Clint Eastwood, filmmaker


Clint Eastwood arrives at the Berlinale riding the crest of acclaim for "Letters From Iwo Jima," with best picture honors from several American critics group and four Oscar nominations, including two for him as producer and director. This is the second of two Eastwood films released near the end of 2006 in the U.S. that centers on the furious battle in 1945 for that small Pacific Ocean island. "Flags of Our Fathers" tells the American side. "Letters" shows the suicide mission of the outnumbered Japanese forces, who dug miles of tunnels through black volcanic rock to connect the 5,000 caves and pillboxes from which they could ambush enemy troops. Eastwood recently discussed this challenge with The Hollywood Reporter's chief film critic Kirk Honeycutt.

The Hollywood Reporter: So how did you become a Japanese director?
Clint Eastwood: It seemed like the natural thing to do. (Laughs.) Seriously, I just was curious about the subject, the material, and after hearing about the battle from American point of view, I got interested about the Japanese side. What was it like to defend that island? I could not find much material. All I found was a book by Gen. Tadamichi Kuribayashi, which was his letters to his wife, daughter and son from 1928 through to his last letters during the war.

THR: The opening scene of the movie shows a group of present-day Japanese unearthing letters from other Japanese soldiers on the island. Has that actually happened?
Eastwood: They have found some letters. There is an association, a group of men, veterans or relatives of veterans, who excavate on the island periodically. There are two different schools of thought in Japan: One is to go excavate and find remains, keep samples of DNA for future use. Another theory is to just leave the island alone as a memorial the way they have it now. The Japanese don't allow tourism or people to traipse through caves that are left intact. There is just the occasional war memorial between the U.S. and Japan, such as the celebration on the 60th anniversary of the battle.

THR: If someone wanted to go to Iwo Jima, could he?
Eastwood: Permission would come from the governor of Tokyo. It's under his prefecture even though he is 700 miles away. They call him governor but he is really like a mayor. No boats go there or planes even, though it has a beautiful airfield.

THR: How did you cast the Japanese actors?
Eastwood: Getting Ken Watanabe was a no-brainer. I'd seen him before in films and liked him very much. He has a great presence onscreen and is a terrific performer. For the rest, we hired a casting person in Tokyo who worked with Phyllis Huffman here (in Los Angeles), communicating back and forth. I was sent tapes where the actors did readings. It's really how I like to cast all my pictures -- keep things very simple, let me see what they look and sound like, how they handle themselves with dialogue. With the language barrier, it was fun just to see and hear. Casting is a major part of any film. If you do it right, you're much closer to the end result you want.

THR: Speaking of language barriers, how did you communicate on the set?
Eastwood: Ken speaks English, so no problem, but I had a translator. Actually, we had four translators sometimes when we were doing the cave stuff.

THR: You used different locations than "Flags of Our Fathers," right?
Eastwood: I got a few shots while doing "Flags" in Iceland that I knew I was going to use. But mostly we shot in an old silver mine in Barstow. (Barstow is a small city in the western Mojave Desert midway between Los Angeles and Las Vegas.) Because the Japanese are sensitive about (a film crew) using pyrotechnics and running through the caves of Iwo Jima, we couldn't shoot there. But the silver mine had terrific caves. Really great. When you drive to Las Vegas, off to the left is a town called Calico, which had very active mining tunnels in the late 1800s. They weave every which way and provided ideal angles. The U.S. invasion took place on two miles of black sand on Iwo Jima. Those dark-gray sand beaches are very hard to duplicate. But we were able to find a couple of black sand areas in Barstow due to the volcanic mountains nearby. But I did feel guilty about many of the actors coming from Japan on their first trip to the states and introducing them not to New York or Los Angeles or San Francisco but Barstow. A few did get to Las Vegas. So we spent three weeks there, then went back for a few sequences on the Warner Bros. lot, then finally to Iwo Jima to finish the picture.

THR: What do you make of U.S. critical reception to "Flags" versus "Letters"?
Eastwood: I wasn't displeased by the reception on "Flags." It just seemed like the reviewers liked "Letters" better. Surprisingly, even American veterans of the battle were extremely curious to see the film. They always wondered and were curious about what was going on on the enemy's side. Many didn't actually come into contact with the enemy.

THR: How was the reception in Japan?
Eastwood: Really good. The film had good notices there and it now looks like (the boxoffice) is going beyond $40 million.

THR: The battle of Iwo Jima is not widely known in Japan, is it?
Eastwood: No, it has been erased from history; it isn't taught in schools. The younger actors had never heard of it at all. Even Ken Watanabe, who is in his late 40's, hadn't heard much about it. In the U.S., it's well publicized for what a tremendous battle it was, in 1945 and beyond. It has always been publicized by the Marine Corps as its biggest battle.

THR: What is your anticipation of the film's reception in Europe?
Eastwood: I haven't the foggiest idea. I never anticipate. I've been around long enough not to ever do that. It's gone over very well in Japan and well in the U.S. in limited engagements and is expanding all the time. That's all I know about it. It's in the hands of fate (in Europe).

THR: Is this your first time in Berlin?
Eastwood: Yes, I've been to Munich and Hamburg many times but never Berlin.

THR: Maybe you'll pick up enough German to make a film about the war from a German point of view.
Eastwood: (Laughs) A sort of "All Quiet on the Western Front" for World War II? You know, I've got to say I was not looking for anything like this -- to do a film in another language. But it just seemed a natural thing to do when I wanted to tell the story of the battle from the enemy's point of view.