From the book "Film Craft: Directing," Screen International editor Mike Goodridge’s compiled interviews with 16 of the world's biggest directors…Below is an excerpt from the book: the main text of Goodridge's edited interview with Clint Eastwood, in which Eastwood shares his early experiences gaining perspectives on directing as an actor on "Rawhide" to agreeing to direct "J. Edgar." He explains what makes a good actor and why he usually ends up using the first or second take of a shot.
Over the years when I was an actor, I became interested in working with actors and found different atmospheres that I liked with different directors that made acting more compatible. The sets didn't have to be nerve-wracking or bell-ringing or booby-trapped as it was with some. I started developing my own theories on it and incorporated all my experience into them. A lifetime in movies is the same as a lifetime in any profession: you are constantly a student. Every film is different and has different obstacles to overcome and that’s what makes it interesting. That’s why I continue to do it and enjoy the challenges of it. As long as you remain open to new ideas and developing your own philosophies as you go, it’s a very enjoyable process.
I took from everyone I worked with of course—from Sergio Leone and Don Siegel, and all the directors on the TV series “Rawhide” (1959–66). You see different people approaching things differently and you can tell when they have a certain amount of knowledge or when they’re faking it. Subconsciously I think you take from everybody. Sometimes when I am doing a scene, I try to think how so-and-so did it in that 1936 film. Or you remember seeing some effect as a kid and try to get the same effect. As an American kid growing up, watching Howard Hawks or John Ford or Alfred Hitchcock or Billy Wilder, you watched their work and it was amazing how they created certain excitement in their films.
When I did “Rawhide,” we had a lot of old-time directors who had stopped doing movies—people like Stuart Heisler and Laszlo Benedek. I had also done three weeks on a movie with William Wellman, and watched everything he did—how he approached things, how people responded to him, how he liked the sets, the atmosphere. I found out what he liked actors to do and what he didn't like.
For me, it’s very important to have a comfortable and calm environment on set. It’s important that the actors are submerging themselves into the character to the greatest degree and the best way to do that is to give them full confidence and ensure they don’t feel like they’re riding a ship that’s on the brink of disaster.
Sometimes I rehearse with the actors, sometimes I don’t. Most actors have a pretty good idea coming to it, because it’s what attracted them to the role. Some are extremely instinctive and grasp the character right on. A great example of that would be Gene Hackman in “Unforgiven.” He had the character so perfect right out of the box on every shot, every sequence, and he really didn't have to do anything different—he was amazing. Sometimes when I'm rehearsing for a camera move, the performance is so good that I just turn the camera on, not wanting to lose it. I've seen it happen in the past that actors come out really good at the start and then all of a sudden, they start killing it with improvements.
Sometimes there are actors who can drift in and jump in and out more easily. As a director, you have one relationship with them. Others need to stay in character and you have another relationship with them. I remember when we were doing “Rawhide” on soundstages, people would use megaphones to get everybody quiet and the more people yelled “Quiet,” the louder the extras would yell, nothing was quiet. I realized that actors need a little bit of time to think, not feel pressured about the whole thing, because not all of them are extroverted people who can’t wait to clown around in front of a camera. They want to stay there and get into a role, and I want to keep them there as long as they want to be there.
I have a reputation for always going with the first or second take. Of course, I don’t always get it in one or two takes. It’s more that I want to get the feeling that we’re moving. You have to keep the crew and the production going at a business- like pace so they get the feeling they are part of something that’s actually moving forward.
The cast and crew feel like they are going somewhere when they go to work each day and feel like they are accomplishing something and not just doing the same scene each day. I like to do whole sequences in one day, so everyone has the feeling that all the parts are there and, besides, it helps for editing purposes. It’s my job to make sure that the set and atmosphere that everyone is working in is comfortable. That’s the way to get the best out of people. Sometimes I don’t change a good script at all. I bought the “Unforgiven” script in 1980 and put it in a drawer and said I’ll do this someday it’s good material and I’ll rewrite it. And I took it from the drawer ten years later and called up the writer and said I had a couple of ideas and wanted to rewrite some of it, and he was fine with that. I told him I might call him because I wanted him to approve my changes. So I went to work and the more I tooled with it, the more I realized I was killing it with improvements. So I went back to him and said that I had been working on these ideas and I really felt I was wrecking it, so I was just going to go with it the way it was. So I did. Of course, you make improvements along the way, but generally when you start intellectualizing it, you can take the spirit out of it.
