After seeing "Hereafter," it's hard not to wonder what actually compelled Clint Eastwood to make this mortality drama. With the discovery of afterlife phenomenon and its mind-blowing CGI enhanced opening sequence, it doesn't read as a typical Eastwood project (and indeed, apparently M. Night Shyamalan and Steven Spielberg were once interested). And this isn't just new territory for Eastwood, as Peter Morgan, scribe of "The Queen" and "Frost/Nixon," isn't exactly known for spiritual dramas that delve into life after death themes. Eastwood and Morgan discussed how "Hereafter" came to be, alongside stars Matt Damon, Bryce Dallas Howard and Cecile de France, during a recent press conference for the picture.
"I found the book incredibly moving," Morgan said. "And she didn't want to give up any idea that she might be able to connect to her dead sister. I should say that she, as well as I, come from a tradition of irreligious enlightenment and I don't have any religious beliefs of an afterlife." Morgan wanted to revisit the idea, that feeling, of searching for meaning and connection after death and wrote "Hereafter" about the very separate, yet similar journeys the three main characters go through.
"We have so much understanding about what goes on prior to birth and we have so little understanding of what goes on after death, and this woman used a journalistic investigation to try and see if she could connect to her sister. She just didn't want to give up." Morgan then set out to write the aforementioned idea. Unfortunately "the script, because of one thing or another, had just been in my drawer" and was overlooked for years until the screenwriter changed agents a few years back. Morgan said he wanted some feedback on his script because of its unconventional themes so he gave it to his new agent "and they gave it to [producer] Kathy Kennedy and I kept waiting for the notes, and she gave it to Steven Spielberg, and this started getting more and more ridiculous. Then Steven Spielberg asked me to fly out so he said, 'Would you mind if I gave it to my friend Clint Eastwood?'"
"I liked the script immediately," Eastwood declared. "There were a few little ideas I had but I just put those in the back of my head. I thought it was good the way it was and didn't need rewrites and I haven't shot a picture when they had blue pages in it in a long time. Either you like them or you don't, but I did." Clint was attracted to the script because of its non-religious look at dealing with death, and the unanswerable questions that follow a loved one's passing.
"Most religions seem to ponder the afterlife, but I thought it was interesting because it wasn't really a religious project," he continued. "It had a spirituality about it, but it wasn't necessarily tied in with any particular organized thought. I think, whether you believe in the afterlife, or the chance of this near-death experience, you come back and see semblance of it. Whether that's happened or not, I don't know, but I think certainly everyone has thought about it at some point or another in time and it's a fantasy that if there is anything out there like that, it would be just terrific, but that remains to be seen."
Eastwood was also attracted to the idea of the film because it "was taking actual events and placing them into a fictional story and so the tsunami of four years ago out in the Pacific was one and then the London bombings of course, but I thought that was a unique thing to do, but the tsunami was very difficult to do." Merging these real-life events with a fictional story took some finesse. As we pointed out in one of our reviews of the film, the Tsunami scene which sets Marie (de France) on her path to discovering the phenomena of near-death, is awe inspiring. As the film's opener, it attempts to set the tone of the film, having the audience on the edge not knowing if Marie actually survives or is living in some bewildering dream-like state. Eastwood wanted the impact of this scene to be real, so he planned early on the usage of CGI to create the effect of a world-changing tsunami.
"In the old days, I suppose you would have done that on a set and you'd done little set pieces and then turned the water loose," he explained. "But with computer-generated elements, you can go ahead and do it, even though water is probably the most difficult thing to do in a CGI basis, I have a fellow named Michael Owens who worked with me on 'Letters From Iwo Jima' and 'Flags of Our Fathers' and back as far as 'Space Cowboys' so he kept very much hip on the technology as it had been improving over the years, and we went through it and figured out what shots we would need to do live and we did it."
"But it took a lot of different places. Cecile was in a tank in London for nine hours without getting out too much and she had to have a skin replacement afterwards, but then we went to Maui and shot in the ocean and in the streets of Lahaina. We had to pre-plan it to piece all the elements together with the connective shots and what have you. If you don't pre-plan CGI, it's the most expensive thing in the world so you have to plan every single shot and that's normally not the way I shoot, but in this thing, it worked out rather well."
Eastwood felt that it was necessary to cast unknowns and untrained actors in the roles of twins Marcus and Jason (Frankie and George McLaren) to achieve the depth of loss they would need to present. Matt Damon felt Eastwood's casting of the twins was integral to the film.
"Clint just loved their faces. I remember talking to him and saying, 'You know the faces of these boys are terrific. They seem to be from the same neighborhood and they are non-actors.' " Eastwood added,"The interesting thing with child actors is kids are natural actors, they are wonderful actors and most kids are acting all the time. They are out in the yard playing and they are imagining and can get very vivid. Unfortunately, once they've been organized into acting and somebody says, 'Come on, no, do it this way' — and I've watched many times over the years in other films where a director will try to undo a lot of bad habits that have been instilled. When I looked at young kids for this picture I took the two that were the least experienced; in fact they had to have no experience." The boys filmed both roles, so Eastwood would not have to change his way of short shoots. As viewers of the film can attest, the strongest part of the film is arguably in the storyline of loss between Marcus and Jason, and the film would be a gravely different one if this role was miscast.
One facet of the story, the supernatural aspects, was the one thing that cast and crew stayed away from over researching. Matt Damon, who was well aware of the obscene amount of information available on the subject, decided to just stick with the script as to avoid the creepy interwebs, and over complicating his subdued role in the film. Eastwood and Morgan avoided the same overabundance of conspiracy theories by keeping the questions open to both the characters and the audience. In the end, their goal was not to provide any concrete answer on his character's experiences, but merely pose the question to all of us about what happens after death. Unfortunately, this could be the main reason why the film does end up falling flat with little connection between the three core characters other than the phenomena. "Hereafter" is a departure for many involved, in themes and tonality, but it struggles with questioning too much without delivering answers. Luckily, Eastwood will have many opportunities to make up for this lack of cohesion, as he plans on working for years to come. The filmmaker said he believes that he has become a stronger director with age, and he wonders why the likes of Frank Capra and Billy Wilder gave up on continuing their directing careers after the age of 60.
"I thought, 'God, that's amazing. Here's a guy who's bright and lived well into his '90s and didn't work.' I figure your best years should be at a point when you've absorbed all this knowledge. Now maybe they just didn't keep up with the times or they picked stories that didn't work. I have a few pictures that don't do so well, and all of a sudden, people are very fickle and things in Hollywood are very fickle and they kind of move on.". Discussing the work of Portugal Director Manoel de Oliveira, who at age 101 is still directing and producing well-respected films, Eastwood firmly proclaimed, "I plan to do the same thing."