together and use it for four or five weeks and then that’s the end of it. But this fella who owned the building didn’t want any of that. Then three quarters of the way, all of a sudden he decided this would make a great tourist thing. And I said we can’t do anything for you now.
BTL: I see that cinematographer Tom Stern is a protégé of Bruce Surtees and Jack Green.
Eastwood: Yeah, Tom Stern was on as the lighting director for Bruce for a lot of years and worked back when he had a lot of films that Bruce and I did together, including Tightrope, and then I started using Jack Green and he promoted him, so he used Tom on a lot of occasions. Then Tom came to me and said he’d like to be promoted so he could get in the union. He said he thought he could ’cause he had the right amount of time…and I said if you can get cleared with the union, then you’re on, you’ve got the job. So he went out and got it all squared away and now we’ve done two films.
BTL: In the production notes you described the look of the film as the end of the day. Was that the style that was agreed upon?
Eastwood: Yeah, that’s the style I like. I didn’t want, because of the nature of the picture, to have it with a lot of Dorothy and Toto color. I wanted it really subdued, almost like it’s a black and white movie. And so that’s the way we approached it. Much like we did with Jack on Bird years ago.
BTL: And in that regard you utilized the ENR process [developing technique]?
Eastwood: At some point it came to a standstill on the final timing, and so we all sat down and said there must be a way to do this, so we tried several ENR processes. We tried it at 60 [IR] and we tried it at 0 and both of them looked quite good, but we settled on 60 where it accepted the depths of the blacks and yet it didn’t make the faces look all rosy and cheerful. I wanted the faces to look like people in that neighborhood do.
BTL: It’s also interesting that you continue to rely on hard lenses to great effect.
Eastwood: Yeah, I use hard lenses most of the time. I’ve done pictures where you put on a multiple lens and you can set it to two inches or you just set it at a 50 or 100, but it never has the dimension that a good hard lens has.
BTL: Well, you’ve got a lot of small, cramped spaces to get around.
Eastwood: Yeah, you need lenses that will carry the focus and sometimes long lenses don’t do that [very] well. And you’re moving around and you’re moving a steady cam and you’ve got people that are moving and you don’t want to constrict the actors.
BTL: It not only helps the actors but also shows off the lighting and production design. It really draws you in to the story.
Eastwood: Yeah, I think so.
BTL: Moving on to [costume designer] Deborah Hopper. What would you say were her main contributions?
Eastwood: Deborah started out with us the way most of these people started out. God, [editor] Joel Cox goes back to the mail room at Warner and as an assistant to Ferris Webster and that’s how we came to know each other. Deborah came on as an assistant for the ladies wardrobe and she took over ladies wardrobe and then pretty soon took over all of wardrobe. She’s always reliable and just solid.
BTL: What did you have in mind regarding costume?
Eastwood: Well, I just got together with her at the beginning and told her that I’d like to have the colors kind of muted and the wardrobe and don’t forget this is a blue collar neighborhood—there’s no tuxedo balls or anything like that. So I said I just want to approach the movie like it’s black and white, so use a lot of brown, lots of dark colors, black, white, blue—the sort of working class color that Tim Robbins wore.
BTL: And Joel you’ve worked with for quite awhile since The Enforcer?
Eastwood: Yeah, Joel came on as an assistant on Outlaw [Josie Wales] and he was an assistant to Ferris, and then I think Bronco Billy was the first one he started doing part of the editing. Ferris would farm off part of it to him so it made it easier for him, and then eventually Joel was doing 90% of it.
BTL: How would you describe the way he works and what he’s best at?
Eastwood: Well, he’s extremely conscientious and loyal to the production. So once you start the production, he’s there and gives it his whole life. He’s a great technical editor—he had to do all that stuff in the old days on movieolas.
BTL: Does he work in the digital world now?
Eastwood: Yeah, we work with the Avid. I really like it because you don’t have to beat up your film and [can] transfer it digitally into the computer and your film stays virgin until you decide you want to cut it. And then when you cut it, your work looks decent. I remember back in the old days when we would go through the cutting process and Ferris he would be smoking a cigarette, you know, the old school with a cigarette in one hand and a cup of coffee in the other and grinding away on movieolas, and half the time the ashes were falling into the movieola and the coffee was spilling and he’d step on the film and rip it diagonally—about three feet of it—and he’d have to yell for Joel to come and splice it all together for him. It was a lot different then it is now. We had some great moments and we had some great times, but there’s something about digital, if you don’t let the toy get away from itself. The main problem with any great toy like that is it can be so much faster but also so much slower in the wrong hands. If people fall in love with the toy, then pretty soon they’re changing everything all over. You forget about relying on your first impressions…
I like the quick choices. I believe in the multiple-choice thing that your first impression is usually the right one. And also that goes all the way back to the beginning of the story. What attracted you to it? It was an instant thing; it wasn’t something that you sat and thought about for a year-and-a-half. Though sometimes it could be. There are no rules, I guess. But I think that what we do is we cut the thing together and then you kind of walk away from it for a while and then come back to it and look at it fresh and say maybe this is too short or maybe this too long or maybe it stays pretty much the way we’ve done it. A little bit of molding here and there, but I wouldn’t do things differently.
