Clint Eastwood's latest directorial effort, Changeling is a tale ripped from the headlines... the headlines of 1928. Writer J. Michael Straczynski was told the tale of the Wineville Chicken Coop Murders from a friend at the Los Angeles City Hall and built the script almost entirely from the historical record of the extraordinary tale of a single mother, (Christine Collins - played by Angelina Jolie) who returns home late from work to discover her nine-year-old son is missing. After a frantic manhunt lasting several months, a boy is found and returned to his mother, but she says it is not her son. The LAPD insist that that it is and pressures the wman into taking him home on a "trial basis"...
Buzzine's Emmanuel Itier sat down with the film's star and director to talk about the challenges of creating period drama, the attention to detail required when bringing an incredible real-life drama to the big screen and the constant influence of corruption in our governments and in our lives...
Mr. Eastwood, if I can start with you: The attention to detail in this film is mind-boggling. I wonder about the amount of research you had put into your movie before you started the cameras rolling, because I assume you have become aware of even the minutia of the story before you shot a single scene.
Clint Eastwood: Yeah, well there was a lot of research you have to do; the art director plays a very big role in this. As far as going back and getting books and going through pictures of the time, there are several pieces of documentary footage of downtown Los Angeles at that particular time. It’s all very crude film, but at the same time, it does give you an idea.
This film took place between 1928 and 1935, and I was around in 1935, so I recall... there is somewhat of a memory there. And then, in the 1950s, I went to college in Los Angeles, and they still had the Red Car streetcars and all that sort of thing, which they don’t have now. It’s too bad they got rid of them, in a way, because they were electric – they were a fine form of transportation... but maybe they wouldn’t have housed enough.
EI: Ms Jolie, it seems appropriate — since the script is so enthralling, so dense, so emotional — to ask you what is it that you look for in a script, when you are, I assume, sent so many to cast an eye over them…?
Angelina Jolie: You know, all for different reasons, but a good story and something that’s worth telling for one reason or another, and occasionally, you stumble across something that is extraordinary, and especially when it’s about a real person in a real time, and something like this. I was saying to Clint, it is such an amazing story – what this woman went through, what was done to her – that if it wasn’t real, everyone would say it’s the worst script ever written because it makes no sense and that would never happen.
When you read the script, they made this very smart choice of putting the first pages of all the Xerox copies of all the pages of The Los Angeles Times in the script so you could see her, and you read the stories and you read the articles, and you could look them up, and they’re fascinating to see. So that this real woman lived through this and fought this system... it was a story of justice to me, in the end, and so that’s always, I think, one of the best stories to tell.
CE: Yes, she is one of those kinds of actresses that comes in, obviously, very prepared. She has a good understanding of the role, of what her participation is going to be, and how she’s going to get there, and it was kind of a director’s dream — we didn’t have to sit around and pseudo-intellectualize too much on what was going on here.
The story was very understandable: Christine Collins, her emotions, and the emotional trauma she’s experiencing is very understandable. It’s not a hard thing to understand. She has to figure out within herself how she’s going to relate to that character and be that character, and my job is to sit there and see what happens and see what she brings.
The way I feel about it as the director –and I do this because this is the way I like to be directed myself – is I don’t want a director coming in and chatting up with a lot of jargon. Let me show you what I’ve got in mind, and then you show me where I’m going wrong. There are a lot of people who need to be talked into things, but in this case, she is not one of them.
EI: Angelina, how did you prepare, because some of the scenes are so intense, what did you have to do before you got on the set?
AJ: Why it was such a great experience for me and why I like working with Clint is because of the way he works: You do know that if you prepare yourself, you know you have to anyway because you feel responsibility, and I think everybody does, to bring their best, and so you work that much harder because you want to.
There have been so many times I’ve worked on films that have required a lot of emotion and a director that didn’t understand it, and you’d start the scene, you start the day, and they do ten takes in a wide shot, and you’re crying and you’re crying and you’re crying, and then they get close, and you’re still trying to emote the same honesty, and then they want to do another, and you feel, by three hours later, you don’t know what’s happening, and you haven’t any sense of “natural.” And he doesn’t do that.
