By Sven Mikulec
Two years after Kevin Costner’s Dances With Wolves became only the second Western ever to win the Best Picture Academy Award, the first being Cimarron in 1931, a revisionist Western called Unforgiven stepped onto the stage. Nine Oscar nominations, four Oscar triumphs: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor in a Supporting Role, Best Editing. Even though he believed he would never win an Academy Award, Clint Eastwood finally received the Academy’s attention, even if, as he had stated, he really didn’t give a damn about the whole ceremony. And even if we suppose it was true that the Academy didn’t appreciate Eastwood’s work both in the directing and acting spheres, it’s perfectly understandable his latest effort could not be simply ignored. The legend of the Western genre made an anti-Western that can be interpreted as a beautiful, moving eulogy to the Man with No Name character that made him immortal. Funnily enough, Unforgiven proved the Western genre was very much still alive, but it proved it by telling a story shaped as a goodbye letter to the genre it was successfully reviving at the same time. Eastwood’s film was as much of a closing chapter to Westerns as was John Ford’s The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance back in 1962. After seeing Ford’s Jimmy Stewart—John Wayne masterpiece, we thought, if no other Western had ever been made after this, the genre would have gotten the most fitting, respectable and touching epilog possible. Had that really been the case, of course, we would have missed out on seeing Unforgiven.
The film was a big success, becoming Eastwood’s first to pass the 100-million-dollar mark—to be more precise, it made almost 160 million dollars on a mere 14-million budget. Eastwood was allegedly stupefied by such an enthusiastic reception. “I was shocked, because I never try and romance the audience. You’ve got to forget that there’s somebody out there eating popcorn and Milk Duds. I figured that if people want to see it, they’ll see it. If they don’t, screw it,” he said, as cited by Peter Biskind in his great 1993 article published in Premiere. They obviously wanted. The idea of Unforgiven being Eastwood’s tribute to his own filmmaking path and, as it turns out, a final farewell to the genre that turned him into an international superstar, is further enforced by his kind nod in the final credits. By dedicating the film to “Sergio and Don,” Eastwood gracefully paid his respects to the two filmmakers who mentored him and helped him become the artist he was: Sergio Leone and Don Siegel. But sentimentality has little to do with why Unforgiven has become a modern classic. While it’s obvious this film wasn’t just another entry in Eastwood’s prolific filmography he could approach cold-bloodedly and objectively, Unforgiven is celebrated first and foremost because it’s a masterfully crafted movie in every aspect of its creation.
The screenplay was written by legendary screenwriter David Webb Peoples, the co-writer of Blade Runner and the writer of an Oscar-nominated film called The Day After Trinity. In 2013, the Writers Guild of America selected it as the 30th greatest script ever written, but the screenplay’s path from conception to production was full of turmoil and surprises. Originally called The Cut-Whore Killings, and later renamed The William Munny Killings, the script was written back in 1976, when Francis Ford Coppola optioned it and kept it somewhere on his desk until the early eighties. Eastwood received a copy of the script as an example of Peoples’ writing, but it took him several years to read it, as his script reader Sonia Chernius had warned him it was complete garbage, calling it “trash” and “inferior work,” and advising to get rid of it fast. But Eastwood read it, loved it and chose to get the rights from Coppola, only to keep the project dormant for quite some time, explaining he was occupied with other stories he wanted to pursue first. “Francis would have done it brilliantly as he does everything else, but it’s hard to imagine anyone making it as straightforwardly and uncompromisingly as Clint,” said Peoples on one occasion. “No studio would have made it that way—dark, moody. With a lot of voices, things generally end up becoming blander and more accessible. Unforgiven was Clint Eastwood saying ‘This is what I’m going to do… get out of my way.’”
