"I used TO know Frank Capra," Clint Eastwood says, watching the ocean in a quiet corner of the legendary Eden Roc in what he calls "beautiful downtown Antibes" and thinking about the past.
Eastwood met the great Hollywood director back in 1973 when he was shooting "High Plains Drifter" and Capra was in his mid-70s. "He seemed like such a vital guy, his brain cooking on all eight cylinders. You could tell the same story about Billy Wilder, you could go on and on. That could have been such a productive time for them. People have their peak at different times in life." A smile creases his face. "I'm either in mine or about ready to come to the wall."
Far from hitting the wall, Eastwood is in the midst of a work spurt that surprises even him. His new film, to be called either "Changeling" or "The Exchange" when it premieres in the U.S. this fall, is his fourth since he was last in Cannes five years ago with "Mystic River." He has one more, "Gran Torino," that he will star in and direct starting in July and yet another in advanced planning stages. Not bad for someone who will be 78 at the end of May.
"I don't know what came over me," he says with a grin about his ever-increasing productivity. "I just got to this stage in life where I started to no longer feel obligated to do only genre films. I can make what I want to. I thrive on it. It's a matter of enjoyment."
'Horror story for adults'
Even for Eastwood, "Changeling," which premiered here Tuesday night, is a surprising film. A based-on-fact story of a mother who insists that the missing boy returned to her by the Los Angeles Police Department is in fact not her son, the powerful, disturbing "Changeling" is hopeful as well as unnerving, concerned as it is with both the implacability of evil and the power of belief.
Made with Eastwood's trademark assurance and storytelling skill, "Changeling" is in part, the director well knows, "a horror story for adults, not for thrill-seeking kids." But in almost the same breath he acknowledges what is for him a new focus: "A mother's love is the whole driving force of the movie."
Playing the mother is Angelina Jolie, whose skill and seriousness greatly impressed Eastwood. "She's become a publicity magnet; everyone wants to know what she's doing," the director says. "Because you see her in all the tabloid papers, it's easy to overlook her, and she is really underrated.
"I think she's one of the few actresses that would have been just as big if she'd worked in Hollywood's so-called Golden Age." And, Eastwood adds, she's got a good sense of humor.
"I'd kid her all the time," he says. "If I wanted to see her on the set I'd say, 'Get the Tomb Raider' or 'Get Angie Dickinson.' If you have a face that pretty, a lot of people underrate you. It looks like it's carved out of stone."
As focused as his recent career looks, Eastwood feels it's somewhat based on happenstance. "There was a period when I couldn't find a good script, when I was kind of thinking maybe I should be sent out to pasture," he says. "Then all of a sudden one picture led to another."
The script for "Changeling," the first produced feature for screenwriter J. Michael Straczynski, best known for TV's "Babylon 5," certainly didn't come to Eastwood in any expected way. It was developed for Ron Howard to direct, but when scheduling commitments took that off the table, Howard and his Imagine Entertainment partner Brian Grazer sent the script to Eastwood, who was intrigued by how closely the story hewed to what had really happened.
The case of Jolie's character and her escalating conflict with the LAPD was a major media sensation in 1928 Los Angeles, a circumstance that screenwriter Straczynski emphasized by placing photocopies of news clippings at strategic points in the script. One unsavory aspect of "Changeling's" story was so well-known that the town of Wineville in Riverside County, where key sections take place, changed its name to Mira Loma in 1930 in part to escape the notoriety.
Reality-based or not, underlying everything Eastwood does, he says, is the mantra that "the story's the king. If the story's so weak you have to gimmick it up, maybe it's not worth telling." The same reasoning underlies "Changeling's" length, which ended up at 2 hours and 21 minutes because that's what the director felt it took to tell the story.
"The story has to be true to the material; I'm not making it because the distributor says we could get one more screening per day if it was shorter," he explains. "I've been around for 55 years, and I figure, 'OK, I'll just do whatever it is.' "
Next up for Eastwood is "Gran Torino," the story of a cranky Korean War veteran who makes an unlikely connection with Hmong families in his neighborhood. Eastwood will star for the first time since "Million Dollar Baby" in 2004. "The guy's the right age, and he's a crazy character, all of the things I'm not, which makes it fun to play," he explains. "Most actors enjoy playing characters different from themselves, even though when I did the 'Dirty Harry' movies everyone thought I had a .44 Magnum with me at all times."
Speaking of "Dirty Harry" (screening here Thursday), the film after "Gran Torino" will be another departure: a biography of Nelson Mandela, starring veteran Eastwood cohort Morgan Freeman and focusing on Mandela's part in encouraging, soon after his election as president, the mostly white South African side to win the Rugby World Cup in 1995.
Before all this can happen, Eastwood must run the Cannes gantlet, the fifth time he's been here with a film, so far without any prize at all.
Not surprisingly, it's a situation he's philosophical about.
"I think it would be nice, but I don't think about that when I decide to participate," he says of a potential victory from the Sean Penn-led jury. "If you're going to go, you've got to play the game. The Dodgers don't win every day either. You just do what you do and whatever happens happens. I put them out there and then I see what kind of life they have."