While everyone chatters about how Clint Eastwood has been "snubbed" in various year-end awards and nomination announcements, one simple fact remains: Flags of Our Fathers and Letters from Iwo Jima represent a milestone achievement in Eastwood's long and storied career.
Taken together, they are films for the ages, sharing a symbiotic relationship that will endure long after we've forgotten the box-office figures that should've been higher, and served only to illustrate the fickle nature of mainstream filmgoers who mostly stayed away from two of the best films of 2006.
With Flags of Our Fathers arriving on DVD February 6th, the highly acclaimed Letters from Iwo Jima is the second half of an anti-war double-feature that explores the 1945 battle of Iwo Jima - and all war - from the opposing perspectives of its combatants. Both films resonate with each other to form a thematically rich, emotionally complex study of the meaning of heroism, the insanity of war, the shared experience of common soldiers on both sides of battle, and the power of images and propaganda to manipulate our emotions for better and worse.
What's amazing is that the instant classic Letters from Iwo Jima (originally titled Red Sun, Black Sand during its early production phase) emerged serendipitously from the process of making Flags. Inspired by Eastwood's first research visit to the island of Iwo Jima (where thousands of Japanese WWII casualties remain buried), Letters has cemented Eastwood's reputation as the greatest living American director. Here, Eastwood talks about Letters and various aspects of its production. [Portions of this interview appeared in 12-January-2007 issue of The Seattle Times.]
How did you come to choose an unknown screenwriter (40-year-old Japanese-American Iris Yamashita) to write Letters from Iwo Jima?
We didn't have much money and since Paul Haggis [the now much-in-demand writer of Eastwood's Million Dollar Baby and Flags of Our Fathers, and co-writer/director of last year's Oscar-winning Crash] is an expensive writer now, I asked if there was anyone he was mentoring who would be a good researcher on the subject of Iwo Jima. He called back a couple days later and said "There's this girl Iris who's Japanese American, and I think she's got some talent." So I sent her some materials I had gotten from Japan, including the little book [Picture Letters from Commander in Chief, the primary source material for Letters from Iwo Jima] that contained letters written and illustrated by General Kuribayashi, the Japanese commander on Iwo Jima. Iris did further research and learned about Baron Nishi [a noble officer and champion horse-jumper who had competed in the 1932 Los Angeles Olympics] and the variety of Japanese people who'd fought on the island. She came by the office several weeks later with a story outline that I liked, so we made a deal with her and she wrote the story with input from Paul ? they bounced ideas off each other -- and she went off and wrote the screenplay. From the moment I read it, I liked it.
What it a conscious desire to seek out a Japanese-American writer, or was that just a happy coincidence?
I told Paul that if we could find any Japanese writers that would be great. As it turned out Iris was Japanese-American and she knew a little bit about the customs of the old country, so to speak, but she didn't know anything about the battle of Iwo Jima from either perspective. She had to start from scratch, reading everything she could find, and she got people in Japan to send her magazine articles about Iwo Jima and the war, some of which were 30 years old or more.
Letters from Iwo Jima has been very well received in Japan, but as it turned out, filming on Iwo Jima was highly restricted, for understandable reasons.
When we first started researching and the story was being written, I went to Japan and met with Gov. Ishihara ? they call him "governor" but he's the mayor of Tokyo. We needed his permission to go to Iwo Jima, and I don't know if he was really excited about the idea, but he'd been a novelist and a filmmaker himself, so he allowed us to go. At that point we were still thinking of shooting "Flags" there, but the memorial factor of the island is very strong. The Japanese lost nearly 21,000 men on the island, and many of the bodies are still interred there, and we could see that "re-invading" the island would be just too much of an imposition, so I said "we can come back here and do a few little things," and we filmed in Iceland for the rest. For "Letters" we didn't have so much of the invasion to deal with, so we discovered that we could film what we needed here in California, in an abandoned silver mine in the desert near Barstow.