I couldn’t tell you exactly why I wanted to make a Western again, because I didn’t have any reason to make one or not to make one; it wasn’t a decision that came out of a particular trend, there wasn’t any prior reason in fact, and that’s what made the project all the more exciting to me: I prefer to do things without giving myself a starting direction. So why a Western? That seemed to be the only possible genre the story was calling for, because in fact everything grew out of the story. In any case, I’ve never thought of doing anything because it’s in fashion, on the contrary I’ve always felt a need to go against it. And anyway, I probably feel a little guilty of always having tried to go against success like that, against the fashion. —Clint Eastwood
Shot in only 39 days, finishing four days ahead of schedule and therefore reaffirming Eastwood’s reputation of a one-to-three-takes filmmaker, Unforgiven still had a rough production period. The western town of Big Whiskey was built in the remote ranch country of Alberta, Canada, a place where the weather didn’t exactly make life comfortable. “It’s so cold, the water from the rain machines is freezing, making for a treacherous purchase on the muddy ground. The horses are slipping and sliding all over the ice, and the people aren’t doing too well either. It’s so cold, Eastwood’s teeth are chattering,” testified Peter Biskind. The Big Whiskey set was created by production designer Henry Bumstead, who enriched the landscape with a couple of surrounding farms. The town is bare, muddy, simple, scarcely populated, and serves as a perfect stage for Eastwood’s exploration of the conflict between civilization and the violent ways of the dying West. Big Whiskey was built from scratch in the two-month period before the shooting started, and this time was used to teach the actors how to ride horses. Eastwood certainly didn’t like to waste time.
One of the main strengths of Unforgiven is its impeccable cast. The central character of William Munny, a former hardcore killer with regional notoriety who had been tamed by marriage and transformed into an old pig farmer, was, of course, played by Eastwood himself and it’s really difficult to imagine anyone else in Munny’s boots. Without Eastwood starring, Unforgiven would still be an excellent film, but only he would be able to elevate the story to its mythic, meta-film proportions. While the script was still owned by Coppola, John Malkovich was approached to star, and years later he thanked God nothing came out of this deal as he believed he would have been a total failure. Hackman read the script and refused to join the project, but when Unforgiven landed into Eastwood’s hands he agreed to star, but only after the filmmaker assured him the picture wouldn’t glorify violence. Morgan Freeman, on the other hand, expressed his interest upon hearing about the film from Kevin Costner on the set of Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves and landed the role of Ned Logan, the protagonist’s old friend who agrees to join him on one last violent adventure. The fourth huge name in the mix is the great Irish actor Richard Harris, who was allegedly watching Eastwood’s High Plains Drifter on TV when the filmmaker called him up.
Francis Ford Coppola optioned it in ’84. He took it around, but couldn’t get financing. Clint picked up the option in 1985 and said he was making it “next year” a couple of times. The year before last, my wife was at the Telluride Film Festival and Clint walked on stage. He was overwhelmed by the scenery, he told the audience, and figured it was probably time to make his Western. I was thrilled. Francis would have done it brilliantly as he does everything else, but it’s hard to imagine anyone making it as straightforwardly and uncompromisingly as Clint. No studio would have made it that way—dark, moody. With a lot of voices, things generally end up becoming blander and more accessible. Unforgiven was Clint Eastwood saying “This is what I’m going to do… get out of my way.” —David Webb Peoples
Written by David Webb Peoples, shot by Eastwood’s frequent collaborator Jack N. Green, with Lennie Niehaus’ score enriched with Claudia’s Theme composed by the filmmaker himself, and Joel Cox’s Oscar-winning editing, Unforgiven is a modern masterpiece. One especially interesting aspect of the film is the way Eastwood approaches the theme of violence. A man who made his name in the filmmaking business shooting bad guys in epic stories of justice and revenge now turns to a story that completely debunks the myth of effortless, tidy violence. “It’s a hell of a thing killin’ a man,” states William Munny in one of the more quoted lines from the film. “You take away all he’s got and all he’s ever gonna have.” In the brutal climax that shows us what exact kind of an efficient murderer his character once was, Eastwood gives Gene Hackman’s dying character brilliant last words. “I don’t deserve this… to die like this. I was building a house.” Eastwood’s Munny simply replies with the iconic “Deserve’s got nothing to do with it.” Violence is never simple, never limited only to immediate consequences and never reserved only for the worst people who walk the planet. It’s complicated, messy and gut-wrenching. As pleasing as the final shootout might be, the message Eastwood conveys about violence rings loud and clear.
A monumentally important screenplay. Screenwriter must-read: David Webb Peoples’ screenplay for Unforgiven [PDF1, PDF2]. (NOTE: For educational and research purposes only). The DVD/Blu-ray of the film is available at Amazon and other online retailers. Absolutely our highest recommendation.
