Letters From Iwo Jima - Clint Eastwood interview
Compiled by Jack Foley
CLINT Eastwood talks about making his Oscar-nominated film Letters From Iwo Jima and why he felt compelled to tell the story of Iwo Jima from the Japanese perspective, as well as the American.
He also discusses his directorial career, his thoughts on individualism and why both Letters… and Flags Of Our Fathers mean more to him than just war films…
After having made Flags Of Our Fathers, at what point did you decide that you had to do a second movie from the Japanese point of view?
A: Early in the game. As I was doing most of the research on this particular picture, I got curious about the fact that it was a unique defence, that in most of the defence of the Japanese islands, the Japanese would build beach fortifications, and they’d just hold off as long as they could.
Then sometimes they’d do kind of a banzai holdout charge, and then it was all over. This defence was obviously thought up by somebody who was very creative, with a little more of a modern mentality. And he decided to take advantage of this island; they didn’t have any places to hide or anything, so he would dig within the island. And he dug miles of tunnels that wove in and out, and interconnected with bunkers. They built their hospitals underground; they lived underground. So, they took an immense amount of bombs and naval shelling. It still didn’t put them out of action.
I thought he must be an interesting guy. So, I called a friend of mine in Japan, and I asked him if there were any books on this Lieutenant General Kuribayashi. And he said: “Yes.” There was a book of letters that he had written home to his daughter, son and his wife, and most of it was not during the war. Some of it was later letters during the war, when he was on Iwo, but most of it was dating back from 1928, when he was an envoy from the Japanese empire to the United States. He was up at Harvard; he studied some English at Harvard. And then he went and became an envoy in Canada for a short time. He bought a car and he travelled all over the United States. He liked the United States and he made a lot of friends here. He didn’t believe Japan should be fighting the United States. He believed, from a pragmatic point of view, that it was much too big an industrial complex. But, anyway, here he is. Now he’s stuck on the island. He’s back, he’s assigned. But you do what everybody asked because you’re military. He is in command of Iwo Jima. I thought: “This is interesting.”
How did Paul Haggis get involved?
A: I asked Paul Haggis if he had a writer or somebody who we could get at a reasonable price to come up with a story on it, because I didn’t have any money left from the other picture. And he found a writer – a young Japanese girl who was a writer, and had written several screenplays, none of which had sold, at that time, anyway. She came up with this idea of seeing it through the eyes of a young private who was conscripted into the army. And then we see the general through him. We meet the general through the eyes of the private and through all the characters we meet.
It turns out there were a lot of fascinating characters on the island. One was an Olympic champion, an equestrian – Baron Nishi – who turned out to be a close friend of Douglas Fairbanks, people like that. When he was here in the ‘30s, he won the Olympics; he won the equestrian event in 1932. There were a lot of fascinating people that were there in the same way, just fate had led them to this island. So, I just wanted to know about these people. nd the more I got into it, the more interested I got. So, anyway, she came up with a good storyline. I said: “Write that up; it sounds terrific.” And then I went off to Iceland to do Flags…
In terms of the war sequences, how did you find a new way to show something that has been shown so many times already?
A: I don’t know. I just didn’t look at any war movies. I didn’t go back and revisit all the ones I’d seen in life. And some of them I thought were quite good. I just saw documentaries. I went through a lot of documentaries on the South Pacific war, and then a lot of them on Iwo. There aren’t a lot of them, but there are some of them. There are a couple of them that are pretty good, considering that when you’re doing combat footage, you can only show the one side. You can’t go back and shoot a reverse of somebody. So, I saw some pretty good combat footage. Even a couple of shots were actually cameramen who perished in the battle. You could see that it was a big impact. I traveled to Iwo Jima twice. And I just got an image of it, and just did it that way.
All your movies have a very beautiful vision, such as the desaturation of colours. Is it something that you decide very early?
A: No, just as it goes. I don’t plan everything in advance. I strictly stay with the absolute necessities, the things the art departments need for sets. You have to make a lot of decisions about where you want sets, where you want bunkers, where you want this and that, and location, where this is going to be. But by and large, I don’t go into it, except necessary things we’re going to need there. From then on, it’s all impressionistic after that. As I get into it, okay, we’ll do scenes, we’ll come up here, we’ll go over there, here to there, put this in here, make sure the flag’s in here.
You just trust your instinct…
A: Just trust your instincts. There’s an old saying in golf, you’ve studied the swing many times, and you practice and practice, but when you stand over the ball, you just have to trust your swing. And you trust it. And if you don’t trust it, you’ll ruin it; your brain will take over. It’s the same thing here. You just trust your swing.
