At Euro Disney, outside Paris, high-profile architects have built five hotels celebrating various aspects of the American landscape: the Hotel New York, the Sequoia Lodge, the Cheyenne, the Newport Bay Club and the Hotel Santa Fe. This last inn, a Southwestern tongue-in-chic extravaganza, is punctuated with rusting vintage cars, a saguaro cactus in a glass cage and a parking lot that evokes a drive-in movie theatre— the guests have to walk under the screen to enter the hotel’s front door. The architect, Antoine Predock, wanted to leave this giant movie screen provocatively blank. (The Europeans would simply raid their memories for images to project.) But Disney said No. A blank screen would not do. Well then: what do you paint permanently onto a movie screen outside Paris to conjure the myth of the West?
Clint Eastwood, of course. “There is no one more American than he” is what Norman Mailer said, hitting the nail squarely on the hard head, steely gaze, and tight jaw. The Eastwood Hero is nothing if not prototypically Western and tragically American to the core: always a bullet in his gun, pain in his heart, a cold gray rain of rage in his eyes. For years the biggest international movie star on the planet — turf that he ceded in the last half of the ’80s to actors with bigger biceps (in Hollywood) and bigger guns (in Washington) — Eastwood has metamorphosed not into the dusty legend we might expect but rather into an ambitious filmmaker. In 1988, Bird, his downwardly spiraling riff on Charlie Parker, was avant-garde in its methods and its madness, and, while saluted by the critics, left most of the audience behind. Two years later, Eastwood stretched again with White Hunter, Black Heart, a dryly comic take on John Huston’s whimsical, obsessive attempt to shoot an elephant before he’d shoot The African Queen. Without question, over these last twenty years — despite the mediocrities that pockmark his output — Eastwood has ridden a long way from his first film as a director, Play Misty for Me.
Born on May 31, 1930, in San Francisco, Eastwood was a lonely, shy kid, attending eight different grammar schools as his family moved from town to town, with trailer in tow, in search of Depression-era jobs. In high school he concentrated on swimming, basketball, and jazz, playing piano for free meals in an Oakland club. After leaving home, he “beat around” — he was a firefighter and lumberjack in Oregon, a steelworker in Seattle — until the Army got him in 1951. (His heroic Army exploits: teaching swimming at Fort Ord.) After his 1953 discharge he wandered to Hollywood, where Universal signed him as a two-bit contract player, using him in the “Francis the Talking Mule” movies and other such stellar attractions. Dropped eighteen months later, he dug swimming pools and pumped gas until a chance meeting with a producer for Rawhide — the 1959-to-1966 TV series about Great Plains cattle drives — led to a screen test for the part of Rowdy Yates.
That role opened the door for The Man With No Name to sidle in, the gunslinging loner of Sergio Leone’s A Fistful of Dollars, and two other spaghetti westerns in its wake, For a Few Dollars More and The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly. The pictures made Eastwood a star, though hardly a critical favorite. “Eastwood doesn’t act in motion pictures,” Vincent Canby famously wrote in The New York Times in 1968, “he is framed in them.” By the late ’80s, given the long shelf-life of his iconic portrayals and his own increasingly diverse work as a director, many of his earlier critics were whistling a different tune: Eastwood was now provocative, deep, a feminist not a fascist; at the very least, interesting.
With Unforgiven, his sixteenth feature as director and thirty-sixth as star, the reappraisal continues. High Plains Drifter, The Outlaw Josey Wales, and Pale Rider are Eastwood’s grand triptych of Westerns: Unforgiven is the coda that changes how we view them. A polished piece of rawhide revisionism, it’s anti-romantic, anti-heroic, and anti-violent. It’s Eastwood’s first dance with myth where the music’s not cartoonish: it’s mature, and at sixty-two, so is he. If Unforgiven is not his last western, it should be; if it’s not recognized right away as a classic, it will be.
I met with Eastwood just before the release of that movie, in the late summer of 1992. We talked in a guest room at Mission Ranch, an inn he owns near his home in Carmel, California. As we spoke, sheep grazed in a meadow just out the window, bahhing and frisking about, providing a surreal commentary on the conversation. I half expected Clint to pull out a rifle and blow one of the noisy critters away, but that was the old, filmic Clint of my fantasy, and not the new-and-improved real guy lazing on the couch in front of me. Cordial but distant at first, Eastwood was quite friendly by the end of the night, though he keeps self-analysis a stranger in town.
What’s the most vital thing to you about the work you do?
At this point in my career, it’s the constant reaching, the constant stretching for new ideas, or, even in the current project, variations on a theme. It’s very hard to find things that haven’t been done. But I’m always looking for that excitement. Sometimes it doesn’t happen.
Is it an emotional satisfaction or an intellectual one?
I think it’s more emotional. Intellectual? I suppose that’s when you’re being analytical. I respond to material on an emotional level, and I like to respond to movies—as a member of the audience—at an emotional level. I don’t always: sometimes I find myself getting carried away with how it’s done, and that’s a sign usually that it wasn’t done so well. It’s an emotional thing: would I like to see this? would I like to be in it? would I like to direct it? I ask myself a lot of questions, but I usually don’t spend a long time answering them. I make a decision rather fast.
Yeah. More intuition. Sometimes I jokingly use the word “whimsical.” But it’s really intuition. I read something that sparks me. Unforgiven I read as a sample of the author’s [David Webb Peoples] work, figuring it wasn’t available. Coppola had it at the time, and he couldn’t get it going. So I called up to ask about the writer’s availability for something else, and he told me it was available. That was a surprise. It seemed to me very timely.
How long have you owned it?
Since 1983. By and large when I look back over the years, I’ve kind of spun off of instinct—and luck. Outlaw Josey Wales came to me as a blind submission. I read it and liked it.
Have you ever done anything counter-intuitive? Something that didn’t feel right, but you felt you “should” do it, or it might be an interesting challenge.
Against my instinct? I’ve never done that. [Pause.] I may have done it, but I wasn’t conscious of it at the time. Maybe something to keep the company going, keep my co-dependents going. [Laughs.] But I didn’t consciously do it.
Is the kicking back at the end of a film—looking back at the accomplishment—is that the most satisfying thing to you, or is the process of doing it the satisfaction?
Some people are let down by finishing a project. I’m always elated to finish.
Some directors are very attached to process, a director like Altman in the extreme—where he feels almost all the value is in the doing of it.
Hitchcock always felt it was all in the planning of it. The execution was boring to him.
Because he had the whole film in his head.
Right, he was a sketch artist, so he’d sketch it out. Once he planned it, he could have an assistant director go out and shoot it, he didn’t care. Everybody has their pet part of it. I enjoy shooting a film, but I really enjoy when it’s all shot, and everyone has been excused, and I go to edit it, with maybe one or two people. Then, there is so much less pressure. There are not the thousands of questions. Shooting is an absolutely nerve-wracking process.
Editing is your time of maximum control and yet maximum flexibility.
Absolutely. That’s where you can make or break it. That’s when you breathe all the last life into it. And you have to have all the pieces—the pieces have to be there.
Do you discover the film in the editing?
No. I discover it in the shooting. I know what’s there when I go to the editing. I may be surprised—it may play better or worse than I expected—but I pretty well remember everything! I’ve done.
Can you recall significantly changing a film in tone or theme in the editing?
No. I’ve changed the tempo of things; especially in the early days, I jockeyed the balance a lot more. I’m more positive now about what I have. I’m careful now to put it together the way I originally conceived it, the first time around.
It’s anathema to you to go out and shoot a film and not be sure what you want to get, the way some directors do.
I . . . I just can’t conceive it.
Supposedly, one of the reasons you turned down Coppola on Apocalypse Now when you were offered the role of Willard, is because there was no ending to the film and you didn’t see much point in going all the way over there without knowing which way it was going to turn. The ending to Heart of Darkness is obviously quite important.
Well, I read Heart of Darkness in school, and I didn’t understand the ending of the film, the way it was. And also, there were several other problems. Francis had been talking to Steve McQueen and Steve had then recommended me. Steve wanted me to play Willard, so he could play Kurtz. I said, “Steve, I thought they wanted you for Willard?” And he said, “Well, I want to play Kurtz.” I said, “Why?” He said, “Because I can do it in two weeks!” I said that’s great but what makes you think I want to work for all this time? Then, later, Francis called—and I had just bought a house and my children were very young—and he said they were going to go to the Philippines for sixteen weeks. It was just too long. If it were eight weeks, I would have done it. And I said I didn’t understand the ending. He said they were going to work on that. But anyway, two years later they were still shooting and Martin Sheen had had a heart attack, and I thought, God damn! That could be all of us! I saw the documentary [Hearts of Darkness] and I must say it was terribly amusing. Francis is a nice guy and everything—but two years—I would have gone insane! Absolutely insane!
I bring this up because you’re a guy who knows what he’s fishing for, known for coming in under budget with very rigorous shooting schedules and wanting first takes.
