BURBANK, Calif. — Clint Eastwood, who turned 80 this year, recalls how his longtime production designer Henry Bumstead once answered a question about growing old.
Bumstead, who kept working until his death four years ago at 91, replied: “Oh, to be 80 again.”
“I thought, yeah, that's it,” Eastwood said in an interview at the Warner Bros. office he has occupied since 1976. “When I'm 80, I'll be saying, ‘Oh, to be 70 again,' or something like that.”
The prolific director, who entered a career peak in his 70s with such films as Million Dollar Baby and Mystic River, said he aims to keep working as long as he's able and gives little thought to mortality, the subject of his new drama Hereafter, which follows three characters searching for answers about life after death.
Now that he is 80, how old does he feel? “Eighteen,” Eastwood jokes, before dismissing the age issue with a shrug.
“I don't think too much about it. I don't feel any different than I did at 70,” Eastwood said. “Whatever I feel internally, now is the best age for me, because I feel better now, I guess because I've lived a lot of life. I've been able to accomplish a certain amount of things, and I haven't beaten anybody up doing it. So I'm OK about it.
“Physically, I don't know if can run as hard as I could at 60 or 70. But I probably could. I probably could get close.”
Eastwood thinks back to shooting 2004's Million Dollar Baby, which followed 1992's Unforgiven as his second Academy Award winner for best picture and director, and how each day he and collaborators would do dips on the parallel bars on the set of the boxing drama. Eastwood said he could do more dips than colleagues 40 or 45 years younger.
That's not a boast from the soft-spoken Eastwood, who rose to fame on TV's Rawhide, became a big-screen star with A Fistful of Dollars and The Good, the Bad and the Ugly and was an icon of vigilante justice with his Dirty Harry movies. He's simply acknowledging the discipline he knows he possesses to work hard and efficiently.
That's part of the secret of his decades-long affiliation with Warner Bros., where executives have signed off on story angles that don't scream box office — euthanasia in Million Dollar Baby, child molestation in 2003 best-picture nominee Mystic River — knowing that Eastwood would bring them an interesting film at a reasonable price, often under budget, and ahead of schedule.
Though Eastwood's collaborators say he will shoot 10 takes of a scene when needed, he's often content doing a couple of takes and moving on.
That efficiency is necessary given the multitasking Eastwood does as director and producer, often composing his own musical scores as he does on Hereafter, still occasionally acting as he did on 2008's Gran Torino.
And it's what allows him to pound out as many quality films as he does. Hereafter is the eighth film he's directed in the last seven years, a stretch that included two World War II epics — Flags of Our Fathers and best-picture nominee Letters From Iwo Jima — released just two months apart in 2006.
“The way to be 80 years old and still be cranking the way he does is all about managing his energy,” said Hereafter star Matt Damon, who earned a supporting-actor Oscar nomination for Eastwood's Invictus, which opened last December, just 10 months before the director's latest film.
“There really is a system, really is a deep understanding of 60 years of doing it on both sides of the camera,” Damon said. “To know when to put your foot on the gas with your crew, and to know when everybody rests, recharges their battery a little bit. The wisdom that guy has about how to make movies, it makes it really fun to work with him.”
The director's style surprised Hereafter screenwriter Peter Morgan (The Queen, Frost/Nixon), who figured that once Eastwood signed on, they would spend a lot of time polishing loose ends in the script.
Instead, Eastwood shot the film as written, saying it was open-ended enough that viewers could “bring 50 percent of themselves to the movie. They're meeting the filmmaker halfway there,” Morgan said.
Hereafter opens with a visceral effects sequence as a French journalist (Cecile de France) has a near-death experience in a tsunami in Indonesia. The film weaves among her search for answers about the afterlife, a similar pursuit by a London boy whose twin brother dies in a traffic accident, and the story of a reluctant American psychic (Damon), who views his ability to connect people with dead loved ones as a curse.
Eastwood was attracted to Hereafter because it deals with the afterlife in a spiritual manner without turning religious.
He attended a variety of churches, mostly Protestant, as a boy but gave up on it early on, disliking the wrathful tone that was preached.
“I couldn't believe that God would be a great sadist in the sky, getting pleasure out of, ‘If you screw up, I'm going to bust you, boy,'” Eastwood said. “That's a way of keeping people in line, I guess.”
He does find Buddhism attractive, “because they don't seem to be as mean-spirited, and their idea of God is sort of a heavyset guy who's got a smile on his face, and I thought, hey, that's nice,” Eastwood said.
Hereafter has no easy answers about whether there's an afterlife, and Eastwood himself won't speculate.
“I haven't the foggiest idea,” Eastwood said. “I suppose the whole basis of religion all throughout history has always been based upon somebody believing or wanting to believe, and maybe it's mankind imposing their will — ‘I want to believe there's something after. I want to believe there's no mortality, that you don't just fade away.'
“I don't know what I think about it. I probably tend to think, you're here for the time you're here, and you should do the best you can for the time you're here, and appreciate it and move on. That's rather simplistic, but that's where I come out.”
Eastwood does know where he's going next in his Hollywood life, preparing to shoot Hoover, a film biography of FBI boss J. Edgar Hoover that stars Leonardo DiCaprio.
Though he's sometimes asked to act in others' movies, Eastwood said that's unlikely unless a great part comes along, such as the racist who grows a conscience that he played in Gran Torino.
“But I haven't read many scripts like that,” he says. “I'll stay right where I am, behind the camera. I have no burning desire to get up there. But if the right role came along, I could develop the desire to do it.”