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Clint Eastwood nearly died when he was 21. And when faced with the possibility of meeting his maker, his thoughts naturally turned to…hunkering down with a cold one.

“I was in a plane crash off the coast of Northern California in the wintertime,” Eastwood says at a press conference for his new film about the afterlife, Hereafter, starring Matt Damon, Cecile de France, and Jay Mohr. “As I was going into shore, I was thinking about my demise. But I also saw some lights in the far distance. I said, ‘Somebody’s in there having a beer and sitting next to a fireplace, and I just want to be in there, so I’m going to make it.'”

Eastwood believes that that determination pulled him through, but that “there was no sense of fate out there.” And that’s the agnostic approach he and Oscar-nominated screenwriter Peter Morgan took toward Hereafter, a film that weaves three stories about a near-death experience, a fatal accident, and a resistant psychic to fashion a theory about what may happen to us after we die.

Morgan’s research admittedly wasn’t all that thorough: He’d read a book. “It was about a woman in her mid-30s who had lost her younger sister to cancer,” he says. “And she didn’t want to give up any idea that [they] might be able to connect again. She, as well as I, come from a tradition of, as it were, ‘irreligious enlightenment.’ I don’t have any religious beliefs in an afterlife. We have so much understanding of what goes on prior to birth and so little understanding of what goes on after death.”

Eastwood continues, “Most religions seem to ponder the afterlife. But I thought this was interesting because it wasn’t really a religious project. It had a spirituality about it, but it was not necessarily tied in with any particular organized thought.”

Morgan’s hesitation to research the topic further came from his experience while writing The Queen. “As soon as you typed in the words, ‘Princess Diana,’ ‘death,’ and ‘conspiracy’ into the Internet, it’s a very short step to UFOs and dolphins and stuff,” he says. “If you [search online to] see what’s been done on [life after death], you’re very quickly in a community of…strange people.

“And later I thought, I don’t want this to become a film in which we have the answer, like we’ve got a scoop here. Because that’s not what the film is. The film is really a story of inquiring, of curiosity, and a feeling of incompleteness, of living with mystery.”

That open-endedness is partly what drew Eastwood to the project. “Yeah, it raises a lot of questions,” he says. “But that’s where it ends. You pose the questions, and then it’s up to the audience to meet you halfway and think about it in terms of their own lives and what experiences they might have had.”

One of Hereafter’s plot threads uses the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami as a launching point. “I thought an unusual aspect of the script was taking actual events and placing them in a fictional story,” Eastwood says.” (Morgan also incorporated the London bombings of 2005.) “[Filming] the tsunami was very difficult to do. I kept having fantasies of huge hoses and thousands of gallons of water running down the streets and what have you. I figured it would be prohibitive, but with computer-generated [imagery], you can go ahead and do it. Even though water is probably the most difficult thing to do with CGI.”

Eastwood combined live shots with carefully planned computer effects (“If you don’t pre-plan CGI, it’s the most expensive thing in the world”) for an opening sequence that’s breathtakingly intense. “[We shot in] different places. Cecile was in a tank in London for nine hours without getting out too much, and she had to have skin replacement afterward,” he says with a laugh. “Then we went to Maui and shot in the ocean and on the streets of Mahina. We had to plan every single shot, and that’s normally not the way I shoot. But it worked out rather well.”

Another challenge was working with children, an aspect Morgan incorporated into the story because he wanted the viewpoint of someone “less articulate.” This plot line involves twin boys, one of whom is hit by a car and killed. After the usual auditions, Eastwood decided to go with nonprofessionals.

“We auditioned about three or four sets of twins, and they looked great, but there was a lot of ‘acting’ going on,” he says. “The interesting thing with child actors is they’re natural actors — they’re imagining, they’re out in the yard playing. Unfortunately, once they’ve been ‘organized’ into acting and then [there’s] a stage mother sitting there saying, ‘No, do it this way,’ a lot of bad habits have been instilled.

“And so when I looked at kids for this picture, I picked the two [George and Frankie McLaren] that were the least experienced. In fact, they had no experience. They said they’d been in some grammar-school plays, but…I doubted that. I just figured I could pull things out of them without them knowing it. They had the right faces that said they’re from the right neighborhood. They had certain elements that these [characters] needed to have. So they didn’t have to get in there and act like something they weren’t.” To better the odds of getting exactly what he wanted out of a scene, Eastwood interchanged the twins, filming both playing the part of the living brother.

Regardless of Hereafter‘s tough logistics, Eastwood claims it’s the easiest film he’s ever made. And he has no desire to quit directing anytime soon. “I was always sort of shocked” when great directors retired, he says, citing Frank Capra and Billy Wilder as examples. Wilder “stopped working in his 60s.” (He actually made his final film, Buddy Budd at age 75.) “And I thought, God, that’s amazing. Here’s a guy who’s bright and lived well into his 90s and didn’t work. I never could figure that. Your best years should be at a point when you’ve absorbed all this knowledge.

“There’s a Portuguese director, Manoel de Oliveira, who’s still making films at over 100 years old,” Eastwood continues. “And I plan to do the same thing.”