Well, I don’t get first takes all the time, but I want it, yes. Once in a while you get great “start-up” actors, I call them—Gene Hackman and Morgan Freeman are great examples. They’re the kind of guys where you start rehearsal and it looks so good, you say, “Wait a second, stop, roll this thing,” because there’s no reason to be wasting it. Guys like Hackman are ready to pull the trigger right away.
You distrust rehearsal anyway, don’t you?
Well, I don’t like people to get stale. I like people to do things naturally. I like things that come accidentally. I guess it comes from years of seeing something nice happen in a scene and then not ever being able to see it come up again. Usually a good performer can drag it up again, but it may never have that spontaneity. So I do make an attempt to always get that first take—there may be lighting problems, technical problems—but you’ve got to be like stepping up to bat. You’re not stepping up to bunt. You’re stepping up to hit the damn thing.
Once you said, “The more time you have to think, the more time you have to screw up.”
Exactly! The more time you have to kill things with improvements. [Laughs.] You see movies where you get the feeling that the movie is wrung out. That it’s been all squeezed-out before they ever printed the take. I like the inspiration of the first take. We used to do it, over on the Sergio Leone pictures, he’d print several things because he was always afraid the lab was going to screw up, he’d do protection takes. Nowadays, technically, it’s good. When a guys says, “That’s good, let’s do one more.” I think, Wait a second, that’s contradictory. If it’s good, do one more—why? Because it took forty-five minutes to set the lighting for this room? You mean you’re going to print that one take and walk away?
We’ve made an investment in time here!
[Laughing] I mean, forty-five minutes, at least shoot it twice. But some actors are best on their third or fourth take; and there are others you’ve heard about, that love to do it twenty or thirty or forty times. But if you have really great players, great things happen by accident.
What’s jazz taught you about film?
That improvisation can work well as long as you have the structure, as long as the tune is playing. As long as you know what the tune is, everyone can reach out. Actors who are acting generously are very much like jazz musicians: they are within the scene, but they are doing things that aren’t exactly written. The unspoken word, the notes they are throwing in.
Unlike jazz, which needs to be in the moment, you may be in the moment with film but it’s deferred like crazy—the process is almost diametrically opposed.
It’s like saying, “Do this tune, we’re going to do a few bars.” And then to cut after those bars and say, “Day after tomorrow we’re going to pick up from there and move into the bridge.” In movies, how do you get all the high points so that it comes out as a nice tune?
Do you ever feel ambivalent about your work, once it’s over and done with, and out there as a part of our culture?
Yeah. Sometimes. I don’t think about it that much. I don’t know whether it’s callousness, or whether it’s a . . . [Pause.] I just don’t think about it. I don’t think back on my work very much. I don’t dwell on it.
What about when the work talks back to you—through the culture? Witness the endless celebration of the “Make my day” line or “A man’s gotta know his limitations.” Etcetera, etcetera. Now it’s not yours anymore, it’s the culture’s, and I wonder if these ever come back to you in a way you’re not comfortable with.
I must say, I knew when I did Sudden Impact that “Go ahead, make my day” would be the key line to the whole picture, just when I read it on the page. Now, I didn’t know it would go like it did. People flew banners with it here above the golf course. After a while, I must say, I got sick of it. I guess it’s a compliment, that you’ve said something that’s lasted that long—but whether Colorado having a “Make my day” law is any satisfaction to me, I don’t know.
Do you care if you feel your work is misinterpreted?
You know it’s going to be misinterpreted in some way. Sometimes you try things that people don’t get, other times they get it just fine. You take a chance. I enjoy chances. I guess I’m an excitement addict, or just crazy enough that I feel if the audience doesn’t like it that’s too bad.
Not just the question of them not liking it. One of the curious things about your work is that perhaps more than a lot of filmmakers, and this may have to do with Clint Eastwood as star as opposed to as a director, is that people impose agendas on you. In the ’70s you were a fascist, and in the ’80s you became a feminis—
And just what anybody wants to put in there! I was probably more a feminist in the ’70s, certainly more than I was a fascist, that’s for sure. I remember when Dirty Harry was offered to me. It was offered by an executive who said that Paul Newman had told him about it, and had said it’s a great script, but he couldn’t do it, because of political implications. It disagreed with certain feelings of his. Well, I read it, and I said, “I’ll do it.” What works for me is I don’t give a damn if I disagree with the character or not—it’s a lot more challenging for me to play the guy if I don’t agree with him. It’s much more challenging to put myself in a place to act out and be someone who I really have nothing in common with. That, to me, is acting. And the fact that people think you really are that guy is really not an uncomplimentary thing. Because, if you’ve affected them that much that they think you are this guy, and that you have this guy’s philosophy, then you have done your job.
Well indeed, you, more than most actors, are assumed to inhabit the role to the point where you and the role are considered a kind of “unit of meaning.”
That’s the way it should be. That, to me, is the fun of acting. That’s the way I’ve always thought. Both Don Siegel and I had a great time
doing Dirty Harry in 1971—we were both pro-victim’s rights, but we weren’t anti-accused rights. We just thought, Here’s a story that talks about the victim’s rights. Okay, we’ll do this story. Now, if there was a great story about the rights of the accused—who had been railroaded into prison—I would have been just as excited to play that.
Are you telling me, Clint, that all this time you have actually been playing against type? In the westerns? In the cop pictures?
[Laughs.] It’s disappointing. I’ve run into young people along the way and they are disappointed if I don’t pull out a gun. I used to have guys, after Dirty Harry, pull up next to me and say, “Hey, call me an asshole! Call me an asshole like you did in the picture!” People ask me to say, “Do you feel lucky?” I can’t. I played it at the time. But now I couldn’t say it without laughing.
Do all the political interpretations of your work make you uneasy? I get a sense that they do.
Not really. [Pause.] You play a piece of music or paint a painting and put it up on the wall, it’s up to people to interpret it. It may not be the right way or your way of interpreting it, but at least they are participating. But if a person thinks that I am the person that I played, then that’s terrific. That’s every actor’s dream! That’s every actor’s accomplishment: you are the person, you’re it, you’re not even acting. That’s what actors sit around at actor’s workshops for year after year hoping to achieve.
Let me quote to you something Sergio Leone said about your relationship to acting, and here he’s comparing you to De Niro, with whom he had recently worked. I know you are dedicating Unforgiven to Leone, and to Siegel. Leone said, “They don’t even belong to the same profession. Robert De Niro throws himself into this or that role, putting on a personality the way someone else might put on his coat, naturally and with elegance, while Clint Eastwood throws himself into a suit of armor and lowers the visor with a rusty clang. [Eastwood laughs.] It’s exactly that lowered visor which composes his character. And that creaky clang it makes as it snaps down, dry as a Martini in Harry’s Bar in Venice, is also his character. Look at him carefully. Eastwood moves like a sleepwalker between explosions and hails of bullets, and he is always the same—a block of marble. Bobby, first of all, is an actor. Clint, first of all, is a star. Bobby suffers, Clint yawns.”
[Laughs.] I think Sergio was being profound at the time. There may have been a tinge of envy at the time: I went off and directed pictures and ended up directing a lot more films than he did in his career. But I can give you quotes from Sergio during Fistful of Dollars that said I
moved like a cat, and he was very impressed with the way I moved. But at this point he was working with another actor and another style.
What happened with Sergio is that we got along great on those three films, and he offered me Once Upon a Time in the West. At the time, when we did The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly, he was talking about Once Upon a Time in America, and he wanted me to play an Irish gangster—and I went off and came back here and did other films. And we kind of lost touch with each other. And he changed his interpretation of me, and he’s probably changed it many times. But a few years ago, I went back to Rome, and I hadn’t seen him in many years—and I had done Bird and the Italian critics were very favorable. And he called me up, and asked me if I wanted to get together and have lunch. I was surprised. And we went out and had a great time, a time like we’d never had before—and we got together another time for dinner. He didn’t want anything from me, he just wanted to hang out. It was almost like he was taking a little trip of nostalgia, because he died right after that. He seemed genuinely happy about Bird and joked about its length [141 minutes], because I was always accusing him of leaving things too long. And we kidded each other and left on the best terms we had ever been on. And then he died.
And so the two guys who probably had the most influence on me, in terms of getting started in motion pictures, were now both dead. Because Don Siegel had also died, he’d had several bouts with cancer. So I dedicated Unforgiven to them.
What was Siegel talking about when he mentioned your violent temper? He said, “You can’t push Clint. It’s very dangerous. For a guy who’s as cool as he is, there are times when he has a violent temper.”
Well, that was the old days.
You’re mellowed now.
I hope so. He knew I could kick off. But we were young guys, hanging out. I could channel my temper into being in touch with my anger for the role. Channel it into another energy, for the most part.
You were able to subvert all that free-flowing hostility into your roles?
Maybe. Maybe. It’s like Lena Horne—you’ve got to have that sort of love/hate thing with your audience. If you love ’em, they won’t respond to you. [Pause.] I never hated them, but I made them reach forward to me. I feel like if they lean forward and they see that they’re interested in what I’m doing, fine, but if you get placating to the audience it becomes condescending to them, and then they’ll feel that. They’re very sensitive. Very sensitive. Maybe they won’t seem sensitive at times and they may ignore you when you do your best work, but by in large they are cut in to the whole thing. And that’s how they pick the people who they want to embrace, and put the people into certain roles that they like best.
