I was so lucky to attend this Guardian Lecture, a night which also included a special screening of Clint’s haunting masterpiece, Mystic River. It was a warm evening on London’s South Bank and the beginning of a truly wonderful week. The following Wednesday night (8th October), I also attended the BBC Parkinson show for the recording of Clint’s interview to be broadcast that weekend. During this time I was working for the BBC at Television Centre. However, the evening’s events were about to take an unbelievable turn when myself and a friend grabbed the opportunity to meet Clint after the show. The man was courteous, responsive and generous. I remember someone saying, ‘avoid trying to meet your heroes’ - as it could so often turn out to be a disappointing experience. But meeting Clint, well, it was incredibly special, and a memory I’ll never forget. He was also happy to sign a couple of photos that I had taken along with me as well as an original Escape from Alcatraz script my friend had taken.
I had been working hard that summer, specifically with an American production company who were producing a special documentary on Clint (Biography) for the A&E (Arts and Entertainment) channel. The finished programme was also being premiered on American Television that very weekend. We mentioned to Clint that we had helped on the production and asked him what he had thought of it? “I haven’t seen it yet” was his laid back response. We mentioned how good Mystic River was, and that we had attended the NFT the previous night. I stuck my neck out to some degree and suggested “I think it’s an Oscar winner…” and to my great relief, of course - it was. It was certainly a magical week and the natural high that came from it - stayed with us for months. I still find myself reflecting on those wonderful couple of nights, and thankfully, the memories are as vivid as the broad grin I find spreading across my face. It’s hard to believe that was over 10 years ago now! I (again) recently found myself reliving those nights in my head and perhaps in order to never allow them to fade, I thought I would post the transcript of the Guardian Lecture interview. I hope you enjoy-
The Guardian Lecture, NFT 1, Tuesday 20037th October
Clint Eastwood, the actor and director, addressed an enthusiastic audience at the NFT ahead of the release of his latest Oscar-tipped film Mystic River. Michael Parkinson put the questions
Michael Parkinson: The oldest adage in the business; the bigger the star, the shorter the introduction. Clint Eastwood.
It's safe to assume you're among friends. We've just seen your film, Mystic River. I think it's 'bloody marvellous', but what's your feeling about it?
Clint Eastwood: I haven't seen it yet.
MP: That's a cop out.
CE: No, I've lived with it for so long - I've lived through the shooting of it, the editing and every other process along the way, so it's not for me to really judge at this point. I'll probably look at it again five years from now to get a fresh feel for it.
MP: But is it as you imagined it?
CE: Yes, it is as I imagined it. It's what I intended when I first read Dennis Lehane's novel.
MP: What was it about the novel that attracted you, because it's a many-layered novel. What was the one thing about it that drew you to it?
CE: I liked the many-layered part. The story was a combination of an emotional tragedy with a parallel investigative piece. But the fact that they converge upon themselves is interesting. I just like to really lay it out... When I first read the synopsis for this: it's about the taking of a child's life, the stealing of someone's innocence, robbing them of their youth. I always thought what an interesting idea because almost everybody's fascinated by the perpetrator of a crime; very few people study what happens to people for the rest of their lives, and how it affects not only that particular character but other characters around him as well.
MP: This is that scene with Sean Penn where he says, "It might have been me, what might have happened then" - the consequences of one action, how it spreads out. What about the actual business of placing this film? When you went to the studios and said "Look, here's this novel. It's very complicated, very adult". Did they leap up and down and say "Oh boy, Clint, thanks for that" or did they say "Ooh, that's going to be tough"?
CE: None of the above. I think they liked the fact that I had faith in the book but I've also gone off on different tangents in my life. Right now, the state of the movies in America, there's an awful lot of people hanging on wires and floating across things and comic book characters and what have you. There seems to be a lot of big business in that, a nice return on some of those. So when I came up with this, they said "Okay, that's fine" and then when I got to the screenplay part they said "Okay, but how much do you want to spend on this?" and I said that I could get a bunch of actors who would want to do it and they said "Okay, we'll do it, but you could take it elsewhere if you want to shop it around".
Well, I didn't shop it around but my agent did ask a couple of other studios and they said "We don't do dramas".
MP: So what do they do? Comic book movies?
