Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Tomorrow the economy will improve. Really? What if there is no tomorrow?

Commodity investors made a fortune. Gold rose more than 15% per year and oil prices, though extremely volatile, proved to be a brilliant bet.

SHOOT: In my opinion commodities are the only stocks that are going to improve. Asthey have done. Why? Because resources are only getting scarcer, while consumers continue to swarm and multiply like there's no tomorrow. All other sectors will fail; commodities will become increasingly vital. And no tomorrow might just come sooner than we think.

Why you're dumb if you expect economic recovery in 2010

SHOOT: Simple answer - the consumer is dead. The consumer is dead because debt [borrowing] is dead. Borrowing is dead because banks are dead. Banks are dead because the economy is fucked. Now we can play games in Copenhagen and spin our little yarns to ourselves, but eventually reality will catch up. Eventually being in 2010. When the penny drops, expect lots of tears.

-- Households are trimming debt. Total household debt, including mortgages, credit cards, autos and other consumer loans, stood at $13.6 trillion in the third quarter of this year, according to the Fed. That's down from $13.7 trillion in the second quarter. Debt reduction is healthy for personal finances but not for economic growth: Consumers pare debt with money they might otherwise spend.

-- Most Americans -- 80 percent -- plan to use cash for all their holiday purchases, according to an Associated Press-Gfk poll. Using cash is a way to stick to budgets and avoid impulse purchases. It suggests consumers are wary of spending freely -- whether for gifts or other purchases.

While holiday sales aren't vital to economic growth, consumer spending as a whole is: It accounts for about 70 percent of it.
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AP - In this Dec. 21, 2009 photo, Women carry shopping bags as they walk past a French Connection UK ...

Here's why holiday purchases won't save the day:

-- They make up a surprisingly small share of the economy. Last year, gift sales were estimated to account for less than 13 percent of the fourth quarter's gross domestic product. And Mark Zandi, chief economist at Moody's, thinks they'll account for about the same share of this quarter's GDP -- the value of all goods and services produced in the United States.

-- Many consumers can't get loans. That makes it hard to buy costly items -- from cars and homes to appliances and jewelry -- related or unrelated to the holidays. Even as the economy returned to growth last summer, consumers borrowed 0.6 percent less from July through October, according to data from the Federal Reserve. Even if holiday sales shine, tight credit will hold back spending in coming months.

-- Unemployment has hit double digits and is expected to remain near or above 10 percent well into next year, far above a "normal" rate of 5 or 6 percent.

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Tuesday, December 22, 2009

East Coast Blizzard Seen From Space

SHOOT: How ironic that just days earlier world leaders dragged their feet and played political musical chairs at the Copenhagen Climage Conference. I've always said that people are something like sheep in that they will only make some choices when they have exhausted every possible excuse. So much for an intellectually advanced species.
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The snowstorm that blanketed the East Coast this weekend was so big, it is even impressive from space. NASA’s Aqua satellite took this image centered on Washington, D.C., on Sunday with its MODIS instrument.

The blizzard shut down the federal government, stranded travelers, left hundreds of thousands without power and crushed the hopes of many retailers hoping for big sales during the weekend before Christmas.

The image covers 300 miles lengthwise. The two big rivers near the center are the Susquehanna (to the north) and Potomac rivers, which run into Chesapeake Bay. Washington, D.C., sits alongside the Potomac, just north of the river’s hook-shaped curve. The inlet to the north is Delaware Bay.

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A Trillion Dollars in Perspective

SHOOT: When someone says 'a trillion dollars' do you have any idea how much that is? Well, now you will...

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What does one TRILLION dollars look like?

A billion dollars...
A hundred billion dollars.....
One TRILLION dollars...
What does that look like? I mean, these various numbers are tossed around like so many doggie treats, so I thought I'd take Google Sketchup out for a test drive and try to get a sense of what exactly a trillion dollars looks like.
We'll start with a $100 dollar bill. Currently the largest U.S. denomination in general circulation. Most everyone has seen them, slighty fewer have owned them. Guaranteed to make friends wherever they go.

