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27 Things We Learned From the ‘Mystic River’ Commentary

By  · Published on January 12th, 2015

MYSTIC RIVER commentary

Clint Eastwood’s latest film, American Sniper, opens wide this week on its way to some possible (and probable) Oscar nominations, and while I haven’t seen it yet I hope it’s a return to quality filmmaking. It’s been some time since he’s directed a truly engrossing and entertaining film, and one of his last was 2003’s Mystic River.

The film, adapted from Dennis Lehane’s bestselling novel, is a Boston-set crime story involving three men who were once childhood friends. It’s a tale of loss, revenge and secret pains, and a major part of its dramatic effect is due to the three leads. Sean Penn, Kevin Bacon and Tim Robbins deliver stand-out performances, and it’s the latter two who recorded a commentary track for the film. Eastwood doesn’t appear all that interested in the idea of commentaries judging by his numerous home video releases.

Keep reading to see what I heard on the commentary track for Clint Eastwood’s Mystic River.

Mystic River (2003)

Commentators: Kevin Bacon (actor), Tim Robbins (actor)

1. Robbins and Bacon start things off by praising Eastwood both for directing the film and composing its score.

2. One of Robbins’ favorite things about working on this film ‐ in addition to collaborating with so many “brilliant” actors ‐ was being able to actually film in Boston. He and Bacon are familiar with filming in cheaper locales standing in as substitutes for places like Boston, but here they got the chance to actually work day in and day out with authentic extras, crew and others.

3. They think the three boys cast to play them as kids are great matches, but the child who plays a young version of Penn’s character is the best pairing. “He looks like he’s already been beaten up a couple times,” says Bacon. “And beaten a few people up too,” adds Robbins.

4. Bacon points out that the early shot of the pedophile’s ring, the one with a cross on it, generated a lot of discussion in France after its Cannes premiere. It was viewed as a possible commentary on the Catholic Church. “For once I could say, well, it’s not my film,” says Robbins. “You can ask Clint about that!”

5. The scene with young Dave in the basement as the two men enter prompts Bacon to say “this is a very disturbing moment.” Robbins adds in that it’s “classic filmmaking where you don’t have to see the kid raped. You just have to suggest it.” He believes, correctly, that a viewer’s imagination will fill in the blanks and make it even more terrifying. “The other good news about this is that they don’t have to terrorize a real child, a real actor,” he says.

6. Bacon says that often times with scripts the actor has to fill in the blanks on their own in regard to their character, but between Brian Helgeland’s masterful adaptation and the book itself he felt his work was made easier.

7. The leads had read-throughs at the end of each day, and they nominated supporting actor Kevin Chapman as their “bullshit detector” when it came to their Boston accents and mannerisms.

8. There was talk that Boston wasn’t that friendly of a town when it came to filming, but Bacon thinks Eastwood “has a whole different relationship to the world and the community, and people were thrilled to have us there.”

9. Bacon had been in a bit of a dry spell when the call for this film came in, so he was doubly please ‐ both to be working but also to be in such an accomplished production. Robbins meanwhile was offered the film after Penn became attached only to hear that Penn was reconsidering. He recalls calling Penn saying “What the hell’s wrong with you, we gotta do this movie.”

10. Bacon was never a Catholic.

11. Adam Nelson, who plays one of the Savage brothers here, was a stand-in for Penn on Dead Man Walking.

12. The scene where they discover the teenage girl’s body features Sean (Bacon’s character) saying “God said you owed him another marker. He came to collect.” Bacon wanted to cut the line and even filmed a version without it.

13. Jimmy’s emotional outburst upon the discovery of his daughter’s body earns praise from Bacon, but he says Penn actually gave “the same kind of intensity” when it came time for Bacon’s coverage. “I thought he was going to have a heart attack.”

14. A shot looking upwards into the trees was supposed to be accompanied by hundreds of birds flying up into the sky, but when they were uncovered only one showed any interest in moving. “With a different sort of director,” says Bacon, “the guy would have gone ballistic. We would have been there all day waiting for these birds.” Robbins chimes in that it’s a “testament to movies are about accidents.” A later scene featured a cup of coffee accidentally spilling, and the actors continued while Bacon simply cleaned it up. “There was discussion about ‘well we have to do it again,’ and Clint was like, ‘what are you kidding me?’”

