In 1962, the same year that a quartet of working-class New Jersey youths called the Four Seasons shot to the top of the pop charts with the irresistible doo-wop single “Sherry,” a solo artist from the West Coast made a less auspicious chart appearance with an earnest cowboy ballad inspired by his character on a popular TV Western. Entitled “Rowdy,” the song featured its gravelly voiced performer lamenting life on the open range, set to a gentle, galloping tempo. That singer was Clint Eastwood.
Surely, few listening to the radio back then would have imagined that, 50-odd years later, the Four Seasons’ pint-sized frontman, Frankie Valli, would still be selling out arenas with his vibrating falsetto. Fewer still would have wagered that Eastwood, then in his fourth season as Rowdy Yates on CBS’ “Rawhide,” would not only go on to become one of Hollywood’s most iconic leading men, but one of its most lauded director-producers, with four Oscars to his name and a feverish pace of work that, at age 84, rivals the 80-year-old Valli’s own. So perhaps it isn’t as strange as it first seems that Eastwood now finds himself at the helm of “Jersey Boys,” the long-gestating screen version of the hit Broadway musical about Valli’s rocky road to superstardom.
Indeed, while the recording of “Rowdy” didn’t exactly set the airwaves ablaze or prompt Eastwood to quit his day job, it’s been one of the defining contradictions of his career that his large hands are as comfortable tickling the ivories as they are grasping the trigger of the “world’s most powerful handgun.” Long before embarking on “Jersey Boys,” Eastwood directed two other music-centric narrative films, the 1982 country-Western tearjerker “Honkytonk Man” (in which he also sang and played guitar) and the acclaimed Charlie Parker biopic “Bird” (1988), as well as a documentary, “Piano Blues,” for the PBS series “Martin Scorsese Presents the Blues.” And starting with “Mystic River” in 2003, he has composed the original scores for nearly all of his films, frequently in partnership with his musician son, Kyle.
“My dad was a singer,” Eastwood recalls of his steelworker father, Clinton Eastwood Sr. “He had a group during the Depression, and they’d play parties and little clubs. When I was a kid, I played piano. I started imitating records that were popular at the time.” By the time he was a teenager, Eastwood Jr. was playing at various Bay Area watering holes, where he discovered that carrying a tune was a handy shortcut to free pizza and beer — and not a bad way to meet girls, either.
The script for “Jersey Boys” showed up on the doorstep of Eastwood’s Malpaso Prods. during an atypical lull: a three-year stretch, following 2011’s “J. Edgar,” in which the filmmaker was absent from the director’s chair (his longest gap between directing projects since 1980).
Not that he was taking it easy, exactly: He produced and starred alongside Amy Adams and Justin Timberlake in the 2012 baseball drama “Trouble With the Curve,” directed by his longtime producing partner, Rob Lorenz; and made a controversial appearance at that year’s Republican National Convention that struck many as a strange kind of performance art piece, when he recited an in-absentia complaint letter to President Obama, who was represented onstage by an empty chair.
“Yeah, I was surprised,” Eastwood says in his typically unflappable way about the media scrutiny that followed his speech. Waiting in the wings at the Tampa Convention Center, he says he began to bristle at the parade of other speakers showering GOP nominee Mitt Romney with sound-alike bon mots. “I thought, ‘I’ve got to come up with something different.’ So I just started working on it backstage. Then they were calling my name, and I said, ‘Just give me a chair.’ Some people loved it.”
Eastwood also had spent two years prepping a remake of “A Star Is Born,” a project that became mired in endless delays and false starts. So he was eager to get back behind the camera when a call came from Oscar-winning producer Graham King, who had won the “Jersey Boys” film rights in a competitive 2010 bidding war, and was just as keen to finally get into production.
Having first set “Jersey Boys” up at Sony, King had moved the project to Warner Bros. in 2012, and soon attached Jon Favreau to direct. Filming was set to begin in January 2013 for a Christmas release, but mere weeks after announcing the project, and with casting under way, Warners put “Jersey Boys” into turnaround (allegedly over budgetary disputes and concerns about the film’s foreign box office appeal) and King was back to square one. That’s when Eastwood’s phone rang.
“Graham King said, ‘We’d like you to do ‘Jersey Boys,’ ” and I said, ‘OK, I’ll look at it.’ They sent over a script — it was OK, by a good writer, John Logan, but it was missing a lot of things, and I said we’d need to sit down and do a rewrite.”
But Eastwood was compelled by Valli’s underdog rise from a kid Newark’s mean streets to pop icon, and he asked Warner’s then-movie chief, Jeff Robinov, to reconsider the picture. After all, Eastwood says as though it were perfectly obvious, “Where else do you get a project that’s been road-tested for a decade?”
