Friday, 8 June 2012

Clint Eastwood: Straight Shooter

Unforgiven (Directed by Clint Eastwood)
Clint Eastwood has directed over 35 feature films in 35 years, frequently starring in them and composing original music for nearly a dozen, amassing in the process several Oscar nominations, two Oscar wins and two DGA Awards for Outstanding Directorial Achievement. Revered as the last ‘classical’ director working in Hollywood – a tribute to the restraint of his storytelling and the effectiveness of his working method – Eastwood has never been afraid of taking risks, balancing accessible mainstream success with darker edgier projects. The following extract is from an interview with Scott Foundas in which Eastwood discusses his approach to directing, his attitude to commercialism and the significance of the script:

Q: You have a reputation for working fast on the set, and [Don] Siegel had a similar reputation. Was that something you picked up from him?

A: Speed is just up to the individual. Some people think things over more; others work more instinctively. I’ve worked with some other fast directors – Bill Wellman wasn’t slow. He knew what he wanted, shot it and moved on. I came up through television, and in television you had to move fast. The important thing, of course, is what comes out on the screen. I like to move fast only because I think it works well for the actors and the crew to feel like we’re progressing forward. But I think the reputation that I have for speed is not necessarily a good one – you don’t want to do Plan 9 from Outer Space, where the gravestones fall over and you say, ‘I can’t do another take. We’re too busy. Move on.’ You’re still making a film that you want to be right. But I find, as an actor, that I worked better when the directors were working fast. That’s why I guess Don and I got along so well. You sustain the character for shorter periods. You’re not having to ask yourself, ‘Now where was I three days ago? What the hell is this scene all about? What are we doing here?’

Q: Is the filmmaking process significantly different for you when you’re acting in and directing a picture as opposed to just directing?

A: It is. You definitely split your concentration. Most actors who’ve turned to directing – William S. Hart, Stan Laurel, Orson Welles, Laurence Olivier – have had to be in the picture in order to get the directing job, and that’s what happened with me. Once in a while an actor comes along and gets a project going that he’s not also starring in – Redford with Ordinary People, for example – and that’s certainly the more ideal thing, to do one job and concentrate on that one job. I always expected to withdraw from acting at some point and just stay behind the camera, and in recent years, I’ve done that. Even when I think back on Unforgiven – I had a major role in it, but there’s also a lot of the picture that I’m not in. Being out of Mystic River was great. But then Million Dollar Baby comes along and there’s a great role in there for an older guy. Well, I’m an older guy. So, there you go. Never say never.

Q: Did directing your own pictures then make it harder to go back and act for other directors?

A: I don’t think so. I actually think every actor should direct at some point to learn the hurdles and the obstacles the director faces and the concentration it takes – a concentration equal to that of the actor, just in a different way. I felt that directing made me much more sympathetic to what directors have to do. I think I was easier to work with as an actor after I’d directed a few times. When the director wanted another take for reasons other than performance, I didn’t bog down and say, ‘Come on, what do you need that for?’

Q: When you start a film do you always have a sense of what you want, what it’s going to look like?

A: I always wanted to try something different. A lot goes into a film. But first you have to have a great story, a foundation; then you’ve got to figure out how you’re going to frame that story, how’s it going to look, how’s it going to sound. It’s hard to express it, because I don’t sit around and intellectualize it. A lot of times when I go to work, I have a picture in my mind of how things should be, but I don’t know why I have that picture. I just know that I want to get there and I’ve got to explain to people how we’re going to get there, or have people explain that to me.

Q: Unforgiven is frequently cited as the film that caused American critics and audiences to finally accept you as a serious artist, whereas that recognition had come considerably earlier from some foreign circles, notably France.

A: I’ve never thought about what other people think. I’ve always just thought – and I still think this way – that you make a film, you present it to the public and then it’s out there and it’s up to them to judge it. I just kept grinding them out, like a machinist, and I guess some people might go back and, in hindsight, say, ‘Well, this wasn’t so bad.’ The Outlaw Josey Wales, for example – I would say that, judging from the man on the street, that’s the most popular Western I’ve ever done. But Unforgiven did break through in a way.

Q: You’ve been directing films for thirty-five years, does it feel like you’re doing anything different now than when you started out?