15. “They’re not making a lot of adult dramas anymore like they did in the ‘70s,” says Robbins. Bacon agrees saying that was one of the appeals of this film as too often these days movies are seen as star vehicles instead of opportunities for actors to really act without vanity.

16. Bacon didn’t ask Eastwood for much, but he did inquire about getting another phone call between Sean and his wife. “I felt nervous about even bringing it up,” he says, “and next draft I got I had another phone call in the script.”

17. “You have to have a pretty strong sense of self as a camerman to work with him [Eastwood],” says Bacon, “because he’s not going to redo things if you feel like the shot wasn’t necessarily perfectly composed. He’d rather go with whatever the performance was, and that can be hard for a cameraman sometimes.” He’s referring to cinematographer Tom Stern who’s worked with Eastwood several times now. An example he gives is a scene where Stern had two lights set up only to have Eastwood walk in and turn one off, “and it’s just like unheard of.”

18. They question whether they’d let their kids see it, and while Robbins says no he also recalls Penn telling him that he showed it to his own. “Well of course you did,” Robbins says, “you get to kill my ass in the end.”

19. Eastwood asked Robbins early on who should play Dave’s wife, and he said Marcia Gay Harden. “Oh that’s funny,” replied Eastwood, “because that’s who I was thinking about.”

20. The scene where Jimmy (Penn) visits his daughter’s body at the mortuary prompts Robbins to comment on how difficult scenes like this can be. “I try to approach this kind of stuff not trying to use any kind of substitute from my own life, try to use the imagination of this character in this specific relationship with this specific person who looks nothing like my real daughter. But still…”

21. Bacon feels the term “ensemble” is overused in regard to movie-making, because “films especially are an isolating medium” for the cast. He says more often than not “there’s a lot of machinery that gets between you and the other actors” in regard to the knowledge of editing, lighting, re-shoots, etc. The way this film was created though led to this being much more of a theatre-like ensemble.

22. Robbins shares a long, impassioned compliment for Bacon’s performance saying that while he didn’t get nearly the attention that Penn and Robbins did he’s equally deserving. “Always the bridesmaid, never the bride,” replies Bacon.

23. Both actors feel the entire cast came prepared for their characters as opposed to the kinds of performers who choose to “find their character” onset. “Sometimes that has more to do with insecurity than trying to find a muse,” says Robbins. “I find that sometimes those people can be the most destructive.” He says that kind of behavior just wouldn’t work on an Eastwood set, “ but on a movie set that indulges in that behavior more often than not the squeaky wheel get the grease. That person comes off fantastic, and you come off looking like dog shit.”

24. Robbins asks how many films Eastwood has directed, and Bacon answers “28, 29.” The correct answer Mr. Bacon, is twenty six up to and including Million Dollar Baby (which is around the time this commentary was recorded). American Sniper is Eastwood’s 35th.

25. Eastwood’s single-take philosophy has been criticized by many, but both Bacon and Robbins praise his ability. They say it’s not do to laziness or disinterest, but instead it’s a way to encourage cast and crew to do their best work.

26. “Someone told me the moral of this story is don’t get in the fucking car,” says Robbins, but he’s bleeped. How dumb is this on Warner Bros.’ part? It’s a commentary track for an R-rated movie after all.

27. The Black Emerald Bar was built specifically for the film, and Robbins thinks it would be a cool idea if places built for films were allowed to keep standing like cinematic amusement parks or museums.

Best in Commentary

Final Thoughts

As performers, neither Bacon nor Robbins use the commentary to talk much in the way of technical craft or details like a director would ‐ although both men have also directed films ‐ and instead they focus on the performances of others, the experience of the making the film and their own thoughts on the characters and story. There are some surprising gaps in their talking though as if they’re being drawn into the film, but when they are speaking the pair manages to be both entertaining and engaging.

Check out more commentary commentary in the Commentary Commentary archives

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Rob Hunter has been writing for Film School Rejects since before you were born, which is weird seeing as he's so damn young. He's our Chief Film Critic and Associate Editor and lists 'Broadcast News' as his favorite film of all time. Feel free to say hi if you see him on Twitter @FakeRobHunter.