You’re thought of as being quite close to your audience, and never being condescending to the characters you play, and yet I’m wondering if there have ever been times—perhaps at the height of your commercial success—if it didn’t bug you that the audience was just wanting the same thing, over and over, or if it didn’t just start to feel a little moronic to you—all the people who wanted you to keep saying “Make my day. “ I mean, even the most sensitive, saintly, patient artist would be driven to—
Driven mad, yeah. A lot of the films I’ve done, let’s say a film like Bronco Billy—which is a film that did modest business, not great, not bad, but wasn’t in the same league as the films that immediately preceded it, like Every Which Way But Loose—and yet you think it’s one of your better things, you’re reaching out and trying something different, and the audience doesn’t go for it. It makes you wonder what the hell is the matter? Or I’ll do something like The Beguiled in the late ’60s and they don’t go for it at all. You’ve got to be philosophical about that. You can’t think: well, I’ll just do genre flicks now. If they want killing, I’ll just kill. If they want mayhem, I’ll out-mayhem myself. If you succumb to that, you become a self-parody. And I’m not interested in that. One good thing about having a certain amount of commercial success is you can afford to take a time out. If you don’t, it’s kind of crazy—because you have only one career and one lifetime. If you look back on it and you’ve made sixty Westerns and forty cop pictures, it’s sort of empty. Now a lot of guys may be happy with that: hey, it’s great, I can go out and golf and hit the ball on the weekends and I really don’t give a crap about anything. But I like films and I like making them and I like seeing them and I grew up watching a lot of different kinds of films and different kinds of actors, and I think it’s spread over into my life.
Do you consider yourself an auteur?
I hate the word. Always hated the word. It’s loaded. It makes it seem like it’s one guy, rather than the whole ensemble. I’ve always considered myself a platoon leader. An auteur? Anyone who sits and thinks of himself as an auteur has got to be kind of narrow.
How about the other label we touched on: feminist? It was just after Tightrope that you got designated by the Los Angeles Times as the leading feminist filmmaker in the country.
Yeah, when I did Play Misty For Me in 1970, after I had done The Beguiled, I remember feminists standing up at the San Francisco Film Festival and saying, Why are you so oppressive to women? I said I didn’t feel like I was oppressive. In the two last films I’d done, the best roles in the pictures had been played by women. What’s oppressive about that? But that argument didn’t go down well.
Let’s cut to the chase, Clint. Do you consider yourself a feminist?
No, I never thought of myself one way or the other. I grew up in films with Claudia Colbert, Betty Davis, and Joan Crawford were playing fantastic roles, and I enjoyed those movies as much as the ones with Cagney and Gary Cooper. So I never consider myself as pro- or con-.
And what about how you consider yourself now?
Well, I consider myself a pro-feminist, but at the same time, I’ve always been, in a lot of my thoughts. I could sit and intellectualize about it for days, and make it sound like I’m the most noble guy on the planet, but that just ain’t the case. I love women. Maybe that’s being a pro-feminist. I loved them, starting with my mother. That’s how far back it goes.
I must say that in the ’50s, when I was around playing bit parts, it was a pretty dumb time for women in films. It was after the age of elegant women; it was the time of the ponytailed gal in jeans running around acting kind of dopey. I think the era of real female participation in films got lost there for quite a while. I think it has changed now.
You mentioned Misty. When I watched it again the other day, I was shocked that what I was watching was Fatal Attraction—it’s the same picture.
Everybody asked me about it at the time. More power to them. Plagiarism is the surest form of flattery. It’s Universal’s problem. I kiddingly told Sherry Lansing, “You owe me a beer, you stole our story.” And she said, “Yeah, I always loved that picture, I always loved that picture.” So more power to them. I don’t know how many stories there are out in the world. They took it and they put a spin on it, a spin that we even considered. When I was preparing for it, somebody suggested: what happens if the guy is married? I felt that was a manipulation I didn’t want to get into.
Let’s talk about the Eastwood hero. I’m sure there are a hundred different things to say about this character, and as many exceptions as rules, but one thing that does strike me is that if there is an Eastwood hero, it is a guy who is deeply damaged, who has been profoundly hurt, and is acting out of that hurt.
I think so. I think the heroes all have something that is nagging at them. Dating back to A Fistful of Dollars and those stylized things. You never knew what his past was, but at the end of the screenplay you did know what his past was, there was a big expository scene that was boring, and Sergio and I had some contention about this. It’s better for people to have the mystery, rather than to unload, to dump all this stuff on them. But most of the heroes I’ve played have definitely had something in their background—something painful. Up through the present film, where he’s really got damage. Through some pain, through some trial and error, through some suffering in life, you come to what you are. And guys of great strength who get things done—whether escapist heroes or not—would have to have something in their lives to bring them to that point. They couldn’t be guys who just went on and had a normal life—had a normal job, and this fell into place—it just can’t happen that way.
Would you say that you’re one of those sorts of guys?
Are you looking for a parallel in my life? [Long pause.] I don’t know. I don’t get into a self-analytical position very often, and I try to avoid it. I could say that I have the ability to take the things in my life—the hurts and disappointments, whatever—and channel them into moving forward, channel them into positive force.
Did you feel in the roles you created that you were tapping into something that was not a stretch for you? Obviously, you didn’t grow up as a gunslinger, but you were a lumberjack and a gas pumper and . . .
I beat around. I had my beat-around years, and my years of being lost. Lost in that I didn’t know what I wanted to do, or what I thought I could do. But I’ve never sat and analyzed how they fit in. I think it’s strictly an imaginative thing. Just as you can imagine something positive in someone’s life—a force going forward—so can you imagine a background that’s slightly damaged. It’s just the imagination of the actor. You have to give yourself that obstacle to make the character interesting, to give it some depth. And you can take it to extremes—like in Tightrope, where the guy really has doubts about himself, or it can be somebody who has really had some pain in his life, like the outlaw Josey Wales or William Munny in Unforgiven.
The wounds those characters carry are profound.
It just takes a little imagination to do that. They are all suffering through a lot more than I’ve suffered in real life.
I’m not going to ask you for more self-analysis than we were traipsing by there, but I’d like to ask you, parenthetically, as to why you don’t want to get into a self-analytical mode?
I just . . . I just . . . [Pause.] It’s not out of fear or anything, it’s kind of like if I know too much about it I’ll wreck the ability to do it. Really, you’re taking an art that is not an intellectual art form, it’s more an emotional art form—so you approach it on more of a gut level, and you’re bound to have better luck with it. At least I’ve found that avenue. The analytical stage only becomes how we’re going to do it, how we’re going to present it. I don’t want to take the spontaneity out of developing the character. It’s nice to find things out as you go. I’ve been lucky that way a lot of times. I start out with a character, with certain goals and certain things in mind, and then I find out things as I go. Part way through a film I’ll come to a complete understanding.
Is the process of discovering character fundamentally different in films you’re directing as opposed to films you’re not directing?
Not really. There’s a different switch for the directing part than the acting part. The directing part you might approach emotionally also, but you have a technical aspect you have to deal with.
Another aspect of the Eastwood hero—which we can send out here riding along the horizon to riddle with verbal bullets—is his sort of fundamental and overriding decency to others, but, when riled, a sort of termination with extreme prejudice.
Yeah. Yeah, that’s true.
They are not characters that bend. They snap.
Yeah, they don’t just bend. They are loyal characters, but when they’ve been wronged, yeah, they snap. I agree with that. That’s something I’m attracted to. I guess I find that appealing.
Is the fascination for you in what makes him snap?
That’s always the drama, the apex of the drama. What makes him snap is always interesting. What was so fun in playing this current character [William Munny] is that he’s sort of forced by lack of prosperity into doing the only thing he really knows how to do well. And he has bad feelings about that, and he keeps bringing up his own demons—people he has killed. There’s a morality. It’s not like doing penance for the mayhem I’ve created on the screen over the prior years, but in a way, it’s the first time I’ve read it in a way, have been able to interpret it in a way, that death is not a fun thing. Somebody, somebody is in deep pain afterward—the loss of a friend, or even the person who perpetrates it.
There are consequences to the violence.
There are consequences, all the way down the line. Whether an audience will like that, I don’t know.
The scene where The Kid is crying about the killing he’s committed and is drinking the whiskey, that’s a beautiful scene. There’s an emotional honesty to it. Now, one of the things you’ve been slammed with over the years is that your pictures don’t show the consequences of violence. They show the bottled rage, the explosion, the physicalization of the rage—which is very cinematic, which makes sense visually and dramatically—but they are weak on the consequences of violence, emotionally and otherwise. This picture really changes that formula.