It's interesting that Letters from Iwo Jima has prompted the Japanese to acknowledge and reassess the battle, which was previously treated as a shameful or embarrassing chapter of their history.
I think the film has had a big influence [that way]. When our Japanese actors came out to begin filming, none of them knew anything about the battle of Iwo Jima. Ken Watanabe [who plays Gen. Kuribayashi] is 47, and even knew nothing about the battle until he started researching for his role. They still don't teach it in Japanese schools, but I recently received a note from [Japanese Prime Minister] Shinzo Abe, telling me that he enjoyed the film and he felt that it would help the families of Iwo Jima soldiers to find some kind of closure for their loss.
Was there any way in which you were consciously approaching this material as a Japanese director might? Were there any Japanese films or filmmakers that influenced you?
No, not really. Ken Watanabe and I were both being interviewed recently, and when Ken was asked how the film would be different if a Japanese director had made it, and he said it would be much more over the top, and he preferred the way we did it. I just approached the story the way I saw the film in my head. I've always admired Kurosawa, but I don't think I tried to emulate him in any way. Kurosawa liked John Ford a lot, but maybe didn't emulate him in any direct way. I think we're all inadvertently influenced by things that we've seen and enjoyed all our lives, but I don't think it's intentional. I just do what feels right to me at the time, but you can't spend a lifetime watching pictures by Ford or Kurosawa without saying "Gee, that was nicely done," and subconsciously you might think "If I'm ever shooting scene like that I might want to approach it the same way," but that could apply to hundreds of directors whose work I've admired.
You open with a montage on present-day Iwo Jima. It immediately sets a mood, and you get the distinct feeling that the island echoes with its violent past.
It really does. The first time I went there, I was standing at the base of Mount Suribachi, trying to imagine the incoming armada of American ships, and the feeling you get there is very ghostly. And when you go into the caves there, you get the same ghostly effect from the Japanese point of view. It's very claustrophobic, and you can't stay in there for long because it's so hot from all the geothermal activity. You could feel the spirit of both sides on the island, and it was during that first trip that I got interested in making a film from the Japanese perspective.
The screenplay doesn't include the business with Kuribayashi receiving the Colt .45 pistol as a gift during his pre-war visit to America. That turns out to be a very effective dramatic device.
I put that in as we were shooting. The script originally had Kuribayashi committing seppuku [ritual suicide, or hara-kiri] with his sword, and Ken said "with all the starvation and dehydration, I'd be so weakened that I don't think I'd have the strength do this, so couldn't I just shoot myself instead?" At first I thought there's nothing very fancy about using a gun instead of the formal ritual, but [then] I thought, "well, suppose he received a gun as a gift in the party scene with the Americans," and then I added some dialogue where the Japanese soldiers see Kuribayashi's pistol and speculate about how he might've gotten it. You see the gun throughout the film, but it doesn't come back into play until Kuribayashi's final scene. That kind of thing happens a lot. As you shoot the film you become more understanding of certain things.
There were some other scenes that included longer stretches of dialogue, and you stripped those down to the bare essentials.
Yeah, sometimes you have dialogue that's really good but goes on too long, and as you're filming you discover ways tell the story visually and suddenly you don't need the dialogue anymore. If it's not visual, you go with "less is best."
Flags of Our Fathers and Letters from Iwo Jima reach for a higher level of truth, beyond issues of nationality. It's almost as if you've directed these films as a citizen of the world and not, strictly speaking, as an American.
There's some truth to that, but I was just trying to put myself into any of these situations [regarding the battle of Iwo Jima] and make a statement about the humanity on both sides. Those are statements that anyone should be able to make, and there doesn't have to be any nationality involved. The Japanese were under the influence of a very aggressive military machine, and their aggression throughout Asia was very tough, but when you look at the war from the standpoint of the Average Joe who's being told what to do, you get closer to the humanity of the situation. You gain a better understanding of the emotions involved, and even people who've done terrible things during wartime are going to have some feelings about it. Some people can hide those emotions from their conscience, and other won't be able to do that so easily.