Spring 2006

The Straight Shooter

Few filmmakers have embodied the no-nonsense attitude and bedrock values of the American West more than Clint Eastwood. In a career spanning 35 years, 26 films and numerous awards including the DGA Lifetime Achievement Award, he has never stopped doing his best. The results speak for themselves.


Clint Eastwood - DGA Interview
Photo courtesy of Hulton Archives/Getty Images
There are no second acts in American lives," F. Scott Fitzgerald famously wrote in the pages of his unfinished Hollywood novel, The Last Tycoon. But if ever there was an American life that threatened to disprove Fitzgerald's aphorism, it's Clint Eastwood's. During a career in movies that spans a half-century, he has twice reached the pinnacle of his profession–first as an actor and then as a director–earning respect even from many who had initially dismissed him as nothing more than a square-jawed tough guy.

He has directed 26 feature films in 35 years, acting in nearly all of them and composing original music for nearly a dozen, in the process he's amassed eight Oscar nominations and two wins; two DGA Awards for Outstanding Directorial Achievement and even a Grammy nomination. Though he has been deservedly venerated as the last "classical" director working in Hollywood–a testament to the economy of his storytelling and the efficiency of his working method–Eastwood has never shied away from risk, balancing intelligent, accessible crowd-pleasers with projects that reside at the dark, unsentimental extreme of films made by major directors.

Certainly, few would disagree that Eastwood, who earlier this year received the DGA's Lifetime Achievement Award, has built a career worth celebrating. But if there seems something premature about recognizing Eastwood for his "body of work," it's that that body only keeps growing richer and more varied with each passing year. Indeed, at age 75 and with two new films planned for release within the next 12 months, Eastwood seems very much in his prime.

And he looks it, too. Fit and trim inside his imposing 6-foot, 4-inch frame, he's a portrait of growing old gracefully (albeit without any plastic surgery enhancements). "Other than a belt sander, there's nothing they can do for me," Eastwood once joked with his characteristic self-deprecating wit. He was in a similarly jovial mood this January as we sat down in his longtime bungalow on the Warner Bros. lot to talk about his career–past, present and future.

SCOTT FOUNDAS: You've reached that stage of your career now where you're starting to receive a lot of 'lifetime achievement' honors.

CLINT EASTWOOD: Makes you kind of wonder: Are they trying to tell me to get lost?

Q: You've been directing films for four decades, and while it's fairly common nowadays for actors to direct, it was much less common back in the early 1970s, when you were starting out. When did you begin to think that directing was something you wanted to do?

A: I started thinking about it back in the Rawhide days, and I tried to set things up to direct some episodes of the show. Then, the production company reneged on their promise that I could do it. They said that CBS didn't want actors who were in the shows to be directing the shows. So I kind of dropped the idea for a while and then, after I'd been working with Sergio Leone on A Fistful of Dollars, observing the crews in Europe and getting a broader look at filmmaking around the world, I got interested again.

Q: So how did you get your first job as a director?

A: In the late 1960s, a friend of mine, Jo Heims, had written a little treatment called Play Misty for Me. I optioned it from her and then I promptly went off to Europe to act in Where Eagles Dare (1968), which took a long time to make. In the meantime, she'd had an offer to sell the project to Universal. When I finally came back, it turned out that nothing had happened with it. So I started thinking about it again. It was a small picture. I wanted to change the setting from Los Angeles to Monterey County, and in that way the disc jockey would be a big fish in a smaller pond, which seemed more logical to me. So I went to Lew Wasserman and he said, 'Yeah, you can do it, but not under the current deal you have. You'll do it for DGA minimum.' My agent called me and said, 'But they don't want to pay you!' and I said, 'They shouldn't. I should have to prove myself first.' To be honest, I would have been willing to pay them! So we did the film for under $1 million and it became a moderate little success. It was a great experience, and I had the bug after that. Jo had written another script called Breezy (1973), so then I directed that and went on to High Plains Drifter (1973). I've never had a plan, in my career as an actor or a director, of what I was going to do next or what type of things I was looking for. Things would just pop up and I'd get a feeling about them.

RAWHIDE (1963): Clint Eastwood acting with Claude Rains
in an episode of the TV show. (© Hulton Archive)

Q: That doesn't answer the question, though, of how you actually learned how to direct.

A: I think the advantage of being an actor is that you're on sets all the time, so you kind of know what to do, if you've been paying attention. When I was a contract player in 1954 and 1955 at Universal, I used to go around to sets all the time and watch people direct. I'd wander through, as much as they'd let you. Usually, the bigger the director was, the stricter they were about not having people just hanging around. I wanted to watch the actors for one thing, but I also became very curious about the director's participation. I never got to work with any of the very big 'A' directors, except one time when I played a small part for Bill Wellman. But I did go on sets where Hitchcock and Douglas Sirk and people like that were working. Then there were all the Rawhide years, which were great because you were working every day, not just coming in for two days' work and then being off for six months. And we had some good directors come through who'd done movies that I'd seen in the theaters over the years: Stuart Heisler, Laszlo Benedek, Tay Garnett. People like that.

