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EASTWOOD ON THE PITCH 

At 79, Clint tackles Mandela in Invictus

Thursday, Dec 10 2009
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On a late March morning, the sun sits high in the Cape Town sky, illuminating the trapezoidal monolith of Table Mountain in the distance, while down by the city’s busy waterfront, the players of South Africa’s national rugby union team — the Springboks — go for a training run. Only the careful observer might notice that, on this particular morning, the team’s signature green-and-gold uniforms aren’t of the most recent design, and none of the cars passing by on the waterfront thoroughfare bears a model year newer than 1995. Upon closer inspection, he might also notice a familiar if incongruous figure standing off to one side, tall and slender in a golf shirt and chinos, watching the scene transpire on a small, handheld video monitor. After a moment, the figure looks up and almost imperceptibly signals his approval, not with the traditional “Cut! Print!” but rather a small nod of his head and a whispered “that was good. Let’s move on.”

It’s the 24th day of filming on Clint Eastwood’s Invictus, the 30th film he has directed in a career that now spans more than a half-century — and, as usual on an Eastwood set, if you didn’t know they were shooting a major Hollywood movie here, you’d be none the wiser. No trailers and equipment trucks line the streets — they’re parked at a “base camp” a few miles away — and by the time a small crowd of onlookers begins to form, Eastwood has gotten what he needs and is on his way to the next location. Of his storied speed and efficiency — the discipline of a veteran actor who knows that long stretches of waiting around can wear out a performer — Eastwood says it’s simply a matter of trusting his instincts. “If you have five answers to choose from on a multiple-choice test, usually your first choice is the right answer,” he tells me during a break between shots. Later in the day, Matt Damon, who sports a prosthetic nose, heavily muscled-up physique and a spot-on Afrikaner accent to play the Springboks’ captain, François Pienaar, says that working with Eastwood is “the top of the mountain for every department.” Then he jokes that he’s having such a good time he feels guilty about cashing his paychecks.

“I’ll be waiting for my kickback,” Eastwood grumbles good-naturedly from his director’s chair.

The pace at which Eastwood moves through a movie is the same one with which he greets life itself, as if mindful of the old adage that an idle mind is the devil’s playground. In January of this year, on the eve of his 79th birthday and less than two months before starting the Invictus shoot, he was busy promoting Gran Torino, which became the highest-grossing film of his career as actor or director. When I showed up in South Africa this spring, Eastwood was several days ahead of the planned Invictus shooting schedule. Before postproduction on Invictus wrapped earlier this fall, he was already shooting a new film on location in Paris and London. Keeping up with Clint Eastwood, I discover, can be an exhausting task for all but Eastwood himself.

Based on journalist John Carlin’s superb nonfiction book, Playing the Enemy: Nelson Mandela and the Game That Made a Nation, Eastwood’s film returns us to a moment in South Africa’s recent past, when the country was taking its first steps as a free nation after 46 years of segregationist apartheid rule. It was a moment, symbolized by the 1994 election of Mandela (who is played in Invictus by Morgan Freeman) as the country’s first freely elected president, celebrated the world over. At home, however, there was much work to be done. As Carlin explains in his dense and deeply reported account, Mandela’s election was the culmination of a decadelong series of secret negotiations between the future president, the reigning National Party government of F.W. de Klerk, and the leaders of the pro-black African National Congress, designed to bring an end to apartheid while forestalling the civil war that threatened to erupt between extremist groups on both ends of the political spectrum. Still, as Mandela took office, there were those members of the former ruling class who suspected him of being a “terrorist” who wanted to “drive the white man into the sea.” Similarly, certain Mandela supporters wished he would do exactly that.

