Clint Eastwood's Brawl Lessons, and Other Revelations from the J. Edgar Press Conference
At the press conference for J. Edgar, which premiered last night at AFI Fest to mixed, often hilarious reviews, stars Leonardo DiCaprio, Armie Hammer and Naomi Watts joined director Clint Eastwood, screenwriter Dustin Lance Black and producer Brian Grazer fielded questions about the very issues that make the biopic seem difficult to make: the ambiguity surrounding both Hoover and his confidants' personal lives. Movieline culled the best five quotes from the panel, one of which involves 81-year-old Eastwood's on-set brawling.
Leonardo DiCaprio and Clint Eastwood on bucking Eastwood's reputation as a "one-take" director: DiCaprio: "At times we did eight or nine or 10 takes on a single day. Clint is very adaptable and has his process, and what he does is expect you to plant your feet and speak the truth like James Cagney says. That's what we tried our best to do on this movie. He was very understanding about the different time periods we had to shift back and forth between."
Eastwood: "I've got this reputation of shooting one take, and it's a wonderful reputation to have, but it's hard to live up to. And if you did, it'd be kind of shoddy, I think."
Armie Hammer on Clint Eastwood directing -- and demonstrating -- his character's impassioned scuffle with Hoover: Hammer: "There was a moment on set that was one of those things where you don't smile. It was the fight scene that we had to do in the hotel room. Clint had to show us what he wanted, and that involved his buddy Buddy -- Buddy Van Horn, who he's [worked] with since Rawhide.
Eastwood: "Yes. My memory's a little short, but actually yes, I worked with him when I was a contract player at Universal in 1953."
Hammer: And they basically just had a fight right in front of us. Clint comes sauntering up and says, 'You know, I was just thinking that this was a very important scene, so I was thinking for the fight you might want to do something LIKE THIS!' And bam, bam, bam! These two guys just start wailing each other, rolling around the ground. Then Clint gets up at the end, dusts himself off, and says, 'Something like that.' Sure. Whatever you say."
Clint Eastwood on rediscovering and exploring a character he'd heard about his entire life: "I had impressions growing up of Hoover as a hero in the '40s -- actually the '30s, '40s, '50s and beyond. This was all prior to the information age, so we didn't know about Hoover except for what was usually in the papers. This was fun, because it was a chance to go into it. Lance [went off] autobiographical material and biographies from other people, and it was fun to delve into a character you've heard about all your life but never really knew, and try to sort that out. We never knew too much about Tolson, Gandy or any of the close confidants. But through researching this movie, that's what was fun about making the movie. You get to learn something about the people and watch the actors -- we're all just learning history or putting our stamp on history or our interpretation of it. I'm sure a lot of things probably didn't happen the way they did in this film, but they're pretty close."
Dustin Lance Black on figuring out the real J. Edgar Hoover: "This was a tough one to research. if you read any of the biographies on J. Edgar Hoover, you find they contradict each other more often than they agree oftentimes. They're often told from kind of a political perspective; they feel like they have an agenda oftentimes. I guess first, you start identifying where they really disagree. You know there's where you need to start poking first. For me, that means finding firsthand sources first. There aren't a whole lot of those, but there are some. They're mostly people who worked with Hoover in his older years. You start to get an impression of the man, which is important. Then going to Washington D.C. and walking in his footsteps [...] seeing that he grew up blocks away from the Capitol building. In his childhood bedroom, you can see the dome just blocks away. That starts to inform things.
"At a certain point you've read enough people's biographies who might pass along firsthand accounts, and you start to come to conclusions about who the man was. And for me it was always important to answer that question of 'Why?' I know that this is someone who attained a lot of power. And he maintained that power for longer than he probably should have. I was so curious as to why. Most of my questions were always [...] to answer that. I thought that's how we're going to make this into an emotional story. That's how maybe we could learn from it -- both from the good he did, and the bad he became. [...]
"It was a creepy feeling at times because I have hard feelings about so much of what he did. I started to empathize with him, and I started to feel for him. You start to question that and worry about that. But I would always stop myself and say, 'If we want to stop this from happening again, we need to understand this from a human perspective; we need to understand that "why" in order to keep it from happening again.' That really drove my research."
Naomi Watts on the unverified backstory of her character, Hoover's secretary Helen Gandy: "Unlike Hoover's character, there was very little information about Helen Gandy available. All we really knew is she worked with him for 50 years, she was not married, and then she devoted her life to her job. The rest sort of had to be filled in. These were questions of mine when I read the script for the first time -- "Why would she do that?" This was not common for women at that time to go into a career saying, "This is all I want." So she was ahead of her time. That's an inspiration for all women to see a woman thinking and moving differently than those around her. I liked that it was set up in a way that perhaps she was going to be a love interest, but that just wasn't who Hoover was [laughs]-- wanting to please his mother. [Gandy] wanted that career and just went after it. She loved serving her country and making those sacrifices -- and unbelievable loyalty."
[Photo from AFI Fest opening-night red carpet: WireImage]