You know that if you’re there and you have everything, he’s going to capture it and he’s not going to exhaust you. You can exhaust yourself because he’s ready – just lay it out for him and he’ll get it, take care of it, and move on, so you feel safe enough to just lay yourself bare and expose everything, and so it’s that that allowed for it.
CE: Sometimes you get a situation where you have these very emotional scenes and I’ll shoot them out of continuity. In other words, I might shoot closer shots first, or medium shots first, and then do wider shots later just for that one reason, and I like to capture actors when they’re still thinking about it, still formulating it in their mind, because after all, what is acting? You’re trying to give the impression that your immediate thought is being translated into your dialogue and it’s your immediate emotion, and when you have to do it 20 times, as you were suggesting earlier, that’s very difficult. And sure, an actor can do it, and yes, you have the technique to do it over and over and over again, but somehow there’s a little glint that gets missing at some point. I just want to be trying for it. I don’t always get it in the first take – I have a reputation for doing everything in one take, and that’s not true.
CE: But if you’re trying for it, and then sometimes, if a technical problem comes up or something… But with the crew I’ve got, they’re always ready to go. I don’t have to say “action” or “roll the film” or anything. I just look at the camera man and he turns it on.
EI: This question is for both of you: When the boy returns, somebody says, “The universe works in mysterious ways.” Do you believe that, and if so, do you have a story that proves it?
AJ: I suppose I would say I’m somebody who usually believes in any kind of fate or something like that, but when I met my son Maddox, I went to that country and I left that country feeling like I had left something behind. And I went back to that country on a humanitarian mission and was playing with blocks with a little kid, and felt, “My son’s here. My son or daughter is here. I’m supposed to… my kid’s here.” And it was the strangest feeling. I met Mad one day, and I didn’t know. I woke up that morning thinking, “They’re going to introduce me to a kid, and I wonder how I’m going to feel,” and the moment I saw him, I knew I was his mother. And I can’t explain it, I don’t know why. I don’t know why that country, but it was absolutely meant to be.
CE: I’ve never had the feeling that I went to a strange country and my son was there, but you know, maybe I was there to sire one, I don’t know. So anyway, I kept an open mind about it all. The universe does work in strange ways. I do believe in fate sometimes, fate having a part of what your life is like and what you become in life, and I know I have had a couple of adverse circumstances growing up where I managed to escape an early demise, and my mother used to say she thought I had a guardian angel on my shoulder, and I thought, “Well, okay, if that’s what you want to think about, that’s great.” But I was, of course, young and impetuous and didn’t think about it really.
EI: Of course, we could always argue that life itself is a miracle... This is a question for Mr. Eastwood: You mentioned before that you like, while you’re filming as a director, to capture actors while they are 'thinking' the roles. Can that also apply to you?
CE: It can. A lot of times, I’m on the set and I’ll have an idea of a scene, and then maybe I’ll start sketching it out with the camera man, or talking, philosophizing a little bit about it, and then finally I’ll say, “Well, let’s just try something here. Let’s just roll something.” And I’ll say, “She’ll come in here,” or “He’ll come in here, they’ll meet, we as a camera will go around here…” and I tell the camera operator, “Just be prepared to move over here at this point, then come back around here,” so I said, “Just stay loose.”
And if the camera is not on a stand, they’ll do that, and if it’s on a stand, it’s on a dolly or something, we’ll still do that. He’s always turning back to the dolly guy and motioning with his thumb – you know, move it to the right a little bit, move it to the left a little bit, so we do a lot of things improvisational and it works. I like it. It’s fun for me to see it like that. But you definitely have to have some sort of a plan, for the most part, because there are certain complications that have to be overcome.
EI: Why do you always choose movies that go to the core of the emotions — you have to think about them a lot after. It’s sometimes suggested that you could make life easier for yourself by choosing less demanding, less thought-provoking movies, but is it that those sorts of films don’t interest you like this meaty, dark stuff?
CE: Yes! Let’s go with that one! [Laughs]... No, the basis of drama is conflict, and the basis of stories are conflict – either inner conflict of one who’s a self, or of physical and emotional conflict with other parties – and so, in order to do that, that’s what’s interesting, that’s what people want to see.