“Some scripts come in and they’re just great to start with; I’ll use Unforgiven as the example. It was a good script. I got it in the early 1980s and waited until ’92 to make it. I called up the writer, David Peoples, and said, ‘I’m going to make your movie, but I want to change a few things. Can I run these ideas by you as I get them?’ He said, ‘Go ahead.’ But the more I fiddled with it, the more I realized I was screwing it up. It goes back to something Don Siegel used to say: So many times you get a great project and people want to kill it with improvements. And that’s exactly what I was doing with Unforgiven. So finally, I called David back and said, ‘Forget what I said about making those changes. I’m not doing anything except changing the title.’ It was originally called The William Munny Killings. Of course, once you get into a project, there are always some things that live up to or exceed your expectations, and certain other things that will be disappointing. So you have to be able to re-write on your feet as you’re working. But once in a while projects come along where everything fits together like a jigsaw puzzle—as it went together in your mind, it comes together on film.” —Clint Eastwood, The Straight Shooter
John August and Craig Mazin take a deep dive into 1992’s Unforgiven, looking at how the David Webb Peoples script works on the page and on the screen. The transcript of this episode can be found here.
The creative minds behind Unforgiven, A Perfect World, and 3:10 to Yuma discuss creating westerns with resonance. Featuring John Lee Hancock, David Peoples, Michael Brandt and Derek Haas.
The following is an excerpt from Premiere, April 1993, written by Peter Biskind, ‘Any Which Way He Can.’
You’re Clint Eastwood, huge box-office star and iconic leading man. In four decades, you haven’t won an Oscar. So you try directing a great movie—and not giving a damn. It is 6 P.M. on a Saturday night in Alberta, Canada, on the set of Unforgiven. Clint Eastwood likes to shoot westerns in the autumn, so the production descended on the town of Longview just as the leaves were beginning to turn. But now it’s four weeks later. The trees are bare, and the production is bumping up against winter. The cast and crew are expecting to break for their day off, Sunday. But there’s a storm coming in. The weather service in Calgary says it’s supposed to snow twelve inches on Monday, with freezing weather the rest of the week—meaning the snow won’t melt. They still have half a day’s shooting in the town. Then, on Monday and Tuesday, they’re scheduled to do a pivotal exterior scene, the one under the pine tree where the whore rides in, tells Eastwood’s character, William Munny, that Little Bill Daggett has beaten his partner Ned to death, and Munny takes his first, long pull from the bottle of whiskey that will send him on a rampage of killing.
There are eight and a half pages of dialogue. Eastwood wants to see the town in the distance—with no snow on the ground. Executive producer David Valdes comes up with a nutty idea: shoot into the wee hours of Sunday morning; wrap at 2 A.M.; go back to the hotel, an hour away; let the crew grab four hours of sleep; on Sunday, go up to the hill, without breaking for meals, and do the Monday and Tuesday sequence till the sun goes down; then film the scene where Munny emerges from the bar in the rain, through the night into Monday morning. Had Valdes called the studio, they would have gone ballistic—Eastwood and Co. were about to break every rule in the book: double time for working the crew on Sunday and a hailstorm of penalties for not feeding the crew when they’re supposed to be fed.
The weather report has been wrong before. Valdes is not going to be a popular guy in Longview (or in Burbank, for that matter) if the storm passes a little to the east or a little to the west of them. But the alternative is to risk having to shoot the scene in California later, which would cost hundreds of thousands of dollars more and forfeit the tie-in to the town. They complete the eight and a half pages on Sunday and continue on into the night, twenty-one hours straight. It’s so cold, the water from the rain machines is freezing, making for a treacherous purchase on the muddy ground. The horses are slipping and sliding all over the ice, and the people aren’t doing too well either. It’s so cold, Eastwood’s teeth are chattering. At about 2 A.M., pissed-off crew members are demanding pizza. “We’re in Bumfuck, Alberta,” Valdes screams back, “and there’s no Domino’s around the corner.” At 5:30 or so Monday morning, Jack Green, the cinematographer, turns to Eastwood and tells him there’s time for only one more shot before dawn. Fifteen minutes later, they’re finished. The first snowflakes begin to fall—and don’t stop until the following evening. A foot of snow arrives on schedule. Winter in Alberta has begun.