CE: Yeah, so we asked them that. And they said "Well, we're looking for the next high-concept kind of thing", and I've done a few special effects movies in my life, so I've gotten that out of my system. But with this, really, I just wanted to tell a story about people, about conflicts, and about people overcoming obstacles in their lives. This story did it for me.
MP: Before we continue with the main thrust of this interview, what's your view about the state of movie-making these days? I mean you've just mentioned the special effects. Billy Wilder, a while ago, was asked "What's a modern screenplay?" and Billy Wilder said "The modern screenplay is where you build a set and then you blow it up". That would sum it up basically, wouldn't it?
CE: Yes, that would sum it up. Nowadays you'd have many battles before you blow it up, but eventually you'd take it down. And that's okay, I don't heavily quarrel with that, but for me personally, having made films for years and directed for 33 years, it just seems to me that I long for people who want to see a story and see character development. Maybe we've dug it out and there's not really an audience for that, but that's not for me to really worry about.
MP: I'm sure there is an audience, and I'm sure that audience has been neglected for a while as well in favour of a younger audience - it's happening across the board, in music, television and in movies as well.
CE: Yes, well there's the question: did the audience leave the movies or did the movies leave the audience? So, we keep trying.
MP: You mentioned that you persuaded a group of actors to come work for you. Was it because they worked at special rates?
CE: No, no. The only one who worked at special rate was me, because I wanted to get it made. I actually went back 33 years, because when I approached the studio to make Play Misty For Me, they said "Fine" very briskly but they said "We don't want to pay you, though. You work for whatever your guild minimum is and if the picture does well maybe we'll give you a few bucks". So I was back 33 years doing the exact same thing. But we paid the actors well, and they're certainly the best American actors we got going today in their generation.
MP: When you're directing actors such as these, and being an actor yourself, what's your strategy? Is there much direction as such?
CE: Most of the direction takes place in discussing the project, the script, the book - in this particular case, as each one came on board, I sent them to Boston and they studied the accents and the Boston neighbourhoods. And I arranged interviews with Dennis Lehane so that they could get a feeling for what he was intending. And so eventually it just clicked together liked that, so that by the time we started everyone was really well schooled on what they wanted to do. And we had a few philosophy talks, but mainly, acting to me is a very organic art form and you just go and do it. And I like to direct the same way that I like to be directed. Let me bring in what I want to bring in, and if something's wrong, just tell me about it and I'll make some corrections or adjustments. And that's what I do.
MP: You direct quickly and efficiently, don't you? You have that reputation.
CE: Yeah, well I'm not sure that's a good reputation to have. Most people like the magic of having it take a long time and be difficult... But I like to move along, I like to keep the actors feeling like they're going somewhere, I like the feeling of coming home after every day and feeling like you've done something and you've progressed somewhere. And to go in and do one shot after lunch and another one maybe at six o'clock and then go home is not my idea of something to do.
MP: And did the actors that you put together for Mystic River go along with this rhythm of your work?
CE: Yeah, they did. They loved it - Sean [Penn] and Tim [Robbins], Kevin Bacon and Laurence Fishburne. I'd worked before with Laura Linney and Marcia Gay Harden - they're both extremely talented and very professional. Every single one of these people wanted to be there, nobody was ever late, nobody was ever reticent about going on the set, everybody had their confidence up, they were confident in the material and they were happy to be doing it.
MP: Well, we're just going to show a clip from the film here. This is just a nice example of what you were talking about.
MP: Right, some very strong performances there. But let's go back to the very beginning of your career if we can. As a child, were you fascinated by movies? Were they influential in your life?
CE: Yeah, they were. I didn't get to go to a lot of them in my early years but through the ages of 11 to my teen years, I got to go to the movies. We didn't have television, most of our entertainment came by listening, from the radio. I don't want to date myself - we didn't exactly listen on crystal sets, but it was something a little more modern than that. But that was the way things went then. So going to the movies was a very big pleasure - all families went to movies together and sometimes adults would get a subject matter they didn't want the kids to see. But by and large, people went a lot and it was a very nice family outing.
MP: Who were the film stars you admired? Your heroes?
CE: One of the first films I went to - I went with my dad because my mother didn't want to go see a war movie - was Sergeant York. My dad was a big admirer of Sergeant York stories from the first world war. It was directed by Howard Hawks. That was when I first became aware of movies, who made them, who was involved.
|Gary Cooper in Howard Hawks' Sergeant York (1941)|
MP: But did you have an ambition at that time?