A packet of one hundred $100 bills is less than 1/2" thick and contains $10,000. Fits in your pocket easily and is more than enough for week or two of shamefully decadent fun.

Believe it or not, this next little pile is $1 million dollars (100 packets of $10,000). You could stuff that into a grocery bag and walk around with it.

While a measly $1 million looked a little unimpressive, $100 million is a little more respectable. It fits neatly on a standard pallet...

And $1 BILLION dollars... now we're really getting somewhere...

Next we'll look at ONE TRILLION dollars. This is that number we've been hearing about so much. What is a trillion dollars?
Well, it's a million million. It's a thousand billion. It's a one followed by 12 zeros.
You ready for this?
It's pretty surprising.
Go ahead...
Scroll down... ... I give you $1 trillion dollars...

(And notice those pallets are double stacked.)
So the next time you hear someone toss around the phrase "trillion dollars"... that's what they're talking about
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Kunstler: Blue Christmas

JK: The infatuation with technology, and the disgusting cockiness that goes with it (so well-captured in Avatar), is but one facet of the psychosis gripping the nation -- and by that I mean the profound detachment from reality. We have no idea what is happening to us and, naturally, no idea of what we are going to do. I sat in a bar Friday evening with a financial reporter from a national newspaper, trying to explain the peak oil situation and what it implied for our economy. He had never heard it before. The relationship between energy resources and massive debt was new to him. (It also came up in conversation that he could not tell me what the Monroe Doctrine was about, despite a history degree from Yale.) There you have a nice snapshot of the mainstream media in this land.

SHOOT: Excellent commentary once again from Jim.
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     As the end-credits rolled for James Cameron's new movie, Avatar,  the audience burst into rowdy applause. It seemed to me that they were applauding the sheer computerized dazzlement of the show -- but in the story itself they had just watched the US suffer a humiliating defeat on a distant planet. In the final frames, American soldiers and the corporate executives they had failed to protect were shown lined up as prisoners-of-war about to embark on a death march.
More to the point, the depiction of our national character through the whole course of the film was of a thuggish, cruel, cynical, stupid, detestable, and totally corrupt people bent on the complete destruction of nature.  Nice
I'm not shedding any tears for Tiger.  Even if all his endorsements dry up and his ex-wife takes him to the cleaners for a hundred million or so, he'll still be left with enough cash to pay for porn stars and lobster tails until the end of time, especially if he keeps his tipping policy at its current level
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Cameron talks about AVATAR: says two sequels are possible, it's not anti-human, it's about aspiring to be better than we are

CAMERONThe film is definitely not anti-American. It’s not anti-human either. My perception of the film is that the N’avi represent that sort of aspirational part of ourselves that wants to be better, that wants to respect nature. And the humans in the movie represent the more venal versions of ourselves, the banality of evil that comes with corporate decisions that are made out of remove of the consequences.

SHOOT: Looking forward to more.
Zoë Saldana as Neytiri and Sam Worthington as Jake in “Avatar.”

In the New York Times article that John Anderson wrote on “Avatar,” you joked about doing a sequel based on the positive feelings you had about an early December screening. If you did make a sequel, where would you want to take this story?

I’m not going to give out any story scoops now. I have a story mapped out that actually spans two films. Not in the sense that you’d do a film that ends in the middle, like the typical second-act trilogy problem, but I have enough story arc to cover two more films. And if we do make some money and I talk to Fox and they want to move ahead with a sequel, then I’ll sit down and write something. And you and I can talk again!

When you wrote the film in 1995 and decided that technology wasn’t at a place where you could make it, what specifically did you feel like you couldn’t do at that time?

