In Matt Damon, Clint Eastwood has found a kindred spirit — someone who shares his no-nonsense style and is a worthy student in the art of getting things done your way.
Eastwood arguably is “the most powerful guy in Hollywood,” according to Rob Lorenz, his producing partner of 16 years. By that, Lorenz means he’s the freest guy in Hollywood, which may also explain why he remains the coolest, even to guys of Damon’s generation.
“Clint can do what he wants,” Lorenz says. “He can make the movie he wants, he can cut it the way he wants, and he can release it the way he wants.” This assertion is borne out by the evidence. Who else but Eastwood would be permitted to make a film like Letters from Iwo Jima — one that portrays a ferocious, historic battle from the perspective of a ruthless enemy? And who else could have won support for Gran Torino, a movie (a studio film, not an indie; a megaplex biggie, not an art-house tiny) whose chain-smoking, bronchially ravaged “hero” spews repugnant racist slurs right up until the moment of his redemption?
The key to Eastwood’s remarkable freedom to concentrate on stories and characters that, as he says, “get off the bullshit and get down to it,” is that he’s an old-school, all-American square. Don’t be fooled by the breathy hipster voice: Eastwood operates, and always has, by a 1950s code that’s as conservative and conventional as an “Ike” sticker on an Oldsmobile. To beat the system, one must first learn the system. To be the boss, you have to please the boss.
“I know that if you want a picture done with the least amount of drama, go to Clint,” says Freeman. And he ought to know, since that’s just what he did when he brought Invictus to his old friend. Here was a lengthy movie about a sport, rugby, that few Americans know the rules of, set in a distant nation, South Africa, that few Americans (especially young ones, the core of the mainstream ticket-buying public) had paid much attention to since apartheid ended. But budget-conscious Eastwood — beloved of money men, crews, and actors alike because he doesn’t squander precious time, needlessly tinker with the script, or cover his artistic ass by shooting every scene from multiple angles — turned a project that others might have passed on into a watchable, memorable epic.
“What I’ve learned from Clint,” says Freeman, trying to sum up Eastwood’s ethos, “is efficiency.” There, that boring magic word again. “Cut to the chase right now,” says Freeman, “and if you’ve got it, go.”
What the watchful Damon has learned from Clint is a pragmatic, straightforward “management style” that blends the easygoing and the authoritative. “On Invictus,” Damon reminds him, “you said you saw yourself as a tour guide: ‘You’re all invited on my tour, and if you don’t like it, you’re free to get off, and I’ll invite you on the next one. But I’m the tour guide. And it’s my tour, and I know why I’m doing it.’ ”
Despite Eastwood’s legendary cool, actors and crew who interrupt the progress of his smooth-running cinematic tour bus may find themselves on the shoulder of the road. The he-man star of a prestigious cable drama recalled for me an experience he had as a bit player in Space Cowboys, Eastwood’s 2000 film about a cadre of aging astronauts. This actor, who had a single line, watched in dismay as a fellow junior thespian fretted over the delivery of his own single line, pestering Eastwood with questions and bright ideas. “Finally,” the actor remembers, “Clint said to the other guy, ‘What’s your line again?’ and the guy repeated it for him. Clint thanked him. Then he gave the line to me.”
Another stoic virtue from Eastwood’s personal Boy Scout Handbook is persistence, stubbornness — a trait he shares with Damon. Eastwood rose to stardom in stages, battling his way up from a part in a TV show (the 1960s frontier drama Rawhide) to the lead in a series of cheapo, foreign-made westerns (A Fistful of Dollars and its lurid sequels) to his career-establishing role as the phallic-ballistic avenger Dirty Harry.
Damon, for his part, came to fame more quickly, but he had to scrap and struggle too, co-writing Good Will Hunting at 22 with his Boston homeboy Ben Affleck, then giving a big fat middle finger (repeatedly) to the studio honchos who wanted to make the film with someone more bankable playing its title character. But Damon hung tough, a brawler prodigy, and his breakthrough was more like a kick-and-scratch-through, finally. Among the rewards was the blockbuster role of Jason Bourne, a troubled assassin whose issues with his overlords are reminiscent of Dirty Harry’s problems with his police-department supervisors. Both characters are compelled to fight the power, and both actors got rich playing them, making them powers in their own right.
“They share this bond,” Lorenz says, “of both having been big action stars. There’s just kind of an understanding about how unique their lives are. On the set it would tend to get a little crazy because they’d just show up and start telling stories. They recognize the absurdity of it all.”