Director's Chair: Clint Eastwood - 'J. Edgar'
Issue: January 1, 2012

Director's Chair: Clint Eastwood - 'J. Edgar'

CARMEL, CA — As an actor, Clint Eastwood remains one of Hollywood’s last great male icons. But over the course of four decades and some 40 films, the star has also metamorphosed, not into some musty and much-honored legend but into an ambitious and accomplished filmmaker. And while he may now be 81, Eastwood, whose eclectic credits include the Oscar-winners Million Dollar Baby and Unforgiven, as well as Gran Torino, Letters from Iwo Jima, The Bridges of Madison County, Bird and the “Dirty Harry” series, shows no signs of slowing down.

A long-time Oscar favorite, Eastwood looks likely to win more awards for his latest film, J. Edgar, a biopic (a perennial Oscar favorite genre) about J. Edgar Hoover, America’s revered and feared controversial top cop for five decades who helped create the FBI. 

Starring Leonardo DiCaprio as Hoover and co-starring Naomi Watts as Helen Gandy (his secretary for 54 years), and The Social Network’s Armie Hammer as Hoover’s longtime assistant Clyde Tolson, the film traces Hoover’s life from childhood to his death in 1972, and hits all the big picture historical highlights — Prohibition, gangsters, the Lindbergh baby kidnapping, German spies, World War 11, ‘50s Communists and radicals, ‘60s civil rights and the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr., Robert F. Kennedy and President Kennedy (Hoover personally directed the FBI’s investigation into the latter’s death). 

The biopic, written by Milk Oscar-winner Dustin Lance Black, also addresses the on-going speculation and rumors that Hoover — who never married or had kids — was secretly gay and had an intimate relationship with Tolson (the two socialized and even vacationed together). 

“I did see it as primarily a love story, as well as a character study,” says Eastwood of J. Edgar. “I don’t know whether it came out of just individual people that become attracted to one another — Hoover, Clyde Tolson and Helen Gandy — or was it just the times. Maybe you didn’t trust that many people, so Hoover kept everything in a very tight order, so that he always had control. I guess he either knew that organizations could become rumor mills and be destroyed from within, or they had to be secretive.

“As for Tolson, he was a guy he liked and they were inseparable pals,” he notes. “They had lunch together every day or dinner together every night, and in the script Lance has him say, ‘There’s not many people I can trust in the Bureau these days.’ So that’s kind of where it fits. Now, how deep the love story goes is up to the audience to interpret.”

With a lot of Oscar buzz swirling around the film at press time, four-time Oscar-winner Eastwood, three-time Oscar-nominee DiCaprio and the picture all look likely to receive nominations, while Oscar-nominee Watts and fast-rising star Hammer could also earn Oscar nods. But Eastwood has never been driven by awards or commercial considerations when it comes to choosing his projects. 

“People offer you things in different forms,” he says. “Sometimes they come in the form of a screenplay, sometimes it’s a book. Unforgiven was a screenplay that seemed perfect when I read it, and I owned it for quite a few years and then decided to make it. Then I started making quite a few changes, and then realized I was wrecking it by making those changes, so I stopped and went back and just filmed it the way I got it. 

“Absolute Power was adapted from the best-selling novel by David Baldacci. Before that, someone gave me Madison County and I read it and thought, ‘There’s a good idea here but it’s written rather flowery, so how do we pare it down into a screenplay?’ In the case of a book, the big question is, ‘Can you convert it into a film-able script?’ Then you decide if you like the story and if it’s one you’d like to see as a film, and who you’d cast.”

The director says that DiCaprio was always his first choice to depict Hoover. “Leo brought so much to the role — great energy and a desire to do well, and that’s what I really appreciated,” he explains. “I’ve watched his career and he seems like an actor who’s trying to expand his horizons. That’s why he wanted the job. He actually came to us and asked for the part. I’d only had the script a few days and I was in the process of talking to Warners about financing it, and then Leo said he’d love to be in it, so I thought about it and then threw that in the mix. Pretty soon we were off into casting the rest of the film.”

Once cast, the “biggest challenges were dealing with the film’s 50-year scope and all the locations,” explains Eastwood. “With all the different time periods, you had to make sure that all the puzzles were going to fit. If you leave one of the little hunks out of it, it’s going to throw everything out of kilter.”


Although Hoover lived his entire life in Washington, DC, the filmmakers found that many of the locations could be doubled in California, including a courthouse in Orange County for one in New Jersey, and various hotels and clubs substituting for historic locations in DC. For the various horse track scenes, the team reviewed video of tracks in Del Mar, California, and Baltimore, and then built a section of tiered box seats. DP Tom Stern then shot DiCaprio and Hammer “watching” the races with a greenscreen behind them. The CG backgrounds of various environments were later integrated in post with footage of different races that spanned several decades.

