This is the second production collaboration between Imagine Entertainment co-chairman Brian Grazer and Clint Eastwood’s Malpaso Productions partner Robert Lorenz. (The first was 2008’s The Changeling). J. Edgar was surrounded by intrigue and intensity from the start of the film, which was turned down by Universal because the studio didn’t want to make another period film. A Malibu meeting between Grazer and Eastwood paved the way for Warner Bros to release this month a fascinating look at one of the most complicated figures in history, his abuse of power, and the demons that haunted him. Central to the movie is the incredible pedigree of clint as a director Eastwood, and the powerful performances by Leonardo Di Caprio, Armie Hammer, Naomi Watts, and Judi Dench. Before J. Edgar hit theaters, AwardsLine contributor Ari Karpel spoke with Grazer and Lorenz to discuss biopics in the age of dirty Oscar campaigns, Clint Eastwood’s difficult-to-categorize politics, and the challenge of making serious films in an often frivolous age:
AWARDSLINE: To start, tell me about how this project came to be, from the beginning.
Grazer: I thought it would be interesting to make a movie about Hoover because he’s such a complex character. He also, for the most part, originated the FBI. He certainly sustained it. So, I pitched it to Universal and they liked it. I met with writer Dustin Lance Black and then pitched it to him. He said he’d been thinking about something similar. He likes power structures the same way I like power structures. So while we were developing it, I’d seen Leonardo a couple times just casually. He was aware that we were developing Hoover with Lance Black. He seemed excited by the idea of either reading it or maybe even doing it. Script comes in and Universal chose not to do it. I suggested we give it to Rob for Clint and for Rob himself. We’d already had a great work experience together on The Changeling with Angelina Jolie. He read it, liked it and quickly talked to his partner over there, Clint Eastwood. They said ‘we’re in.’ Then that got Leo to say ‘I’ll do it.’
AWARDSLINE: The subject matter didn’t give anyone pause?
Lorenz: Whatever work Brian and Lance had done prior was working because the script came in and we both felt it was really smart and intriguing. Hoover, whom everyone’s familiar with as the director of the FBI, is also this character that’s surrounded in mystery because he’s hiding secrets and he has this personal life that everyone has questions about. It just seemed like a great subject for a movie.
Grazer: I think that a lot of the subjects within the movie are relevant today and are even more relevant today in some ways. When Lance started writing it prior to Clint and Rob’s involvement, he did a lot of research on it – went to the FBI – and then as Rob and Clint became involved, we just continued to research. That’s where a lot of the story gets filled in because these guys are great. Clint and Rob are just great
researchers. I think we made a point to have it be as accurate as it possibly can be and settle in the aspects that wouldn’t overtake the central story.
AWARDSLINE: Obviously, Lance who won an Oscar for his Milk screenplay, is a naturally political person and very progressive in his politics. Similarly, Clint is also a naturally political person, though more conservative. Was that a kind of delicate dance in some way with this project?
Lorenz: Well, I don’t think so. People try to label him a conservative. But I’m always impressed by how progressive a figure he is. I think if you look at the subject matter in his choice of films over the last several years you can really see that. I mean choosing to do Flags of Our Fathers and really sort of glamorizing the Americans and that war and then countering that with the Japanese perspective was something that for a lot of veterans tensed them up to think that Clint was going to try and tell their side of the story. They resent any need to do that.
Grazer: I think he’s singularly been so successful at doing these great American tragedies. I don’t know if either Rob or I have seen anyone else succeeding on his level; doing films that are so hard. He picks these really difficult and complex subjects and finds ways to create cohesive movies that make sense.
AWARDsLINE: Of course we’re in such a polarized political culture, even in the Oscar races. Brian, from your experience with A Beautiful Mind — which was probably the most attacked movie in terms of the opposition — how does that shape how you go into making a movie like this that is a likely Oscar contender?
Grazer: Well, first of all, Rob and I can only hope that it’s thought of with that kind of potential. That’d be great. As far as A Beautiful Mind, I think controversy comes when you get pulled into the race. It wasn’t really as controversial when we made A Beautiful Mind as it was when people started competing with each other. On this movie, Clint has tackled such tough subjects, so I thought he would be perfect for this not only as an artist but someone who always struggles and struggles and finds the truth in subjects. I think people, his critics and people who work within the business; they all sort of feel that if anyone’s going to try a tough subject and do it with honesty it’s going to be Clint.
AWARDSLINE: You said Universal didn’t want to do this initially. Why was that?
Grazer: Once Clint said he was interested in doing it, Universal might have come to the same conclusion to make it. But I think they weren’t going to come to that conclusion that quickly; whereas, Clint read it and Rob read it and they had an enormous amount of passion and urgency. Clint’s pretty busy all the time, so Rob and Clint and I, to some degree, took it to Warner Bros; they were ready to make it right away.
AWARDSLINE: What did Universal struggle with? Was it the topic, the budget or what?
GRAZER: I don’t know. I think it’s hard to get dramas made right now, right, Rob?
LORENZ: Yeah. That’s the same thing Warner struggled with. There are restrictions on it in terms of the budget size. It was a risky proposition
that a historical drama was going to make back a big amount of money unless it turned out just right, which I think it has.
GRAZER: A movie like this, everybody takes a lot less money and a lot less of everything. You have to make it at a very smart price. [Editor’s note: They claim J. Edgar’s production cost came in just under $40 million]. In some ways, you’re thinking ‘I hope people see it and like it or love it the way we love it.’ You’re not thinking of it the same way you think of an event movie. You just can’t frame it that way.
AWARDSLINE: Now, certainly Clint’s obviously had incredible box office and Oscar success with Million Dollar Baby and Unforgiven. It seems like his last few movies haven’t received the attention of the Academy that his previous ones have. I’m curious from both of you why you think that is.
GRAZER: I think a lot of it is the subject and the theme. I think this one has those and it’s also a tour de force. So, I think we might have a chance.
LORENZ: We’ve been out there every year with a project. I think enthusiasm goes back and forth. I think the timing is right to open this particular project.