“Don’t address their brains, address their hearts” had long been Mandela’s personal credo when it came to dealing with his jailers and political opponents. While incarcerated at Pollsmoor Prison in the 1980s, Mandela had boned up on the predominately Afrikaner pastime of rugby in order to work his patented charm offensive on one of the prison’s senior officers — a strategy that resulted in Mandela getting a much-desired hot plate for his cell. Now, in a display of the uncanny prescience and insight into human nature that defined his political career, Mandela would again turn to the secular religion of sports as a way of unifying his nascent “Rainbow Nation.” With the Rugby World Cup scheduled to be hosted by South Africa in little more than a year’s time, he became convinced that the Springboks — who had been banned from international tournament play during the apartheid era — could win the World Cup and, with it, the hearts and minds of the country. The result was an intersection of athletics and politics as dramatic as Jesse Owens’ performance at the 1936 Berlin Olympics, or the U.S. hockey team’s defeat of the U.S.S.R. in 1980’s so-called “Miracle on Ice.”

“He just had some instinct — almost like somebody touched him on the shoulder and said, ‘This will work,’ ” says Eastwood with the awe that seems to creep into people’s voices whenever Mandela is mentioned. “How the hell he figured that, I don’t know.”

Seen from the Cape Town shore, Robben Island might be mistaken for a nature preserve (indeed, it is home to several thousand indigenous penguins, rabbits and feral cats) or a rustic tourist retreat. As you draw near, however, there is something forbidding about the former leper colony and the jagged limestone rocks that form a natural barricade around it.

The day after my initial visit to the Invictus set, the tourist ferry transporting Eastwood and the crew from the mainland is painted with brightly colored human figures raising their hands in gestures of freedom, but the two dozen extras seated nearby, costumed in Robben Island’s apartheid-era prison khakis, offer a vivid reminder of the enemies of the state who made this very journey in the hold of the ship, blacked-out portholes obscuring their view. Decommissioned now and preserved as a historical museum staffed mostly by former inmates, a small primary school offering the only evidence of the dwindling local population, Robben Island exudes the haunted air of a Civil War battlefield or a Nazi concentration camp — a monument to inhumanity. It is here, in one of the long, barrackslike buildings dotting the arid landscape, that prisoner number 46664, a.k.a. Nelson Mandela, spent two-thirds of his 27-year incarceration.

The first of the day’s scenes to be shot dramatizes an actual visit to the prison made by the Springboks in May 1995, the day after they had vanquished defending champions Australia in the first match of the World Cup. As the actors file in — most, except for Damon and Eastwood’s 23-year-old son, Scott (who is playing the fly half Joel Stransky), actual rugby players cast locally — no acting is needed to express their astonishment at what they see. The spartan cells where Mandela and his fellow prisoners were held measure about 50 square feet — barely large enough for a man of Mandela’s size (more than 6 feet tall) to extend fully his arms. Mandela’s cell, which has been kept in its original condition, contains only a small table, some metallic bowls, a bucket toilet and a folded blanket. (Beds were not introduced until 1974, a decade into his stay.)

Outside in the prison yard, Eastwood, his cinematographer Tom Stern (an Oscar nominee for his work on 2007’s Changeling) and visual effects supervisor Michael Owens stand in a semicircle discussing several approaches to filming a scene in which Pienaar sees a transparent, ghostly image of Mandela, sitting alone in his cell, reading the William Ernest Henley poem that will eventually give the movie (at this point known only as Untitled Mandela Project) its title. Meanwhile, the production designer James J. Murakami (also a Changeling Oscar nominee) is dressing the prison yard in sand and limestone for a flashback scene in which Mandela and other prisoners sit chiseling the large rocks into smaller ones — the bane of many a Robben Islander’s existence. Helping to set the scene is Derrick Grootboom, an ANC activist and former Robben Island inmate who was arrested in 1986 on charges of sabotage, after lobbing a petrol bomb through the window of a government eviction office in the town of Dysselsdorp. Sentenced to seven years, he remained on Robben Island until the last political prisoners were freed, in 1991.

