Clint Eastwood has never much liked birthdays. Ever since he was a young man, he has made a point of not celebrating his own. "The worst thing you can do is sing Happy Birthday, a bunch of people with bad voices," he says. "Every day can be exciting. It doesn't have to have cakes and a bunch of people pretending they give a shit." So on the day he turned 84, he started shooting a movie.
American Sniper will be his 34th feature film. As an actor, he has appeared in more than 50. Not bad for a late bloomer who directed his first movie, Play Misty for Me, at the age of 40, and did not become a bona fide star until the following year, as Detective ''Dirty'' Harry Callahan, patron saint of vigilantes.
Does he feel lucky? How could he not? Of the actors who came up with him, Sean Connery and Gene Hackman have retired, while Steve McQueen and Audrey Hepburn are long gone. Sergio Leone, who cast him as The Man With No Name in A Fistful of Dollars, died 25 years ago. Director Jean-Luc Godard, seven months his junior, is still going, but that's about it.
"I'm getting to the age where you look around and they're not even there with you," Eastwood says, with a rasping laugh. "A friend of mine - we're talking a 95-year-old who looks much younger than his years - when people ask him, 'What's your secret?' he says, 'I never let the old man in'. So it's a mental attitude thing."
Eastwood is in superb shape for his age, but at 84 it's fair to wonder whether he has another great film in him. Two years ago, at the Republican National Convention, he upstaged the nominee, Mitt Romney, with a rambling monologue in conversation with an empty chair meant to represent President Barack Obama. He came across as an irascible, incoherent old coot.
To his critics it was confirmation that he had lost his mind. As a libertarian Republican, Eastwood is an exception to the entertainment industry rule. When Dirty Harry came out, New Yorker critic Pauline Kael wrote that it was a "fascist" film, and the accusation that Eastwood glorifies guns has been hard to shake, even as he has shown himself to have an unflinching eye for the toll that violence takes, on victims and perpetrators.
There have been sustained bursts of greatness in Eastwood's directing career but, as one of the most prolific filmmakers in Hollywood, he has made a fair few forgettable movies too. A self-described genre filmmaker, he has abided by and exploded the conventions of westerns, thrillers, action movies, biopics, comedies and romances as the mood took him.
We are here today on the Warner Brothers lot to talk about Jersey Boys, his film about Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons, adapted from the smash Broadway show. In typical Eastwood style, it takes what it needs from the jukebox musical and discards the rest. The resulting movie has as much in common with the mafia sagas of Martin Scorsese and Francis Ford Coppola as it does with Ray or I Walk the Line, other biographical treatments interspersed with hit songs.
I am Eastwood's last interview of the day, after five for television, under lights on the stage of a huge deserted theatre. When he is finished with the reporter from Mexico's Televisa, he climbs out of his director's chair and walks over to me to be introduced.
I had been wondering what it would be like to shake Eastwood's hand ever since reading a favourite anecdote of his, about meeting boxer Rocky Marciano. The world heavyweight champion had a "real light handshake", Eastwood reported. "I walked away and thought, 'Yeah, Rocky Marciano doesn't have to grab you. He knows he could kill you. He's a real guy'." Sure enough, Eastwood is not out to break fingers.
If eyes can be said to turn grey then perhaps his are; the limpid blue appears a fraction cloudy. A straggly white beard covers that granite jaw. He moves like an octogenarian, but he's still a powerful cat and still six foot three inches tall. When he eases himself into a seat at the end of the front row, away from the cameras and the hot spots, he visibly relaxes.
It raised a few eyebrows when Eastwood signed on to direct Jersey Boys, but it shouldn't have. For one, the story is set in the sort of working-class community he has drawn upon in much of his best late-career work (Mystic River, Million Dollar Baby, Gran Torino). In this case, it is the Italian-American quarter of Newark in the 1950s. As Four Seasons guitarist Tommy DeVito tells us at the start of the film, direct to camera, it's a place where the only ways out are the army, the mob or fame. "For us," he says, "it was two out of three."
The Four Seasons never meant much to Eastwood, as a jazz fan raised on Duke Ellington and Count Basie, so Jersey Boys is not devotional, like Bird, his film about Charlie Parker, which celebrated the saxophonist's genius while offering no excuses for his self-destructive behaviour. But he has always used music well in his films, lately composing some of it himself. His musical career is long and varied, from the 1963 album Rawhide's Clint Eastwood Sings Cowboy Favourites to his wonky crooning at the end of Gran Torino.
After watching the touring production in Las Vegas, San Francisco and New York, Eastwood cast stage veterans in most of the lead roles. John Lloyd Young, the original Frankie Valli on Broadway, has the lead singer's extraordinary falsetto down pat. Vincent Piazza plays Tommy DeVito as a streetwise young tough, too dumb to know he's in deep. He wouldn't be out of place in Goodfellas.
