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Fortune Smiles on Eastwood as He Heads into 'Line of Fire'

AUSTIN, Texas Now that the dust has settled after the early summer blockbusters - after Stallone, Spielberg and Schwarzenegger - Clint Eastwood is poised for his run at the box office. "In the Line of Fire," his new suspense thriller (opening Friday), is his first film since "Unforgiven," which brought him long-overdue Oscars.

"In the Line of Fire" stars Eastwood as a veteran Secret Service agent who could have moved a little faster when President Kennedy was shot, and has been living with that guilt for 25 years. Now another president has been marked for killing, but only Clint takes the death threats seriously.

"In the Line of Fire" is one of Eastwood's more expensive films, but it didn't cost the megamillions of "Cliffhanger," "Jurassic Park" and "Last Action Hero." In fact, no Eastwood film has ever been promoted on the basis of its big budget.

"Yeah, it's fairly expensive," Eastwood said, "but nowadays, you're hearing such astronomical numbers. You hear people talk about $100 million, $80 million, whatever. By those standards, it's not expensive, but it certainly is much more expensive than a film like 'Unforgiven.' "

There's been so much publicity, I said, about how much "Jurassic Park" and "Last Action Hero" cost, and how much they're grossing.

"Selfishly, from my standpoint, I'm glad people focused on those," Eastwood said. "I don't like it when studios start overpromoting and hyping films before they come out. 'Jurassic Park' has obviously done a very good job, but sometimes the hype outshines the quality, and when that happens, you get into a real box canyon. We felt we had a decent script and a good cast, and the elements were there."

There's this whole controversy about an alleged sneak preview for "Last Action Hero," I said. The Los Angeles Times says there was a disastrous sneak preview, and the studio says there wasn't, and the fight took the bloom off the picture's opening. Why don't you like sneaks?

"It can attract the wrong kind of attention. Nowadays, there's a world so hungry for information - this whole thing with the Times and `Last Action Hero,' for example. You try to do a working screening, maybe find out what you've got or figure some changes, but it doesn't come out that way. Somebody sees it and gives it out to the papers, and it's a piece of crap. Maybe you weren't ready to show it publicly. I just think you should work it out in your own mind, instead of doing all those sneaks. I never snuck 'Unforgiven.' I just felt, let's give it the best we can and put it out."

We're talking in Eastwood's air-conditioned trailer, out here in the middle of a big Texas field where Eastwood is directing and starring in "A Perfect World." Kevin Costner, another actor-director who won an Oscar for a Western, is his co-star, playing a convict who escapes from a prison, abducts a child as a hostage, and is pursued by Eastwood, a Texas Ranger.

Outside, the sun beats down like a blowtorch and you'd expect everything to be dry and parched, but it's as green as Ireland, and the weather is driving Eastwood bananas. First, there's the hot sun. Then high fluffy little white clouds. Then a thunderstorm. Then clearing skies, and the sunshine again. Making the shots match is a nightmare. It was raining five minutes ago.

"I've had this bus for 10 years," Eastwood smiles, leaning back on a sofa. "When the pope came to Carmel (Calif.), I loaned it to him."

Did it come back blessed?

"I hope so. It sure did come back smelling like cigarette smoke."

He smiled, that cracked smile that stretches the lines on his face like ripples on a pond. He wanted to take some time off after "Unforgiven," but here he was with one picture coming out and another in production.

"I read the script for 'In the Line of Fire,' and decided it was so good, I might as well do it. There was some talk of me directing, but it was right after 'Unforgiven,' and I decided to cool it. I was in quite a few of the scenes, so I said I really would prefer to lay low, and so we looked around and got Wolfgang Petersen."

Petersen is the German director whose "Das Boot," shot almost entirely on board a Nazi U-boat, is an action masterpiece. Was there any feeling that a German director would suit the very American subject matter of a presidential assassination?

"Well, I felt that as much as Sergio Leone was right for the spaghetti Westerns in the early '60s, Petersen might be right for some Americana, some Kennedy memories, some contemporary suspense." 

Eastwood guessed right. "In the Line of Fire" is one of his best films, pitting his veteran Secret Service agent against a brilliant, demented former CIA assassin played by John Malkovich. The would-be killer knows where all the buttons are and how to push them.

"He's just so creepy in this picture," Eastwood said. "There's something kind of mesmerizing about him, even in the way he appears. There's a lot of dimension - a lot of added dimension that maybe wasn't written down, which maybe everyone brings to their characters, but especially John."

In the film, Malkovich taunts Eastwood with telephone conversations, probing his weaknesses, daring him to save the president. Meanwhile, a politically obsessed White House chief of staff believes Eastwood's excessive caution is ruining the president's image and tries to get him thrown off the security detail. Among those who side with Eastwood are Rene Russo, as another Secret Service agent.