Clint Eastwood hasn’t been to the Oscars since 1973, when he was asked to present the Best Picture award and ended up subbing for host Charlton Heston, who was stuck on the freeway. “Howard Koch said, ‘Here’s the script,’” recalls Eastwood. “It was a parody of Moses, The Ten Commandments, thou shalt not be this and that, all relating to movies. Bad material, even for Moses. I said, ‘You gotta be kidding. Never invite me again.’ ‘Will you come back if you’re nominated?’ ‘Yeah, I’ll do that.’ Koch says, ‘Then I don’t have to worry.’” Well, Eastwood might have come back with The Outlaw Josey Wales, and most certainly with Bird, but as it turned out, he stayed away for nineteen years. In the twentieth year, the Man With No Name finally rode into town with a clutch of nominations for Unforgiven in his saddlebag: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Supporting Actor, Best Original Screenplay. Not bad for a guy who used to be dismissed as a cowboy, one of whose films was derided by Rex Reed as a “demented exercise in Hollywood hackery.”
It’s been a long and twisted trail from A Fistful of Dollars, the first spaghetti western Eastwood did for Sergio Leone, in 1964, when Lyndon Johnson occupied the White House, to the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion in this, the spring of the Clinton presidency—thirty-nine pictures, with another, In the Line of Fire, in the can and scheduled for a summer release, and still another, A Perfect World, which he directs and costars in with Kevin Costner, set to begin shortly. Sixteen of them he directed himself. Eastwood, always philosophical about the Oscars, once said, “I figure that by the time I’m really old, somebody at the Academy Awards will get the bright idea to give me some sort of plaque. I’ll be so old, they’ll have to carry me up there… ‘Thank you all for this honorary award’ and SPLAT. Good-bye, Dirty Harry.” Standing around the Westin Bonaventure hotel, in downtown Los Angeles, watching director Wolfgang Petersen shoot inserts for Line of Fire, Eastwood is uncomfortable talking about his Oscar prospects.
Unforgiven is the frontrunner, after grabbing a slew of critics’ awards, and it makes him nervous. Or maybe it’s the inserts, pickups, bits of business, whatever, that make him impatient. He is legendary for working quickly, coming in ahead of schedule and under budget. It’s a matter of pride to him—more, a way of life. Recalls Frank Wells, who was president of Warner Bros. during the seventies, “His favorite time was the last day of a picture. He would call me, and I would guess how much under budget he was.” Eastwood is fond of saying things like, “The more time you have to think things through, the more you have to screw it up.” In the Line of Fire boasts a very good script, by Jeff Maguire, a bit along the lines of Tightrope, or even Unforgiven—films in which the character Eastwood plays is less a superhero than an ordinary guy with a Past, a guy who’s been damaged by life, a guy who has to live with something he’d rather forget.
Here he’s an aging Secret Service agent who is convinced he let John F. Kennedy die, those many years ago in Dealey Plaza, by not moving fast enough, perhaps paralyzed by a flaw in his character. It is a story of Conradian dimensions—whether the execution matches the ambition remains to be seen. Like A Perfect World, Line of Fire represents a more commercial, less personal choice for him than Unforgiven. Eastwood, who had director approval, selected Petersen, best known for Das Boot. People in advanced stages of megastardom often hire flunkies for the express purpose of second-guessing them and making their lives miserable. But Eastwood, it is said, does not operate that way. When he decides his employees can perform the jobs they’ve been hired for, he leaves them alone, relies on their judgment, and if they come through, he hires them again—and again.
Glenn Wright, his costume designer, has been with him since the Rawhide days. Eddie Aiona has been his prop master for some twenty-five years. Joel Cox, his editor, started working for him eighteen years ago. Valdes began as a second assistant director thirteen years ago, listening to the people who work for him saves Eastwood enormous amounts of time. He doesn’t audition actors; he looks at tapes supplied by his casting director. When Valdes or the production designer chooses a location, he often won’t see it until the day before the shooting begins. The look-of-show meeting is usually over in ten minutes because he can count on cinematographer Jack Green (twenty-two years) to react to a script the way he does. Eastwood lets Cox put the first cut together himself, from rushes of Cox’s selection.