A: A lot of people say, ‘Well, how come you’re doing better now than when you were 45 or 50?’ The answer is I don’t know. Maybe I’m not. Maybe 45 or 50 just wasn’t looked at in the same way. Or maybe I know more and I’m thinking more, doing better things, being more selective. Probably because I’m older now, I don’t feel compelled to do a lot of work. I’ll do a lot of work if it’s there, like in the last two years I’ve done two pictures back-to-back – Million Dollar Baby and Flags of Our Fathers. But these things just all came about. If they hadn’t come about, I’d probably be a much better golfer. Whereas back in the 1970s and ’80s, I was doing more stuff. Some things you read and you say, ‘I love this script!’ Others you read and you go, ‘I like the script and I’ll do it.’ Now, I’m inclined to wait until I love the script.

Q: So many filmmakers complain about the time it takes to raise money and set projects up. But you’ve been fortunate in having a major studio–first Universal and then Warner Bros. – that was more or less willing to support whatever you wanted to do over the years.

A: Sure. A project like Bird (1988) was going nowhere when I grabbed it. It had been hanging around for a long time. It was owned by another studio and I talked Warner Bros. into trading something for it. Now, Warners might not have done that for someone else. So I’ve gotten a few films made that probably wouldn’t have been made otherwise. That goes for the last two, especially. They ended up successful despite the apprehension of the studio – so sometimes that studio thing works for you and sometimes against you. Warner Bros. wasn’t excited about doing Mystic River – they thought it was too dark. And they weren’t excited about doing Million Dollar Baby, because it was a woman’s boxing movie. But I didn’t see it like that; I saw it as a great love story. So it’s all about the way you look at it. But we got it made; that’s the main thing.

Q: Is the difficulty you had making those two films representative of any larger changes you’ve observed in the industry over the last four decades?

A: We live right now in an era where the fad is to remake a television show or a movie that’s already been remade five other times. It’s tough for a lot of studios to say, ‘Let’s start from scratch.’ In the 1940s, they had writers on tap all the time who would pitch ideas to the studio personnel. But can you imagine pitching Sunset Boulevard or some of these classic films now? A picture like that would have to be done as an independent, just as Mystic River and Million Dollar Baby had to be done semi-independently. The good thing is that it’s come full circle in a way, with the studios forming independent divisions to finance smaller films, to take on projects that wouldn’t get made otherwise. George Clooney’s film, Good Night, and Good Luck, is another example of a film that probably wouldn’t be high on a studio’s list of things to do. I’ve always tried to influence the studio to not be afraid to do things that might not make a lot of money, but which they’ll be proud of thirty or forty years from now. That’s what I told [former Warner Bros. chairman and CEO] Bob Daly when I was doing Bird. I said, ‘I don’t know if this thing will make any money – it’s about jazz, it’s not very commercial, it’s a tragic story. But I can guarantee you that I’ll try to make a film you’ll be proud to have your logo on.’ That’s about all I can offer. That’s about all I can offer on any of these films.

Q: The writer of Unforgiven, David Webb Peoples, has said that you filmed what was basically the first draft of his script, which is certainly a departure from the Hollywood norm of ‘developing’ and rewriting things ad infinitum and calling in four or five writers. You seem to have enormous respect for the written word.

A: Some scripts come in and they’re just great to start with; I’ll use Unforgiven as the example. It was a good script. I got it in the early 1980s and waited until ’92 to make it. I called up the writer, David Peoples, and said, ‘I’m going to make your movie, but I want to change a few things. Can I run these ideas by you as I get them?’ He said, ‘Go ahead.’ But the more I fiddled with it, the more I realized I was screwing it up. It goes back to something Don Siegel used to say: So many times you get a great project and people want to kill it with improvements. And that’s exactly what I was doing with Unforgiven. So finally, I called David back and said, ‘Forget what I said about making those changes. I’m not doing anything except changing the title.’ It was originally called The William Munny Killings. Of course, once you get into a project, there are always some things that live up to or exceed your expectations, and certain other things that will be disappointing. So you have to be able to re-write on your feet as you’re working. But once in a while projects come along where everything fits together like a jigsaw puzzle – as it went together in your mind, it comes together on film.

- Interview extract from ‘Scott Foundas: The Straight Shooter’. DGA Quarterly, Spring 2006.

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