The big issue was the scale of it.
From left, Sigourney Weaver, Joel Moore, James Cameron and Sam Worthington on the set of Mr. Cameron's “Avatar.”
Zoe Saldana plays the warrior Neytiri in “Avatar.”
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Religion can bind families together, but it can also - sadly - be ultra-divisive

Laurie Dinerstein-Kurs, of East Windsor, N.J., is a mother of two and grandparent of ten. She and her husband identify themselves as Conservative Jews, though Mrs. Dinerstein-Kurs says she’s a bit less observant than her husband, Steven. Their son is raising his three children as Reform Jews, while their daughter and her seven children are Orthodox. As Dinerstein-Kurs told the website last year, her daughter’s strict beliefs mean restricted contact with her grandchildren:

Dinerstein-Kurs’s daughter’s children attend single-sex, strictly-segregated Orthodox private schools, so she can only attend events at the girls’ school; her husband can only attend events at the boys’ school. And while the Dinerstein-Kurs, who are Conservative Jews, do follow kosher dietary rules, her daughter and son-in-law will not come to their home for the Jewish holidays. (Many Orthodox Jews do not travel during major holidays, and many will only eat in other homes that follow a particularly strict interpretation of kosher dietary laws.)

“You sit around the table on a holiday and she’s not there,” she says. “It’s almost like a death.”

Further, the couple will not allow the children to go to their grandparents’ home for a sleepover, in part because the grandparents aren’t equipped to say all of the daily blessings an Orthodox family would normally say. “While I do my best to connect with them, there’s something to be said for having them one-on-one. I can’t take them out for the day alone; no overnights, no baby-sitting, and no vacations. There’s so much I can’t do with and for the kids.”

Read the full article here.

Monday, December 21, 2009

My Fantasy Christmas Wishlist

This Christmas, my greatest wish is peace.

Since that's a stretch, let's have a look at what money can buy.

Then there's something I really want to put my face into...

All Oakley Custom products are tailor-made for you and for no one else. Because of this we can not accept returns, exchanges or cancellations and adjustments to your order cannot be made once it has been placed. The build process for custom products typically takes 7-10 business days while Oakley engineers custom fit and build your order to your exact specifications. Custom bags, backpacks, apparel and apparel accessories take 3-4 weeks to build and deliver.

Felt Tri Specific UHC-Nano Ultra Hybrid Composite Modulus Modular Carbon Fiber Frame w/ 3KP Finish. Full Aero tubeset w/ front & rear wheel recesses, internal cable routing, forged horizontal dropouts.

Of course, things mean very little if you don't have someone to love, someone to share the fining things in life with, like Bar Israeli. Now really, are any of these too much to ask? Hello?

Crime in Johannesburg: We have a huge problem with security guards being involved in business and house robberies in the Mamelodi area

The guard and the suspect were expected to appear in the Pretoria Magistrate's Court on Monday on charges of house robbery and the possession of suspected stolen property.

The guard was charged as an accomplice.

SHOOT: Treat your guards with respect, but also circumspection.
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Johannesburg - A security guard at a residential complex in Silverton was arrested for his involvement in a house robbery on Monday, Tshwane police said.
Captain Jan Shawane Sepato said the guard was arrested after confessing he knew a group of seven armed robbers who had robbed a house in the Savana residential complex in Silverton.
"The security guard opened the gate for a group of men driving a VW Kombi without searching them. They went into the complex, forced open a window and robbed the occupants with firearms," said Sepato.
The 35-year-old guard then let the group go without searching them when they exited the complex with the Kombi, followed by a stolen Corsa bakkie.
"The guard admitted that he knew the suspects and led us to the house of one of them in Mamelodi," said Sepato.
The 34-year-old suspect was arrested and some of the stolen electrical equipment was recovered.
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Airbus passengers experience extreme turbulence on flight to Durban from Dubai

SHOOT: They were thrown right out of their seats. Still think Climate Change is irrelevant?
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Johannesburg - Twenty passengers suffered minor injuries when an Emirates Airbus A330 encountered severe turbulence on a flight between Dubai and Durban on Saturday, a spokesperson at Durban airport confirmed on Monday.

"The aircraft, as far as we understand, when it was about two hours outside of Durban, experienced some turbulence," Colin Naidoo, communications manager for Durban International Airport, told the German Press Agency dpa.

The scheduled EK755 flight, which had 220 passengers on board, had been due to land in Durban at 17:30 local time (15:30 GMT), he said.

Emergency services and trauma counsellors were dispatched to meet the flight on arrival.

Around 20 passengers suffered slight injuries and disorientation, of which around four were taken to hospital for treatment, Naidoo said. The patients were later discharged.

The Mercury reported that the incident occured as the plane entered South African airspace and that passengers were thrown out of their seats.

