The big interview: Clint Eastwood on making of Richard Jewell, and raising public opinion
New York, January 4: 'There is a bomb in Centennial Park. You have thirty minutes.’ The world is first introduced to Richard Jewell as the security guard who reported finding the device at the 1996 Atlanta Games bombing — his quick thinking made him a hero, whose swift actions saved countless lives.
But within days, the law enforcement wannabe became the FBI’s number one suspect, vilified in the court of public opinion, with his life ripped apart.
The story is set on July 27, 1996, in the middle of the Atlanta Games, as security guard Richard Jewell discovered a suspicious backpack, hidden under a bench, which was soon found to contain an incendiary device.
With little time to spare, he helped evacuate the area, saving many lives and minimising potential injuries.
He was hailed a hero. But just three days later, the humble saviour’s life unravels when he — and the world — learn that he is the FBI’s prime suspect in the bombing.
What one might read as the makings of a suspense thriller are not the imaginings of a creative mind, but were, in fact, the life-shattering reality for the real Richard Jewell.
Ironically, thanks to his selfless act, for 88 days, Jewell lived with an invasive FBI investigation, public scrutiny spurred by unrelenting press coverage, and the uncertainty that his name would ever be cleared, or his life ever be the same.
Director/producer Clint Eastwood was intrigued enough to dramatise for the big screen the tragic story of this trusting man whose life was turned upside down by both the media and the law enforcement community he idolised.
“We often see stories about powerful people getting accused of something, but they have money, get the right attorney, and escape prosecution,” he says.
“I was interested in Richard Jewell’s story because he was the common man, the average person. He was never prosecuted, but he was in every way persecuted. There was this rush to judgement to accuse him, and he didn’t have any power to escape it and was, for a long time, too naively idealistic to see that he needed to save himself.
“That’s why I wanted to make this picture,” he continues, “to restore Richard’s honour. Because it’s the everyday guy — who wants to be a police officer, of all things, to devote himself to the betterment of mankind — who does this heroic thing, and then pays a heavy price for it. He gets thrown to the wolves.”
Whether or not the public at large is aware of Richard Jewell’s innocence, most today still refer to him as the Atlanta bomber, despite him having been cleared. “People don’t put it together,” the director adds.
“They don’t connect that the real bomber showed up six years later, that he confessed, and that they got him. I hope audiences learn that from this picture, but that they also learn that, as a society, we can do better. If that’s a lesson Richard can give us, I think that’s great. That’s a hero.”
Making a suspense drama
Directed by Eastwood, Richard Jewell centres around the events that forever made his name synonymous with that heinous act.
The film stars Oscar winners Sam Rockwell (Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri) as attorney Watson Bryant and Kathy Bates (Misery, TV’s American Horror Story) as Richard’s mom, Bobi; Jon Hamm (Baby Driver) as lead FBI investigating agent Tom Shaw (a fictionalised character); Olivia Wilde (Life Itself) as reporter Kathy Scruggs; and Paul Walter Hauser (I, Tonya) as Richard Jewell.
Oscar-winner Eastwood directed from a screenplay by Oscar nominee Billy Ray (Captain Phillips), based on true events and on an article titled, ‘American Nightmare—The Ballad of Richard Jewell’ by Marie Brenner. Eastwood also produced under his Malpaso banner, alongside Tim Moore, Jessica Meier, Kevin Misher, Leonardo DiCaprio, Jennifer Davisson and Jonah Hill.
Eastwood’s creative team included director of photography Yves Bélanger and production designer Kevin Ishioka, along with longtime costume designer Deborah Hopper and Oscar-winning editor Joel Cox (Unforgiven), who have worked with Eastwood throughout the years on numerous projects. The music is by Arturo Sandoval, who scored 2018’s The Mule.
Justice, power dynamics
Eastwood’s production banner, Malpaso, had been circling the project for a few years.
In fact, says producer Tim Moore, “We were scouting for another project in Hawaii, and when I came back, Clint said, ‘You might want to take that Hawaiian shirt off; we’re going to Atlanta to do the Richard Jewell story. The time to make it is now, it’s a story that needs to be told.’ All of a sudden, we were in Atlanta prepping for production.”
Producer Jessica Meier adds, “Clint felt it was important because even though it happened over 20 years ago, it could still happen today. Anybody can be taken down in two seconds by a quick statement, true
The filmmakers sorted through a vast amount of research in determining the story they could tell within the framework of a single film.
“There was an amazing amount of information,” Meier relates, “but we focused on Richard’s point of view and his partnership with his attorney Watson Bryant — the first person apart from his mom to believe in him — because that’s what we found most compelling.”
Screenwriter Billy Ray, who penned the script, says, “I've always wanted to write for Clint — I think every writer feels that way — but especially on a movie like this because it concerns the kinds of themes that Clint has been exploring his entire career: justice, the power dynamics of American law enforcement, the ordinary man in an extraordinary circumstance. It was just a perfect marriage of director and material.”
‘A story about real people’
Though there was no proof of wrongdoing, Jewell had several strikes against him, including the fact that he fit the FBI’s general profile and had discovered the device. Law enforcement compared him to criminals in similar, recent cases, and also learned that Jewell had made a few mistakes at his prior jobs and held that against him.
“Everybody wanted to solve the case and there was competition between the different outlets and agencies, to be first and foremost,” Eastwood notes.
