Eastwood: The Director on Changeling, his New Period Thriller Starring Angelina Jolie

Cannes Film Fest 2008–Clint Eastwood’s new period thriller, Changeling, starring Angelina Jolie and John Malkovich, premiered in the main competition at the 2008 Cannes Film Fest.

The Setting

The Changeling is set in Los Angeles, in the late 1920s. The history of the city is marked by sensational tales of corruption, cover-ups and murder during the city’s formative years. From the Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle rape and murder trial of a young starlet (Virginia Rappe) in 1921, and the kidnapping of the evangelist Aimee Semple McPherson in 1926, to The Black Dahlia murder in 1947, scandal has long permeated the city and shone unfavorable light upon its political operatives.

But it was the little-remembered story of one working class woman’s struggleamidst insurmountable oddsto find her missing son that would, 80 years later, forge a partnership between several of Hollywood’s most highly regarded filmmakers. The incredible tale of Christine Collins was one that almost vanished to obscurity before a former journalist stumbled upon her sensational, poignant story.

Within the subterranean halls of Los Angeles City Hall, the dusty archives of city business dating back almost 100 years are housed. Among these tens of thousands of pages of documents lies the public record of Christine Collins and the City Council welfare hearings from the late 1920s. They relate a patchwork tale of the disappearance of her 9-year-old son Walter and the corrupt machinations of the LAPD during and after the flawed investigation of the case.

Several years ago, screenwriter J. Michael Straczynski, a former journalist who has written for the L.A. Times, the Herald Examiner, and Time, stumbled across this astonishing story of a working-class woman who brought down a political machine. Straczynski knew he had a lead when a longtime contact phoned him up.

He recalls: “A source I had at City Hall called one day and said they were burning old records, and that there was something I should take a look at before they put it into the incinerator. So I zoomed down to City Hall, and they had a transcript of a City Council welfare hearing in the case of Christine Collins. I began reading the testimony and thought, ‘This can’t actually have happened. This has got to be a mistake.’ But it was enough for me to get hooked before the book went into the fire.”

Despotic Political Infrastructure

Los Angeles in 1928 was in the grips of a despotic political infrastructure, led by Mayor George E. Cryer and enforced by Police Chief James E. “Two Guns” Davis (often photographed in a gunslinger pose with his weapons) and his sanctioned gun squad that terrorized the city at will. That despotic rule began to unravel when Collins, a single mother raising a son in a working-class neighborhood in Los Angeles, reported her nine-year-old missing. Months of fruitless searching followed, and the police had nothing to show, save an onslaught of negative publicity and mounting public pressure to find a solid lead in the kidnapping.

When a boy claiming to be Walter was discovered in DeKalb, Illinois, Christine Collins, and all involved in the search, waited with bated breath. Letters and photos were exchanged, and the authorities believed the missing person’s case had been solved. Collins scrapped together the money to bring the boy home, and LAPD organized a very public photo-op reunion with the found child and anxious mother. Hoping to put a stop to the scrutiny surrounding their inability to solve this case (and others) and desperate for uplift from human-interest success to counter the string of corruption scandals, members of the department felt the reunion could spell public redemption for LAPD’s top brass.

The only problem was that the child who arrived home was not Walter. But despite her immediate and repeated declarations that the boy was not hers, Collins was rebuffed by Captain J. J. Jones, the officer in charge of the case. Christine was told, as recounted from the City Council hearing transcripts, to “try him for a couple of weeks.” Confused and disoriented, she agreed, and the case closed. Or did it

Emotional Gravity

“There is an excitement for me when drawing from a true story,” remarks producer Brian Grazer. “I liked the subject matter, and found the culture surrounding this incident to be fascinating, and in some ways appalling, but it captivated me. The fact that it did happen gives the story so much more emotional gravity.

Knowing director-producer Eastwood had a similar sensibility when it came to fact-based material, Grazer and partner Ron Howard called the filmmaker to discuss the script they had optioned.

Quick and Simple

Eastwood recalls: “I took it with me on a trip to Berlin. On the way back on the plane, I read it and I liked it a lot. As soon as I got in, I called Brian and Ron and said, ‘Yeah, I’ll do this.’ And they said, ‘Angelina Jolie liked the script and wants to do this. I said, ‘She’d be great. I like her work a lot. And that’s how it came aboutvery quick and simple.” Eastwood’s interest in the project piqued even more when he realized that “the truth was stranger than fiction.”

Approach as a Director

With more than 30 films to his directorial credit, Eastwood has mastered the economy of shooting and considered himself a director influenced by the choices he would make as an actor. He therefore limits rehearsals to achieve a more authentic feel in the performances and is not in favor of endless takes.

Eastwood explains: “Everything I do as a director is based upon what I prefer as an actor. It’s all a learning process over the years. No matter how you plan it, things happen that either work for you or against you. So there’s always the excitement of trying to make it work, of taking a little stack of paper and make it into a living thing.”

News Clippings in the Script

Eastwood’s longtime production partner, Rob Lorenz, was just as excited as others who had read Straczynski’s tale: “I was about 15 pages into the script, and I had to flip back to see if it was really a true story; it was so amazing to me. Straczynski’ had done something very clever. He stuck photocopies of news clippings every 15-20 pages in the script, just to remind you it was true. I was not only amazed it was all true, but astonished that I had never heard of the story before and nobody seemed familiar with it.”

Eastwood on Angelina Jolie

Eastwood and Lorenz agreed with the Imagine Entertainment team that the unbelievable events would make a captivating film as long as Angelina Jolie took the role of the working-class single mother who made it her life’s mission to find her boy. Eastwood remarks: “Angelina is unique. She reminds me a lot of the actresses from the Golden Age of movies in the 1940s: Katharine Hepburn, Bette Davis, Ingrid Bergman, Susan Hayward. They were all very distinctive, and they all had a lot of presence. She’s a tremendous actress.”

Reluctant Angelina Jolie

Despite a riveting story and the high-caliber filmmaking team, Jolie was initially reluctant to tackle the role of a mother whose son is kidnapped. Understandably so, as she had recently finished a heartbreaking portrayal of Mariane Pearl in “A Mighty Heart,” the true story of the kidnapping and execution of journalist Daniel Pearl. However, she was willing to explore options and read the screenplay.

Exposing Corruption in Power

Straczynski’s interpretation of Christine’s tale changed her mind, as she reflects: “It’s an extraordinary story. I couldn’t stop reading it. When she faced a setback and would get back up, I’d think, ‘Good, you’re back up.’ Christine Collins is a woman whom I came to admire but, as an actor, there was a lot about the story I didn’t want to do. I didn’t want to do a film about a child being kidnapped, because I think there’s something to bringing certain things into your environment, in your thoughts and in your world. But ultimately, it was her strength when faced with such odds that swayed me. I’m most fond of this story because of how it exposes corruption of those in power. It’s very timely; we still deal with that today.”