Reporting from Carmel — — On a recent misty morning, if you were standing in the right spot, you could have looked up to see a helicopter emerge from the pale heavens above this coastal enclave and a famous face squinting in concentration from the pilot's seat. Clint Eastwood is 80 but, no surprise, he is still at the controls, whether it's flying or filmmaking.
"I came in from Shasta but the fog slowed me down," Eastwood said with a smile a short time later. His hands were stuffed down in pockets and his posture suggested a man in no hurry but, really, the restless Hollywood icon always hears the ticking of an internal clock.
This Sunday, "Hereafter," Eastwood's 32nd feature film as a director, will premiere at 35th Toronto International Film Festival. This is his sixth film in less than four years, the production spanned four countries and it represents Eastwood's biggest foray into digital visual effects; it also happens to be a startling tale about the afterlife that is spiritual instead of merely supernatural. None of these things suggests that Eastwood will switch to autopilot as he moves into the twilight.
"At the age I am now, I just don't have any interest in going back and doing the same sort of thing over and over, that's one of the reasons I moved away from westerns," said Eastwood, who started his career as a later-model John Wayne and will finish it as something close to a modern John Ford. "The question about what happens after we die is something that we all ask and when I read the script by Peter Morgan it was so intelligent and I knew right away that I wanted to do it."
"Hereafter," which opens wide on Oct. 22, is a cinematic triptych with the separate stories of battered souls searching for answers about the afterlife — there's a reluctant Bay Area psychic ( Matt Damon), a London youngster (Frankie McLaren) grieving the death of his twin brother and a French journalist (Belgium-born actress Cécile de France) who was caught up in a tsunami, killed by the raging water and then revived after a strange, spectral experience.
The movie was filmed in London, Paris, Hawaii and San Francisco and the script by Morgan ("The Queen," "Frost/Nixon") is rooted in recent history with key moments that play out against a backdrop of that South Pacific tsunami and terrorist bombings on the London underground. Eastwood, though, said the core of the story is the enduring mystery around the simplest of questions: "What's next?"
It's a movie that, because of Eastwood's age, will be read by many as an artistic statement about his turning toward his own mortality. He pondered that notion for a moment but found any insight elusive. "I'd like to think I would have made this movie when I was 30 or 40 too, because it's a good story. I don't know. I was more of an actor who directed back then and now I'm more of a director who acts. Or occasionally acts. Or maybe never acts..."
Eastwood owns the Mission Ranch Hotel in Carmel and he chose the property's piano bar as the spot to sit down and discuss "Hereafter." The bar was closed but the staff was already at work in the kitchen and, in a rear corner, a piano tuner was hunched over the keyboard, pinging away in search of perfection. The hotel has belonged to Eastwood since the late 1980s, but it is far more than a portfolio holding.
"I used to come to here when I was in the army, back in 1951 or 1952, at Fort Ord," Eastwood said. "I think I had my first legal beer here when I was 21. It was funky joint. Anyway they were going to tear it all down, take it all out and put in condos. I thought, well, nah, we can't let that happen. It didn't seem right to me."
Eastwood does what feels right in his filmmaking too. He now is famously immune to commercial imperatives or marketing priorities. Exhibit A: His last movie was a South African rugby story and the less-than-inviting title was "Invictus." In "Hereafter," the characters quickly dismiss the world's major religions and academia as viable paths on their search for the afterlife.
"It's a spiritual story but there are no real religious connotations to it," Eastwood said. "The [major religions] are kind of unsatisfying to the kid in our story because he's looking for something that can answer his questions. He wants a straight answer and he can't seem to find anything from people who turn out to be either psychics looking for a fast buck or people just talking … you don't really see movies like this these days that have a spiritual aspect or a romantic aspect. And it is romantic. These days you have a lot of movies about people jumping on each other in the sack but we don't have that. This is more about attraction."