CE: None at all. It just seemed to be way out of anybody's reach. You took them for their entertainment value and you didn't dissect them much further than that.
MP: In an interview your mother gave in a documentary, she suggested that at this time you were travelling a lot up and down the country because your dad was looking for work and you were therefore fairly rootless, a loner, because you weren't any place too long. And she said that maybe that's where you started becoming an actor - it was the imaginary friends that you had to play with. Is that a wise observation by your mum?
CE: [long pause] Well, it's an observation. I wouldn't say that Mum was unwise. Maybe so. I think kids are natural actors. You watch most kids; if they don't have a toy they'll pick up a stick and make a toy out of it. Kids will daydream all the time. I daydreamed constantly, I was a mediocre student because I would sit in the classroom, the leaves would rustle and I would be off on a journey somewhere. So it was tough to concentrate in those years. But it's amazing, when kids concentrate on a game, to watch the intensity with which they do it. They can be extremely convincing. And the problem with becoming an actor as an adult is that as you grow up you pile all these inhibitions upon yourself, and all the social mores. You get kidded by people as you're growing through your teenage years and into adulthood, and then, you're at the stage where you don't want to make a fool of yourself if at all possible. So when I hit my 20s and wanted to be an actor, I had to think of how to strip all this stuff off and go back to when I was about 10 or 11 and I could just sit there and daydream and place myself anywhere and be anybody, anything that you were pretending to be and do it believably, where actually you would feel on the inside that this was you. That's all it takes, and children are very good at this. Unfortunately, you never see this in children in films because there they get schooled - they have stage mothers and they're giving them line readings. But if you're not giving them line readings and just telling them to be normal, they're fantastic.
MP: But how did you get back to that natural state when you became an actor?
CE: I just joined acting classes and acted stupid. We would have acting classes where you do inhibition-relieving exercises or whatever they were, where you played chickens walking across the floor. How the hell do you play a chicken? I don't know but you tried all kinds of things like that. And you did all kinds of improvisation and they'd have you stand and just be. I had an acting coach who once said "Don't just do something, stand there". They wanted you to not be afraid to just be, just to stand there with your hands at your sides and be able to relate out and not be inhibited. There's really no way to teach you how to act, but there is a way to teach you how to teach yourself to act. That's kind of what it is; once you learn the little tricks that work for you, pretty soon you find yourself doing that. Sometimes you go off to the side of the set and you hit the table or something like that to get your steam up. Or you can do the Olivier trick if you're in a play - you stand behind the curtain and you cuss the audience out and tell them what lowlifes they are and when they open the curtain you've built up all this aggression that's made you look larger than life. So everyone has their little tricks.
MP: It's interesting to look at the iconic status you have now in the movie industry - and deservedly so - as an actor and as a director, and to consider that in those days when you first started, there were a few at the studios who regarded you as not quite having the stuff that the great actors were made of.
CE: [Pause] Yeah.
CE: And they were probably right to a certain degree, and to some degree, certain things happen. There's a lot of luck and a lot of things have to fall into place in order to star in films. Sometimes you start out playing a lot of small parts in what have you, and eventually you work into it.
MP: Your luck, of course, brought you Rawhide. That gave you seven years of employment.
CE: Yes, and acting every day. Even if the material is inferior. A lot of the time it was not exciting, but it makes you work with material which is sometimes good, sometimes not so good, so it's a great, great training ground. I think everyone of the actors in this picture have been through that -they've all done lots of things which they've been enthusiastic about or less so, but they did them because they needed the job or they needed the experience. But for me, Rawhide was a day-in, day-out job. You got a chance to be in front of the camera all the time, so the camera no longer was your enemy.
MP: And more than that, too, because you used to absorb the rest of what was happening on the set, didn't you? You weren't just the actor who retired to your trailer after your scene - you'd observe how the director and the producer worked.
CE: Yeah, I was always fascinated by the film directing and film editing. And when we did Rawhide I used to go down to the editing rooms all the time. And I directed a few trailers - they wouldn't let me direct the show but they let me do trailers. Then I went off to Italy and did the films with Sergio Leone down in Spain, and I was very fascinated by the shooting down there. And later on working with Don Siegel, who's a great enthusiast of me directing. He just felt that, because of my curiosity, that I should do it. So he encouraged me, and in 1970 when I had a screenplay that I wanted to do, he said "You know, you must direct it, and I'll be your big backer".
