Matt Damon takes Directing 101 from a great professor: Clint Eastwood
Matt Damon officially has the directing bug. He hasn't figured out exactly what movie he wants to make as his directing debut, but he thinks he's ready to roll. And better yet, he's been studying with the best possible instructor, 80-year-old icon Clint Eastwood. Damon has starred in Eastwood's last two films, "Invictus" and "Hereafter," the latter of which hits the multiplexes Friday.
"I'm dying to direct," Damon told me the other day, in the midst of doing publicity for "Hereafter," which also stars Cecile de France, Jay Mohr and Thierry Neuvic. "The only reason I haven't started already is that I keep getting offered all these great acting opportunities, where I get to work with great filmmakers like Clint, Steven Soderbergh, Martin Scorsese and the Coen brothers. I figure as long as I'm able to work with them, my directing career can wait, since I'm learning more from them than I could from anyone else in the world."
Damon says that the first thing that impressed him about Eastwood as a filmmaker was his lack of concern over what anyone thinks. "Clint doesn't try to read the tea leaves," Damon said. "He doesn’t get caught up in trying to predict the zeitgeist or analyze what people want to see. He told me one day that he looks at making movies as if he's a tour guide and the audience is invited along on his tour bus. But if they don't like the movie, there will always be another one, so they can always get off the bus."
There are directors, like Scorsese, who often seem to shoot 30 or 40 takes before they even get warmed up. Eastwood is famous for keeping takes to a minimum. When I was once hosting a panel about the art of producing, "The Departed" producer Graham King was bemoaning the day it took Scorsese 42 takes to finish shooting a scene. I turned to Robert Lorenz, who been Eastwood's producer on a host of films. "What about Clint?" I asked. "He shoots one take," Lorenz said. "Then I beg him to do one more."
Damon says things don't always move that fast. "We had times when Clint would do 10 or 15 takes, but it was always on a scene that he felt was really important. He wouldn't do 30 takes of someone coming in and out the door. But in 'Hereafter,' when I was doing a big scene in the hotel room with a young boy who'd never acted before, Clint was more assertive as a director -- he knew we'd need a lot of takes to get it right. I think he knows when to step on the gas and when not to burn out the cast and crew."
When I asked Damon which filmmaker Eastwood had the most in common with, he came up with a surprising answer -- Soderbergh, who has made "The Informant!" and the "Ocean's Eleven" series with Damon. "They’re both incredibly prolific, they work fast and they take a lot of the hocus-pocus out of filmmaking," he said. "A lot of it has to do with the fact that neither of them use playback, so no one is standing around at the video village, watching the take after they've done it."
Damon laughed. "I know Clint hates sitting around, wasting time, so I told him once that if he ever wants to act again, he should work with Soderbergh. I said, 'You guys would get along great, 'cause he's the only person who works as fast as you do.'"
Whenever Eastwood had some down time, Damon said, the actor would pick his brain, asking him about how he solved various problems. Like a lot of great directors, Eastwood is never threatened by people with good ideas, whether the idea comes from a lowly grip or one of his stars. Even though Eastwood loathes tampering with a script once he's decided to shoot it, when Damon asked if he could take a crack at rewriting a scene during the making of "Invictus," Eastwood gave him the green light to tinker with it.
"I did about 28 different drafts and finally got it perfect, and only then did I realize that I'd essentially come full circle and gone back to what we had in the original script," Damon said a bit sheepishly. "But the point is -- Clint was secure enough that he let me try it. He thought it was pretty funny, because he said he'd done the same thing on ['Unforgiven'] He had this great script that he kept trying to change before he realized that it was perfectly fine the way it was to start with."
So what was the best advice Damon received from Eastwood about his directing debut? "He told me that on day one, I should get a shot off before call time. With Clint, if the crew call time is 9 a.m., he is always rolling at 8:59 a.m. Clint told me, 'Shoot anything. It doesn't matter whether it ends up in the film or not. You just want to show the crew that you’re prepared and ready to work as hard as they are. It's a way to win their respect right out of the box.’”
I told Damon that it sounds like he's awfully lucky, having Eastwood around as a film-making role model. "I’m not so sure," he replied. "He’s probably the absolute wrong guy to watch if you’re just starting out because he makes everything look so effortless. I'm worried that he's fooled me into thinking it'll be as easy for me as it was for him, when in reality he's just done a great job of disguising how difficult everything can be."
Photo: Clint Eastwood, left, with Matt Damon at the New York Film Festival screening of "Hereafter." Credit: Dave Allocca / Associated Press / StarPix