I mean, you can do a very simple story with minimal conflict, and it probably would have a limited audience too, so I think the unusual story… That’s the same reason the newspaper will always put the more unusual stories on the front pages and the less unusual on the back pages. But that doesn’t mean every story should be murder and mayhem; there are a lot of happy stories that are wonderful to tell too, and this story that we’re telling is not necessarily a happy story. But you’re trying to find that – you’re rooting for something, and if you’re rooting for somebody to accomplish something, you’re rooting for Christine Collins to have a life.
As the picture goes on, in my mind, it’s supposed to work that anyway, as Christine Collins, there’s got to be some comeuppance or something where she has some life, and you get it for a moment there in 1935 and she’s back on a job, and life is starting to come back together, and then this case is sort of reopened. But those were the ironies of the real case, and that’s the way it must have been for her.
EI: Before the next question, I believe you are about to make a happier story, Mr. Eastwood, about Mr. Nelson Mandela and his involvements historically, and the Rugby World Cup finals in South Africa. I also understand that a certain Angelina Jolie, though she can’t play rugby yet, is hoping you can find a role for her in this movie.
AJ: Oh, he knows!
CE: Yes, we’re going to do that, and hopefully it’s an inspirational story. It certainly was an interesting time and an interesting dilemma and an interesting conflict too, speaking of inner conflict. Here’s a man who is in prison for 26 years, and all of a sudden comes out and goes from a prisoner to running for and winning the presidency. And then… what do you do after you win?
So it’s how he turns out to be a great inspiration to a lot of people, and not only the black people that were depending on him to come and be a savior, but that the white people that he melded back into the political structure of the town, and he had everybody, he used everybody, he knew how to build esprit de corps among people, and so right now, in this day and age, when we’re looking for inspirational leaders, he certainly was at that particular time in history, and that is a story worth telling.
EI: Mr. Eastwood, you tried very hard, in the movie, to not make it about kidnapping of a child, but of the fight against this corrupt system that condoned or hid that kidnapping. I was wondering, as a tale from the Great Depression Era, is there a resonance for this anti-corruption tale in today’s America, when we see that there’s has also been a lot of corruption from Washington to Wall Street, and also another big recession? To squeeze all that into a simple question: Is corruption is a constant in our lives?
CE: Yes, it is a constant, and it’s not an irony lost on me that Los Angeles has had corrupt moments in its history, and for some reason, I think that’s the inspiration for the Film Noir films that were made in those times. There were so many bizarre incidents, but for some reason, because Los Angeles was left out there by itself in those days on the West Coast, it became a world of its own, and I don’t know why this happens, and corruption is always there. I don’t know how to relate it to the current economic crisis like you’re insinuating there, but there is definitely corruption there, not only from Wall Street – everybody’s blaming it on Wall Street – but corruption among the mentality of our country as well, the people who think they can just take a plastic card and charge the world on it and not really pay attention to what you can afford and live within your means. It’s a different kind of mentality. We’re all living in a kind of a dream world, including Wall Street, and including the politicians who are afraid to institute an economical restraint.
EI: Angelina, perhaps you could look at it from the perspective of someone who’s done a great deal of traveling doing really good works, as a roving ambassador – you must have come across elements of corruption in various countries around the world?
AJ: Certainly, yeah. There’s corruption all around the world, and why this story was interesting to me is because, as much as it’s a story about corruption, it’s a story about the ability to overcome it. For even one individual citizen to change a law, which we have the ability to do in this country, which is pretty amazing and one of the best things about this country, we can certainly focus on the darker side of how it relates, but it also relates in a positive way.
EI: Mr. Eastwood, How do you go about your casting of a film - in the process of deciding to make a movie, do you think, “Oh, Angelina Jolie would be perfect for this part, and John Malkovich for this other part…” ?
CE: It’s just a matter of how you feel at the time. When I was first given this script, I was told that Angelina had read this and liked it, so I told Brian Grazer that I didn’t see any reason to look further. I liked her very much – I liked her as an actress and she is a mother and a famous mother now, but I figured that she would just know all the proper things about this character. And with the others, cast the same way.