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Maine to consider cell phone cancer warning

The report highlights a study that found significantly increased risk of brain tumors from 10 or more years of cell phone or cordless phone use.

SHOOT: Rather safe than sorry.
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AUGUSTA, Maine – A Maine legislator wants to make the state the first to require cell phones to carry warnings that they can cause brain cancer, although there is no consensus among scientists that they do and industry leaders dispute the claim.

The now-ubiquitous devices carry such warnings in some countries, though no U.S. states require them, according to the National Conference of State Legislators. A similar effort is afoot in San Francisco, where Mayor Gavin Newsom wants his city to be the nation's first to require the warnings.

Boland herself uses a cell phone, but with a speaker to keep the phone away from her head. She also leaves the phone off unless she's expecting a call. At issue is radiation emitted by all cell phones.

The warnings would recommend that users, especially children and pregnant women, keep the devices away from their head and body.
Boland said Maine's roughly 950,000 cell phone users among its 1.3 million residents "do not know what the risks are."
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Barry Ronge's Review of AVATAR: It is one of the most beautifully imagined and created movies we have seen in years.

SHOOT: Funny when we emerged out of the press screening I said to Barry, 'Do you think the release of this movie was timed to coincide with the climate conference in Copenhagen?' He seemed doubtful, since, he said, they started the movie 3-4 years prior. But he made the same comment in his review.
“Avatar” is a thundering, adjective-defying, marvel of a film, so visually rich and acutely topical that you really have to see it twice. The 3D imagery is so natural and so seamlessly woven into the story, that you hardly notice it, which shows you just how well this special effect has been integrated into the narrative. The story is based on a shrewd and provocative inversion of a traditional science-fiction template - the “alien invasion”. It has been a staple of science-fiction movies for the last sixty years but in “Avatar”, Cameron turns that idea on its head.
That is not only an interesting inversion of a classic sci-fi format, it is also highly topical. It’s no accident that this film was released at the same time as the 2008 Copenhagen Climate Change conference was still in session. The themes of “Avatar” resonate powerfully and specifically with the goals and aspirations of those environmentalists, who are trying to set a new ecological time-table for planet Earth.
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Snow denies AVATAR record grosses, for now

Although “Avatar” made its debut in 3,452 theaters in North America, movies of similar scope have historically opened in even more theaters, and that smaller number may have held back ticket sales. There is also evidence that a shortage of 3-D theaters depressed opening results. Fox had hoped to have hundreds of additional 3-D locations available, but the credit crunch and industry squabbling has delayed technology upgrades.

Audiences seem to have swallowed Fox’s message that this is a film that should be seen in 3-D. Imax theaters — 179 in North America and 58 overseas — broke sales records, with every theater selling out. One signal of how “Avatar” could perform going forward: One Imax theater in London has already sold $1 million worth of tickets, $800,000 of which is for the weeks ahead.

SHOOT: I'll be watching AVATAR for the 3rd time this week. That puts it on a par or better than Dark Knight.
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The movie will need to demonstrate supernatural hold on audiences in the coming weeks to avoid becoming a financial calamity for Fox and its financing partners, Dune Entertainment and Ingenious Film Partners. “Avatar” ended up costing around $310 million to produce (although tax credits will shave about $30 million off that bill) and an estimated $150 million to market.

Overseas “Avatar” opened in 106 countries, selling an additional $159.2 million in tickets for a worldwide gross of $232.2 million, Mr. Aronson said.

Tom Rothman, co-chairman of Fox Filmed Entertainment, said in an interview, “We believe, especially given that women worldwide responded so strongly, that this is just the start.”

Given the cost, glowing critical reviews and Mr. Cameron’s “Titanic” résumé — not to mention that the 60 percent of the theaters playing the film were charging an additional $3 to $5 for 3-D presentation — analysts expected “Avatar” to sail past previous December behemoths.