“There are always good people amongst us,” the cheerful Grootboom tells me as we sit on one of the large limestone slabs, recalling one birthday he celebrated behind bars. Although he received no gifts, one of the guards sang him a song, “Jesus Is Love” by the Commodores. “He lifted me up,” Grootboom says, staring off into the distance. Now 42 and recently elected as a judge to the Cape High Court, Grootboom was working as a private prosecutor when the Springboks played their 1995 World Cup Final against New Zealand’s undefeated All Blacks and remembers watching the game on television together with his colleagues. “We weren’t White, Black, Indian and Coloured,” he says, rattling off apartheid’s four racial designations. “We were just South Africans.” Then came the iconic moment, depicted in Eastwood’s film, when Mandela stepped onto the field to greet both teams, wearing a Springbok cap and a replica of Pienaar’s No. 6 jersey. “When he went onto the field, wearing that jersey,” Grootboom recalls, “he was the epicenter of where the country was going.” At that point, it could be argued, the Springboks had won something much more valuable than a gilded trophy.

As morning gives way to afternoon, Freeman arrives on set already in costume, his resemblance to Mandela striking. It was, after all, the president himself who, when asked at a press conference whom he thought should play him in a movie, suggested Freeman. Shooting begins, with Freeman and the extras dutifully chiseling away. When Eastwood asks for a second take, Freeman feigns indignation. “Have you ever broken stones?” he asks his director. “This is the last time I work for Eastwood!”

From behind the camera, Eastwood shoots his old friend, whom he has directed twice before, a sly grin.

When Eastwood gets the shot to his liking, the crew breaks for lunch, and I find myself seated opposite an extra playing one of the Robben Island jailers — a thick-necked man with an even thicker Afrikaner accent, who tells me he can trace his family’s lineage back to South Africa’s first Dutch settlers. Afterward, I hop on the wrong transport van and, instead of being taken back to the set, end up on the other end of the island, at the visitor’s center, where Freeman and his longtime agent, Fred Specktor, are cooling their heels until Freeman is needed for his next scene. (Specktor, a no-nonsense, old-school Hollywood type, wears a single gold earring in his right ear, similar to the one in Freeman’s own — the result of a promise the agent made to the actor when he was trying to sign him as a client.)

Courtly and charming, Freeman tells me about the protracted and ultimately fruitless struggle by which he, his producing partner, Lori McCreary, and a succession of writers attempted to distill Mandela’s sprawling 1994 memoir, Long Walk to Freedom, into a manageable screenplay. Then Freeman met John Carlin, when the reporter came to Mississippi (where Freeman resides) to report on American poverty for the Spanish newspaper El Pais. Carlin, who knew of Freeman’s desire to make a film about Mandela, told him the story of Playing the Enemy, which had not yet been published. Freeman, who clearly relishes being a step ahead of the game, had already read Carlin’s book proposal as it was making its way around Hollywoood. The South African–born screenwriter Anthony Peckham was subsequently hired to hammer out a script. When it came to choosing a director, “My first two choices were Clint Eastwood and Clint Eastwood,” says Freeman, who won the 2005 Supporting Actor Oscar for his role as a one-eyed ex-boxer in Eastwood’s Million Dollar Baby. Asked to elaborate, Freeman says that while many younger, less confident directors second-guess themselves and dither endlessly with their producers around the playback monitor, Eastwood simply “brings the actors in, figures out how to accommodate what they do, and that’s it.”

With that, we make our way back to the set for Freeman’s last shot of the day — another flashback, this time set in the massive limestone quarry where particle dust so deeply penetrated Mandela’s eyes that, upon his release, he had to have his tear ducts surgically drained. As the sun dips toward the horizon, Freeman climbs down into the quarry, picks up a shovel — a somewhat difficult feat given that the nerves in his left arm are still regenerating from injuries he sustained in an August 2008 car crash — and starts to dig. When Eastwood signals that it’s a wrap for the day, Freeman looks up, wipes his brow and says with a smile, “When you’re doing what you’re supposed to be doing in life, you feel good. I’m supposed to be working with Clint Eastwood.”

