When Clint Eastwood's production staff was looking for a rough-and-tumble tavern where the superstar actor, director and small-town mayor could shoot a bar scene for his latest film project, they went straight to the Swallows Inn in San Juan Capistrano.
Despite the tavern's location (in sight of the 18th-Century mission that gave the town its name) and its serenely evocative moniker, the Swallows Inn is just what no-nonsense Clint was seeking. The free-wheeling saloon, a local landmark for about 40 years, sports a lively crowd comprising local cowboys, Marines from nearby Camp Pendleton, a sprinkling of bikers and curious tourists drawn by the bar's rowdy reputation.
So it should come as no surprise that the Swallows Inn regulars were looking forward to the arrival of Eastwood, who first made his mark in movies as the taciturn anti-hero of such spaghetti Westerns as "Fistful of Dollars" and "The Good, the Bad and the Ugly" and later found probably his greatest fame in his recurring role as Dirty Harry Callahan, the system-bucking cop who dispatches justice on his own terms.
Eastwood and entourage rolled into town Monday to shoot a scene for "Heartbreak Ridge," the actor's first film since his widely publicized election last April as mayor of the seaside community of Carmel, south of San Francisco. The action film about a Marine reconnaissance battalion is slated for Christmas release.
In the Swallows Inn scene, Eastwood, playing Marine Gunnery Sgt. Tom Highway, has discovered that his ex-wife (played by Marsha Mason) is working at the bar, and he comes in to test the waters for a possible reunion. But Mason is seeing the bar's owner (played by Bo Svenson), setting the scene for what was called a "little disagreement."
Most of the film is being shot at Camp Pendleton, the sprawling Marine base on the coast south of San Clemente. According to "Heartbreak Ridge" co-producer (with Eastwood) and production manager Fritz Manes, it was on the recommendation of some of the Marines used as extras in the film that the Swallows Inn was selected as a location. "I love it. It's a great place," Manes said while on the set.
Rumors that Eastwood would be filming at the Swallows, fueled by local press reports and a brief, unannounced visit last month by the actor himself, have been circulating in the tightly knit community for about two months. And when the tavern management was asked to make up a list of locals for possible use as extras in the filming, the response was overwhelming.
Eastwood's company, Malpaso Productions, was looking for Swallows Inn regulars and employees. "They like the bar just the way it is," explained second assistant director Michael Looney. "They try to keep the flavor of the bar."
The final list of aspiring extras topped 500. "They were coming out of the woodwork," said Swallows Inn bartender Coy Love. "There aren't that many people in our whole town."
The task of narrowing the list fell to bar manager Tacy Lee. At first she was told to come up with a list of 40 names. That was later cut to 20 and finally raised again to 30: 15 men and 15 women. The chosen few assembled at the Swallows Inn early Monday morning, although filming wasn't set to begin until 11 a.m.
Waitress Denise Poteat was admittedly nervous but said, "As long as I don't drop any glasses off the tray I'll be OK." Poteat has worked at the bar for several years. "We have kind of a hard reputation, so people come in to check us out," she said. Is the reputation accurate? she was asked. "It used to be. We still have some problems." Mostly, though, she called the regulars "nice people. It's a fun crowd."
Karl Bish, a regular customer and former bouncer ("attitude adjustment technician," as he called it), said the number of bar fights has dropped. "There's been a few doozies, but in the past year it's been quieter," the burly, self-described cowboy explained. "A few years ago I wouldn't let my mom in here. Now she comes in all the time."
Karl Platz, a regular customer for four years who met his wife Becky (also one of the chosen few) at the bar, said he wanted to be an extra because "it just seemed like it would be a lot of fun to do." Platz downplayed the bar's rough reputation. "It's just a bunch of regular people who like to come in and have a good time. And they've got the best country music around," he explained. The tavern features live music five nights a week.
Bartender Love, also an extra, called the bar "the second-biggest attraction in town, besides the mission."
Finally, at 11, it was time for the regulars to vacate the bar so that the lighting could be set up. By noon, 10 of the local extras (there were also union extras in the scene) were dismissed and asked to return for Tuesday's filming. At 12:30 p.m., the remaining 20 were given a rundown of the scene.
By this time the locals, looking restless, had gotten a taste of the waiting game that goes with making movies. At 1:30 p.m., they finally disappeared into the tightly guarded bar. There they would stay until 1 a.m. or later, filming a scene that would last two to three minutes on screen. Eastwood and Mason walked into the bar soon after, drawing stares from the curious locals who had gathered around the set. And 20 of the Swallows Inn faithful got a glimpse of Hollywood in action, and plenty of stories to swap around the bar.