On other occasions, you get a script where the idea is terrific, but the execution isn't quite right or doesn't suit the actors that you’re hiring, so you adapt it and add things to it. I've made changes to everything I've done, but with some of them it’s a minor knick-knack here and there, and on others you rework it entirely from the start.
During shooting, I have certain objectives, but I am never locked into things. In other words, when I am going on a location, I don’t say it has to be this way because this is the way we looked at it two months ago so this is the way it has to be. I'm always flexible, I always improvise. If we looked at the location in the fall and the sun in the summer makes it a different place, I change it. If an actor is left-handed instead of right-handed, I ask them to come in whichever direction is more natural to them. I am using simplistic analysis here, but there is no rule that has to be stuck to rigidly.
Likewise, I am flexible with the script during production. Sometimes I get an idea in one scene that will stimulate something else. Or I’d like to see the actors do that, or maybe this character would do that.
I always like to feel I am doing something different on every picture. If I'm not, if I feel like I am doing something reminiscent of a lot of things I've done before, it would cause me anxiety that I was repeating myself. That’s why after “Unforgiven,” I thought that was a perfect time for me to stop doing the western. Not for anybody else, but I would hate to be doing the same genre continually. That’s why I left Italy, because after doing three movies with Sergio Leone I felt I had done as much as I could with that character and I thought it was time for me to go home and get other ideas.
When I did "Bird," it was a surprise to some people, first because I wasn't in it and second because most of the films I’d been doing were cop movies or westerns or adventure films, so to be doing one about Charlie Parker, who was a great influence on American music, was a great thrill for me. But whether it’s a drama or an action film, the story content is everything to me. Sometimes it’s good and sometimes not, and that is in the eye of the beholder. You definitely have to step up to the bat and try to hit the ball out of the park. If you don’t, you should at least try to be innovative, and hopefully the audience will respond to that.
I always think about the audience. When you are thinking about telling the story, you are thinking about how you want the story to be as interesting as it possibly can be for the audience—otherwise it will never take on the life it’s supposed to have out there with the audience.
It’s hard to be a judge of that. You can’t start thinking about it too much because a lot of wonderful movies haven’t done any business and a lot of not-so-wonderful movies have done tremendous business. All you can do is use yourself as the audience; ask yourself if you were going to the theatre how would you like to see this. What about this actor in that part? In every element of the film, there’s always that thing an audience is going to see and judge, like or dislike. Of course, once you have committed yourself to doing it on a film, that’s it. If the audience likes it, that’s great; if it doesn't, go back to the drawing board for the next feature.
I can work quite fast. If the next project is there and it’s good and it’s something that’s been brewing for a while, I can move onto it. If it’s not there, then I won’t. For example, when I was doing post-production and editing on “Mystic River,” I read “Million Dollar Baby.” I had read the book it came from some years earlier and liked the script and I thought “Well, I’ll do this.” And they asked when I wanted to do it and I said “well, right away.” We ended up getting Morgan Freeman and Hilary Swank, and we just went ahead and started doing it. One went right behind the other, but it doesn't always happen like that. Sometimes you have to wait for a while for a very good script to come and I don’t make films just to be working. I might have done that when I was younger, but now it has to be something that I have a certain feeling for.
I am never looking for anything specific. With “J. Edgar,” I read the script and found it interesting and said I would like to do it. It’s not like I was longing to do something on J. Edgar Hoover, although I had grown up on J. Edgar Hoover as a little boy. Everyone knew about him as the head of the FBI and I was always kind of curious about it. And, of course, he was an odd character who people were curious about, so it was interesting to explore a little bit. I don’t always shoot a lot of coverage.
I try to shoot just what I want to see and sometimes it doesn't work out that way, because when you get into editing, you realize maybe there’s something wrong or there’s a redundancy to one scene as it fits in the puzzle and you forego it. It’s the final moulding process, like working with a piece of clay and you can break a film in editing by doing it improperly or enhance it with good editing.
My relationship with Warner Bros. helps me. As long as somebody finances you, can make a film and get it seen any place and in any language, then hopefully it’s a success. You can always look at it like it’s a crapshoot. Either way, it’s a lot of good people working hard to tell a story. It’s really a little army, or a platoon, and you’re going out into the field and trying to make something. You’re only as good as your weakest link and I try to get everybody to contribute imaginatively. If somebody has an idea, I don’t care what department they are in, I listen to it because people come up with good ideas. And because directors have so much to do, you can stymie yourself by not paying attention to what’s around you.
Filmcraft: Directing by Michael Goodridge is available on Kindle or Paperback here
Press here for the complete Eastwood Interviewed Index
Press here for the complete Eastwood Interviewed Index