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The View from my Bicycle [COLUMN]

People wanted to believe what they wanted to believe - by Nick van der Leek

Last year around this time I was working through the festive season, and there was the customary exodus of colleagues going on holiday, and leaving with a cheery: 'Merry Christmas and Happy New Year'. One of them, a fella called Dave, made this contemporary advocation. I stopped and contradicted him. I said, 'Given what we know so far, we ought to expect 2009 to be a very tough year.' He shot back that I was being 'negative' and 'pessimistic'. To be fair, I get that a lot. But Dave had just gotten married, so expecting a good 2009 had probably formed part and parcel of his marital vows. But my response to being criticised for reminding folks of reality is this:

When you're tough on yourself, life is going to be infinitely easier on you.- Zig Ziglar

In my opinion we are not particularly tough on ourselves or each other. The world is slack, overweight, lazy. We're still in a sort've party mode. Our entertainments, on a daily basis, fuel this feel-good-fiesta. The press-button-lifestyle and easy-motoring culture reinforces that concept that to live like kings, nay gods, is normal. It may have some guise or normality, but to believe that this can continue for much longer is either moronic or suicidal, or both.

Of course, the contemporary mindset is something between these themes of lunacy and insanity. You have the US President visiting Copenhagen and blathering about actions speaking louder than words, only to return with no commitments, other than some sort of non-legally binding poetry. I wonder whether the president felt something writhe, like Cameron's alien, in his belly, as he flew home to another one of those freakish winter storms. As his plane was buffeted, did he feel a sense of irony - and let's be clear, dread?

At the time of writing Eurostar, which transports 25 000 passengers daily by rail has been put on ice - indefinitely. The problem, as cited by the New York Times, is, well, unusually cold weather:

The unusual temperatures on the French side of the tunnel were part of wintry weather that stretched across Europe, killing 15 people in Poland and leading to cancellations at airports in several countries, The Associated Press reported.

The Telegraph expands on the problem:

A Eurostar spokesman said screens and shields fitted to the trains to stop snow getting into the electrics had failed and needed to be improved after the “acute” wintry conditions in northern France caused snow to build up underneath the trains.

One of the things we can expect in 2010, for the next decade in fact, is an acceleration in troubles relating to our attempts to do business as usual while the environment - climate being one aspect - deteriorates, or simply changes, often with unexpected consequences.

The number one problem facing us - human beings - in 2010 isn't a financial crisis, or climate change, or an exotic flu pandemic, or an energy conundrum. The problem is us. We're deep in denial. Two icons provide us ample evidence of this. One is Michael Jackson. Michael evolved over many years into a creepy, freakish mutant version of his former self. But what Michael and Tiger have in common is the scale and scope of their dishonesty - to themselves and to us. And here's the rub. Everyone fell for it. The news media, corporate interests, and the fanbase.

Writing for the New York Times, in an article describing Tiger Woods as The Person of the Year, Frank Rich posits: We’ve rarely questioned our assumption that 9/11, “the day that changed everything,” was the decade’s defining event. But in retrospect it may not have been. A con like Tiger’s may be more typical of our time than a one-off domestic terrorist attack, however devastating...What’s striking instead is the exceptional, Enron-sized gap between this golfer’s public image as a paragon of businesslike discipline and focus and the maniacally reckless life we now know he led. What’s equally striking, if not shocking, is that the American establishment and news media — all of it, not just golf writers or celebrity tabloids — fell for the Woods myth as hard as any fan and actively helped sustain and enhance it.

The theme of the Woods parable is a chronic addiction to falsehood. It is myself-uber-alles. It is telling the press 'family is the most important thing' and exuberantly living out the opposite. Woods capacity for lying to himself and deceiving others is shared by the mainstream media, who haven't sniffed out a real story for some time. They haven't seen the financial shitstorm coming [instead they deny we're in trouble even some time after the wave hits, with a resistance to using the R-is-for-Recession that borders on obsessed. Of course, every excuse is used to write R-is-for-Recovery. Why? Because believing something, it seems, can make it happen. Believing and being positive can make us rich. And getting others to buy into our bullshit reinforces this cycle of delusional - and temporary wealth].
The news media weren't able to call Bush's WMD hyped invasion of Iraq exactly what it was - a misstep.

