Clint Eastwood on 'American Sniper's' "Biggest Antiwar Statement"

Clint Eastwood PGA - H - 2015
Associated Press

The 'American Sniper' filmmaker, in his role as producer, took part in the Producers Guild of America's annual Nominees Breakfast

"The biggest antiwar statement any film" can make is to show "the fact of what [war] does to the family and the people who have to go back into civilian life like Chris Kyle did," Clint Eastwood said at Saturday's Producers Guild Award Nominees Breakfast, which took place at The Saban Theater in Beverly Hills. 

The Warner Bros. film has become a flash point for heated debate since its wide release on Jan. 16, reeling in praise and sharp criticism for its portrayal of the Iraq War and Kyle, the decorated veteran.

"One of my favorite war movies that I've been involved with is Letters From Iwo Jima," Eastwood explained. "And that was about family, about being taken away from life, being sent someplace." He observed, "In World War II, everybody just sort of went home and got over it. Now there is some effort to help people through it. In Chris Kyle's case no good deed went unpunished."

Eastwood further explained that as soon as he decided to make the film, he and the movie's star Bradley Cooper first went to Texas to meet Kyle's widow Tayla, "I thought I'd better meet the rest of the family and see what they looked like and that would probably dictate the casting and to see what Mrs. Kyle was like," he said. "I went down there and met the mother and father and their grandkids. It was of great value to [Bradley] because he could get into the history of the family and their feelings about the whole situation. It was a very pleasant experience from beginning to end."

The breakfast, hosted by The Hollywood Reporter, brought together producers from all 10 of the films nominated for The Darryl F. Zanuck Award for Outstanding Producer of Theatrical Motion Pictures, which will be awarded later this evening at the 26th annual Producers Guild Awards at the Hyatt Regency Century Plaza Hotel.

All 10 of the participants at the breakfast have earned the PGA's Producers Mark, p.g.a., certifying that they have performed the majority of producing duties on their respective films.

In addition to Eastwood, the participants included Alejandro G. Inarritu (Birdman), Richard Linklater (Boyhood), Jeremy Dawson (The Grand Budapest Hotel), Jon Kilik (Foxcatcher), Cean Chaffin (Gone Girl), Teddy Schwarzman (The Imitation Game), Jennifer Fox (Nightcrawler), Lisa Bruce (The Theory of Everything) and Helen Estabrook (Whiplash).

In introducing the panelists, PGA executive director Vance Van Petten noted, "With all the press focusing on diversity, I'd like to point out that of our 10 nominees, four of them are women, one is international from Mexico and one is from the AARP," the last reference being a joking acknowledgement of Eastwood. "We've honored Clint so much, I feel we need to tease him as well," he quickly added.

The panel discussion, led by PGA president Gary Lucchesi, ranged from development, casting and production to the luck that the films were often blessed with by what Lucchesi called "the movie Gods." 

Inarritu traced the beginnings of Birdman to his idea that everyone has "a tortuous voice" inside their head. "All of us have a birdman," he said. He chose to make his main character an actor because "actors are in a way attached to that kind of ego," and they are also "in the ultimate vulnerable position." Linklater described how, having become a parent, he had wanted to make a movie about kids and parents, but he couldn't crack the story. "My ideas were spread over the years," he recalled. He was about to abandon it, thinking maybe it would be better as a novel, when the idea for Boyhood of shooting a movie over 12 years came to him. "I just saw a film in my head of my young actors growing up and the parents aging. That was the idea to allow me to express the whole part of growing up and what that feels like."

Some of the films came together slowly. Kilik spoke of how he and director Bennett Miller first talked about Foxcatcher eight or nine years ago. But others fell into place relatively quickly. Chaffin related how she and David Fincher were prepping 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea as their next film when it fell apart over casting issues but quickly shifted to Gone Girl when the project was offered to them. "In this business, you really don't know what's going to happen next," she said.

In the case of The Imitation Game, Schwarzman had his eye on Graham Moore's script, but when it went out as a spec script in 2011, it was first optioned by a studio. He had to wait for a year until the studio option lapsed before he was able to pick it up himself. Anthony McCarten wrote his screenplay for The Theory of Everything without first getting any rights to Stephen Hawking's life, so Bruce recounted how that project could have fallen into limbo if Jane Hawking had not eventually given the OK. But, she added, "You want to meet more writers like that who actually take a chance on something."

Dawson told of how once he and director Wes Anderson embarked on The Grand Budapest Hotel, whose main character, the concierge Gustave, was inspired by a friend of Anderson's, the project took shape during the course of a trip they took to Europe in which they relied on "Google scouting," zooming in on interesting locations on a map and then visiting them in person. Writer-director Dan Gilroy's Nightcrawler was inspired by the work of the street photographer known as Weegee, Fox said, and the draft that he first showed her was basically the script that was shot: "We only made script changes for production efficiencies." In order to get Whiplash off the ground, Estabrook explained, writer-director Damien Chazelle first filmed one scene from the script as a short film to show that "not only would J.K. Simmons be incredible, but we wanted to do this in a way that felt like a thriller, like a sports movie."

In terms of general advice to the prospective producers in the audience, Eastwood offered, "Casting in the movie puts you halfway home right away." The biggest challenge in casting Boyhood was finding the boy, the role that ultimate went to Ellar Coltrane, Linklater acknowledged, saying, "It was like finding a new Dalai Lama." The Budapest team conducted a worldwide casting search to find a young actor to play the bellhop Zero only to discover Tony Revolori living in Anaheim, Calif. By contrast, for the part of an L.A. street kid in Nightcrawler, the filmmakers turned to Riz Ahmed, a London-born actor of Pakistani descent. His original audition submission had been buried in a stack of other submissions, but when found, the filmmakers decided he could be perfect for the part, which proved to be the case when he came in for a live audition, having memorized the entire script.

Speaking of the serendipitous moments that happened during the course of filming, Eastwood said, "I love to see when an actor first runs the dialogue, first runs the thought process through their brains." On Boyhood, Linklater's cameras captured a home run at a Houston Astros game: "We felt so charmed, we almost came to expect it," Linklater said. The Theory of Everything team risked everything early in the production by scheduling an outdoor, six-day night shoot for the movie's May Ball sequence, knowing that the notoriously fickle English weather might not cooperate, but luckily for them, bad weather stayed away.

Summing up the role that luck can play on a movie set, and getting a laugh in the process, Chaffin offered, "I often wonder if this is the only business that depends on luck as much as we do. It's the only way to explain why there are so many chuckleheads that get success."