Interview with Clint Eastwood for Gran Tarino

We discuss the good, the bad and the ugly with Clint Eastwood, incluing the future of Dirty Harry.

Now aged 79, is Clint Eastwood too old to play an action man? Not at all, Clint admits that he could still jump a roof top or two but what about romance? Clint’s feelings on playing the romantic lead don’t sound too romantic “I’ve gotten to the point where if I see another graphic love scene, I’ll tear my hair out” says the Dirty Harry star in our interview. The acclaimed director has a new movie opening in Ireland this week, ‘Gran Torino’ tells the story of an iron-willed Korean War veteran forced to confront long-held prejudices when his immigrant neighbor tries to steal his prized Gran Torino.

Q: What do you make of your reputation as an economic film maker.
Eastwood: I know I’ve gained this reputation for doing one or two takes, which sometimes is the case and sometimes isn’t, but I’m not sure it’s a good reputation to have in an industry filled with excess.  It’s not always looked upon with great admiration.  However, I like working fast because it gives me the feeling I’m going somewhere, and I like the spontaneity.  And I’ve been fortunate enough to work with
actors who enjoy that.

Q: Harrison Ford once said, ‘Perfection is not a righteous goal.’  Do you agree?
Eastwood: “It’s a very good comment, because it’s true in a way.  Sometimes you antisepticize things, after twenty takes, you beat it to death.  Pretty soon it loses its rhythm, its spontaneity.  The scene might be technically great, the actors technically perfect, everything enunciated perfect, the shadow is perfect, lighting, everything.  But ultimately you see the sterility of it all.  I like a more spontaneous response, and Meryl happened to enjoy that.  She loved the spontaneity.  A lot of time, actors and actresses are accused of being technical, but that’s because they’re burned out by the time they get to the Print.  I like mistakes!  I like real-life feeling!  Dialogue doesn’t always have to be perfect.  People stutter and stammer.  They fight for words. If you can’t get that on screen, then there’s a certain real-life feeling.  Really good performers, like Gene Hackman and Morgan Freeman, are not afraid to do that because they have confidence in themselves.

Q: Actors have mentioned that you don’t give much direction. Is that true?
Eastwood: It depends on the actor.  If he’s totally off base on the interpretation, you try to guide him.  Many times you start out not knowing each other.  As a director, I will say ‘Just because I don’t come in and say wonderful, fabulous and use a lot of flamboyancy, doesn’t mean I don’t think it’s good.’  If it’s no good, I won’t print it.

Q: Do you talk to your actors in depth before you go into production?
Eastwood: I talk a little about where we are going with the character, the plot before we start.  There’s nothing worse than a director who, because he’s self-conscious or insecure, gives a lot of instruction.  That’s very unnerving to actors. And I’ve been on that side of the fence, so I know.  I don’t care for it myself, so I don’t perpetrate it on others.  I try to maintain a comfortable atmosphere.  If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.  But when things are going wrong you jump in and talk about it.  ‘Let’s try something different.’

Q: Would you agree that many of the characters you’ve portrayed in your film career have been men of courage?

Eastwood: (Smiles.)  Yes, I definitely agree.  Many of the characters I’ve played have been considered men of courage. Hollywood, as everyone knows, glamorizes physical courage. Audie Murphy running around shooting people in World War II is the kind of stuff movies are made of.  But, if I had to define courage myself, I wouldn’t say it’s about shooting people.  I’d say it’s the quality that stimulates people, that enables them to move ahead and look beyond themselves. It’s not about being afraid to make mistakes.  And I believe the average person shows great courage just by leading a
normal life.  I try and bring this perspective to the roles I do and the films I direct.

Q: Is it true that you model many of the characters you play after your own boyhood experiences?

Eastwood: Yes, that’s true.  My characters on screen a lot of the times may be males fantasy figures but they do have weaknesses and many of them reflect a past none too glorious — similar to events surrounding my own life.  I was a Depression kid.  My father was constantly looking for work during those years, so I found out early that nothing comes from nothing.  You’ve got to work for what you want.  There was no welfare system then.  People used to come to the house and ask for work — to do anything, like simply chopping wood.  I was born in San Francisco, but everyone was drifting in those days, and we kept moving around to different towns. Four months, six months there, and eight months in another place.  I was always the new kid on the block, always on the defensive, always having to punch my way out of something. I got used to hanging out by myself and even enjoyed playing by myself.  I grew rather fast, so I was always bigger than the other kids in my class.  But I never seemed to get into any of the cliques.  I don’t know if I really liked hanging out alone, but I got used to it.  In a way, being alone is a good lesson.  You become introverted, maybe, but you also learn to think for yourself.  You develop a sense of self-reliance and imagination.  And, of course, a lot of characters I’ve played have been loners.

Q: How do you feel about your parents?
Eastwood: I admit that I owe a lot to my parents.  They told me I had to work and through it all I discovered that the trials of life are also the opportunities.  Some kids nowadays figure that they’ll get educated and that their parents will pay for it.  I’m sure my father would’ve done that for me if he could have.  I know it would’ve given him the greatest thrill, but he could not.  My father died suddenly — it was a tremendous shock — but he did live long enough to see me on television in “Rawhide.”  I’m a ‘junior,’ so it was his name that was on that television screen, too. And I’m proud of that.

Q: Out of all the characters you’ve played on screen, which one has made the greatest impact on you?
Eastwood: I’d think I’d have to say portraying director John Huston in “White Hunter, Black Heart.”  He was one of the most brilliant filmmakers ever.  He was cantankerous and eccentric but those qualities played a big part in his brilliance.  The film was based loosely on the filming of “The African Queen,” which stars Humphrey Bogart and Katherine Hepburn.  John was more interested in going on an elephant hunt than in making that movie.  That’s the only reason he wanted to make the film.  But you know something? His lack of interest in the project didn’t impair it.  It’s still a very beautiful film.  At the most crucial moments of the shoot he went hunting, or horse riding, or amused himself with a girlfriend.  But, perhaps, that was necessary to create magic on the set.  Or, perhaps, to function well, he felt he shouldn’t take himself or his film too seriously.  I guess we’ll never really know though.

Q: Did you ever meet him?
Eastwood: Regrettably, no.  I never worked with him or even met him, which may have actually been a blessing in disguise. I think it allowed me to work with greater objectivity.  I completely missed his generation of directors.  My career began quite late, and moved parallel to those of Sergio Leone and Don Siegel (who directed “Dirty Harry”).  At the end of the Sixties we were the new generation and we had no contact with the former masters of the preceeding era.  That was a different time and a different place.  In those days directors were a lot more flamboyant and used to get drunk a lot and led a whimsical life.  They also worked indefatigably.  John Huston, for example, might direct three films a year, a feat that today’s filmmakers can’t come near. Filmmakers were less choosy, and film making wasn’t considered a profession.  Huston once said, ‘I’ve prostituted myself more than once and what I’ve lost that way I’ve never recaptured.’  That’s a way to say, ‘I’ve sometimes sold my talentg and made films that should’ve never seen daylight.’ That’s a shame but, you know, I prefer that approach to present day Hollywood where directors prepare their careers carefully and never make a film that doesn’t suit their image.  Risk-taking is important to me.

Clint talks Dirty Harry and more in Part 2 of our interview here