Right now, the news media are still mixed up about our energy prospects. In fact I find the media to be very schizophrenic in their coverage. The South African media have knocked the virtuous INVICTUS for being too Hollywood. Really? A story about strong, and moral leadership, is described by Carlos Amato as a plodding, patronising affair - a clumsy Hollywood knock-on, excruciatingly unconvincing. It beggars belief that our own reviewers are this cynical. Three Oscar Winning big hitters have bothered to tell a South African story to an American audience, and all Amato can do is bitch about whether the accents were good enough for him?
Then there are comments about AVATAR being about white guilt. These responses to two very altruistic cinema experiences demonstrate a sickened human system that can never be satisfied.

The Pet Shop Boys have a song with these lyrics:
Too much of anything
Is never enough
Too much of everything
Is never enough

You need more
Than the Gerhard Richter hangin’ on your wall
A chauffeur-driven limousine on call

There's a little more insight into climate change, but it's come very late, and arguably, if it had come sooner, in a sustained pattern, world leaders would have been mandated by expectation to deliver. How long ago were we reading reports in the mainstream media calling climate change a theory? Mere months ago. By lying to ourselves that climate isn't happening, we don't have to do anything about it, and we can continue having our party.

Of course, any dishonest pattern eventually unravels. Nature it is said, abhors a vacuum, and reality speaks better than any man. Reality has started clearing it's throat. You can complain that reality is negative, or pessimistic, if you want to make yourself look and sound stupid.

As I've said, the problem, fundamentally, isn't climate change, or pandemic disease, or energy. It's us. We have to exceed our own expectations for ourselves. We have to be something more, nay, something other than consumers.

I'd suggest: conservers. Our prospects can only begin to improve when we acknowledge reality. When it is culturally acceptable to hold ourselves accountable to news and views that don't enhance our salaries. Sometimes it's in someones interests to claim that smoking doesn't cause cancer. Sometimes we can't prove these things beyond a shadow of a doubt. The same is true right now with cellphones causing tumors.

This is where common sense comes in, and part of common sense is making the choice to be honest with ourselves. When we are, we begin to do things that enhance not only our lives, but the prospects of our companions. This is the message of AVATAR. That we reconnect ourselves to the world. The real world. In 2010 those reconnections will be painful, like the first labour pains. Whether we choose to resist the New Life that is in store, or to accept it, know this: the contractions have already started.

Tiger: People wanted to believe what they wanted to believe

SHOOT: This is the theme of our era. That we fooled ourselves during a time known as the 'Information Age'.
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As of Friday, the Tiger saga had appeared on 20 consecutive New York Post covers. For The Post, his calamity has become as big a story as 9/11. And the paper may well have it right. We’ve rarely questioned our assumption that 9/11, “the day that changed everything,” was the decade’s defining event. But in retrospect it may not have been. A con like Tiger’s may be more typical of our time than a one-off domestic terrorist attack, however devastating.

Indeed, if we go back to late 2001, the most revealing news story may have been unfolding not in New York but Houston — the site of the Enron scandal. That energy company convinced financial titans, the press and countless investors that it was a business deity. It did so even though very few of its worshipers knew what its business was. Enron is the template for the decade of successful ruses that followed, Tiger’s included.

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Marguerite Wheatley on kissing Matt Damon, being directed by Clint Eastwood in INVICTUS

SHOOT: She seems like a sweet, level-headed lass. Nice to see.
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Marguerite Wheatley interview
Q. What is Clint Eastwood like as a director?
He's very free. I've never worked with a director like this before. He uses realism to the max and likes to use real people, not necessarily actors. He basically puts the camera in place and tells you "Go". He doesn't even say "action" or go off set. Usually after they've set up a scene, the director will disappear behind a monitor. He was right there all the time, watching. It's almost like a rehearsal. He only does one or two takes and keeps it very natural.
Q. What was your offscreen relationship with Matt Damon like?
Look, I was quite shy.
We'd chat about the culture and he had a lot of questions about rugby. I didn’t want to invade anyone's space so when I was done for the day I would get out of the way. But I wanted to absorb as much as I could so sometimes I'd stay on set, hide out in a corner somewhere, to watch everyone work.
Q. It must've been nerve-wrangling to shoot your romantic scene with him.
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