You dismiss the notion of being an auteur. Do you consider making films more about teamwork?
A: I think the auteur thing comes into maybe the conceptual part, and maybe the fact that you lay out the idea. The next part of it, and it is maybe the most important part, certainly as important as the execution. But I always thought the execution is teamwork, for sure.
You have worked with the same team for a long time…
A: Sure. But no matter what team it is, you have to bring that team together, and inspire them to be part of it. And yeah, that’s probably why I worked with the same team a lot, because I know the degree of inspiration they can go with, and that the enthusiasm that they will exhibit is tremendous, and that’s what I want. If people aren’t enthusiastic about making movies – because I certainly don’t need to be doing it anymore, but I do it because I really like it – I want to be with people that do it because they like it.
Naturally, they want to make a living also. But they do it because they really like doing it. I always felt blessed that I was able to make a living in a profession that not a lot of people can make a living at, and I was able to do something I liked, rather than be in a job that I hated. I guess when I was younger I did so many jobs that I just was there. I did them and they had multiple demands or minimal demands on any kind of talent. It was just a just kind of working life. I thought: “Jeez, it’s tough to spend your life doing something that you really didn’t like.” I was lucky there, and so I just keep doing it. That’s what I do.
Have you seen yourself evolve as a director in the choices you make or what interest you?
A: Yeah, I’m not conscious of it because I don’t think of it that way. But I do, yeah. I’m choosing different things. But I think I’m just naturally gravitating towards different things. As you mature, different subject matters. And as you’re older, you can’t play as many parts, or you shouldn’t be playing the parts that you used to play. But also there’s the opportunity to play parts that you couldn’t have, like Million Dollar Baby. Frankie would have been not a good role for me back when I was 35 or 40. But it was great for me at 75, or 74, whatever age I was when we first started that. And so that’s it. And directorially, I just did some genre films when I started. I came back to genre films with Unforgiven. That sort of wrapped up that genre for me. And I just reached out for other things.
A lot of your movies, especially this one, are extremely powerful emotionally, and yet never sentimental in a funny way. Are you thinking about it, or is it just the way it comes to you?
A: Well, the way it comes to you is: you’re thinking about it, but I guess maybe as you’re doing things, it’s subconsciously in your mind. You’re saying: “Well, I don’t want to make this pseudo sappy, pseudo-emotional. I want to play the more reserved look at this.” Later on, you come and say: “Well, now, accentuate this, accentuate that.”
It’s just a question of taking all of the puzzle pieces and placing them in what you consider the right spot. And you hope that the audience feels you were right. If the audience feels you were right, then they’re in agreement with the way you were proceeding. And if they don’t in massive amounts, then it means you’ve made a mistake.
You appear from your films to be an individualist. All your characters in this movie are individuals before being part of the whole war machine. hy do you think it’s so unacceptable today in this society?
A: I don’t know. I’ve always revered individuality. I always revered people that I thought had an idea and proceeded through with it. I guess I’ve been that way since the day I called my father and told him I was going to study acting and maybe try to see if I could do well with that, and he told me: “Don’t do that. You don’t want to do that, that’s just dream stuff. Get a legitimate job and move forward.”
If I’d listened to him, I’d have gone, OK. But I didn’t. And, so, that’s the individual part. You believe in something. If your gut tells you something, you kind of go with it.
You’re talking about your father, and both Flags Of Our Fathers and Letters From Iwo Jima are a lot about the transmission between father and sons, and about families. Is that something very personal for you?
A: Well, it was to me. When you do a war picture, everybody thinks about people running around, doing war. But to me, this movie was more than a war picture. It was about people dedicating their lives to winning this war, but also the families, and their sacrifices, and the mothers, and the fathers. And whole families. And then also people being haunted by some of their acts, whether justifiable or not, and in the name of their country fighting a war.
But they’re haunted enough where they don’t even want to talk about it with their own families for all these years. There’s something about that that I find interesting. It’s sort of mysterious, but it’s very interesting.
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- Read our review
- Clint Eastwood interview
- Ken Watanabe interview
- View our photo gallery
- Japan responds positively to Letters From Iwo Jima
- Letters From Iwo Jima named film of 2006
- Read our preview & US reaction
- French honour for Clint Eastwood
- Clint Eastwood to receive humanitarian award
- Flags Of Our Fathers review and coverage