“A lot of good organisations failed to handle things well when it was all first happening, and the dilemma was that if they didn’t get somebody quick and solve the case, the whole Games event would collapse, and they’d lose millions of dollars-worth of preparations that had already been made.”
Since Jewell was considered a suspect, he experienced public incrimination that, through the lens of history, has never been publicly reversed, despite being fully exonerated after those long, trying 88 days, and someone else ultimately confessing to the crime.
Eastwood states, “This is a story that is both true, but also has suspense and somebody the audience can root for.”
Filming, meanwhile, took place over the summer of 2019 in and around Atlanta, where the actual events occurred.
As Eastwood says, “When you’re telling a story about real people, you want to get it the way it was.” Here are a few excerpts from an exclusive interaction with Clint Eastwood:
Do you remember the 1996 incident at the Atlanta Games?
Clint Eastwood: Before working on this picture, I didn’t remember the details too much. I can’t think of where I was at the time, but I remember when they said that they had a guard who found the bomb, who was a hero and then a suspect.
I remember that, but I didn’t know too much about it, and in hindsight, I had forgotten about it. But when I read the article and the script, and it seemed like a really interesting subject for today.
Why is that?
CE: Because, like then, people are still quick to judge today, without thinking of the consequences...
What made you decide to make this movie?
CE: You know, I got involved about four or so years ago. I had read the article by Marie Brenner and I had seen a script, and I liked it. But it was with another studio, and then I was working on another project, and then all of a sudden, I just got a feeling I should check in on this, so I checked in and said, “What’s the score on it?” And we brought it back to life again, and here we are.
What makes it such an intriguing story?
CE: Well, because I thought it was very pertinent for today. This everyday guy who was getting the ultimate bad deal from everybody because they were concerned the event was going to shut down, and the city had millions of dollars invested in it. So, they just went ahead and pinned it on this guy who was vulnerable.
And why is Richard Jewell such an intriguing character?
CE: He was a guy who was obsessed with being a police officer, and law enforcement was his dream. And so here he was out there working — it wasn’t exactly living his dream being out there as a security guard, but it was at least partially law enforcement.
And then, he was the one who was smart enough to discover, actually by intuition, the bomb and what it was. Nobody else cared. They didn’t think it was anything — they thought he was crazy. So, it’s kind of a ‘one guy against the world’ story and an everyman-turned-hero story.
It’s tragic and touching at the same time, and you see the injustice of it all. Would you call it politics as usual?
CE: It was a bad deal, you know. It was just a real tragedy. No, I don’t see it as a political story, but much more of a human story. About the little guy against the world, David versus Goliath.
Tell me about your choice of Paul Walter Hauser for Richard Jewell. What makes him so appealing and perfect for the part?
CE: He was our only choice for Richard, and it was a big opportunity for him to be the main protagonist of a movie, and he really took to it, he’s just terrific. He learned everything he could about Jewell. He listened to him on the newsreels and so forth, and really got him down.
Are you very specific in directing him?
CE: We did most of the directing before we ever started with him. I got him all this material. I introduced him to Watson Bryant, the attorney, and Jewell’s real mother, Bobi. And he spent time with them.
And then we got him all the materials to look at, from the various shows, the talk shows the real Jewell was on. He got the accent exactly right. I mean, you’ll be surprised when you see him, if you look and compare him to Jewell. You don’t know who’s who!
And what makes Sam Rockwell special for the role of Watson?
CE: Well, I like Sam as an actor, he’s very talented. And I thought he could capture Watson Bryant. I really liked what he brought to the table in every scene we did.
Kathy Scruggs is such an intriguing character. What did you want to portray in the film’s depiction of her?
CE: Yeah, she’s a fascinating character. She was obviously very tough and managed to always be ahead of the game, in terms of investigating. When Olivia read the script, I think she saw a chance to do a lot of things with the role.
And Kathy Bates is a great casting choice for Bobi Jewell.
CE: Yeah, Kathy is great. She was very focused and took it upon herself — as did the others — to research beyond the script or anything we could give her, to make sure she captured the real Mrs Jewell.
Did you have her meet with the real Bobi?
CE: Yes, I did. I had them all come out to meet in Los Angeles. It was great. I had met Bobi and Watson, and I wanted them to meet Paul. They spent the day with us at the studio, and we talked about the film.
Are they angry or bitter after all these years?
CE: No, no. But I think they all thought it was good that we were doing the story, his story, because it’s a tribute to Richard, who is long gone. He only lived to 44 years of age.
And what makes Jon Hamm perfect for the part of Tom Shaw?
CE: Well, Tom Shaw is a fictionalised combination of a couple of different agents, and I just think Jon Hamm is a very good actor, and he wanted to play it so that was great.
This is movie number 38 for you as a director. What is the greatest satisfaction or pleasure for you when you direct?
CE: The greatest satisfaction is when you do a scene, and it comes out the way you wanted it to, or it had the feelings that you wanted it to.
What would you like the audience to take away from the movie?
CE: I want them to see what a tragedy is, and see how things can get out of kilter, and a lot of people can suffer from it, because people are always covering their rear ends, you know, and that’s not always the right thing to do.
Can you address the fact that several of your recent films, and this one, deal with different types of heroes?
CE: Yeah, they’re all different. That’s the thing about real-life heroes, they’re all different because life throws different things at them. But they all step up. That’s what they have in common.
Warner Bros Pictures released Richard Jewell pan-India on January 3.