MP: What sort of things did you learn from the two of them - were they the same sort of things or different? From Leone first of all.
CE: Different things. Leone's very imaginative - he was that child we were talking about, he was an adult man with a child's mentality: very, very useful. He just had a very childlike imagination and you could see it in the films - he approaches things with a very operatic kind of delivery. Very good visual, very good sense of the expanse around him, and also the use of close-ups. He was an interesting guy. Don Siegel was much more of an old-school, B-movie director. He made some of the best B-movies ever made - Invasion of the Body Snatchers, Riot in Cell Block 11. So he knew how to do a lot with very little. He was head of the montage department at Warner Bros for years so he knew more about film-making than anybody I knew.
|Clint with Sergio Leone|
MP: You dedicated Unforgiven to them, Don and Sergio, didn't you? That was your tribute to them.
CE: I did, but that was because both of them were recently deceased and both of them were a big influence. And I thought it would be nice because it's going back to a genre which I worked in with both directors.
|Clint with Don Siegel|
MP: You've said Mystic River is still too dear, too close for you to give a judgement on it now, but what's your view on Unforgiven?
CE: It's too soon to look back on it. I realise that it was in 1992, but I haven't revisited it in a long time. Again, after you've gone through all the various processes and the film comes out and is very successful, you're almost afraid to revisit it. You want to save it for a rainy day.
MP: Let's have a look at a scene from Unforgiven. This is the scene where a young boy has just killed a man.
CE: That scene was meant to show that the killing was not without some problems in the personality, in the soul, in the minds of mankind.
MP: What about the character you played, Munny? It seems me that the character you played in those westerns, the stranger who comes into town in Pale Rider, High Plains Drifter - was that him, was that the man, just retired?
CE: Not necessarily. I think all those characters were driven by other things. But this fellow is a renegade... The script was unusual, and I've read a lot of western scripts. But it was unusual because David Peoples had approached it from a whole different thing - the fact that this guy had reached his lowest depths as a person, his background was haunting him and even to the point where he was monogamous to a deceased wife and even in death she continued to be a great influence on him. And here's this young guy coming along who represents everything he was at one time in his life long past - and that's what he realises when he says "That's a hell of a thing you're carrying there". He probably didn't think so when he was that age, but this kid is learning it early, and just as well.
MP: What was interesting about that film was that the villain was given a human dimension; they weren't all bad, were they?
CE: Not at all. Gene Hackman's character very much had his own philosophy about running things in town, he was very much for gun controlling, especially with him controlling it. He liked running a very tight ship, but he had this human thing about building his house and wanting to live a certain type of lifestyle, and unfortunately he had a slight sadistic streak when it came to dealing with what he called lower riffraff. And so, it came back to haunt him a little.
MP: Was it a sort of swan song for your own involvement in the western?
CE: Barring someone coming along with some brilliant concept, some brilliant script that I haven't seen yet, yes.
MP: This is the 100th anniversary of the western this year, so I wonder if you'd be tempted by any offers to revive the genre.
CE: You can't without the story. The story is everything. Whether it's a book or a screenplay, the story drives everything. And if you just go out and try to make one by putting on boots and jumping on a horse and riding off... If you don't have the material, the characters and the things to overcome and conflicts that give life to drama, you don't have it.
MP: You touched earlier on how cinema can explore the consequences of taking life and how it affects people. What about the criticisms levelled at you when you made the Dirty Harry movies? Where do these concerns fit into those films?
CE: Well, that was 32 years ago, and I did a lot of films which were just for entertainment, action films. But Dirty Harry had certain social studies - it was about a man who's somewhat cynical about his work and the treatment of criminals and more interested in the victim than the perpetrator, but done in a cruder way than say, Mystic River, which is about an unravelling. Or even Unforgiven, where you're talking about what happens to your soul. Dirty Harry wasn't affected by anything. He just "removed" people and treated it like that.
MP: So do you think that people who were concerned about it being rightwing...
CE: Well, you can think anything you want. But Don Siegel and I just thought it was an exciting detective story. You can make something more out of it, but that's it.