Five to six weeks after the film wraps, the editing is finished. Eastwood’s people have a refreshingly casual approach to making movies. “It’s fun,” says Valdes, “and everyone realizes we’re not curing brain cancer.” Cinematographer Bruce Surtees, who worked on a number of Eastwood’s pictures, once said, “There’s no trick to lighting. You turn on a light, and if it looks good, you use it. If it doesn’t, you turn it off and put it some other place.” No one sits around waiting for the sun to go in or out of the clouds on an Eastwood set. His luck with weather is a legend in the business. If he needs snow in the Mojave Desert in July, it will snow. But it’s not all luck. He moves so fast, he doesn’t have to worry about matching one part of a scene with another. “Once you get that kind of velocity, suddenly weather doesn’t matter,” says gaffer Tom Stern, the baby of the group, who’s been with Eastwood for a mere eight years. “Instead of calling it adversity, you call it serendipity.”
Eastwood hates overlighting, which he associates with television, especially in his thrillers. He prefers a noir-ish, chiaroscuro effect. Pauline Kael once wrote, apropos of Bird, “The picture looks as if [Eastwood] hasn’t paid his Con Edison bill.” On Firefox, which is a bit on the murky side, there is a shot that is so dark, only Eastwood’s elbow is visible. The cameraman wanted to do another take. Eastwood said, “Am I in the frame?” “Yeah.” “Can you hear my voice?” “Yeah.” “They know who I am. Let’s print it and move on.” In an industry where first takes are virtually always rehearsals and actors don’t get serious until the fourth or fifth, where it is not unheard-of to shoot thirty, forty, fifty takes of the same scene, Eastwood is famous for shooting rehearsals—and not just rehearsals, but first rehearsals. He walks the stand-ins through the scenes, to get a rough sense of blocking, light placement, and so on. Then, says Green, he brings in the actors. “They’re working with the words for the first time, and we’re rolling. They have to paraphrase or deal with props in a naturally awkward way. If they do hit the light, we’re lucky; if they stay in the frame, we’re really grateful.”
On the other hand, says Jeff Fahey, who played the writer in White Hunter, Black Heart, “he’ll never walk away from something until he has what he wants.” Usually Eastwood will do no more than three to five takes, and print two. On Bronco Billy, Scatman Crothers had just come off The Shining, where Stanley Kubrick had put him through something like fifty takes on one scene, and he was almost paralyzed with fear. Eastwood did one take and printed it; Crothers nearly burst into tears. Eastwood’s method works. It lends his pictures a fresh, improvisatory, realistic flavor. The extraordinary first scene of Unforgiven, in the whorehouse when the woman is cut, is a first rehearsal. It has the impact of real violence; it’s over in an instant, and we’re not really sure what has happened. We feel like voyeurs, as if we walked down the hall, passed an open door, looked in, and saw something unspeakable. Eastwood has never believed, as Sam Peckinpah did, in drawing out violence, aestheticizing it, and indeed, these two masters of the western never worked together.
“One time I was talking to a class at USC and somebody said, ‘How come you never worked with Peckinpah?’” recalls Eastwood. “I said, ‘Well, he’s never asked me.’ And all of a sudden some guy got up in the back and said, ‘I’m asking you now!’ I look up and it’s Peckinpah sitting in the class. He was so wild; he’d go off and live in whorehouses. Some of those guys were amazing—John Huston, staying up to all hours doing whiskey and then directing the next day. I can’t do that. I always have to train up, run, like it’s an event.” The Bonaventure, where the endangered president makes a campaign stop, has a cold, inhospitable lobby consisting of a cavernous atrium punctuated by concrete columns. Someone has spent a good deal of money to create a series of small concrete pools filled with stagnant-looking water covered with a dull gray film. One finds oneself looking in vain for floating condoms. Watching Petersen do take after take of his insert, it’s clear what Eastwood is thinking, but he would never say anything. Nor will Petersen, a short, lively man with shaggy blond hair and an engaging smile, admit to being intimidated by his star, who could get an Oscar for directing. And maybe he isn’t. “Clint knows if I’m directing the film, to let me alone,” says Petersen. “He’s not a guy to step up and say, ‘Shoot it this way.’ Still, sometimes, when I say, ‘Clint, this was great, but please, let’s do it again,’ he says, ‘If it’s great, why do it again?’”
