Moving from actor to director, Clint Eastwood long ago became an icon, both of American cinema and culture. While he first made his place in Hollywood as a cast member in the long running television series Rawhide, Eastwood first captured attention with Sergio Leone’s trilogy of spaghetti westerns.
While his acting as Harry Callahan in the Dirty Harry films notched a few other memorable lines in our cinematic psyches, by 1970 Eastwood moved to directing with Play Misty for Me. This began his astonishing run of some 32-feature films to date, including such Academy award winners as Unforgiven and Million Dollar Baby. Clinton Eastwood Junior has secured his place in American cinema.
While you’ll find books on Eastwood’s acting and a few on his directing work, it’s striking that the first in-depth look at the filmmaking techniques of such a legendary director has only just been published.
Clint Eastwood: Master Filmmaker at Work takes a good look at the actor and director’s long career. Written by LA-based author and journalist Michael Goldman, it’s the first “authorized” chance to hear from the director as well as get access to his regular crew of award-winning cinematographers, editors and production designers.
I recently had a chance to speak with Michael Goldman about his book. I had the pleasure of working with Michael over some two decades while we were both on staff at Millimeter magazine.
NYCPPNEWS: What did you learn from watching Clint work?
Michael Goldman: The collaborative nature on his film set is much greater than I expected. Even if you’re not a filmmaking aficionado, you can learn a lot about leadership on the set by watching those guys. Clint interacts with his crew in subtle ways. He puts a lot of trust into each of them, letting them do their work but within the bounds he’s established. The grip, the gaffer or a script supervisor-anyone who has something to say-can suggest something directly to Clint during the shoot.
NYCPPNEWS: Does he hang around the cinematographer all the time or wander around during a shoot?
MG: Clint doesn’t look much through the camera lens. Instead, he carries around a little wireless digital monitor to see playback. Clint is looking for performance and framing on the monitor. Only the camera operator can comment on focus and only the cinematographer and gaffer can step up and say there’s something wrong with the light.
So again it’s that collaborative thing where he shows faith in them to comment about their particular areas.
NYCPPNEWS: What’s Eastwood like with his actors?
MG: I was fortunate to speak with many of the great actors he’s worked with over the years, including Meryl Streep, Sean Penn, Forest Whitaker and Gene Hackman, Ken Watanabe and Hilary Swank. I got to speak with and watch Leonardo DiCaprio and Matt Damon act in J. Edgar. They all had an intensely devoted appreciation for Clint, for how he deals with them as actors. Clint of course was an actor himself, so he understands them better than most directors would.
NYCPPNEWS: Eastwood’s films don’t have big budgets, yet he gets those marquee names.
MG: Clint works with a lot of top actors, but they come on to one of his projects working much below their going rates just in order to work with him. He’ll tell the actors to innovate as much as they want, to work out a scene the way they want.
On Mystic River Sean Penn organized the actors to meet at their hotel and do readings. They did these every day without Clint in attendance. That allowed them to be ready to roll as they knew they had to be with Clint, who likes to move fast.
But that doesn’t mean actors have carte blanche on the production. I think Sean Penn explained it best. Maybe that’s because he directs as well as acts. When I talked with Penn, he pointed out just what a director faced on the set. For example, what if you, as one actor, think that your best take is not till take 25. But what if another actor thinks her best take is always take nine? And what if the best light is always in take four? And the best audio is always in take 12? Are you as an actor only devoted to your part and demand that you get more takes? Or are you just too precious about your take?
NYCPPNEWS: What do we learn about Eastwood that’s new?
MG: While the stereotype is that he works quickly, the reality is that he works thoroughly.
It’s a stereotype that Clint rarely does more than one take. It is true that he shoots only a few takes most of the time, but my book clears up that perception, showing there’s a real difference between takes and coverage. He does extensive coverage, although he usually works with just one camera. The only time he works with more than one camera is if it’s a stunt or special effects are involved.
Clint uses about every lens in the package, working from the master shot all the way in. He does a master shot and then comes in all the way from the left side. He might then shoot a master shot and move in all the way from the right side. It’s not like he just shoots one quick take with one lens and that’s the end of it. He’s giving his editors a ton of material for them to choose from.
NYCPPNEWS: With his emphasis on character-driven stories and little in the way of special effects, is Eastwood a throwback to an earlier Hollywood?
MG: Yes, he is a throwback, with the caveat that more people should do it that way. It’s not so much that it’s an old Hollywood way but that it is an independent’s way of doing a film. Even though Clint is under the umbrella of a studio system with his long-standing relationship with Warner Bros, he does have that sense of “Let’s make thoughtful dramas, for which we don’t need a lot of effects so we won’t need a giant budget.”
He’s the only guy at his level that wants to make thoughtful ensemble dramas with modest budgets while using a small core team that sticks with him from film to film. A lot of those I spoke to for the book said that’s how you should make movies. Sean Penn said that to me, Forest Whitaker too. But in modern Hollywood Clint is one of the few guys left who does it that way without studio interference.
But he’s not a fuddy-duddy opposed to trying something new. While some think he doesn’t use effects, Clint brought visual effects back into his world starting with Flags of Our Fathers and onwards from there.
But these are all invisible effects. For example in Invictus, he had to fill a rugby stadium in South Africa. That required some of the most complicated rotoscoping work ever done, which was headed up by Michael Owens, his visual effects supervisor.
NYCPPNEWS: Is there a film Eastwood hasn’t made that he said he wants to do?
MG: He has been working on remaking A Star is Born. Beyonce was cast as lead but dropped out because of her schedule, and the male lead has not been cast, so that one is up in the air. But just thinking about doing it is ballsy choice as it’s a musically oriented film from a guy who hasn’t done that sort of thing. And it’s a remake. In any case, he’ll have a new movie in production soon, I’m fairly certain of that.
His goal is not to do same stuff over and over, but the films must be character driven dramas. He’s 82 and in good health so no doubt he’ll keep going.
Clint thought it odd that legendary directors like Frank Capra and Billy Wilder stopped directing well before they died. Clint knew both of them. John Huston made movies until the end when he was in wheelchair with an oxygen tank. Clint hopes he doesn’t end up like that, but likes idea of keeping on keeping on.
NYCPPNEWS: What films will he be remembered for?
MG: A strong argument will be made for Unforgiven as the best Western ever made. It’s not about good guys and bad guys but about the pain and the cost of violence. I think thematically it is linked to Letters from Iwo Jima, which is the same in that it shows the horror of war. The third one is Gran Torino as that was such a melancholy drama of the evolution of an old bigot. It struck me as Dirty Harry in retirement.
Clint Eastwood: Master Filmmaker at Work (Abrams, Hardcover, October 2012, U.S. $40), by Michael Goldman, with a foreword by Steven Spielberg and a preface by Morgan Freeman.