BTL: As with Unforgiven, it’s a very deliberate pace that moves you along with the journey.
Eastwood: You know, we allow the story to sort of unravel and then highs and lows come out of the performances and the dramatic situations. It’s not in the MTV mode. I just think a story like this needs more of a classical delivery.
BTL: It’s all about trusting your instincts.
Eastwood: Jerry Fielding, who did some composing work for me on quite a few films, used to tell the orchestra that we’ve come this far, so lets not ruin it by thinking. And there’s something to that. So you have to kind of trust yourself. It’s like a golfer or any kind of pro athlete—you kind of trust your ability when you get out there. I know Frank Sinatra used to say he had this recurring nightmare that he’d get out on the stage and open his mouth and he couldn’t remember anything about what song he was going to sing or anything about it. And so at some point you have to kind shut it off and trust what you know. You see a lot of pictures that are structured absolutely perfect, but the spirit is gone, and I think it may pay to have the spirit. One of those guys that moved it along was Don Siegel, and then the bigger guys too—the Billy Wilders—there’s always a spirit that moved things along.
BTL: You composed the entire score. What prompted that?
Eastwood: Well, I’ve written a lot of themes over the years for various films dating back to Tightrope, and then I wrote the theme for Unforgiven and The Bridges of Madison County and Perfect World, and I had a good arranger, good people to help me through it and put it in order like [composer-conductor-orchestrator] Lennie Niehaus. On this one, I actually mocked up the film. I had a Russian guy, a classical piano player up here in the Carmel region, who also is a good computer guy, and we mocked up the score on the computer. So when it was done, we put the mock-up in the film. When it was satisfactory, then I turned it over to Lennie and he wrote the parts for the Boston Symphony and recorded it so that they didn’t have synthetic instruments in it.
BTL: It must haven give you a unique vantage point.
Eastwood: Yeah, you kind of know what you want. As you’re making the movie, you start hearing sounds for it. This one was different from Unforgiven, where I wrote the theme on my way to location. This one I didn’t quite get it ’till afterwards. Then I just started sitting down and thinking of the three guys and the whole incident and the building of a triad and then moving it out. It’s kind of working from the inside out, just like the whole picture.
BTL: Do you shoot much coverage?
Eastwood: It depends. On some scenes I’ll cover them quite extensively. I don’t necessarily shoot a lot of takes unless it’s demanded of it. But I’ll do a lot of coverage, and sometimes I’ll do a little bit of a scene and a different angle and a little bit of this angle. Not really like maybe George Stevens used to. We just go round and round the table and shoot. I kind of have it planned the shots I want.
BTL: Or as little as Ford.
Eastwood: Once in a while I’ll do a bonus shot or something. But sometimes I’ll do a shot like Ford where I just have one and that’s it. I guess the ending scene with Laura Linney and Sean Penn, once we came around to the front and I did it in sequence. I brought her in and then went over, came around and went over as she approached him, and then played a little bit on the back, and then I came around to the front and just stayed there. I never cut anything else. So we just had that one shot.
BTL: And in that final moment between Sean and Kevin, you’re left wondering what the next move is going to be. It’s like a chess match.
Eastwood: That’s for the audience to participate [in]. They both know they’re in this together. I’m going to get you for it or I’m not, but it’s something we’re going to have to live with all our lives. There are all kinds of ways to look at it. I like to think along with the movie a little bit and so I went for that.
BTL: It’s obviously struck a powerful chord—a culmination of all your work, which deals in one way or another with haunted pasts.
Eastwood: Yeah, well, it’s been a good ride. It’s interesting to talk about the technical aspects. It’s fun to figure out how people got to where they are. I like to go back to older films sometimes and wonder what they were thinking as they were shooting those.
And I love all those crew members. They’re all terrific people. The majority of them I wouldn’t go anywhere without trying to get them first.