Last man standing

Out Of The Box

Last man standing

In 2004 there was Million Dollar Baby, about a female boxer; in 2008 there was Gran Torino, about a bigoted Korean War vet, played by Eastwood himself, who forms an unlikely, heartwarming friendship with a young Hmong boy. His latest film,
Hereafter, ventures into supernatural territory, which is about the last place you’d expect to find Eastwood. Hereafter concerns itself with just what the title suggests: what we can look forward to after we die.

Eastwood is 80 now, and his film immortality, as both an actor and a director, is assured. He has never seemed remotely spiritual. His trademark characters — Dirty Harry and The Man with No Name, and even Walt Kowalksi, the Gran Torino vet — all face death squarely and unflinchingly, without a lot of hand wringing about what happens on the other side.

Hereafter, though, weaves together the stories of three people who have death on their minds pretty much all the time: a French journalist (Cécile de France) who has a near-death experience during the 2004 tsunami; a reluctant psychic (Matt Damon) who has visions of the afterlife; and a London schoolboy (Frankie McLaren) who is desperate to get in touch with his dead twin brother. They all meet, and their stories connect, at the London Book Fair, of all places. No one gets shot, no blows are exchanged. Has  Eastwood, famously flinty and cold-eyed, at long last gone squishy?

On the phone recently he sounded mellow but not mushy. “Everyone has had these thoughts pass across his mind once in a while,” he said. “Is there an afterlife? What’s it like? All the great religions have tried to deal with these questions.” He added that what he liked about the script is that “it has a spiritual feeling without any particular religious touch.”

But mostly what appealed to him about Hereafter was the storytelling. “I liked the way the script took contemporary events like the tsunami and the London terrorist bombings and used them in a story that tapped into a general curiosity about the hereafter and whether it exists,” he said. “I liked the way the three tales all converged. That’s something I had never tried before. And the reticent hero is always interesting, the hero who doesn’t appreciate the gift he has.”

Hereafter was written by Peter Morgan, better known for his films about British royalty — The Queen, The Other Boleyn Girl  — and for his play Frost/Nixon, which he later turned into a movie as well. “How did this come about? I have no idea, really,”Morgan said.

What prompted Hereafter, he went on to say, was the book If the Spirit Moves You: Life and Love After Death, by Justine Picardie, a British journalist devastated by the premature death of her sister, Ruth. At once hopeful and skeptical, she visited spiritualists, mediums and people who claimed to be able to record the voices of the dead and examined her own experience of bereavement. “I was just gripped by it,” Morgan said of the book.

The first character he imagined was Marcus, the twin who lost his brother, and then the two others, the journalist and the psychic, quickly suggested themselves. “I was writing instinctively, almost in sketch mode,” he said. “It was all so spare and skeletal that the pages were very white.”

He put the script away for a while, but after a close friend died unexpectedly, he picked it up again. Hoping just for a reaction, he passed the script to his agent, who instead sent it off to the producer Kathleen Kennedy (The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, Jurassic Park). Seeing a resemblance to The Sixth Sense, she in turn showed it to the director of that film, M Night Shyamalan.

Later she happened to be on the soundstage of Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull while talking to Shyamalan on the phone, and she was overheard by Steven Spielberg, who according to Morgan said, “I like the sound of that.” He liked the sound of it so much that he read the screenplay and made extensive notes, which Morgan immediately addressed in a revision.

But Spielberg thought the revision was not as “humble” or “pure” as the original, Morgan said. “He told me, ‘I think I’ve ruined your screenplay.’ Then he said, ‘Can I show it to my friend Clint?’ ”

A couple of months later he was further bewildered when he learned that Eastwood, who had purchased the rights to Hereafter, was already filming off the original script. “I imagined we’d have all sorts of conversations about the characters, about the plot,” he said. “But we never did. What you see on the screen is this thing I wrote very sketchily in the mountains of Austria.”

Eastwood said he typically works this way. “I believe very strongly in first impressions,” he explained. “When something hits you and excites your interest, there’s really no reason to kill it with improvements.” He even resisted the idea of having Penélope Cruz play the female lead, because it meant changing the character from a French journalist to a Spanish one.

“Clint is incredibly instinctive,”  Morgan said, “and he’s anti-neurosis. It’s like antimatter. He’s totally without neurosis. The set of Hereafter was one of happiest places I’ve ever been. It comes from trusting yourself and eliminating fear.”

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