Q: At that point in your career, the two movie directors you'd worked with most were Don Siegel and Sergio Leone. Did you talk to them at all about your desire to direct?

A: Only with Don. I was back working in the States by this time, and I'd worked with Don on several occasions and we'd become good friends. When I decided I wanted to direct, I went to him and I said, 'You know, I've got this little project.' I even asked him to read it for me. He liked the script and said, 'You should direct it. Let me be the first to sign your DGA application card.' So I got into the Guild and I was off and running.

Q: Does being recognized by the DGA with the Lifetime Achievement Award carry any special meaning for you?

A: I've been a member of the DGA for 36 years, and when I joined it in 1970, I was real pleased–pleased with being able to direct a film, but also with being able to join a group that included so many people I'd worked with and known along the way, like William Wellman and Robert Wise, and also so many people I admired: Frank Capra, Howard Hawks, John Ford. They all belonged to it. That's what I said when I was up there on stage accepting the award.

Q: You have a reputation for working fast on the set, and 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.

High Plains Drifter (1973): Eastwood sets up a shot with DP Bruce Surtees. - photo courtesy Hulton Archive.
HIGH PLAINS DRIFTER (1973): Eastwood sets up a shot with DP
Bruce Surtees. (© Hulton Archive)

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: Were there certain directors whose visual style you particularly admired?

A: There were a lot of them. I remember when I was a kid growing up, before I was ever involved in movies at all, I always liked the look of certain directors. But in those days it wasn't as fashionable to know who the director was. You knew who was in the picture–Gary Cooper or Ingrid Bergman–and you liked that person so you went to see that movie. You didn't go because of the director. But later on you did. I liked Italian films–Monicelli, De Sica, Fellini. I always liked Kurosawa. And as I revisit old films now, there are some directors you appreciate more. You look at a picture like [John Ford's] The Grapes of Wrath and you realize that it's a small film shot in a relatively short period of time, and yet it has a lot of scope. [William Wellman's] The Ox-Bow Incident is also an intimate story, shot partly on soundstages, where you can hear the echo when the actors speak–all things you'd now take out using technology–but it doesn't take away from the movie.

Q: One of the most distinctive aspects of your own style, something that's been consistent on your work with many different cinematographers–from Play Misty for Me through Million Dollar Baby–is the use of very low light levels.

A: I like getting on a realistic plane with the light. If you go back and look at some Westerns that were made by some of the most beloved directors of the 1930s and '40s, you see people walk from the outdoors into a brightly lit room and you wonder, 'Where'd they get all that electricity back in 1850?' If you look at Unforgiven as an example, which Jack Green and Tom Stern did a brilliant job lighting, they made it look like it was coal and oil lamps lighting everything. But in a lot of those old movies, there's light all over the place and there's no contrast. But you really don't have to see everything. John Wayne had this theory that you had to see the eyes all the time, the eyes tell the story. I never believed that. You see the eyes when you need to see the eyes. And sometimes, what you don't see is very appealing to the audience. You can dramatize a picture with shades of light.

Q: You've also tended to work with many of the same crew people over and over again through the years, and have promoted your crew up through the ranks, like your current cinematographer Tom Stern, who started out with you as a gaffer.

A: If people want to progress to another division and they have the ambition, they should be allowed to fulfill their ambitions. Just like when I had the ambition to become a director. I work with a lot of people who started out as assistants. [Editor] Joel Cox started out in the mailroom. As you work with people over and over, you come to know what to expect. If you have a new person come on, that's an unknown factor. Maybe it turns out to be a great surprise. Or you can get surprised the other way. But after a while, you get comfortable. A lot goes into making a film. I know a lot of cineastes only think of the director, the auteur theory and all that. But it's a whole group, a company, that makes a movie, and it's a company that works only as well as its weakest link. I try to get the enthusiasm of everybody–that's been my best trick, if I have a best trick. I try to get everybody involved. If the janitor can come up with a great idea for a shot, that's fine with me. There're no proprietary interests. I try to keep my ego and everybody else's ego out of it.

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.

Play Misty for Me (1971): Eastwood preps for a knife attack by star Jessica Walter (center). - photo Courtesy Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.
PLAY MISTY FOR ME (1971): Eastwood preps for a knife attack by
star Jessica Walter (center). (© Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.

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.

Bird (1988): Forest Whitaker smelling the roses as jazzman Charlie Parker. - photo courtesy Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.
BIRD (1988): Forest Whitaker smelling the roses as jazzman
Charlie Parker. (© Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.)

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 Blvd or some of these classic films now? A picture like that would have to be done as an independent, just as Mystic Riverand 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.