By early August, barely two months after returning from South Africa, Eastwood and his longtime editor, Joel Cox (an Oscar winner for Unforgiven), have already finished a fine-cut assembly of Invictus, save for some 600 visual-effects shots that will be finessed by Michael Owens before the film’s December release. At the Warner Bros. lot in Burbank, on the film scoring stage that bears Eastwood’s name, a large orchestra is recording the Invictus score — a simple piano melody, plus some traditional African choral music and a couple of original songs, most of it written by Eastwood’s son Kyle and his partner Michael Stevens (who have worked on the music for Eastwood’s last five features). In a testament to the literal and figurative family atmosphere that is a constant around Eastwood’s Malpaso Productions, the piano player in the Invictus orchestra is one Michael Lang, son of the legendary Jennings Lang, who produced Eastwood’s 1971 directorial debut, Play Misty For Me. (On the set in South Africa, I also learned that Eastwood’s focus puller, Bill Coe, is married to his boom operator, Gail Carroll-Coe, and that their son, Trevor, also works in the camera department as a loader.)

Toward the back of the stage, the senior Eastwood, flanked by Cox and his in-house producer, Rob Lorenz, gives occasional notes on the placement of a cue but mostly nods his approval as sound and image come together before his eyes. Already, there is much discussion about Eastwood’s next project, Hereafter, which he expects to begin shooting by early fall. Based on an original script by The Queen and Frost/Nixon writer Peter Morgan, the film links together three stories, each in some way about the border between life and death, this world and the next.(Reuniting with his Invictus director, Damon will star as an auto-factory worker who was once a spritual medium.)

“It’s unexplored terrain,” Eastwood tells me when I ask what drew him to the material, and indeed, though he has twice cast himself as something like an angel of death, in the existential westerns High Plains Drifter and Pale Rider, he has never made a film on an overtly supernatural subject. “I liked the way Peter Morgan incorporates real events like the [2004 Indian Ocean] tsunami and the terrorist attacks on London into a fictional story,” he continues. “Also, there’s a certain charlatan aspect to the hereafter, to those who prey on people’s beliefs that there’s some afterlife, and mankind doesn’t seem to be willing to accept that this is your life and you should do the best you can with it and enjoy it while you’re here, and that’ll be enough. There has to be immortality or eternal life and embracing some religious thing. I don’t have the answer. Maybe there is a hereafter, but I don’t know, so I approach it by not knowing. I just tell the story.”

Two weeks later, early on a Friday morning, Owens has a batch of effects shots from Invictus’ climactic World Cup Final ready for Eastwood’s review, and as they look at the footage in a Warner screening room — Owens using a laser pointer to address certain details — what appears on the screen scarcely seems to be computer-generated at all. Mandela’s ghostly apparition on Robben Island does, of course, but most of what Owens has created, like the best film editing, will blend so seamlessly into the finished film as to never be noticed by the average filmgoer.

Sweat and dirt have been added to the Springbok uniforms, as have blood and bruises to the players’ faces. “Grub ’em all up,” Eastwood says enthusiastically, noting that such digital wizardry has alleviated the need for time-consuming makeup touch-ups during shooting. In addition, a film-processing error that had caused the Springboks’ green jerseys to appear brown has been corrected, and Johannesburg’s Ellis Park Stadium, site of the 1995 World Cup Final, has been digitally aged to remove all signs of the facility’s extensive 2008 renovation. Owens, a veteran of George Lucas’ Industrial Light & Magic, who first worked with Eastwood on 2000’s Space Cowboys, acknowledges that there was a steep learning curve involved in bringing the director (who hadn’t made an effects-heavy picture since Firefox nearly two decades earlier) into the CGI era. Yet Eastwood has made the leap, and Owens has become one more indispensable player on team Malpaso.

“There’s a selfishness to it,” Eastwood says when I ask him about his well-known loyalty to his collaborators. “They’re all people I can depend on. They’re people I don’t have to start from scratch with just in order to be on the same wavelength with them. They know kind of where I’m headed, and so we just say a few things to each other and we can be sort of minimalistic as far as the intellectual discussion of things.”