Yeah, it does. And I think that was the big appeal to me when I bought it in ’83. I sort of nurtured it. I put it away, like a little tiny gem that you put on the shelf and go look at it and polish it, and think, I’ll do this. Age is good for the character, so I’ll mature a little bit. Three years ago I decided, I’ve got to do this. And today, you see things put in motion, a lot of the stuff that has gone on this last year and a half, where, a decision is made that is maybe not the right decision—where force was used to the extreme. Like the Rodney King incident. Where force was used, beyond reason, maybe. It’s like Hackman in Unforgiven.
He’s like a Daryl Gates character.
Yeah. How to handle this situation? [A prostitute is cut up by her client.] Well, women weren’t well thought of in those days, especially prostitutes—so give their employer a few ponies and call it a day. And I can get back to my house and get to sleep. And he triggers off, by lack of action, a whole set of circumstances where a lot of innocent people fall by the wayside. It’s hard to find screenwriters who would write that.
Why do the repercussions of violence matter to you now when they didn’t matter to you so much before?
I think just generally changing in life. We’re all constantly changing, for better or for worse. Hopefully, we’re gaining more knowledge as the years go by. And just all of a sudden, it comes there. I’m not smart enough to have written it down, so all of a sudden I see it, and say, “That’s it, that’s the element I’ve wanted that’s been missing for me.” This is an element that I haven’t been able to deal with properly. Maybe skirt here and there, deal with in pictures, but not really explore. It’s something that’s attractive. There were a lot of ways to change this script, and soften it, and conclude it differently, or conclude it happier, to give a resolution to the cut whore . . .
Where she would ride off with Munny, and you’d restore domesticity.
And you tie them all together. And all of these things pass over to your mind as you’re thinking about it, but you think: that’s wrong, we can’t compromise this. That’s not what this is about. It’s not about tying up domesticity.
The world of Unforgiven is a complicated world. It’s an adult world: it’s a world where violence doesn’t solve any problems, it just changes the problems. That’s a sea change for you.
Exactly. And that was very appealing, very appealing to play and to explore. We’re talking about people purging themselves and changing attitudes. I remember when I first spoke to Gene Hackman about it, and I asked him if he’d be interested in playing his role, he said, “Well, I don’t want to do anything with any violence in it.” I said, “Really?” He’s had his share of violent films, too. I said, “Gene, I know exactly where you’re coming from. I’ve been involved in a lot of violent films and action dramas and what have you, but I would love to have you look at this, because I think there’s a spin on this that’s different. I don’t think this is a tribute to violence, and if we do it right, it’s not exploiting it, in fact, it’s kind of stating that it doesn’t solve anything.” So when he read it, he could see where it was headed, and he decided to do it.
Did you relish demythologizing your persona?
Yeah. It was nice. It was fun. And you’ve got to be uncompromising there too; there’s nothing glamorous about it. He’s a guy who’s pretty much on the bottom.
He’s nose-deep in pig shit.
Literally. He’s deep in it.
What about demythologizing the West, the “Wild West”?
I didn’t mind that either. Because it’s been demythologized along the way. It’s great to do it, because I didn’t have to work at it, it was there to do as part of the nature of the story. It was in the structure and the honesty of it. It was odd to start out with a guy who’s quite inept. He’s having trouble getting on his horse. [Laughs.] He’s rusty. It’s different than the characters I’ve played, where of course he couldn’t miss with the gun.
This is more interesting, and I think the West is more interesting, not less interesting, as a place where people don’t just get plugged up on the horizon, riding twenty miles an hour, but get shot three times in the chest while taking a shit. That’s one of the oddest murder scenes in memory.
It is odd.
And there’s no build-up to it; you’ve made it anti-romantic. There’s no joy in the killing in this movie.
Yeah. The Kid thinks he’s going to have joy, when he kills the guy in the shithouse. He thinks this is his moment. He’s going to become the killer he’s always dreamed of. But all of a sudden afterwards, he thinks, What have I done?
I don’t think there’s ever been a Western where the fear of death is discussed so openly. Munny sees the maggots at the door, so to speak. Tell me about your attraction to this idea.
This first philosophizing about death is when he’s reminiscing about killing this guy—the guy whose teeth he shot through the back of his head, he’s kind of morose about it. He’s haunted by the memory of this guy who didn’t do anything to deserve to get shot. And then when he has fever, he starts hallucinating and he sees a guy with maggots crawling out of his head. He’s constantly pursued by the visual image of what he’s done in the past. Or images he’s seen. Like for a guy who’s been to war. Like for a guy who’s seen the Lt. Calley [My Lai] massacre in Vietnam. There are certain things you’d like to put out of your mind.
Like for the guy who’s made a lot of violent movies and carries around a lot of visual images from those movies in his head?
[Smiling] Well, I don’t know if that’s analogous . . . it could be. It could be that the guy has all those violent images portrayed on the screen, and here comes along a piece of material that allows him to do something that he’s never been able to do in the past—which is to show where it all leads to. To philosophize about what is the value of it all.
Did the Rodney King tape get to you?
[Pause.] First time you see it, you’re overwhelmed. You’re overwhelmed—boy, seems like a little much to me! ’Course you don’t hear anything so you don’t hear the dialogue, or what went on, the prelude to it all. But anyway, under any circumstances, that seemed excessive. But then I get mad at the media after a while for running it—’cause they’re exploiting it. The exact same people that are critical of the exploitation of the violence are exploiting it every time they can, running it back and forth. I got tired of it. It’s like now on TV news with accidents—they dolly in on the parts of a person. The media has gotten so calloused about it. It’s all one-upmanship for ratings, so that’s kind of annoying. But without knowing it, there are certainly parallels to what goes on in Unforgiven. What’s so astute about the writing is that it is something that’s gone on forever.
Beyond the preacher riding in, in Pale Rider, and saying, “If there were more love in the world, there’d be less dying,” do you have any thoughts on what perpetuates that cycle of violence?
No. It just seems like part of history, from the Old Testament on, and sometimes it’s done in the name of God and sometimes in the name of whatever. There’s no shortage of rationalizations. Everything fits if you want it to. The whole Cold War was based on each side thinking it was right. And that’s what’s fun about a screenplay like this: Gene Hackman’s character is right, that’s the only way he knows how to do it—he knows all those tough towns, he knows if he sets up a good bunch of fear and kicks ass right away, that everyone is going to go away. He’s a nice guy, he’s building a house, he wants to see the sun set from his porch, he wants a peaceful life, he’s not a bad guy.
And he doesn’t “deserve” to die like he does. Your response is, “Deserve’s got nothing to do with it.” That’s the Eastwood hero confronting the absurd, the irrational world in an emotionally unsatisfying but truthful way.
That’s it. That’s an “Eastwood hero” line in a very honest situation. It doesn’t have dick to do with it.
The other “Eastwood hero” line in the movie is, when he’s told the dead men had it coming, Munny says, “We’ve all got it coming.” The interesting thing is that, while I think those lines will resonate for people, they are not like cartoon lines like “Make my day.” If they punctuate the scene, they don’t do it as exclamation marks, but more as question marks.
Yeah, they don’t conclude the sequence. I never had the answers, but at sixty-two you realize you have fewer answers than you thought you had at thirty-two. At thirty-two you had them all.
In this film the punishment never fits the crime. It’s never about justice, but about vengeance-meets-commerce, which I guess is what a bounty really is.
Justice never becomes part of it.
Justice is never even on the horizon.
Yeah, I don’t think so. Justice doesn’t have anything to do with it. It’s about conscience more than justice. [Long pause.]
Leaving this movie, I couldn’t imagine you ever again playing a comic-strip action character.
Yeah, I probably can’t. I might inadvertently get involved in something like that, but I think the days of me doing what I have done in the past are gone. This film is my work of the present. And hopefully the work of tomorrow is an expansion of that. To be saying smart lines and wiping out tons of people—I’ll leave that for others to do, for the newer guys on the scene. And that’s just part of my growing process. I wouldn’t know what to do with such a thing now; I’d have a hard time concentrating on it. At one point, I could throw myself into that; now, I need more of a demand. I don’t know how to equivocate it: it’s like you need more foreplay or something. [Laughs.] You need something better. You could knock out genre pieces all your life and you could do them like they did in the old days—start Monday. You could do four, five of them a year, and you’d have to luck into something good, like Treasure of Sierra Madre. They lucked into that.
Let me ask you about what I would call gun-control and penis-control in Unforgiven. Ned asks Munny if he does it with his hand?
Talking ’bout it like they’re a bunch of kids! He’s got a basic curiosity about it. You’re out there by yourself a long time. It’s not those hogs, is it? [Laughing]
And Munny says, “I don’t miss it much.” Which I take to mean the shooting and killing as well as the sex. The fact that you can’t bring your gun into town. And twice we have the subject of bent guns: English Bob gets his gun back and it’s comically bent, and when The Kid is spraying the field with gunfire, Ned rather demurely questions him as to whether his rifle might be bent. You don’t have to be Sigmund Freud [Eastwood laughs] to understand that they’re not just talking ’bout the guns here. And given that the whole narrative starts, the whole thing unwinds, because of a guy’s insecurity about the size of his pecker. And that guy’s name is Quick Mike: so he’s quick as well as small, which I’m sure makes him a little sensitive.