It’s early May, and with “Jersey Boys” now in the can, Eastwood is already several weeks into directing his 34th movie, the military drama “American Sniper,” on a sprawling Santa Clarita ranch that has been dressed to resemble a Fallujah military base. Inside the temporary, barracks-like structure that serves as the set cafeteria, he stands in the lunch queue with the rest of the cast and crew, dressed in light-green golf shirt, khaki pants and black sneakers, sporting a beard he grew during the film’s location shoot in Morocco. He takes a seat at one of the long picnic tables, and makes leisurely stabs at a plate of fresh salmon, broccoli and fruit (he gave up eating red meat decades ago).
He recalls traveling to Las Vegas to see a performance of “Jersey Boys,” and being surprised to find that the show differed considerably from Logan’s script — which, among other things, scrapped the play’s multiple narrators in favor of a single p.o.v. Upon his return, he was even more surprised to learn that there was an earlier version of the “Jersey Boys” screenplay, written by Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice, the authors of the original Broadway book.
Only in Hollywood do they take a play that’s run for nine years on Broadway, six years in London, and five years in San Francisco, then go out and hire another writer,” marvels Eastwood, who’s nearly as famous for trusting writers’ first drafts as he is actors’ first takes. Back in 1971, when he teamed with director Don Siegel for the original “Dirty Harry,” the script had been rewritten so many times that the studio copy room had run out of shades of colored paper to differentiate the revisions. But when Eastwood and Siegel looked back at the original draft by the team of Harry Julian and Rita M. Fink, they deemed it superior to anything that had come after, and proceeded to put that version before the cameras.
“He’s never been one to bog himself down with development,” notes Lorenz, who joined Malpaso as a second a.d. on “The Bridges of Madison County” (1995), and earned his first full producing credit on “Mystic River.” “If something comes in, and it’s well written and it strikes him, then we do it.”
Armed with the Brickman-Elise script and a pared-back budget, Eastwood quickly moved into production on “Jersey Boys” last summer. Though he admits the studio “would have liked us to come up with a few names” for the cast, he insisted on cherry-picking his Four Seasons from among theater actors who had previously played the roles onstage, including John Lloyd Young, who won a Tony as Valli in the original Broadway production. “You’ve got people who’ve done 1,200 performances; how much better can you know a character?” says Eastwood.
Yet for all his fidelity to the Broadway source, the director has made a “Jersey Boys” movie that ultimately differs from the stage version in several key respects. It’s an altogether moodier, more real, edgier piece of work, more “Bird” than “Bye Bye Birdie,” giving equal weight to the personal tragedies of Valli and his bandmates — busted-up marriages, estranged children, embezzlement scams and dangerous entanglements with the Jersey mob — as to their professional triumphs. Onstage, misfortune was frequently softened by the show’s overarching uptempo mood. But onscreen, Eastwood hits as many blue notes as four-part harmonies.
“It was so interesting to sit there and recognize almost every single line of dialogue from the stage production, and yet experience something that couldn’t be more different,” says Young, who saw the completed version of the film after wrapping a return engagement as Valli in the London West End production of the show. “Clint definitely understands melancholy. That sort of darkness, which is authentic to Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons’ beginnings, is much more on display in this film than it is in that fast-paced treadmill of a slick Broadway show.”
By the time “Jersey Boys” arrives in theaters June 20, Eastwood already will have wrapped shooting on “American Sniper,” which doesn’t yet have a release date, but could well end up on screens in time for this year’s Oscars. Based on the bestselling autobiography of U.S. Navy SEAL Chris Kyle, “Sniper” stars Bradley Cooper as the author, an expert marksman who claimed to have killed more than 250 enemy combatants during four tours of duty in Iraq, and who was himself fatally shot by a fellow PTSD-afflicted vet on a Texas gun range in 2013. Like “The Bridges of Madison County” and “Flags of Our Fathers” before it, the project was originally set to be directed by Steven Spielberg. When Spielberg left the project last summer, Cooper and Warner Bros. production prexy Greg Silverman asked Eastwood if he’d step in.
“I called Spielberg and said, ‘Steven, I’m always doing your leftovers! Why’d you bail out of this thing?’ ” Eastwood says with a chuckle. “Then he came over one day and we talked for a couple of hours about it.”