The next time I see Eastwood is on a brisk, slate-colored morning in early November on Hereafter’s London set. A small auditorium in Red Lion Square, near Bloomsbury, has been converted into the fictional Center For Psychic Advancement, for one of several scenes in which Marcus, a 12-year-old boy from an inner-city housing estate, attempts to contact his twin brother, Jason, who is killed in a car accident earlier in the script. Although Eastwood seems his usually relaxed self, there’s a subtle tension in the air brought on by the tight time restrictions governing the use of minors on film sets. Marcus and Jason are played, respectively and sometimes interchangeably, by Frankie and George McLaren, identical twins who have a wise-beyond-their-years pallor reminiscent of Haley Joel Osment in The Sixth Sense — a film produced, like Eastwood’s, by the husband-and-wife team of Frank Marshall and Kathleen Kennedy.

Unlike Osment, however, who was already a professional child actor with a string of film and TV credits behind him at the time of M. Night Shyamalan’s film, the McLaren boys are screen newcomers who have been learning as they go on the set. Eastwood, who has directed children many times before, confides that some days have gone more smoothly than others, and in contrast to the taciturn, hands-off directing style Eastwood favors with stars like Damon and Freeman, these non-pros bring out another side of the actor-turned-director — the patient, nurturing mentor. It’s a curious sight indeed, the gruff septuagenarian legend with his arm around the diminutive preteens, literally walking Frankie through the paces of one shot and, a bit later, standing just off camera, breaking down the emotional beats for a close-up in which Georgie must show, without the aid of dialogue, that he is losing faith in yet another sham psychic. “You’re starting to think this guy’s another phony,” Eastwood whispers, then, after getting a reaction he likes, “You’re feeling like you want to get up and leave.”

As the day nears its end in London, Eastwood and producer Lorenz stand around a computer watching QuickTime videos of the latest effects shots e-mailed by Owens from L.A., which is just waking up. Back home, Invictus is being fine-tuned for its first press screenings.

When I see Invictus in its finished form a week or so later, I’m struck by how effectively Eastwood has managed to capture a sense of Mandela’s diplomatic genius while neatly avoiding most of the potholes that have capsized many a Hollywood film about South Africa. In the late ’80s and early ’90s, as global outrage over apartheid politics grew, movies like The Power of One (which also starred Freeman), Cry Freedom (about assassinated activist Steve Biko) and A Dry White Season (featuring Marlon Brando as a charismatic human-rights attorney) took on the subject, mostly by relying on crusading white interlocutors and offering a heavily stereotyped vision of the apartheid struggle, which one native South African, Financial Mail critic Peter Wilhelm, memorably termed “Adolf Hitler versus The Cosby Show.”

Despite the presence of the Pienaar character — and no shortage of bone-crunching rugby action — Invictus is unmistakably told through Mandela’s eyes, with keen attention to the skepticism his policies engendered on both sides of South Africa’s racial divide (typified by an excellent scene in which the president reprimands his own party members for plotting to abolish the Springbok team colors and logo, seen by many South African blacks as symbols of the apartheid patriarchy). At the same time, Eastwood’s film doesn’t suffer from the bleeding-heart rush to canonization that pervaded several lesser, made-for-TV Mandela movies. Although it’s far from a comprehensive biopic, Eastwood and screenwriter Peckham take pains to show the distance between the public and private Mandela, a man who feels considerably more at ease pouring tea for a former enemy than communicating with his estranged wife and children. It is in precisely this gray zone that Freeman’s performance, justly praised by former New York Times South Africa correspondent Bill Keller as “less an impersonation than an incarnation,” grows large. He manages to play one of history’s great men without ever losing sight of the fact that he is, as one of Mandela’s bodyguards describes him in the film, “not a saint. He’s a man, with a man’s problems.”