MP: Do you feel there was an over-intellectualising of those movies beyond what you could see in them, in a sense?
CE: Well, that's happened a lot, and that's okay. There was a lot of that in the 70s with film criticism but today, film as an art form is probably more appreciated in England and France and elsewhere. In those days, people were using reviews to sort of express their own feelings and not to tell you much about the film.
MP: Richard Burton once described your style of acting, rather intriguingly, as "dynamic lethargy". I wonder if (A) you understood what he meant and (B) whether you can tell me?
CE: Well, AA might have been where he was at the time.
CE: I loved Richard - he was a terrific guy and I enjoyed working with him. And he was great at coming up with things like this. I'm not sure what he meant, though.
MP: Maybe he was pointing out the difference between a stage actor and a movie actor. I mean a stage actor has to do a lot but a movie actor ... as with your Mystic River, you watch the close-ups there, it's all about a lift of an eyebrow or just the drop of an eye, it's not about the grand gesture at all.
CE: No, but it all emanates from the same place as you have to be thinking in the same process. Stage actors are usually much more conscious of speaking up and making sure that everyone can hear in the back of the theatre; a film actor probably thinks of that a little less. Unfortunately, there's a style of acting going round, especially with the younger actors, where they talk without even moving their lip. Maybe it's because my hearing probably isn't what it was 40 years ago but I'm sitting there going "What did they say"? But somewhere there's a happy medium. All of these actors in this film tonight have theatre training, so you can hear them - they're not projecting or grinding away, but you can hear them in normal conversation.
MP: You yourself have never been tempted to do the odd stage performance?
CE: Oh yes, years ago I was. I had the opportunity on several occasions but never took them because I was tied up in television. At this stage in life... But you know, if a project came along, I might try it. But I love films and I love the whole process of making films.
MP: What's interesting looking at the catalogue of films you've been in is finding the strange choices you've made. For instance, working with an orang-utan, with Clyde...
CE: What's the matter with that?
CE: Yeah, I've made some strange choices along the way. That was a film my agent and everyone else begged me not to do. This is after Dirty Harry and I'd done a lot of action and adventure films and they said "That's not you" and I said "Well, what is me? I don't know". To me it was about reaching out to a younger generation, making a movie that kids could see, with a little less mouth. And there was something hip in an odd way about the movie - this strange guy tells his troubles to an orang-utan and loses the girl, everything about it was a little bit off-centre. It seemed like something to do at the time.
MP: What was it like working with Clyde, though?
CE: It was great - it was like working with a six-year-old. Supposedly they reach about the level of a seven-year-old child and they only have the attention span of a child, so you have to go on the first take.
MP: We're going to see a clip now from In the Line of Fire. Can you talk us through the process of how you came to do that film?
CE: Well, I was asked if I'd like to act in and direct this film. I'd just done Unforgiven, so I said that I didn't want to direct but we'd find somebody else. So we got Wolfgang Petersen to direct it. It was an interesting script, an adventure story about a secret service man who has great guilt about not performing in another incident. It was a nice script and had a lot of subplot that made it interesting.
MP: And it had a lot about the changing role of women - about your character coming to terms with the new woman, which sets up this scene with Rene Russo.
MP: You're a complete man of the cinema, not just in directing and acting, but also in music, which has been incredibly important to your work in movies. We've talked about your making uncommercial choices but you've also brought your own passion for a subject to your films - the Charlie Parker film as a case in point. Again, I would imagine the studio was delighted about this idea, that you should do a biopic about a jazz musician.
CE: I sold them on the fact that I thought there'd be a lot of people who'd be interested in it, but it's tough to do a story like that, and that was kind of a downer story, too. Maybe more of a straight downer than a film like tonight's, but it didn't have that many layers. But it was about how brilliant people can sometimes be haunted.
MP: You wondered in the film, didn't you, about what is it that made it so easy for him and so hard for others, the great gift that Parker had.
CE: Absolutely. But on top of that talent, he worked very hard at it. At some point in his life he decided he would have to work very hard - which reminds me of that old joke about the guy who asks a cab driver how to get to Carnegie Hall and the cab driver says "Practise, practise, practise". He worked hard enough at it that he was innovative and he started a new trend and a new way of playing.
MP: Let's take some questions from the audience here.