When director Clint Eastwood takes his seat at the front of the room to talk to reporters in LA about his latest movie Sully, his grey hair, elderly manner and occasional stumble for words reminds you he’s an 86-year-old man.
It’s easy to forget that while looking over his recent career. With the exception of 2015 he’s directed and sometimes starred in at least one film every year for the last 19 years – a pace plenty of screen artists a third his age would (rightfully) boast about.
A legendarily fast worker who expects his actors to show up fully prepared and often shoots no more than single takes, Eastwood still seems to barely break a sweat while making a movie no matter how many effects or stunts are involved.
Just like his latest subject Capt. Chesley Sullenberger, Eastwood seems suited to the all-too causally used word ‘hero’. His last 20 years as a director alone grants him pretty exalted status in the movies, but when you add the iconic characters (Dirty Harry) and styles (the spaghetti Westerns of Sergio Leone, World War II adventure movies) he’s contributed to cinema history, there are few superlatives that don’t apply.
How difficult or stressful was it to shoot the scenes of the water landing?
Terribly difficult with these particular actors. I don’t want to say too much about it here, I didn’t know they were going to be sitting right here next to me, so I have to tell a little lie here.
Actually, I was very fortunate to have these guys. Laura Linney I’ve worked with before and I feel very fond of her, but Tom I’ve always been a great admirer of. He’s from Oakland, so he’s always told me I have to be a great admirer, because I’m from Oakland too.
Aaron I’ve seen in films too and he was terrific, so, I was lucky to have them.
How did you come by the script and what drew you in?
It’s a very good question. When people say ‘very good question’ it’s because they’re really trying to think of what’s the very good answer to go with it.
This script sat on my desk for almost a week and one night I was going home and then my assistant said, ‘Take these scripts with you.’ Then she says, ‘Look at the one, it’s called ‘untitled script about the miracle on the Hudson’, something like that.
So I went home and I started reading the other scripts and then she said, ‘Did you read the one about the Hudson?’ I said no. Then the next night I read the other script. She said, ‘Did you read the one about the Hudson?’ So obviously when somebody says it three or four times all week long, something in that script really appeals to her. I’d better read this.
So I read it, and I thought, what the hell was I reading? Why wasn’t I reading this script instead of those other turkeys? I just fell in love with it right away. I thought I knew all about the miracle on the Hudson because I followed the news very carefully when the event happened.
All of a sudden it made sense, and the first thing I started asking myself is ‘what’s the conflict there?’ This guy Sullenberger did a fabulous job landing the plane, all 155 lived, where’s the conflict there? Well no, he went through periods of self-doubt inspired by the National Transportation Society, or whatever the hell it’s called. The NTSB. He had to actually prove his decisions and they came out to be the right decisions, so then it became very dramatic.
That’s what I was looking for, the drama, sometimes you just have to look deeper than your first thought. You think, well, this was a wonderful event, but who wants to see a whole movie about it? Now you have to live through it with him, you have to feel emotions about the various characters and all the different attitudes you have about that.
His family life, how it affects him, how it affects his self-reliance. It became a very fascinating story. All I did was just add some different things, some dream sequences and things, so that the viewer could see what it would be like if he hadn’t made those decisions, and get a feeling of that in a nightmarish fashion. One thing leads to another, and there you are.
Your films have changed greatly over the years. What do you feel has driven your development as a director?
It’s just time, time goes on. Maybe it’s because I’m spending more time behind the camera, I’m not so concerned with projects that demand my presence. I’m relieved of that, and I can go ahead and worry about what everybody else is doing. It was just a matter of growing up, you never stop growing up.
If you do, then you’re not going to be at the enjoyable part of your life. The reason life is enjoyable to me is that I learn something new every day, hopefully, about myself, about other people, other actors. Watching other people perform is very exciting for me.
Do you think the word ‘hero’ is a bit misused or overused nowadays?
I agree, I think it’s certainly different than when I grew up, when you thought of heroes you thought of somebody who had done something that was above and beyond the norm in a certain situation. It’s all in this politically correct thing now we have where everybody has to win a prize. All the little boys in the class have to go home with the first place trophy. Even soldiers, a lot of them were clerks or typists and they were a lot of things other than riflemen so they don’t get a chance to be heroes, but they were very important people.
The use of the word hero is a little bit overdone, but I don’t think so in Sully’s case. I don’t think so in somebody who’s just gone a little extra beyond what he could be expected.
You’re a keen helicopter pilot. Does that give you a different understanding of Sully’s achievements? Have you ever thought of graduating to planes?
I might flunk. I’ve flown helicopters for maybe 35 years, maybe 40 years. I still own one, but I haven’t flown it much lately because I’ve been doing films of heroic people with heroic actors.
It had an influence on me. I like aviation, I’m fascinated by it, I was always fascinated by it as a kid, though I never followed through with it as an adult. When you go to fly every day you check your plane out.
It would be like if you got into your car in the morning and you go and check the lugs on every wheel, you check the gasoline and then check under the hood, change the oil. With a car, we just jump in and we don’t care if the wheel’s half off, as long as I get there by the skin of my teeth. In aviation you just don’t do that. You need an exacting person, somebody who’s really good with detail and knows and lives by the rules.
Sully is that kind of guy. He didn’t live by the rules in making the decision about landing on the Hudson because he’d been through training and everything but he’d never imagined himself doing that before then, I don’t think. All of a sudden you have to think and make a lot of things happen in very few seconds. That’s what the whole story is about, did he or did he not?
You’re also a plane crash survivor. Did that help you understand what these 155 people went through?
I think it did, but I haven’t really thought that much about it in recent years. When this project came up I went back and thought about it a little bit, but it was a little bit different because I wasn’t with a group of people. I didn’t have to react off anybody else. I never knew what the pilot was doing, I was just guessing that he was going to do a water landing. If he’d bailed out and left me there I’d have been in bad trouble. Fortunately he did the right thing and waited for me.
That was an experience that was different, but by the same token it gives you an idea, the way you get to that moment, where you’re feeling, well, this is it. Some people live through this, and some people don’t. That was all I thought about, and fortunately, when we got in the water I felt much better.
What can the audience most learn from the movie?
That’s the way Sully is, he gives everybody credit but he doesn’t dwell on it or make an expository comment.
You seem to want to script tell the story and not use too much flourish or embellishment as a director. Is that your approach?
The only embellishment I did beyond the script is the dream sequences. I added those because if you take the movie as an hour and a half, I didn’t want the landing to be a few seconds in an hour and a half and then an hour and 28 minutes of chat about it. Dream sequences happen so the audience can be into the picture for other reasons other than just finding out about Sully.
If he hadn’t done what he had done, things would have been a mess. People with single-engine aircraft are always looking for some place to land. If that river hadn’t been there, it would have been bad. A lot of things have to fall into place for this event to happen, but it did because the right guy was there to take advantage of it at the time.
If he had waited a few seconds longer it wouldn’t have worked, and if he had gone too early he would have not made the airport, he would have come up short on the other end. There’s a lot of ‘what ifs’, but he did the right thing.
You also don’t seem to have a signature visual style.
Sometimes you read a story you’re seeing it as a finished product. Then as you think about it as you go, well maybe the finished product could use a little of this or a little of that. It’s just your thoughts along the way, and you put them down