“Sniper” is the 28th film Eastwood has directed for Warner Bros., a loyalty between filmmaker and studio not seen since the golden age of the studio system. (John Ford, the director to whom Eastwood is perhaps most often compared, did 24 films for Fox.) Those movies run the gamut from populist crowd-pleasers (“Space Cowboys,” “Gran Torino”) to personal passion projects (“Bird,” “White Hunter Black Heart”), prestige literary adaptations (“Madison County,” “Mystic River”), politically tinged biopics (“Invictus,” “J. Edgar”) and Eastwood’s two best picture Oscar winners: “Unforgiven” and “Million Dollar Baby.” And while the relationship hasn’t been without its bumps — Warners initially passed on both “Mystic” and “Million,” eventually greenlighting them only after Eastwood brought on a co-financier — it’s an alliance both director and studio are eager to continue.
“Clint is one of the touchstones of Warner Bros.,” says Warner Bros. CEO Kevin Tsujihara, who praises Eastwood’s work ethic and fiscal responsibility. “At this point, it’s a real relationship that’s built on a number of different things; it stops being about dollars and cents.”
Still, it can’t hurt that the two biggest worldwide grossers of Eastwood’s career, “Million Dollar Baby” ($217 million) and “Gran Torino” ($270 million), were both made within the past 10 years, when their director and star was well past Social Security age.
Eastwood describes “Sniper” (in which he does not star) as a movie about the irony of war, a theme he has previously explored in films such as “Heartbreak Ridge” (about the U.S. invasion of Grenada) and his 2006 Iwo Jima diptych.
Cooper, for one, is enjoying the experience of working with the famously laidback director. “I’m just sort of pinching myself every day that I’m on set with him,” he says. “He’s an actor himself, and you can just tell that he thinks in those terms. It’s a very easy set, and he’s very collaborative.”
For a war picture with lots of heavy artillery, the mood on the “Sniper” set — as on all Eastwood’s sets — is one of pervasive quiet and calm. He rarely raises his voice above a whisper, and his crew communicates via secret-service style earpieces rather than by squawking walkie-talkies. No one ever yells anything, least of all “Action!” or “Cut!” Rather, Eastwood will roll camera and then prompt the actors with a gentle “OK, whenever you feel like it.” At the end of a scene, an equally soft-spoken “Good” or “Stop” suffices.
“A lot of sets are loud and noisy, people bang around, and you just have to learn how to incorporate that into your work, but it’s hard,” says Laura Linney, who starred in Eastwood’s “Absolute Power” (1997) and “Mystic River.” “So it’s a huge advantage for an actor to have a quiet set, and a huge relief.”
Some other truisms of making a movie with Eastwood: He typically does no more than two takes of any given shot — sometimes even shooting, then using, what actors think is a mere rehearsal; he works with the same crew time and again; is usually ahead of schedule and under budget; call time is rarely before sunrise; and everyone gets home by dinner.
“I always think of it as being the jazz man in him,” says Sean Penn, who won the actor Oscar for “Mystic River,” one of five thesps Eastwood has directed to Academy Award-winning performances. “The jazz man wants all the players onstage, and to see what happens the first time when everyone plays off each other. You might want to go back and ask for another take of your chord or your instrument, but it’s never going to be as good as it is at large. In other words, the integrated thing is what he’s after.
“Clint,” he adds, “has the least insecurities of anybody that I’ve ever worked with.”
Morgan Freeman, who won a supporting actor Oscar for “Million Dollar Baby,” echoes that appreciation. “He doesn’t push actors around,” he says. “He just directs the movie. He’s very quick, very decisive, and I respond to that.”
Lorenz says Eastwood lets his instincts guide him. “Too often there’s pressure, with all the money movies cost nowadays, to make sure you’ve thought of every possible combination, and then you start to second-guess yourself and things fall apart. But he moves through things quickly and keeps that momentum up, and instead of working from an intellectual place, you’re working from a more artistic place.”
After lunch, while the crew sets up a low-angle shot of a sniper on a Fallujah rooftop, Eastwood reminisces about his first movie appearance, the 1955 “Creature From the Black Lagoon” sequel “Revenge of the Creature.” He talks about the old Mitchell movie cameras that were used to shoot it, so much bulkier and more cumbersome than the HD technology that he used on “Sniper” and “Jersey Boys.” Then he turns to consult with his visual-effects supervisor, Michael Owens, to see if they need to wait for nightfall to get
the roof shot, or if the sky can be darkened digitally in post. It’s a small but telling reminder of how nimbly Eastwood has managed to change with the times while in other respects has remained timeless.
“I don’t want to repeat what I did in the last decade or the decade before that,” says Eastwood, who has repeatedly rebuffed offers to bring Inspector Harry Callahan out of retirement. Asked if he’s already thinking about his next project, he notes, “Two pictures in one year is enough. Right now, I don’t want to hear about any great scripts, and I don’t want to read any scripts. Next year, we’ll see where life is.”