Clint Eastwood works with Frankie McLaren. (Ken Regan / Warner Bros. )
As a director, Clint Eastwood leans far more toward austere storytelling than pure spectacle — in films such as "Unforgiven," "Gran Torino" and "Mystic River," the most memorable visuals are the emotions that play across the faces of actors.
It's interesting, then, to see that with his 32nd feature film, "Hereafter," the ultimate old-school director presents a massive natural disaster that required the sort of computer-generated effects and elaborate stunt work that are usually associated with contemporary popcorn movies.
That's not to say that the 80-year-old Hollywood filmmaker is changing his priorities.
"There are so many movies now where it's either all CGI or where the CGI is utilized in a big effects way and it takes over and you get an 'effects movie,'" Eastwood said. "What I liked about this is the story works either with it or without it."
"Hereafter" is a cinematic triptych with the stories of three wounded souls searching for answers about the afterlife — a reluctant psychic in San Francisco (played by Matt Damon), a London youngster (Frankie McLaren) grieving the death of his twin brother and a French journalist (Belgian actress Cécile de France) who died in a tsunami but was revived after a strange, spectral experience.
The film opens moments before the massive tsunami strikes and sends a wall of water through a South Pacific coastal city, ripping up trees, toppling buildings and carrying corpses and cars through the boulevards.
The digital destruction was handled by Scanline VFX, the same outfit that worked on (literally) immersive effects for "Poseidon" and "2012."
"Water is very difficult to do," Eastwood said, "so we looked for people that were well thought of in that area."
The CG effects were combined with on-location work in Lahaina on Maui and "a lot of water work" on a soundstage in London, Eastwood said. He added: "We had to build the water; we couldn't flood Lahaina, they wouldn't have liked that."
There are also scenes of the great beyond — a shrouded and ethereal place that was realized through digital wizardry. Eastwood said he's become accustomed to the pixel possibilities of modern moviemaking but doesn't like its unavoidable reliance on "a team of guys off somewhere working on their computers."
Though this particular canvas may be different, it's the painter that makes "Hereafter" one of the most compelling film projects of the season. The unsettling subject matter and Peter Morgan's unconventional script may invite Academy Award consideration, or it may be too strange even for longtime fans of Eastwood's maverick freedom from commercial imperatives. Either way, don't expect big fireworks at the end or pat Hollywood answers, but do plan on a movie experience that will stay with you well after the credits roll.
Eastwood has compared the job of directing to being a tour guide, and for this movie that meant taking the audience past some large digital landscapes. It's still about storytelling, though, he says.
"It is something different, but as far as CGI, I used some on 'Invictus' for the stadium crowds and some in 'Flags of Our Fathers' for all the guys on the beach," Eastwood said. "I've done enough to be comfortable with it, but you're still somewhat at the mercy of these computer-effects companies. But at this stage in my life, I don't want to do the same thing over and over. I want to try new things and learn new things."
Opening: Oct. 12
— Geoff Boucher