J Edgar - Leonardo DiCaprio, Director Clint Eastwood and Dustin Lance
Leonardo DiCaprio with the older make-up on and Director Clint Eastwood consult writer Dustin Lance during the filming ©2011 Warner Bros

Academy Award winning director Clint Eastwood has had quite a diverse career as an actor, producer, director and composer.

His new movie J Edgar tells the story of J Edgar Hoover (Leonardo DiCaprio), who rose to be the most powerful man in America. As head of the Federal Bureau of Investigation for almost 50 years, he ruled with an iron fist.

He was a man who placed great value on secrets, particularly those of others, and he was not afraid to use that information to exert authority over the leading figures in the nation.

You lived through some of the Hoover era, did that inform how you directed the material?

J Edgar - Director Clint Eastwood
Director Clint Eastwood during the filming ©2011 Warner Bros

I had my own impressions growing up with Hoover as an heroic figure in the thirties, forties, fifties and beyond, but this was all prior to the information age, so we didn’t know about Hoover except what was usually in the papers.

It was fun to delve into a character you’ve heard about all your life, but you never really knew, and try to sort that out. That’s what was fun about making the movie, you get to learn something about people.

We’re just putting our stamp on history, our interpretation of it. A lot of things probably didn’t happen exactly the way they happen in this film, but they’re pretty close.

Can you talk about the non-linear storytelling in this movie, the way that you shifted between the different time periods? Why did you think that was the effective way to tell the story?

J Edgar - Director Clint Eastwood and Leonardo DiCaprio
Director Clint Eastwood and Leonardo DiCaprio during the filming ©2011 Warner Bros

It was an interesting way to go back and forth in time and show him in his present day attitude and how he was when he was younger and just starting out with all kinds of vinegar and ready to roll.

I think we stuck pretty well with the formula and it seemed clever to me. Hoover I’m sure felt that he was right in everything he did and even the things that we don’t like about his character, everybody always feels that they’re right, even if they’re wrong.

Did the actors have trouble portraying the older versions of the characters?

Having an 81- year-old director in front of you helped them! I think the best example we had was is where when we did J Edgar Hoover going in to see the President, we pretty much duplicated both shots so that you’d see Leo going in as a young man and then in the final one, when he goes in to see President Nixon, he goes in and he does the exact same gestures but as an old man, so if you put those two pieces together you see a dramatic change.

How much pressure did you get from the FBI?

J Edgar - Leonardo DiCaprio with Director Clint Eastwood
Leonardo DiCaprio with Director Clint Eastwood during the filming ©2011 Warner Bros

I have great respect for the FBI and I know there have been some rumors lately that the FBI was disenchanted because we were doing the story, that’s not true. Actually, the FBI was tremendously enthusiastic about us doing this film.

They didn’t read the script though, they know nothing about it, their philosophy is, go ahead and make the story you want to make and hopefully we’ll love it.

This image of America’s top cop who bends the rules is reminiscent of Dirty Harry. Do you think that the myth of J Edgar Hoover informs the character of Dirty Harry at all?

I don’t think Hoover conforms to Dirty Harry at all. Dirty Harry was a mythical character. Don Siegel and I approached it as an exciting detective story. The writer of that, Harry Julian Fink, had written it as a man concerned with the victim, and it came about at a period of time when everybody was obsessed with the rights of the accused.

So all of a sudden we come out with a detective story with a lot of violence and stuff, but it was also concerning the rights of victims, and shortly after that there became all kinds of victims’ rights organizations. So we felt maybe we were ahead of the curve on that.

But I don’t see a parallel, Hoover was an administrator who administrated a very large organization, so why would he be out on the street making arrests? That’s what he has his agents for.

During your career you’ve come across people of enormous power politically, how did you take the observations you’ve made from your own experiences  and use them in this particular story?

J Edgar - Director Clint Eastwood and Judi Dench
Director Clint Eastwood and Judi Dench during the filming ©2011 Warner Bros

[With] people in high office, you go into the extreme, which is absolute power corrupts. So there’s always a corrupting thing with a forty-eight year stint as the director of the Bureau of Investigation, Because J Edgar formed it all and because he had the trust of various executives along the way, they just relied on him and nobody could remove him. We just approached it that way.

There are so many parallels in society today that you can use, whether it’s the head of a studio or head of an organization, a major newspaper, of people who overstay their usefulness.

It doesn’t appear that aging has affected you at all!

J Edgar - Leonardo DiCaprio with Director Clint Eastwood
Leonardo DiCaprio with Director Clint Eastwood and others during the filming ©2011 Warner Bros

I think aging has so far been okay. We live in a society that reveres being at the prime of life, but you have certain primes at certain times and mine happens to be, I think, now.

I think I’m doing better at certain things right now than I have in the past and maybe not so good in others. If you keep yourself mentally in shape chances are physically it will follow suit.

I do believe if one keeps busy it’s very good for a person. People are always rushing into retirement and we read in Europe that people are talking about moving their retirement age to 67.

Back when they started retirement funds the average [lifespan] was 60, and then all of a sudden now it’s 80. Oh my god, I’m past it!

What did Clint Eastwood say about the possibility of being in front of the cameras again – click below here for his response.

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Judy Sloane

Judy is Film Review Online's regular Los Angeles based reporter.