ABOUT halfway through Clint Eastwood's new film, "Letters From Iwo Jima," Gen. Tadamichi Kuribayashi (Ken Watanabe) is shown receiving a handgun as a gift at a prewar American dinner party. It's the kind of scene that in any other filmmaker's hands would become a splashy set piece: a parade of vintage cars, scores of women in fancy dresses, a big crane shot of a magnificent hotel, elaborate trays of passed hors d'oeuvres.
But Eastwood doesn't think like any other filmmaker so when he went to shoot the sequence, he ditched those bells and whistles -- and in just half a day of filming captured the simple shots he needed." That sequence is just a memory in Kuribayashi's mind," Eastwood says in his darkened Warner Bros. office. "So if I did it with a big establishing shot, the scene and the picture become about the dinner party -- you want to show the building, what kind of atmosphere there is inside and outside -- and it's a big deal. There is nothing wrong with that. But in this movie, it didn't seem necessary."
What was necessary was delivering a compelling narrative about the largely untold drama of Iwo Jima's defense, a heroic 1945 stand in which almost every one of the 20,000 Japanese soldiers in the fight died. And it was to be made almost entirely in Japanese, filmed right on the heels of "Flags of Our Fathers," Eastwood's other Iwo Jima movie, with a modest $20-million budget and just five weeks of photography.
It all sounds beyond reach, but Eastwood has proved repeatedly that he's not much for limits.
In just the last three years, Eastwood has turned out four ambitious movies: "Mystic River," which won acting Oscars for Sean Penn and Tim Robbins; "Million Dollar Baby," the winner of four Academy Awards, including best picture; the Oct. 20 release "Flags of Our Fathers"; and "Letters From Iwo Jima," which opens in the U.S. on Dec. 20. ("Letters" opened last week in Japan.)
'Everything is different'
HIS wrinkles may be deeper and his hair a mess, but in conversation Eastwood, 76, is sharper than filmmakers half his age. And rather than reminisce about the good old days, the bomber-jacket-clad Eastwood seems more energetic talking about his future as a filmmaker. Over the course of an hour, he becomes most animated when discussing the thrill he feels shooting on a new set that he hasn't scouted or rehearsed on; at other times, he complains about how the countless rewrites most studio executives demand take the life out of screenplays. Rather than coming across as a curmudgeon, he sounds simply like an artist.
"Yes, it is strange," Eastwood says of having two movies released within two months of each other, each potentially competing against the other for ticket sales and awards. "But I've never made a Japanese film either. So everything is different."
Like an academic curious to test an idea, "Letters" was sparked by an Eastwood question: Why did the Americans struggle for a month during World War II to take an island that had been predicted to fall in just hours?
"When I was doing 'Flags,' I just got interested in what made this defense so difficult to bust through. One of our generals, Holland Smith, said the smartest general on the island was Kuribayashi. So I wondered, 'Who is this guy?' " Eastwood says. He read what limited Japanese history was available and was particularly moved by Kuribayashi's collection of missives to his family, "Illustrated Letters From a Commanding Officer Who Died Honorably."
"You find out what kind of guy he was, and you find out in his letters that he was like any other father. He was concerned about his kids' health and welfare. That's what got me interested in the story: It's a father in any nationality, in any language, in any war, concerned about his family."
It was an interesting dramatic parallel to "Flags" too: While the American soldiers struggle in that film with the emotional aftermath of battle, the Japanese military in "Letters" faces the certainty of imminent death. So Eastwood told "Flags" producer Steven Spielberg and screenwriter Paul Haggis (who also wrote "Million Dollar Baby") he was considering making not one but two films about Iwo Jima. They knew better than to laugh, as did executives at Warner Bros., which had only reluctantly backed "Mystic River" and "Million Dollar Baby."
"They have said I was out of my mind so many times in the past that maybe they thought, 'You know, maybe we ought to go with him on this trip,' " Eastwood says.
HAGGIS came up with the framings of the "Letters" story and recruited screenwriter Iris Yamashita to write the script. While he was making "Flags," Eastwood would tinker with the screenplay. "On the weekends, on an evening, if I had a moment and just wanted to get away from what I was doing, I'd read it," Eastwood says. And even as cameras were rolling on "Flags," Eastwood would occasionally grab a few shots for "Letters." "I'd just tell my script supervisor, 'This is for the other project.' "
Eastwood moved quickly. While sound effects were being finished on "Flags," he went out and in only five weeks (half the production schedule for "Flags") filmed "Letters."
Once considered for an early 2007 release, the film was edited and scored ahead of schedule; Warner Bros. moved it into 2006 for awards eligibility.
"If I have any virtue -- and I don't have many -- it's that I'm very decisive," Eastwood says. "Rightly or wrongly, whether it's a good decision or a bad one, I'll make it rather quickly. And that's probably an asset in making films."
Another asset is having a point of view: Not just because it's in Japanese, "Letters" unfolds like a Akira Kurosawa film. There's a patience, and intimacy, that "Flags" doesn't have.
As the dinner party scene shows, there's little window dressing. For those and other reasons, more than a handful of people are likely to say it's actually a more accomplished, and emotionally resonant, movie.
"Better is in the eyes of the beholder," Eastwood says diplomatically. "But I try to be different, and every project has its own life. I just try to fit into that life, and I try to guide that life into whatever my feelings are in that moment.
"One movie is much more difficult than the other," Eastwood says of "Flags," because of its shifting time sequences. "Because 'Letters' was somewhat more linear, it was a little easier in some ways, even though we were shooting in a different language and with a different culture. I know some people will like it better because it's linear, I guess, or because it's deeper and darker."
For now, Eastwood will take some time off. "I don't know if I'm retired as an actor, but I am, probably, unless a great role comes along," he says. "But how many great roles are there for guys my age? So I will probably stay behind the camera."
And continue to surprise everybody along the way.