“You’ve made the first movie of the Obama generation!” So exclaimed an enthusiastic fan upon rushing up to Eastwood after a preview screening of Gran Torino (in which Eastwood starred as a racist Korean War vet who rallies to the defense of his embattled Hmong neighbors) late last year — to which the filmmaker gently replied that he had been born under Herbert Hoover. But somewhere in that exchange lies a particular truth about Eastwood, whose recent films have seemed ineluctably of the moment, even as the director has turned toward the past as a way to explain the present. Far be it for this intrinsically classical, unpretentious filmmaker to tackle head-on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, but he might give us Flags of Our Fathers and Letters From Iwo Jima, a double-sided postcard of the “good” war, the young men who fought in it, and the atrocities wrought by each side. While he would surely have equally little interest in making a film directly about the current climate on Capitol Hill, Eastwood might well make one about another divided, economically troubled country pinning its hopes for “change” on its first black leader.

Does that make Invictus the second movie of the Obama generation? It just might, even if Eastwood, who tends to hold his own political views close to the vest, is quick to pooh-pooh the parallels. “The material brought that to my attention, but I wasn’t trying to sell any American politics in the thing,” he tells me when we speak by phone shortly before Thanksgiving. “However,” he continues, “Obama is a charismatic young man, and he did talk about change and all this kind of stuff that sounded great. I mean, it sold the nation on him. Whether he’s able to deliver the goods or not is another thing.”

He then refers to a scene early in Invictus when Mandela, out for an early morning walk on the first day of his presidency, sees an Afrikaans newspaper headline that asks: “He Can Win An Election But Can He Run A Country?” In the film, Mandela responds, “It is a valid question.” On the phone, Eastwood says, “That’s the same question we all probably have about any presidential candidate who wins an election. So far, Obama is having a rough time convincing everybody. Personally, I’m rooting for the guy. I didn’t necessarily support him going in, but I’d like to see him succeed because I want the country to succeed. It would be masochistic to do otherwise.”

While there are those who will inevitably accuse Eastwood of gilding the lily, of telling one of the few optimistic stories to be plucked from a South Africa that remains rife with despair, the counter proof is right there in Invictus itself. For all the celebratory atmosphere of the World Cup Final, the movie ends not with the pomp and circumstance in Ellis Park Stadium or with the crowds of joyous revelers spilling into the Johannesberg streets but rather on the simple, quiet image of the president, seated in the back of his limousine, removing his glasses and massaging the bridge of his nose.

“You see him as a lone figure in the car,” Eastwood says. “You can tell he’s tired. This is just one hurdle, and you get the feeling he’s got a long way to go. You know, he was 75 when he took over as president, which is really old, even by today’s standards” — curious words coming from a man who, six months shy of 80 himself, seems committed to a more feverish pace of work than ever. “In South Africa, there’s still a lot to do after apartheid. There’s still tension there, and the crime rate and other things. This was just a start. I don’t know how this guy Zuma’s going to be,” he says of South Africa’s newest leader, Jacob Zuma, who took office during the Invictus shoot, following a heated power struggle with outgoing President (and Mandela successor) Thabo Mbeki. “You just hope somebody will come and carry the mantle.”

Eastwood’s words echo something said to me back on Robben Island, by the convict turned judge Derrick Grootboom, who, like many I talked to during my time in South Africa, spoke of a nation still sharply divided along racial and economic lines, where the evil of apartheid has been replaced by an equally insidious form of internecine political warfare. As suggested by the this year’s thinly veiled science-fiction allegory District 9, much of the country’s black population still lives in dire poverty in the townships, an AIDS epidemic rages, and violent attacks on immigrants have become increasingly commonplace. Yet, as Grootboom gazed out over the azure waters of Table Bay on that beautiful spring day, his back turned toward the prison that had stolen five years of his youth, something like hope flickered in his eyes. “We are in our Wild West period right now,” he said. “But we are moving quickly into the period where we will realize there is no such thing as ‘free for all.’ You will see us solidifying the rules, and holding people accountable.”

From somewhere behind us, as if to complete Grootboom’s thought, comes Eastwood’s voice, gently issuing a directive to Freeman and crew: “Action.”

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