With ‘Hereafter,’ Clint Eastwood contemplates what’s next


— On a recent misty morning, if you were standing in the right spot, you could have looked up to see a helicopter emerge from the pale heavens above this coastal enclave and a famous face squinting in concentration from the pilot’s seat. Clint Eastwood is 80 but, no surprise, he is still at the controls, whether it’s flying or filmmaking.

“I came in from Shasta but the fog slowed me down,” Eastwood said with a smile a short time later. His hands were stuffed down in pockets and his posture suggested a man in no hurry but, really, the restless Hollywood icon always hears the ticking of an internal clock.

This Sunday, “Hereafter,” Eastwood’s 32nd feature film as a director, will premiere at 35th Toronto International Film Festival. This is his sixth film in less than four years, the production spanned four countries and it represents Eastwood’s biggest foray into digital visual effects; it also happens to be a startling tale about the afterlife that is spiritual instead of merely supernatural. None of these things suggests that Eastwood will switch to autopilot as he moves into the twilight.

“At the age I am now, I just don’t have any interest in going back and doing the same sort of thing over and over, that’s one of the reasons I moved away from westerns,” said Eastwood, who started his career as a later-model John Wayne and will finish it as something close to a modern John Ford. “The question about what happens after we die is something that we all ask and when I read the script by Peter Morgan it was so intelligent and I knew right away that I wanted to do it.”

“Hereafter,” which opens wide on Oct. 22, is a cinematic triptych with the separate stories of battered souls searching for answers about the afterlife — there’s a reluctant Bay Area psychic ( Matt Damon), a London youngster (Frankie McLaren) grieving the death of his twin brother and a French journalist (Belgium-born actress Cécile de France) who was caught up in a tsunami, killed by the raging water and then revived after a strange, spectral experience.

The movie was filmed in London, Paris, Hawaii and San Francisco and the script by Morgan (“The Queen,” “Frost/Nixon”) is rooted in recent history with key moments that play out against a backdrop of that South Pacific tsunami and terrorist bombings on the London underground. Eastwood, though, said the core of the story is the enduring mystery around the simplest of questions: “What’s next?”

It’s a movie that, because of Eastwood’s age, will be read by many as an artistic statement about his turning toward his own mortality. He pondered that notion for a moment but found any insight elusive. “I’d like to think I would have made this movie when I was 30 or 40 too, because it’s a good story. I don’t know. I was more of an actor who directed back then and now I’m more of a director who acts. Or occasionally acts. Or maybe never acts...”

Eastwood owns the Mission Ranch Hotel in Carmel and he chose the property’s piano bar as the spot to sit down and discuss “Hereafter.” The bar was closed but the staff was already at work in the kitchen and, in a rear corner, a piano tuner was hunched over the keyboard, pinging away in search of perfection. The hotel has belonged to Eastwood since the late 1980s, but it is far more than a portfolio holding.

“I used to come to here when I was in the army, back in 1951 or 1952, at Fort Ord,” Eastwood said. “I think I had my first legal beer here when I was 21. It was funky joint. Anyway they were going to tear it all down, take it all out and put in condos. I thought, well, nah, we can’t let that happen. It didn’t seem right to me.”

Eastwood does what feels right in his filmmaking too. He now is famously immune to commercial imperatives or marketing priorities. Exhibit A: His last movie was a South African rugby story and the less-than-inviting title was “Invictus.” In “Hereafter,” the characters quickly dismiss the world’s major religions and academia as viable paths on their search for the afterlife.

“It’s a spiritual story but there are no real religious connotations to it,” Eastwood said. “The [major religions] are kind of unsatisfying to the kid in our story because he’s looking for something that can answer his questions. He wants a straight answer and he can’t seem to find anything from people who turn out to be either psychics looking for a fast buck or people just talking … you don’t really see movies like this these days that have a spiritual aspect or a romantic aspect. And it is romantic. These days you have a lot of movies about people jumping on each other in the sack but we don’t have that. This is more about attraction.”

The movie also has a big, harrowing special-effects scene early on and reserves its third act for something far less bombastic. That resists the usual physics of Hollywood moviemaking, and executive producer Steven Spielberg talked to Morgan about that decision early on as potential concern. The screenwriter, interviewed this week by phone in London, said he wrote a different ending that would have a grander scale. Everyone agreed, though, that in the final analysis, “Hereafter” was going to keep its unconventional contours.

More importantly, according to Damon, Eastwood already had made up his mind that the structure was just fine as it was. The actor, talking by phone Tuesday from New York, said Eastwood’s movies — such as “Gran Torino” and “Letters From Iwo Jima” — are clearly not cookie-cutter endeavors.

“The classic thinking is you can’t peter out in your third act, you have to go bigger, and the other classic Hollywood thinking is that all the questions have to be answered,” Damon said. “‘Is it clear enough? I don’t want an 8-year-old to come see this and not know what’s going on.’ With Clint, his process is free of all that grist mill. He can do something that has a different shape. It wouldn’t occur to him to have a giant set piece in the third act because, well, this story doesn’t require it.”

Damon, in a cheeky moment, referred to the new movie as “Clint Eastwood’s French film” and Eastwood himself has appraised the movie as a spiritual “chick flick.”

The 39-year-old Damon and the elder filmmaker have a strong mutual admiration society going after working together on “Invictus,” and Eastwood juggled the “Hereafter” filming schedule to shoehorn the project into the actor’s tight schedule. Damon plays George Lonegan, who has an everyman aura but also a singular problem. As a child, he died and came back on the operating table and returned with a “gift” — he can converse with the restive spirits of the dead who have not moved on. The connection is made when he touches a living person and essentially dials up their dearly departed. The visions aren’t the horror-show sort from “The Sixth Sense” — this film’s séance soul is more like a lonely-heart undertaker who wearies of the hungry grief of the living.

“Matt is a gem to work with,” Eastwood said. “A lot of guys will count sides [the pages in the script] and look at something like this and say, ‘Well, there’s three stories and I’m only in one of them.’ He saw the value of the overall project and he’s a writer and he really liked the story. I like the character — he has this knack but he can’t stand it. He’s reticent and he doesn’t want to connect with the dead and he can’t connect with the living.”

Eastwood said he feels a strong sense of satisfaction with this film, and the people around him seem excited and anxious about the movie. Whether it connects with a wide audience (or Academy Award voters) “Hereafter” veers away from soft-glow answers or maudlin moments. Eastwood is no greeting-card messenger nor is he an adamant apostle.

“People ask me what I believe,” Eastwood said as he watched sheep meander across the rustic hotel’s pasture. “I say, ‘I don’t know yet.’ I’m not closed off to it. There are points in my life when I thought I knew all the answers and other times when I was sure I didn’t know any of them. Right now, well, I’m waiting to see. Aren’t we all?”