Right. And there’s also some lines Richard Harris is throwing out there. And there’s also the Gene Hackman story about “Two-Gun” Corky Corcoran, whose dick was as long as the Walker Colt that he carried. Gene’s story demythologizes the Western myth, right there, talking about what a chickenshit killing it was. And in a subsequent scene he talks about, it ain’t so easy to shoot a guy, whereas in most Westerns it’s pretty easy, rather effortless. [Long pause.]
The writer, as in White Hunter, Black Heart, is the one who watches, who doesn’t know, and who fabulates. “The desirability to take a liberty when depicting the cover scene” is the subject here, how you change reality to fit the demands of the marketplace. Well, that’s also what a film has to do.
Exactly. It’s just bringing that thing up: it’s probably how history got so distorted to begin with. Everyone telling something in a bigger way. Like in this film, the story of the cut whore gets bigger and bigger every time it’s told. Beauchamp, who’s going to chronicle it, can’t wait to distort it. And finally he gets to witness his big shootout.
And they start to recount the narrative before Munny is even out of the saloon.
It’s an unusual approach. A very unusual approach. But one of my favorite films was The Oxbow Incident. You can see it today and it still holds up. The whole thing about mob violence. And it got a bad release because of only one person. The studio head’s wife hated it. Zanuck’s wife thought it was the worst piece of shit.
When you were finished shooting the shootout in the saloon, were you conscious of the fact that it may be the last time you do something like that?
How did that feel?
It felt okay. It felt good. I must say I was even conscious throughout the film that this might be my last Western. I felt that this was the perfect story to be my last Western. I also thought that this might be the last time I do both jobs—acting and directing—on a picture. Maybe it’s time to do one or the other. It’s funny, you’re the first person who’s kind of picked up on that, but I did have a feeling when I was doing that sequence that it would probably be the last time.
That’s what’s great about how you warn everyone when you come out of the saloon. Not only are you going to kill them, but you’re going to kill their families, their friends, you’re going to burn down their houses if they threaten you. [Eastwood laughs.] So I thought in terms of the directorial writing there, it felt like William Munny and Clint Eastwood saying—if you threaten me again, I’m going to kill everybody, so this is it!
So this is the end of it! And there’s also a slight fear in that. Instead of walking out like a bold Western hero, he’s aware he can’t let his guard down—don’t shoot me now, I’m coming out—you come near me, here’s how bad I am: I’ll kill your friends, your girlfriend, your boyfriend, your sister, your brother, your mother, and right on down the line.
And then there’s the matter of the postscript. He fled probably to San Francisco with the kids and prospered in dry goods.
Well, some say he might have prospered. No one really knows. I think it’s ambiguous. It’s up to the audience. We know he’s got two kids and we may wish him a good life.
Although it’s not in the film, did you imagine what his homecoming to those kids must have been like? Emotionally, for that character?
Yeah. Actually, I played it out. There was a homecoming scene.
That was the only thing I left the movie feeling a lick of. I wanted to see how he’d face the kids, which is really how he would face himself.
It was a good scene. I could show it to you and you’d be the only person in the world to see it. It was a good scene but the movie was over. It seemed like it broke a mood.
Did he reconnect to the kids?
Yes, he comes back and the son tells him The Kid’s come by and left them his share of the money, and then the son asks him if he’s killed anyone. William sort of lies to him. It was good, but it opened up something, and I felt it was best to end it where it was. Whether it was right or wrong, I don’t know, but it seemed like the right thing to do. So it ends with that last look at Ned, lying there dead, propped up like a showpiece, like they used to do in those days, and those women looking at him, and their inner feelings—it’s just enough. Then the visit to the grave and the scroll, as an epilogue.
I love endings that let people put what they want into them. They can add whatever they want. I had an argument years before with an editor. In The Outlaw Josey Wales, when Josey Wales rides back out of town in the end, the editor said, “Why don’t we put a superimposition of the girl there, so we know he rides back to the girl.” And I said, “There is no need to do that, because the audience is willing that, anyway.” Even if he rides out north and the girl and the family that he left are east, we know that he’s going to circle back around and come back to the east. Because that’s where they want him to go; that’s what they’re willing to happen. So to put a superimposition would be really corny.
But the editor wanted that closure.
Yes. He wanted the wrap-up. You can’t do that. It’s not necessary. The audience is willing this reunion to happen: he goes back and stays with that family and his life is great. In the audience’s mind. But some audiences might say, Well, it’s not that easy. The woman died in childbirth two years later, and he goes off to camp with the Indians. Who knows? There are dozens of ways to go.
Let’s stick with Unforgiven. In the scene with the whore, Delilah, Munny admits that he’s scarred. Now, in your oeuvre, as we discussed, there are many protagonists who are scarred, who are badly wounded—in an emotional sense— but who wouldn’t talk about it. They’d act out of the feeling, but they wouldn’t verbalize it. So perhaps now you’re giving sanction to the idea that it’s okay to talk about these things.
He’s obviously beat up. He’s saying, You’re a beautiful woman, you’re not ugly like me. This man carries so many demons, he feels like a very unworthy person. When Ned says, “Do you ever go to town to find a woman?” he replies, “What would a woman want with a man like me?” I think he has very low self-worth.
But the fact that he verbalizes that seems different, seems like something new for your persona. Instead of just acting out of the feeling—whether a lack of self-worth, or a bitterness, or a rage—rather than just acting out of it in an explosive way, he verbalizes it. That seems like something new.
Yeah. I think it’s new in the context that everything else is new in the piece, too. The whole character is different, if you’re relating it to my other characters, who, if they had demons, they suppressed them, or else they dealt with them, and they’re gone. They’re not haunting.
Earlier you said, unprovoked by me I might add, that you are “not doing penance” for all the other characters you’ve played. Obviously, that concept is something that’s on your mind.
I said that unprovoked, but I said that in such a way that maybe it is. I’m not consciously doing penance for the mayhem I have created on the screen in the past, but in a way, it fits in. That’s why it’s perfect for it to be the last Western. Because he is a man that is haunted by this experience. And he’s driven back into doing what he thinks he does best. It’s not a conscious thing to do penance—if I hadn’t done those other pictures nobody would even think about it. But like you were mentioning, a lot of those people had things in their backgrounds that were kind of painful. This is the first one where you know all about it. He’s been involved with some pretty bad mayhem in his day.
And yet the interesting thing about the end of the picture is that it eats its cake and has it too. In the end, he still is the killer that he was—it’s there at a moment’s reach, when it needs to be.
He goes on a suicide mission, and gets away with it. Because he doesn’t have that fear of shooting a man, that thing that Gene Hackman talks about earlier.
Another theme that comes up in your work a lot is regeneration through violence. That violence is not simply an end, but a means to something else happening: it’s cleansing. Something good comes out of it, even if it’s off screen, at the end of the movie. Those people in Lago are going to know something different than they did before, in High Plains Drifter. And rain is usually a good metaphor to wash things clean. In this film, everyone knows they need a good rain, but we feel at the end of the movie that what the rain will bring is mud. There is no regeneration through the violence that’s occurred.
Yeah. He’s pretty well wiped out the whole law enforcement faction of the community. [Laughs, pauses.] I don’t know what to tell you on that one. The rain has a washing effect, but maybe it is turning to mud. The meaning of the symbol for each person may be different.
Do you feel the lack of regeneration is pessimistic, here?
A little, yeah. What’s going to happen to the girls? Are they going to run the whorehouse by themselves now, without this guy lording over them? What are they going to do? What is Delilah going to do, after she sees him ride off? He’s probably the only man she’s opened the door with, had a discussion with about her feelings about being scarred up. Where it all goes from there is in the eye of the beholder.
Another thing that shows up in your work, again and again, is a kind of attachment to the dispossessed, which the protagonist usually shows. There’s an affinity for the downtrodden and the dispossessed. Now I can’t believe that you’ve blundered into these characters accidentally; there’s obviously a self-selection process here, so I assume that you share this same affinity. Am I correct?
I probably have an affinity for the underdog, the downtrodden, the depressed. Who knows why? Either it’s dramatically, or being raised during the Depression. I don’t know. Seeing a lot of that growing up in the ’30s. I’ve never analyzed it. I never had the ambition to. I occasionally think about why do I like this? Why do I like that? Somewhere along the line there’s some inkling of something, that makes you gravitate towards a certain type of thing.
Like in Heartbreak Ridge, I was always wondering what it’s like to be a military guy—what happens when you’re a warrior and there’s no war. You’re an outcast. I remember being in the military during the Korean War, everybody stopped on the highway to pick up soldiers. You could stick your thumb out and you wouldn’t wait two seconds. And then, right after the war, it all died out: you were just dogfaces walking down the highway. Who could care less? And several moods passed during the Vietnam escapade. But what happens to somebody who doesn’t know anything but one thing? To the point where it has disturbed his whole life, his relationship with women, his former wife. ’Cause he only knows one thing, and how do you do a cram course in life when you’re at the end of your military career? There’s no answer to it. I don’t have an answer to any of my characters, really. Its fun to open them up and explore them, but I don’t come up with any great conclusions.
