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Mystic River - 'They're all highly rated and they're better than their rating'

Compiled by: Graeme Kay

AT the age of 73, there isn’t much that Clint Eastwood hasn’t achieved, in film terms, so when he talks of assembling a dream cast, you know it must be special.

The Oscar-winning director, who is also responsible for some of the greatest film roles of all time, rates the team he assembled for his latest project, Mystic River, as ‘absolutely the best ever’, and the experience of working with them as one of his finest.

The cast in question features Sean Penn, Tim Robbins, Kevin Bacon and Laurence Fishburne, as well as Laura Linney and Marcia Gay Harden, while the film itself is being described as Eastwood’s finest work since Unforgiven, prompting talk of Oscar nominations.

Eastwood serves as director, while Penn, Robbins and Fishburne star as three childhood friends, whose past comes back to haunt them during the course of a murder investigation.

Based on the best-selling novel by Dennis Lehane, it is a dark and frequently tragic character piece, that confronts issues of child abuse, rage and revenge in a provocative fashion, before culminating in a morally ambiguous conclusion that has divided critics over its meaning.

Yet Eastwood had always intended to make a picture that could ‘be provocative in people's minds’ and clearly relished the opportunity of talking about it, and his cast, when he attended the London press conference for the movie, together with co-stars Robbins and Fishburne, and co-screenwriter, Brian Helgeland, at Claridges Hotel last week.

"From the very beginning, Dennis Lehane's approach to it was an Americanized Greek tragedy, or Shakespearean tragedy," he explained. "And the film definitely has a lot for the audience to draw their own conclusions about.

"When Kevin points at Sean, and cocks his finger, for instance, a lot of people have asked me what that means, and I always say, 'what do you think it means?' And they tell me, and I tell them 'that's perfect' [laughs].
"It's what you want it to mean. It could mean a variety of things… but it's up to the audience to participate in that a little bit."

Not for Eastwood, then, the perils of test audiences, or the trappings of Hollywood, which could threaten to undermine the power of a movie.

"I make the film that I want and if people like it or don't like it, then that's something they're going to have to deal with," he continued, qualifying this by saying that asking a test audience to decide on the merits of a film is both unfair to the picture and to the viewers, who are effectively being put on the spot.

Yet, in the case of Mystic River, the decision to stick to his guns appears to have paid off, for it is well documented that Eastwood had to fight to get the picture backed by a major studio, even though the film has now emerged as a serious contender for awards come next year’s Oscars ceremony.

So what drew him to the project in the first place?

"There was no single thing, it was just reading the whole book," he recalls. "I read a synopsis, loved the idea, had liked Dennis Lehane's writing before, and detective novels, but this was a whole other ball game, as far as I was concerned. I just liked the story, so I figured I had to do it."

As for the cast, Eastwood is similarly glowing in his praise for his performers, especially in terms of the professionalism they brought to the set.

"I think the fact that these fellas, the four principle men, had all directed films before, was actually an asset, because I've always felt that every actor should direct at some point in their life, and that every director should act," he observes.

"This way it makes everybody understand what the process is; you hear about actors being late, but you never find that with an actor who has directed [laughs]. An actor who has directed understands all of the problems that the production is going through, and these fellas have all done it, and done it very well, so it was great for me; they understood the language, and there was very little discussion before everyone was on the page."

The biggest compliment was yet to come, however, for when Eastwood was asked to specifically comment on the opportunity of working with an actor of the calibre of Penn, for example, he offers a trademark steely stare and adds: "When people ask me about Sean, I say, 'well, he's highly rated and he's better than he's rated', but then I'd have to say the same about the whole cast - they're all highly rated and they're all better than their rating."

High praise, indeed, but flattery which is equally forthcoming from the cast members themselves. For while Eastwood admits to ‘enjoying himself’ while filming, both Robbins and Fishburne were able to take something away from working with a living legend.

Robbins spoke of ‘a certain quiet confidence on the set’ that he had never experienced before, adding: "There wasn't any kind of Hollywood tripping, any kind of attitude, or gossip, no games being played; it was very calm, very professional and very efficient.

"The great revelation for me was that you can do one take and get the performance. You don't need to torture yourself; you don't need to do 20 takes.

"When you only do one or two takes, you really remember what you did three weeks ago, instead of trying to figure out which of those 20 takes three weeks ago was the good one, and how to tie your performance together."

Agrees Fishburne: "It is incredibly civilized working for Clint Eastwood. Quite often, on movies, you end up working 18 hours, or 21 hours, but we never had any days like that; we started at a decent hour and we finished at a decent hour.

"But really, the most inspiring aspect was watching Clint work as a director and learning from him. His ability to be prepared and to know exactly what he wants, but also to make room for things that were going to happen, for happy accidents, and his composition style.

"I would watch him composing and thought it was really beautiful that he was able to do it in almost an improvisational way on the spot."

High praise, indeed, and very inspirational, but then the respect which is evident between these professionals translates well to the screen, for Mystic River is every bit as good as the reputations on show suggest. It is another outstanding achievement for Eastwood, in a career that is packed full of them.

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