I do a lot of casting by videotape of people coming in and reading scenes and what have you, because I’ve been turned down for so many parts over the years in my early career that I hated to be one of those guys sitting there smoking a cigar and blowing smoke in the actors’ faces as they come in to read. So I figure if they come in and casting can give them a read, you just give them a look – how they look, how they sound, how they feel, and then, if you get close to casting them, then you maybe meet with them and talk further, or maybe not at all — sometimes just a reading, like Jason Harner who plays Northcott. He just did a brilliant reading on tape. You just could go, “Yeah! Too bad the regular camera wasn’t running at all. He’s the guy. Yeah, that’s him.” So we didn’t go any further. And we’ve done that on other pictures.
I remember Bird years ago, with Diane Venora, we had a whole tape of about five different actresses I was supposed to look at, and we did the first one and she came on first, and she got about halfway through the scene and I said, “That’s the girl. Okay.” And then everybody said, “No, don’t you want to look at the rest of them?” I said, “For the next picture. For this picture, this is her.”
EI: Angelina, following on from A Mighty Heart, this is the second film for you in recent months based on the portrayal of loss: Does the pain of portraying loss get any easier, or does it remain a constant?
AJ: It doesn’t get easier; it was very different. And certainly Mariane Pearl lost her husband in a very horrific way, but I think even she might agree that the loss of a child and not even knowing where they are is probably the absolute worst thing in the world, so it was harder.
It was harder to think about a child and imagining as a mother everyday that someone might be abusing that child and that child is somewhere wondering why Mommy isn’t coming there to get them. As a mother, that’s just the worst possible — so this film was very painful.
EI: Your performance was such in the film that it occurred to me that the great pain for your character was that she couldn’t be told, “Yes, your son is dead,” and therefore she couldn’t lay him to rest and mourn his passing.
AJ: Absolutely. And never did know until she died.
EI: I was wondering, are you talking to your children about the danger of strangers, since this is a movie about serial killers? Mr. Eastwood, you have kids in different generations. Did your education on the subject change over the years - Are the dangers different from those present when you were a younger father - is it more of a problem today than it was when you were a younger man?
CE: Well, I grew up in a time that was similar to this picture, but at the same token, everybody's kids went out and played, there was no television; everybody played outdoors and your parents always told you, “Beware of strangers” and that old gimmick, which they used in the picture and Northcott used — somebody coming up and telling you, “Your mother’s in the hospital; you must jump in the car and come with us now.” That is one of the oldest ploys in the book and was used by him and other people over the years.
I think your parents have to instill in you, and we have to instill in ours, that not everybody has their best interests at heart, and there are a lot of motivations out there. It’s hard for kids not to know that today, with the great information age we live in, plus watching all the mayhem on television all night — just by watching the news, not even the fictional stories.
So I think it’s up to parents to do the educating on that level, and naturally, a person of higher profile is probably a little more diligent about that than somebody who is not a public figure, but at the same token, you want to give the child a normal life. You don’t want to scare the child and have them going around thinking there’s somebody waiting around the corner to hit them with a club or something. It’s a fine line, and you have to work that out in your family and what your philosophies are, and I suppose the adults at least have to build up a supposing situation.
EI: Angelina, in the way that the film serves as a brutal and very brilliant reminder how vulnerable an innocent and naïve child can be, and you must have thought that many times as a parent, as all us parents do...
AJ: Of course. We do have a high profile family and so we are maybe that much more careful, as Clint mentioned, but also what he said is very true, is that I don’t want my children to be scared of why we have to go quickly into the car, or why that person is running at us with a camera or something. I don’t want them to. It is a fine line of saying to beware of strangers, but not to make them afraid or to say that we have security at this time for this moment, but it’s not because somebody wants to hurt you. You should be able to sleep well at night, it’s okay. But I suppose, as with everything with children, it’s just about communication and being honest with them. So maybe you say everything, and they tell you that you’re crazy, it’s okay, go to bed...
Universal Pictures 'Changeling' opens in limited theaters on October 24, 2008.