"I was always lobbying for a trailer that showed more of Rene's character," Eastwood said, "so people didn't think that it was just going to be an action-packed, male-oriented suspense film."

And in fact it isn't; it's a surprisingly complex character study and love story, with the assassination plot lurking beneath everything.

"I've never seen a film about the Secret Service," he said. "Or at least, never one that captured what people might feel being on the job, day in and day out, being assigned to Fidel Castro or somebody like that, and being told, 'Look, protect this guy; jump in front of him or something.' "

He smiled again. "If anybody told me I had to jump in front of somebody and be shot instead, I'd say, `You got me confused me with someone else.' So that kind of a character must have an interesting mentality. I looked at a lot of old `60 Minutes' footage of (JFK'S Secret Service agent) Clint Hill, where they pinned him down on his feelings before he jumped up on the trunk that day in Dallas, and he was living with great regrets as much as my character is. I guess you get in a situation like that and you relive it many, many times."

Did you do any other research?

"I met Secret Service guys; I read books; I had several documentaries, tapes that the Secret Service sent out. Because they actually kind of cooperated with the film, which is the first time they've ever done that. They liked the script, I guess." He grinned. "Either that, or they were just in the mood for a film about themselves, having seen other government agencies depicted in films so regularly."

Once the movie was finished, Eastwood said, marketing experts didn't tinker with it. Eastwood doesn't believe in the voodoo of the audience consultants who hold secret screenings and quiz the audience and then tell the studios to reshoot the key scenes. He doesn't care what "focus groups" think.

"I can remember when the marketing research guys first started coming into play," he said. "It was about the time of `Every Which Way But Loose,' a picture I was involved with in the late '70s. It generated terrible advance market research. Once they showed the film, it seemed to go over nicely."

It was a big hit, in fact.

"Yeah, it made a lot of money. But market research said the title didn't work, it was too corny, nobody wanted to see me with an orangutan, all that kind of stuff. You get a lot of people who tell you a million reasons why not to make a new film. It's amazing anything ever gets made."

Do executives like market research just to cover their behinds?

"That, and it builds up the beauracracy. A lot of studios have more executives than workers. Everybody's got a little empire. So now there's a whole marketing research department, and of course, it has a vested interest in advising on your picture, because that's how it gets paid. I believe what my character John Wilson believed in 'White Hunter, Black Heart': You gotta make it the best you can, and then when you turn it over, let the public decide."

This picture you're making now . . .

"It's about a couple of guys who have made an escape from a prison. They accidentally get into a situation where they're forced to abduct a 7-year old kid. And I'm in the middle of the situation."

Why did you want to direct this story?

"It has a lot of very contemporary stuff about families, and fathers, and my character is very much outside the family world. One of the convicts wants to harm the kid, and the other wants to protect him, and it gets fairly complicated."

You said not long ago you might simply stop acting, and just direct movies.

"Yes, but I've been enjoying acting more lately. I think it's because now I've found a few roles that suit me, at this stage of my life, anyway, and they offer challenges I didn't have as a younger man. But by the same token, I'm reaching the stage to let it go. I've always thought directing would be what I'd fall back on. That's what I figured I'd do before retirement, whenever that might be. But who knows? I might find a some role as an old guy someday. A 90-year old gummer sitting around. . ."

You're now at the same stage as legendary actors such as John Wayne and James Stewart.

"I remember once while I was doing (the TV series) `Rawhide' long ago, I went next door and met Gary Cooper, and I thought, God! I remember growing up and my dad taking me to 'Sergeant York' and all those great pictures. And then all of a sudden, one day you wake up, and younger actors are looking up to you, and all I can remember is being 5 years old and going to films."

Do you think that because you've been a director as well as a star you've managed to avoid some of the pitfalls of stardom?

"I hope so. You know, in the old days, Bogart and Cagney and some of the others often times played very unattractive characters. I've always admired that. How boring to sit there on the set to have someone come up with a powder puff to try to make you look like someone you might have been years ago. I don't look like what I did when I was 40, or 30, and that's good, that's normal. I've got to be what I am now, and if nobody likes that, then that's just too bad. But acting-wise, I think I have more to give now." The Western bandwagon

After "Unforgiven," a lot of studios announced Westerns.

"It's time for me not to be doing one. I wish everybody a lot of luck, and I hope that they make some good ones, but I'd rather be making them when no one else is doing it. I don't think I've ever done a film where there was precedent for it, and I've tried to stick to that.

"Dating back even to the beginning, the spaghetti films were made when Westerns were out. 'Play Misty for Me' had no precedent, 'Beguiled' had no precedent, when 'Dirty Harry' was made there was no rationale for detective stories at that time, and before 'Josey Wales,' again there weren't any Westerns."

You're a contrarian.

"I guess so."

Roger Ebert

Roger Ebert was the film critic of the Chicago Sun-Times from 1967 until his death in 2013. In 1975, he won the Pulitzer Prize for distinguished criticism.

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