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Clint Eastwood: The Set Whisperer 

Shooting quietly on the Changeling set

Wednesday, Dec 19 2007
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The first thing you notice when you walk on to the set, inside the shuttered Park Plaza Hotel overlooking MacArthur Park, are the 300 extras in late-1920s period costumes, seated at cafeteria tables in a holding area, gazing up at you in their wool suits (for the men) and cloche hats (for the women) as though all of this were perfectly normal, as though you were the one who had just beamed in from another dimension. The second thing you notice is how completely, utterly quiet the place is. No production assistants madly rushing about. No ringing bells. No one yelling “quiet on the set” — or, for that matter, yelling. If you didn’t know better, you’d swear they weren’t shooting a big Hollywood movie here at all.

And yet, they are. It’s called The Changeling. It’s the 28th movie directed by Clint Eastwood and the first he’s made for a studio other than Warner Bros. since Absolute Power in 1997. (The film will be released next year by Universal, where its producers, Ron Howard and Brian Grazer, have a deal.) The first time I interviewed Eastwood, in 2004, he discussed his preference for calm and order during production. He had once attended a White House dinner, he said, and taken notice of the barely audible two-way radios (consisting of an earpiece and compact throat microphone) used by the Secret Service agents. Why, he wondered, couldn’t that technology be imported to a movie set, to cut down on the incessant screeching and squawking of open walkie-talkies? And so he did just that. But to hear Eastwood describe his process is one thing, and to see it being applied is something else entirely.

It’s mid-November, halfway through The Changeling’s 35-day shoot, and an upstairs ballroom has been transformed by production designer James Murakami into an elaborate replica of the Los Angeles City Council chambers. It’s there that a woman named Christine Collins sued the city for damages after her nine-year-old son Walter was kidnapped and a shrewd runaway named Arthur Hutchins, Jr. was returned to her in his place. When Collins protested that the boy was not her real son, an LAPD captain, J.J. Jones, had her committed to the psychopathic ward of L.A. General hospital.

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The story is true. None of the names have been changed by screenwriter J. Michael Straczynski. They include a wellspring of fascinating but largely forgotten figures from the city’s past, including the firebrand Presbyterian evangelist Gustav Briegleb, who helped rally the public behind Collins, and the flamboyant defense attorney Sammy “S.S.” Hahn, whose client roster included celebrated hoaxer Aimee Semple McPherson and convicted murderess Louise Peete, and who in 1957 tied two concrete bricks around his neck and drowned himself in the deep end of a Tick Canyon swimming pool.

In The Changeling, Hahn is played by character actor Geoff Pierson, best known as the U.S. president in the fourth season of 24, and the scene being shot today is the kind that actors playing lawyers dream of ­— an impassioned, accusatory aria in which Hahn hurls reams of incontrovertible evidence at the smirking Jones (played by Burn Notice star Jeffrey Donovan) to the enthusiastic cheers of a crowded courtroom. As Eastwood prepares to roll, the extras file in with the hushed decorum of parishioners at Sunday Mass. Then the film’s stars, Angelina Jolie (who plays Collins) and John Malkovich (who plays Briegleb), take their front-and-center seats.

After conferring briefly with the actors (including a note to Pierson to speak his lines at a “Preston Sturges” tempo), Eastwood tells the crew, “Let’s do this and see how it goes,” and they begin, Pierson orating grandly as a steadicam operator follows his every move. When the shot is over, Eastwood mutters a barely audible “Stop” — “cut” being a word, like “action,” he avoids at all costs. And with that, the crew prepares the next set-up. There is no pause for playback — the ritual on most film sets where the director watches the take on a video monitor to see if he’s happy with it. On an Eastwood set, playback isn’t even a possibility, since nothing, save the image on the film inside the cameras, is being recorded. In another technological innovation, Eastwood and his cinematographer, Tom Stern, use small, handheld wireless video monitors that allow them to watch a live feed of a given shot. But as I observe Eastwood, I see that, more often, his gaze is fixed intently on the actors.

All this, too, is part of the Eastwood mythology: He is famous for putting his trust in first (or, at most, second) takes, for sometimes shooting (and using in the finished film) what the actors think is merely a rehearsal, and for moving from A to B with a speed that belies his 77 years.

“You have to choose the crew as carefully as you choose the cast,” he tells me during the brief break between shots, which could explain why some of Eastwood’s collaborators have been working with him for as long as 25 years. Then Eastwood’s in-house producer, Robert Lorenz (who began working with Eastwood as a second assistant director on The Bridges of Madison County), interrupts to get “the boss’?” approval on a long-lead Changeling press release about to be issued by the studio. Eastwood looks it over and asks that the words “based on a true story” be removed from the film’s synopsis. “The important thing,” he says, “is whether it’s a good story, and if it’s well told.” After that, it’s back to work, as Eastwood and company plow through the rest of the sequence, finishing the entire day’s shooting before lunch. “We do in eight hours what most crews do in 16,” says Eastwood’s current second AD, Katie Carroll, whose duties, I discern, include walking the perimeter of the set and shushing the extras whenever the noise level on the set rises above a modest din. This seems like a very civilized way of going about making a movie.

“I thought this was going to be one of the most difficult things I’ve ever done, given the subject matter, but instead it’s been the easiest,” Jolie tells me, looking even more radiant than usual in her period attire and short bob hairdo. It’s now early December, one week before shooting wraps, and the production has arrived at the climactic scene in which Collins confronts convicted child-killer Gordon Northcott, in his prison cell on the eve of his execution. It’s a physically and emotionally draining sequence, during which Jolie must push actor Jason Butler Harner (who plays Northcott with a sniveling creepiness) against a wall and repeatedly ask, “Did you kill my son?” — her pleas becoming increasingly anguished until two guards intervene. It is, Jolie says, her “big, Stella Dallas moment.”

On stage 20 of the Warner Bros. lot in Burbank, production designer Murakami has constructed Northcott’s cell, as well as the institutional shower and elaborate series of interconnecting hospital corridors where the final week of shooting will take place. Today, there are no extras on set, and the faint chill that hangs in the unheated air seems appropriate to the gravity of the scene.

This turns out to be, by Eastwood standards, a long day, which means that instead of wrapping at four in the afternoon, shooting drags on until six. At one point, I venture across the lot to the film’s post-production suite, where editor Joel Cox shows me his cut of the courtroom scene. When I return, Eastwood is prepping the last shot of the day (known, in insider Hollywood parlance, as the “martini shot”). I tell him I like what I’ve seen and look forward to seeing how it all turns out. He shoots me his deadpan, squinty gaze and says, his voice just this side of a whisper, “I look forward to seeing how it turns out myself.”

Reach the writer at sfoundas@villagevoice.com

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