Eastwood once told Rolling Stone writer Paul Nelson that "any imbecile" could direct musical numbers, based on his experience in the Western musical Paint Your Wagon. However, he handles the set pieces with aplomb, keeping Walk Like a Man, Big Girls Don't Cry and Can't Take My Eyes Off You interesting to the last chorus, through a mixture of close-ups, shots from the orchestra pit and out in the crowd.
There is a party scene in a hotel suite, after the band has made it big. Songwriter Bob Gaudio is in the bedroom, watching television, when DeVito brings him a present: an eager young fan in a white dress. The date is late December, 1963 - we know this because Gaudio wrote Oh What a Night about losing his virginity - and the show he switches off is Rawhide. "It's a way of doing a Hitchcock cameo," Eastwood says, adding that it was actor Erich Bergen's idea.
Rawhide and the part of ramrod Rowdy Yates, charged with driving 3000 head of cattle from Texas to Missouri, was Eastwood's big break, but in the seven years the show ran on CBS, from 1959-66, it also threatened to become a straitjacket. Taking the lead in A Fistful of Dollars, an obscure Italian film that stripped westerns to their brutal essence, was a necessary risk, establishing in a few volleys of gunfire and even fewer words that Eastwood would not be confined to wholesome family entertainment.
Eastwood had directed some second unit material on Rawhide, but his higher education began with Leone, who taught him rhythm, composition and the "tough style" - holding still in the eye of chaos. "I just figured that directing was something I wanted to do and that one day I would look up at the screen and think, 'That's enough of him,'" Eastwood says. His masterpiece, Unforgiven, is dedicated "to Sergio and Don [Siegel]," his two great friends and mentors.
His first film as director, Play Misty For Me, was a thriller about a disc jockey stalked by an obsessive fan. "It was not really fashionable for actors to become directors, so when I did it everybody went, 'Who is this jerk-off? What's he doing directing?'" Eastwood says. Although the movie was pure pulp, it established his credentials as a filmmaker capable of bringing a feature in on budget and on time.
Eastwood was a voracious student, determined to learn from every director he worked with and others besides. At the end of Alfred Hitchcock's career, he was summoned by the maestro to discuss a part, and although he had no intention of accepting it, he went to the meeting anyway. "He didn't move his head, but his eyes followed me across the room," Eastwood says. "But then he started talking, all of sudden [he] blossomed out and it was great. I had a million questions for him."
While helming his second film, High Plains Drifter, in northern California, he discovered that Frank Capra lived nearby. "I became acquainted with him and used to drop by and see him occasionally," he recalls. "I always used to say, 'Why in the hell isn't this guy making movies? Did he dump them or did they dump him?'
"I've watched wonderful directors - Capra, Billy Wilder, to name two - stop working in their 60s and you think, 'How can you stop working in your sixties? You should be in your prime. You should have good energy, your faculties. How can you stop working then?" Capra retired when he was 64, an age at which Eastwood was just getting started.
Eastwood's frugal ways (he never shoots much more than he needs) mean his movies reliably turn a profit. This has enabled him to take risks on commercially unpromising material such as Letters from Iwo Jima, his companion piece to Flags of Our Fathers, telling the story of the battle for Iwo Jima from the Japanese perspective. It is hard to imagine any other director getting the funding for it, much less turning it into a Best Picture nominee at the Oscars.
"The films that I've enjoyed making, whether Million Dollar Baby, Letters from Iwo Jima or Mystic River, the studio didn't want to do them," Eastwood says. "'He wants to do a movie in Japanese, with subtitles? Who's he trying to be: a poor man's Kurosawa?' But I was just interested."
His next film, American Sniper, tells the true story of Chris Kyle, a crack US military marksman who was shot dead by a troubled soldier he was trying to help. In the hands of another director, it could easily turn into a recruitment video for the armed forces. With Eastwood, it figures to be a study in mental disintegration and the cost of killing. "It's such a strange, ironic ending. The tragedy of war finally caught him, in the least likely place," Eastwood says.
Work began on his birthday, March 31, and wrapped up a couple of weeks ago - a typically lean schedule. Morocco stands in for Fallujah, Ramadi and Sadr City. Being away from home messes with Eastwood's exercise regime - half an hour on the elliptical machine in the morning, some weights in the evening, plenty of stretching and daily meditation - but he finds ways to keep fit. "[Actor] Bradley [Cooper] and all those guys were training to put on weight and I was just training to stay in existence," he says.
Producers still regularly ask him to strap on his Magnum .44, to play some version of Dirty Harry in old age. "Gran Torino was the last that I thought was interesting to play. I thought, 'I know that guy. I've felt some of his emotions and his confusion in life,'" he says. That was six years ago. He may well have retired as an actor, but he would never say so.
I ask what would make him stop directing. "Senility," he says quickly, then laughs. "I suppose one day if I didn't feel like I had the energy or the mental stimulation to do it ..." If his answer feels a little weary, it's because he's been asked the question so many times before. "You're never too old to learn things," he continues. "Once you stop learning you're gonna go into a placid era, fall backwards and start grinding them out. If I don't have anything to say, I'm not going to say it."
Jersey Boys screens from July 3.
- Sydney Morning Herald