The dispossessed, downtrodden underdog which your film persona is so attached to seems quite different than your public persona away from the screen as a card-carrying Republican. Society tends not to view Republicans as critters who have that sort of affinity. That tends to fall to the Jesse Jackson Rainbow Coalition.
Well, I’m not in any of those camps. I’m not in the Jesse Jackson’s Rainbow Coalition and I’m not in the Republicans’ camp. I became a Republican only because when I turned twenty-one, Eisenhower was running and I wanted to vote for him, as opposed to Stevenson. So I did that. And also, the Republicans were a minority and it’s fun to be part of a minority. At that time, they were outnumbered three-to-one in California. So I just became that. But actually, I would say that my views are probably leaning towards sort of a libertarian point of view.
You’re a bloody anarchist!!
Not liberal. Liberal always has the connotation of somebody that wants to spend somebody else’s money. And conservatives don’t want to spend any of their own money. But libertarians love independence and I like everyone leaving everyone else alone. I’ve never approved of government meddling in just about anything. Whatever people want to do is fine, as long as you’re not bothering anybody else.
So you’re looking for a fusion of Milton Friedman and Noam Chomsky.
You get those two guys together, you’ve got a ticket.
You could. You’ve got a much better chance of getting those two guys together than some of these guys we’ve got now.
Let’s look at your two stretch-mark movies: Bird and White Hunter, Black Heart.
Left stretch-marks inside my brain, just over the cranium.
Spike Lee was quite upset with Bird. He told me, How is it when Clint Eastwood does a movie about Charlie Parker, that the two other most important people in the movie, Chan Parker and Red Rodney, are white? How can it be that Red Rodney gets more screen time in the movie, is more important, than Dizzy Gillespie? And why is it we only see Chan, and not Bird’s two black wives? Spike felt the movie was racist in that regard, in that it presents Bird surrounded by white people.
You know, it’s a shame to take—and I think it’s reverse racism, although I’m sure he doesn’t quite know what he speaks of, I think he’s a clever kid—but it’s ironic to take jazz, which is at the forefront of all integration in this country, or anywhere in the world for that matter, and in the early days in New Orleans, where people were judged just by what they did, and not by their color, and even though bands were segregated, by necessity sometimes in the ’30s and ’40s due to where they were playing in the country—Stan Kenton had a white band and Count Basie had a black band cause you could only do it that way, and we touched on that in Bird—but in the early days of jazz, the creoles and blacks and whites, everybody respected everybody for what they were doing.
Well, the music simply would not have existed as a form without black and white coming together.
Exactly. And they were the predecessors of all integration, in this country, and is the truest American art form. And for some guy to come along, now, in the ’90s, and try to segregate it in his mind, is . . . [Pause, frustrated.] Chan existed, and it is Chan’s book that most of the material was taken from. She was with Bird during his most productive years. I met his first wife, she came to see me. She was with him when he was seventeen, and she was like sixteen. And they were married for a very few years. He didn’t become a star until way after he’d left her. But Chan was with him on 52nd Street in the heyday years. Red Rodney was with him a lot of times, too. So was Dizzy. They were all participating in the film. The Red Rodney incident, of him travelling through the South with them, happened to be rather humorous, and it was true. But that didn’t diminish all the black actors who were in that film. Forest Whitaker certainly had the best part in the movie. So I don’t know what Spike Lee is talking about. I think he was just shooting from the lip a little bit. I’m sure if he stopped and thought about it, he wouldn’t worry about it. I wouldn’t be prejudiced if he wanted to do a thing on Mozart or Beethoven. That would be great, more power to him. From a film director’s point of view, being a black man doesn’t preclude you from doing a white story. Women could do that: how dare a male director do the story of Madame Curie?
Well, this was the argument I had with him about Malcolm X. Not that I don’t think he should be the one to direct it, but I differ with his concept that “only a black person should be allowed to direct Malcolm X” You’re on a slippery slope with that rationale.
It takes all black directors and says, Okay, all white directors will lay off black subjects. Speilberg won’t do The Color Purple, and blacks can only do stories about blacks. That’s pretty limited, I would say. Spike Lee, I’m sure he has ambitions to do a wide array of work sometime within the next twenty years.
Bird was almost but not quite a non-narrative film. It certainly was, for a major motion picture release by a big studio with a name director, as far out, in terms of linearity, as I’ve seen in many, many years. And from an unlikely source. What were you thinking, Clint?
I was just out there soloing, along with everybody else. To me Bird, the flashbacks within flashbacks, the doublebacking into flashbacks, is very complicated; but I think if a person paid attention, they could gather it all and still come back to ground zero, back to square one, and still be intact with the film. And I hope I accomplished that. But the nature of the film, the nature of Parker’s life, the nature of an addict, of a jazzman, all those things sort of lend themselves to that sort of narrative structure.
Were you basing the concept on the nature of a Parker solo—off certain sets of chord changes—which overlaps, and goes back, and reinterprets, and leaps forward, and so on?
Yeah, I guess so. He would sometimes find a figure and work his away around it until he could exhaust it. But I can’t consciously say. I could make up something that would sound really cineaste and intellectual—
We won’t blow your cover, here—but I’d just be bullshitting the hell out of you, because it’s just the nature of the way it unravelled. It seemed logical for it to unravel that way. The script was generally leaning towards that. I did a lot of changing in that particular one, as opposed to Unforgiven, where I stayed very close to the writer’s concept. That’s just the way I saw it. If I was an alto player, that’s the way I’d play it.
What were you hoping the audience would take away from that film?
Just an atmosphere, an atmosphere of a brilliant person who was obviously very disturbed, but he was a brilliant person. And also an era of American music, where probably the last great harmonic frontier was crossed, in the bop generation. When the last great leap in music was made. People didn’t used to play like that. It was a shock. I can only tell you from being there, it was something else. Musicians thought, God damn, those guys are playing some wild stuff and the general public thought, What the hell is that? And eventually, the musicians picked up on it and the public thought it was interesting. And certain groups came in and made it more commercial. I saw Dizzy’s big band when I was sixteen. It was exciting, exciting stuff.
What did you learn doing Bird?
It was a great enjoyment for me. What I learned I’d have to work backwards to, because I don’t know. I learn something from every project. Delving into jazz, delving into the bop generation, visualizing seeing Charlie Parker for the first time, which was quite an experience and no record quite captures it. Wow! He was the most confident artist I had ever seen. Self-confidence, without twitching a muscle. It was pin-stripe suits and ties. Charlie Parker just stood there and played. The combination of sound and effortlessness. And you listen to tapes of him speaking: he was very lucid and glib, very well-spoken and well-thinking, but obviously there was a crazy side to him.
Did you figure out anything about the crazy side, the madness, in doing the project?
No, but I’ve delved into that in other films: the self-destructiveness. He was one of those guys who was going to soar for a short period of time. There’s an irony at the end of the picture, where the doctor who finds him thinks he’s an old man. There’s something about a guy who’s rushing through it like that: does he know something? Does he know it’s going to end early? Is he afraid of something? It’s kind of like, would James Dean be as popular today, and as mysterious a figure, if he’d lived on and made ten or fifteen more films, and eight of them not so good. Maybe a couple pretty good, and maybe a couple of great ones. There’s something about dying at your peak. And although Charlie Parker didn’t die at his peak, there was a lot of mystery about him. Buddy Jones, a friend of mine, used to play bass for him, and he told me, all the musicians would jump in cars and drive all night just to see him play, to hear what he was doing. It’s interesting to wonder what makes a guy like that tick. The story doesn’t really say what makes him tick.
You don’t explain his genius at all in the picture.
Never did. The only thing I would do is to tell Forrest Whitaker all the time not to be scattered, to keep his line, to remember he’s the best alto saxophone player in the world, to stay his line, not to be afraid when he wanted something—don’t be looking all over—get onto it: what you do, you do the very best, and you know that.
Why does the film not provide more about what and where he came from, in a psychological and emotional way?
It just wasn’t written that way. It was taken from Chan’s book, My Life in E Flat. It was taken from her point of view, and Red Rodney chipped in a lot, too. But getting back to what you were talking about, somebody trying to make it prejudiced—a white and black thing. There were just a lot of mixed players around. Bird hung out with a lot of black people and a lot of white people. People didn’t care. Bop musicians were radicals. They could care less.
Why did you never show Bird practicing? One of the criticisms of the film is that it made Bird out to be a natural genius, as if it all came to him on the bandstand, and there wasn’t the blood, sweat, and tears of woodshedding. Much as some people look at Michael Jordan as if he came out of the womb a brilliant basketball player, and there wasn’t an awful lot of hard work involved.
Obviously, they practiced incessantly. There was a point in Bird’s life where the drummer did throw a cymbal at Bird because he was so bad—he left and never played publicly for a year. He just practiced around the clock.
So why didn’t the film show that?
That’s another story. There’s another story with Dizzy. There’s another story with Miles. They never got on that well, but the fact is they worked together. If someone was doing my life, there’s a lot of sections to it, but in a movie maybe they could only do one. Bird practicing? Well, we showed him practicing as a kid.
