Clint Eastwood: Flags and Letters From the "Good War"

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By Jeff Shannon

"I told Paul that if we could find any Japanese writers that would be great."

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.

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