But some locations couldn’t be faked on camera or in post, including the Library of Congress. “It’s so impressive, you just want to shoot it,” says Eastwood. “The moment we walked in, we knew we’d have to try for it, whatever part they’d make available to us.” In the end, the filmmakers were given a lot of access to the library — “and a lot of help and cooperation from the FBI,” he adds. “We did shoot from Hoover’s balcony, to get the shots we needed.”

To help convey Hoover’s perspective from his office overlooking Pennsylvania Avenue, visual effects supervisor Michael Owens and his team created various period versions of the avenue, including the inaugural motorcades of two presidents, Franklin D. Roosevelt and Richard Nixon. Staying true to the historical record, Eastwood also used Nixon’s eulogy at the end, “word for word. I had to leave all the curse words in, since Nixon recorded everything — cost me an R rating, but it’s completely accurate.”


Eastwood is renowned for working fast and being very loyal to his key creative team and crew. On J. Edgar Eastwood once again teamed with such regular collaborators as DP Tom Stern, who has worked with Eastwood on Invictus, Gran Torino and Changeling among others, and editors Joel Cox (an Oscar-winner for Unforgiven) and Gary Roach, who’s worked with the director since 1996. Cox has worked with Eastwood for over 35 years now. “He started working for me as an assistant editor on The Outlaw Josey Wales back in 1976,” states Eastwood, “and he took over when Ferris Webster, with whom he co-edited films like Every Which Way But Loose and Escape From Alcatraz, retired. I think we’ve done over 30 films together since then and again, it’s a very collaborative relationship.” Cox and Roach edited on the Avid Media Composer. (See Post’s December issue for an interview with Cox and details of the process.)

Does he ever feel the urge to bring in fresh blood? “Sometimes we use a lot of new people, and the last few crews have had some new faces,” he reports. “But it’s good to have staple people you can always depend on, and you hate to pass over someone who’s great at the job just to try new blood. There’s nothing wrong with the old blood if it’s really good. Sometimes when someone’s not available you’ll try someone new and like them, and then it’s a dilemma who you use the next time.”

For Eastwood, editing is when you have “the most control over a film, because you can make almost anything happen as long as you have the pieces and planned for it. By this point in my career I know exactly what coverage I have. I’ve always liked editing because it’s when you breathe life into it.” Editing J. Edgar was “a pretty complex task” he allows, “because of all the jumping back and forth from one era to another.” 

The director says he’s always been a “big fan” of the post process. “I enjoy all of it. The shooting is fun to some degree. In the old days I used to be far more impatient with the shooting. I liked it, but I didn’t know how to pace myself as well. So at that time my favorite part was editing, because you’d gotten rid of all the crew and there’s no pressure. You’re working with one person. But now I like shooting a lot more and I don’t kill myself with it so much. But post is the time when you really get to see what you have and make the film you want to make.”

As usual, Eastwood composed the music for J. Edgar and worked closely with music editor Chris McGeary and sound editors Alan Robert Murray and Bub Asman. “Music and sound are so important,” he notes. “The use of, the choices of when to use it, when not to, are all very important. Some directors don’t care too much about it and they figure they’ve done their job when the story’s told, but to me it’s an important factor because it’s like a finishing touch that can really make the difference. It adds to the soul of the movie. I’ve seen movies that had no music and I loved them. Sometimes it’s over-used, so it’s a question of selectivity.”
All the post for J. Edgar was done on the lot at Warner Bros. Visual effects and digital animation were done by Method Studios in Vancouver, with additional visual effects done by Lola Visual Effects. The DI was done at Technicolor with colorist Jill Bogdanowicz.

So what’s Eastwood’s ultimate take on Hoover? Was the man so repressed that he couldn’t love anyone — or express that love? “I think he loved Tolson for sure, and probably Gandy, too,” says the director, who also brings up Hoover’s seamier side. “His second-in-command at one point, Sullivan, took the fall for writing the [blackmail] letter to Martin Luther King Jr. Sullivan claimed he wrote it, but Lance figured — and I agreed — that Hoover was such a hands-on control freak that Sullivan wouldn’t have written it without Hoover knowing about it.

“I think he’s an enigma, even in death,” he states. “I don’t think anyone will ever really know the whole truth. There’s a mystery quality to him, which is fun — it’s certainly much more fun to speculate about someone like that who had done so much, and try to solve that mystery, than know everything about him. Then maybe it wouldn’t be worth telling as a story.”