Speaking of your life, and you mentioned Miles conveniently enough, I’d like to bring up the epigraph of the film, which is Fitzgerald’s “There are no second acts in American lives.” Your life has obviously had more than a second act. I know the quote was fitting for Bird’s life, but do you believe in the concept?
It seemed fitting for him, because he was only going to live the one act. For me, no, it’s a three-act play. I hope. [Laughs.] Hopefully the play pyramids, and doesn’t falter in the end.
Miles, of course, had about five acts in his.
Yeah, he had a lot of different facets to his career. And then after he had that wreck in the Lamborghini and broke his hip, he retired and had all his drug and booze problems, but he came back. I first met him in Seattle. I was doing Rawhide at the time, it was quite a few years ago, in the late ’50s or early ’60s. He wasn’t with Coltrane yet. And he came over at intermission and asked me, [imitating Miles’ hoarse rasp] “Will you send a picture to Miles Jr.? Miles Jr. is a fan of yours.” I said, “Sure, Miles, I’ll send one out.” Then he told me to hang out and I said I would. So after the set he came over and said, “Let’s go out and get some bitches.” So we went out to some after-hours joint, Seattle was kind of a closed town, but these clubs would last till way in the morning. So we went out, and screwed off, and went down to this joint on First Avenue. Man, he was a character! And I’d see him after that, and we always had kind of a pretty decent relationship, but I never did talk to him about Bird, only because the story never did include that part of Bird’s life, and I thought I had all the impressions I needed.
A last question about Bird: I never saw a color film that felt and looked to me so much like a black-and-white film.
Yeah, that was purposeful. And so was Unforgiven, too, in a way, in that I approached the art direction, costuming, and the cinematography—the whole film—like it was black-and-white. There is something about black-and-white films that have great drama to them. But you can’t just photograph them that way, you have to do it from the art direction, the costuming, and so on, everything has to fit.
I mean, Bird was a dark movie. It was dark in every way: in tone, in feeling, in spirit, in execution.
In spirit, yeah.
It was so dark that I know some people who care about Bird, who know he had demons, wished it showed a bit more of his joy.
Well, there was joy there. I think there are happy moments in the picture. But it’s a tragedy that someone that brilliant dies at such a young age. What makes him destruct like that? Why the destruction? It’s so unnecessary. What a waste. Maybe that’s the way it was meant to be.
Speaking of another guy who may have squandered talent, but who didn’t go out quickly: John Huston. Is your doing White Hunter, Black Heart a little bit like Huston going after the big bull elephant?
No, not really. Some of his movies left big impressions on me. Treasure of Sierra Madre remains one of my favorites. The fascinating thing about Huston is that he was a real crazy character—he lived a very hard life, he smoked and drank and never took good care of himself—but he lived quite long and unlike a lot of directors he directed up to the very end, in a wheelchair and with an oxygen tank on The Dead. It’s kind of a strange thing, when a guy can just wreck himself like that. He did some crap—there was a period of years where I don’t think he did anything good, and then all of a sudden he does The Man Who Would Be King. Just when you thought he didn’t have it, he’d surprise you, and give it to you.
Why did you make that picture? Your personal affection for him?
I just liked the story a lot. I agree with a lot of his philosophy, even though I’m not a total dissipate like he was. Even though we’re at opposite ends of the poles as far as feelings of responsibility to the financiers, his ideas of how he approached the film—how he would do the best he could, and move forward, and never worry about who was going to see it, and to be true to what you believed in—there’s a lot to be said for that.
The wonderful tyranny of whimsy.
Yes. He needed a lot of outside activities: whether it was some gal he was chasing or a racehorse he was running or betting on, he needed a lot of distractions to keep him going.
Are you that way?
Not necessarily. But I can work on several things at one time.
Your reputation is being quite disciplined and organized in making a film, of coming in under budget and early, so I wonder if for you there was a little perverse satisfaction in exploring a director who ignored the clock?
Well, maybe. On another note, he kind of knew what he wanted, and only shot what he wanted. He was a very lean director. He didn’t shoot a ton of stuff. He wasn’t like George Stevens, who was at the opposite end of the spectrum and would cover everything. Huston was of the school of Howard Hawks and John Ford. They knew what they wanted to put down. Maybe he was a little looser than they were. He came up in that era, but he did some crazy things—went off to Europe, to Africa. He did a couple of interesting pictures back to back: he did African Queen, then went straight up to Paris and did Moulin Rouge. Totally different kinds of films. With little preparation, he did some amazing things.
Both White Hunter and Bird have to do with the demands of art and how we harness or don’t harness the irrational. Now, it may hope been a stretch you playing Huston, but of course it would have been more of a stretch you playing Bird. [Eastwood laughs.]
I liked playing Huston. There’s a certain way about him. When I was in the military, in 1951, I subbed as a projectionist. And over the couple years I was doing this I must have run The Battle of San Pietro I don’t know how many times—so many times I could tell you every shot in it. It was done by Huston, and narrated by Huston. And there was something about his approach. I think I learned more about him from that than actually watching him with his face on camera. I saw all the footage of Orson Welles’ last picture, where Huston plays a director, much like himself, which was never released. Welles’ widow wanted me to complete the film. And I saw that two-hour documentary on Huston which came out a few years ago. And you talk to people. And Peter Viertel was a close friend of John’s. They had a big falling out and that’s why Viertel wrote the book. Everyone thought he had zapped his friend, but when he wrote the book he was actually on good terms with Huston and John had given the book his blessing.
It’s quite a curious film. What do you think it’s about?
It’s about obsession, about obsessive personality. On the one hand you’re showing a man with a macabre sense of humor, who will take people to the most uncomfortable place in the world to film. He and Bogart are the only ones who didn’t get sick down there, because they drank so much. They drank so much whiskey that their systems couldn’t be penetrated by the bugs. [Laughs.] These guys pad about eight percent alcohol in their systems. To go down there, and then to wander off and want to go off hunting. Everything in the picture is true, except that Kivu didn’t die.
Why couldn’t he pull the trigger?
In the book he pulls the trigger, and the elephant charges and kills Kivu and wreaks mayhem all over the place. I didn’t think it was necessary to pull the trigger. I felt if Kivu got killed, that’s the whole lesson: he doesn’t have to kill the elephant. It tells the same thing, without putting down the animal, which I certainly wouldn’t do for the film. To me, I would never shoot an animal for a film.
Well, Industrial Light and Magic could have rigged up a Babar for you to shoot between the eyes—
Oh I could have done it, it can be tricked up. But I just didn’t think it was necessary. I think it shows: we shouldn’t have been here in the first place. What are we doing out here?
Is the trauma going to make him a better artist?
I think so. When he starts the film, which will be The African Queen, he makes a film that’s a very popular film.
Of course we’re to think that he doesn’t give a damn whether it’s popular or not; he’s just out to make what he thinks is a good film.
Yeah. Viertel wrote the dialogue, “You can’t let six million popcorn eaters push you this way or that way.” It doesn’t matter. Do the film the way you believe it, and if they want to come to it, that’s fine. And that whole cynicism of it: that he was going to die flat-broke in a Los Angeles flophouse, and they’re going to name a special Academy Award after him and all the wrong guys will win it. [Laughs.] It’s cynical, but it’s so true. How many times has Irving Thalberg rolled over in his grave when they give out his award?
There’s a line of dialogue from the film, which impressed me, vis a vis your work, your career, your filmmaking, and I’d like you to react to it: “We’re lousy little gods who control the lives of the people we create.”
Yeah, he definitely believed that.
I’m not so much interested in Huston’s attitude as much as how you apply these things to your own work.
I don’t think in those terms. That’s a very flamboyant person, who goes on about being “lousy little gods.” I would never wax that poetic.
You’d say something more like, “We’re lousy little shits—”
I’d say, Hey, we’re leading the audience on a tour, and it’s up to them to follow. We’re leading the tour. We’re the tour guide. This is the way we’re going. If you think defensively, and you worry—why would they think this? or what if they think that? or why would anybody want to come and see this film? Why does anybody want to get up in the morning?—it’s not necessary to ask those questions.
Do you think about the audience at all when you’re making a film?
I think about it when I first read the material, when I get involved in the decision to make the film. I think, Would the audience like to see this? And would I like to see this film? Would I like to play in this film? Would I like to direct this film? Now, I’ve gotten that far. Then there’s a time when you have to shut all that off, and say, Now we make the film, we never look back at the audience. Sometimes it’s tempting to say, Hey we can wrap this up, and make a real happy Hollywood ending, but you’re worrying too much about the audience then. You’ve got to trust it. In golf they use the expression, “Trust your swing.” It’s a narrow fairway out there, and you’ve got to trust that you can hit the ball down that line. You’ve got to trust that the audience is going to come with you. You’re entering the tunnel, and they will follow you. And if they don’t, they weren’t going to in the first place.
Were you frustrated that not as many people followed you into the tunnel on Bird and White Hunter as you might have liked?