Unforgiven (1992): Eastwood directed himself as an aging gunslinger. - photo courtesy Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.

Mystic River (2003): Eastwood directed but didn't act in the film with Sean Penn. - photo courtesy Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.
Eastwood directed himself in Unforgiven (top) and directed but didn't
act in the film Mystic River with Sean Penn (bottom). (©Warner Bros)

Q: Is there a certain kind of atmosphere you try to create on the set?

A: I like to have fun. I like everyone to be in good humor. And I try to keep it quiet. I like an atmosphere that isn't loaded with tension. I don't like sets where people are yelling at each other. The thing I dislike the most is people going 'Sssh sssh sssh,' because they end up making more noise than the people they're trying to sssh. I remember after I started directing I was on a picture over at MGM, I walked out on the soundstage and all of a sudden I hear this huge bell ringing, which meant they were going to start the scene, and I thought, 'What is this shit?' What happens when you're doing a really sensitive scene, or a scene that demands a certain amount of concentration? You shouldn't put a person through that. If you talk to the actors who've worked with me–Sean Penn, Tim Robbins–they love the fact that they can be ready to go without a lot of fanfare. And for actors coming on who haven't had a lot of experience, it's even better for them.

Q: How do you manage to keep the chatter down on the set?

A: I went to the White House for a dinner–I think Gerald Ford was President at the time–and I noticed that there were these Secret Service guys all around and they were all talking very quietly into these tiny headsets, carrying on entire conversations without disturbing anyone. So I came back here and I said, 'Why the hell do you go on a movie set and people have open radios squawking and people yelling, 'Hey, Al, put the light over here!' We've got all this technology; certainly we can be as technologically sound as the Secret Service.' So a guy who was working for me researched it, got the same headsets and then all of those conversations could take place without disturbing the whole set. You can be rehearsing the actors and the crew can be talking, but nobody's hearing it. Sometimes you're working with kids or people you don't want to be conscious of the camera. This way you can roll the camera without them even knowing it, and you can get natural moments you wouldn't get when someone's screaming, 'Silence! Rolling! Action!'

Million Dollar Baby (2004): Eastwood with his co-star Hilary Swank. - photo courtesy Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.
Eastwood with his co-star Hilary Swank in Million Dollar Baby.
(© Hulton Archives)

Eastwood takes a five on the set of Flags of Our Fathers.
(© Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.)

Q: Spontaneity seems to be important to you.

A: Just like in life. You react to things. It should seem to the audience that the actors are saying these words for the very first time. The actors are striving to make the words sound that way, and if it is the first time, more power to it. The longer it drags on, the more takes you do, the more the actor has to rely on technique to make it sound like it's the first time. When you get down to 10 or 20 takes, it starts showing that it isn't the first time, and you get that ponderous feeling. There's a dullness to it. Good actors can sustain themselves, but it's asking a lot out of them.

Q: At age 75, you're now in the midst of what is arguably the most ambitious project of your career–the back-to-back movies Flags of Our Fathers and Red Sun, Black Sand, which will tell the story of the battle of Iwo Jima from, respectively, the American and Japanese perspectives.

A: I liked the book Flags of Our Fathers when I read it and I tried to buy it, but it had already been purchased by DreamWorks. So I went off and did other things and then I ran into Steven [Spielberg] one time–we had worked well together on Bridges of Madison County–and he asked me if I'd do it. And I said, 'Sure.' Paul Haggis came on board as the writer and we had many discussions about which way to go with it, and the more I kept reading the material about Iwo Jima, which was the biggest battle in Marine Corps history, the more I started thinking, 'Who devised all of this, digging tunnels and living underground like rats?' So I started reading some books by Lieutenant General Kuribayashi [the Japanese commander at Iwo Jima]. It was interesting to me that he was going against a lot of the norms of Japanese military strategy. I became fascinated by the guy. And I wondered what it would have been like to be a guy living in those holes, knowing you were going to be killed. Americans were sent into battle knowing it was going to be tough, but that they'd come back–'When Johnny Comes Marching Home' and all that. But the Japanese were sent there knowing they were going to dig these foxholes and that's where they were going to be buried. So out of this comes a script that Paul kind of supervised–he mentored a young woman of Japanese descent who wrote it. It's a different story–same battle, but different story.

Q: So, what keeps you going?

A: A lot of people retire because that's their desire and they feel good about doing it, and I always thought I'd feel that way someday. I always thought someday I'd go, 'OK, that's enough of that. Let's just sit out here on the beach in Hawaii.' But I haven't come to it yet. The reason I still do it is that it's not only fun–which is important, it should be fun–but because I learn something new with every job. And that's the best way to stave off senility–to always be learning something, no matter what profession you're in. I'm not saying there's never a time to quit, but there's no set time.

DGA Interviews

Prominent directors reflecting on their body of
work through an extended and in-depth Q&A.

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