No. Nobody makes a film for an empty house, or purposely drives people out of the house. It’s just that you make a film, and if it falls between the cracks and doesn’t have the broad appeal, that isn’t what you make it for. I would still make them the same way. You can’t second guess that. The average moviegoing audience of twenty-five-to-thirty-year-olds is probably not interested in John Huston or Charlie Parker. Maybe that kind of character is too far removed. There are not that many kind of one-of-a-kind people, and not many people are exposed to that kind of persona.
Do you feel yourself working against the clock, now?
No. No, in fact, I’m working more relaxed now. Like I mentioned earlier, I’d had Unforgiven for quite a while, and could have done it before. I don’t know what little voice in me says the time is right for something.
What’s given you the feeling of relaxation you have now about your own work?
[Long pause.] I have no secret key. I’ve just been taking a longer look at the material. I’ve done a few things along the way that have kind of been thrown together, and sometimes you do that. How was it for John Ford in those days of six, seven movies a year? And for the actors, how did they do it? Get down to wardrobe and learn these lines, boom. Directors didn’t sit there and say, I need fourteen weeks of editing.
They didn’t do it like Warren Beatty does it now.
Jesus, how did The Grapes of Wrath come out so good when they didn’t do all that? When they didn’t take all that time. They were real craftsmen and had real confidence. Either that, or they had nothing to lose. There was a different mindset in those times.
Why have you not written a film?
I’ve written sequences and scenes, and reworked scripts, but I’ve never done one from scratch. I’ve never come up with one. I’m not sure I’d be any good at it. A man’s gotta know his limitations.
Okay, you’ve made your quota of one Eastwood line per interview.
I mean: what kind of a mind would you have to have to come up with a story like Huston does to tell off that anti-Semitic woman in White Hunter? Most people would say, “You’re full of shit. You’re a bigot, you’re an asshole.” But to lure somebody in, and sucker her around, and throw this zap story at her. You’d have to be a real perverse bastard, to enjoy it so much. Maybe it’s that Irish storytelling tradition. The set-up is half the fun.
He builds a great scaffold and then he drops her from it.
And building the scaffold is the fun part.
Exactly. The hanging is a foregone conclusion. Which is itself a metaphor for what you guys do: you build elaborate scaffolds from which to drop stories.
Yeah. That’s probably why Huston’s mind was good for filmmaking.
Are you going to write an autobiography?
Not for a while. I’ve been approached a lot. I always say there’s no way to write an autobiography when I’m in the middle of it.
Well, when you’re done with it, it’s too late. Do you see this decade as a time when you’ll be able to take some acting roles for some of the directors you highly esteem?
When I first came up in the ’50s, I never had a chance to work for any of the great directors. I never had the chance to work for Ford or Hawks or Hitchcock or Zinnemann or Stevens or Wilder. I didn’t have a chance to work for any of those guys. I was a bit player, and then when I became well known, they were either dead or retired. I knew Frank Capra, and got to spend time with him over the years, but never worked for him.
Are you thinking more now about the possibilities of forgiveness and redemption than you did as a younger man? This is something I talked to Francis about, as he was doing Godfather III, since those were the themes of that film, as they are in Unforgiven.
If I have, I haven’t thought about it. Maybe by getting the property at an early age and setting it aside until now, I was preparing for a certain time. I thought the subject was interesting then, and thought it would become more interesting as time went on. It just seemed like the perfect last western. And it delves into things I wanted to delve into. As we as a society grow more tolerant of violence, of accepting life and death in the streets, and we don’t seem to put our foot down. It seemed to be a much more serious thing for generations past. It seems we get hardened.
We accept a higher and higher level of despicable behavior on a daily basis.
I know it. Like for judges: well, the victim wasn’t my daughter or my son or my family, we can tolerate it and move on. As our society drifts that way, maybe from my point of view, it was time to analyze it from how it affects people. The perpetrator and the perpetratee.
Outside the golden rectangle of Hollywood projection, are things in our society not going the way you thought they were going to go ten, twelve years ago? Were you more hopeful then?
Maybe. Sometimes you just wonder. It seems like the entertainment and communications industries have become so big, and they are so competitive, that it seems like as far as violence and mayhem go, there’s a great competition to get it meaner and deeper on the front page of every paper. You got to beat the guy across the street. We see a lot more than we did years ago. Vietnam brought war into the living room. And now the Rodney King beating runs 57,000 times on television.
But Clint, I’m not sure which is better, because now we’ve had a war that rehabilitated the whole idea of an old-fashioned war, where you don’t see anybody die on the battlefield. In the Gulf, we didn’t seen any real human cost to that war, because we didn’t see the pictures of the charred Iraqi bodies.
I’m just using this as a tolerance level. Now, when a child has been run over by a car, there are microphones stuck into faces of the parents, and guys asking, What are your feelings at this moment?
It’s the decline of civility.
Yes, absolutely. Where does it end? That’s the commerce, that’s the capitalism of the electronic media: how do you cut to the most blood? Maybe there is a penance there. Maybe that’s why Gene Hackman didn’t want to be involved in violence.
Well, the action pictures now make Dirty Harry seem like Oklahoma.
Oh yeah, like nothing. You look at pictures where people are dismembering people, and saying, “Here, let me give you a hand.” Dirty Harry would never do that. Dirty Harry just wanted to rid the streets of the anti-social, people working against society. But now, it’s like everything is mobs of mayhem out there: cut ’em up, kill ’em up, dismember ’em, cut their heads off. I don’t know what effect this has on society. Maybe none. I grew up with Jimmy Cagney blowing guys away and Humphrey Bogart blowing guys away and John Wayne, but everybody knew the difference between a movie and reality.
There wasn’t even a ratings system during the Crusades, and there was still plenty of violence.
Yeah, there was more mayhem created in the name of God—my God is more right than yours; but in the ’60s and ’70s we were entering into the fall-guy generation and we’re at the peak of it now, where nobody is responsible for their own actions. It’s like: I can’t help the way I am, my mother accidentally backhanded me when I was a kid, and she had PMS. There’s all kinds of reasons for things, instead of people grabbing themselves by the gut and saying, This is what I have to atone to. But that’s the era we’re living in now, and it’s being bred into us. It’s always somebody else’s fault. Right now, politically we get that, is it the Congress’s fault or the President’s fault? Get with it, it’s everybody’s fault. But nobody wants to take responsibility. Congress is sitting there worried about their perks and President Bush is worried about being re-elected. Aw shit!
And no one will make a courageous decision. Not even old H. Ross Perot.
I think the only reason his popularity is as high as it is, is that people are thinking, Maybe there’s a guy who could make possibly make a courageous decision. And they’re figuring that neither the Republicans nor the Democrats have the balls to do it. [Nine hours after this interview ended, Perot announced he would not run.] If he came out and said, I only want to be there one term. Instead of spending three-quarters of the first terms setting yourself up for the second.
Ol’ George has said he will “do anything he has to do” to get re-elected. As if that were the objective for all government, simply to stay in power. Which is a horrible idea.
Yeah, it’s horrible. I mean, Nixon went out in disgrace, but at least his first term was somewhat presentable. He opened up a lot of dialogue. Now, it’s pathetic.
But you’re happy just being the ex-mayor of Carmel!
I was so happy. It was a two-year term, and council members are four years. About one year into it, I thought, You know something, Eastwood, it’s really nice this is only a two-year term, because that’s exactly what it’s going to be for you.
Did it teach you anything about government in America?
[Pause.] It’s fucked. [Much laughter.] Whether it’s a small town or a big city, whatever the size of the playing board is, it’s the same problems. It seems like my best move as a politician is that I got in by a great majority, so I just made all my moves in the first six months. I fired the planning commission, I dumped, I changed everything—things that normally would be quite shocking, I did quickly.
Seize the day.
I seized it, grabbed it, ran with it, and I got things done, like a library annex, that had been pending for twenty-five years. I could have hung around for another term and done a few more things, but it would have been half of what I did that first term. Plus the fact that you can’t have a career. I did two films while I was mayor—Heartbreak Ridge and Bird.
No wonder Bird was so dark, it was actually about the city council!
[Laughing] It was my city council meeting! And in Heartbreak Ridge I was playing a character who I’d really like to have been as mayor. Stand tall and take names!
David Breskin was born in Chicago in 1958. In New York City, from 1980 through the early 1990s, he wrote on cultural and socio-political subjects for Esquire, Gentlemen’s Quarterly, LIFE, The Village Voice, Musician, and most prominently, Rolling Stone, where he was a contributing editor. He is the author of a novel, The Real Life Diary of a Boomtown Girl (Viking, 1989), and a book of poems, Fresh Kills (Cleveland State University, 1997). His poetry has appeared in many periodicals, including The New Yorker, The Paris Review, DoubleTake, TriQuarterly, New American Writing, Salmagundi, and Boulevard. In addition, he’s produced records for jazz artists Bill Frisell, John Zorn, Joey Baron, Ronald Shannon Jackson, Vernon Reid, and Tim Berne. He lives on Russian Hill in San Francisco.