Despite the fact that Dirty Harry was made more than twenty years ago, Eastwood is constantly beset by fans asking him to make their day. Once a cop lurked about the Eastwood-owned Hog’s Breath Inn in Carmel, California, for a week, waiting for the actor. Eastwood finally showed up; the guy entered and in one sudden sweeping movement pulled an enormous .357 magnum from the small of his back. The customers hit the floor. But he only wanted Eastwood’s autograph on the barrel—he’d brought along his etching tool. Eastwood signed it, thought for a moment, and said, “Don’t go leaving this around anywhere,” like the guy might do a liquor store and drop the gun on the floor. Now a large, buxom woman pushes her way through the crowd of onlookers and tourists surrounding Eastwood on the Line of Fire shoot. She is yelling “Clint, Clint, let me at ’im.” She heaves up in front of him and bellows, “East Clintwood! I got all your records!”
Eastwood was born on May 31, 1930, in San Francisco, right in time for the Depression. His father scratched out a living at odd jobs before ending up in Oakland at Bethlehem Steel. After high school, Eastwood traveled around, mostly in the Northwest, working at Boeing, Bethlehem, fighting fires for the Forest Service, hauling lumber at a Weyerhaeuser pulp mill, baling hay, and so on. He once described himself as a “bum and a drifter,” but he later attributed his sure feel for the blue-collar audience to these experiences. After a stint at Fort Ord as a lifeguard during the Korean War, he went down to Los Angeles to find work as an actor. Every day, he said, was like getting slapped in the face with a wet towel. In 1954, he got a job driving a truck around the Universal Studios lot and eventually hired on as a contract player for seventy-five dollars a week, acting in a couple of cheapies that later became shlock classics, Tarantula and Revenge of the Creature (from the Black Lagoon). Eventually, Universal let him go (because his Adam’s apple was too big, his buddy Burt Reynolds once joked).
For two years, he scrambled, digging swimming pools, pumping gas. Then, in 1958, through a chance encounter, he got the part of Rowdy Yates, the sidekick of Eric Fleming’s Gil Favor in Rawhide, a TV western that ran on CBS for seven years. In 1965, Fleming left the show (a year later, he was killed by a crocodile while on location in South America, according to director Ted Post), and Eastwood had the series to himself. In 1964, his agent asked him if he was interested in starring in a western to be shot in Spain by an Italian named Sergio Leone. “I had questions, normal questions, like who is Sergio Leone? It wasn’t like Fellini was offering to do it.” For $15,000, he agreed to go over to Spain during his hiatus from Rawhide. He even brought his own cigars, which he found at a tobacco shop in Beverly Hills. “They were about that long,” says Eastwood, placing his hands about a foot apart. “I said, ‘I’ll chop ’em in threes.’ Boy, they tasted ugly. Put you right in the mood for killing. “Leone knew ‘good-bye,’ and I knew ‘arrivederci,’” says Eastwood, and they communicated through gestures and intermediaries. The script was wordy, and Eastwood cut out dialogue by the mouthful. “Whenever I had a problem, I’d use my street psychology, Psych 1-A. I’d just say, ‘Well, Sergio, in a B western, you’d have to explain. But in an A western, you just let the audience fill in the holes.’ He’d say, ‘Okay.’”
Eastwood did two sequels to A Fistful of Dollars. When the first of his spaghetti westerns arrived in America, in 1967, the critical reaction was mixed. The films were acclaimed—and disdained—for their hip, surreal cynicism. The trilogy established the formula for the Eastwood western: the Man With No Name squinting in the fierce midday sun, laconic, cool, and laid-back but remorseless and vengeful at the same time, coming from nowhere, going nowhere, without a past, without a future. He was the antithesis of the liberal Freudian western hero of the fifties—Paul Newman’s Billy the Kid, say, in Arthur Penn’s The Left-Handed Gun. “I was the king of cool,” says Eastwood. The western was the American genre, as critic J. Hoberman has said, the one in which America stared itself in the face and asked the big questions: What is good? What is bad? What is law? What is order? Eastwood’s westerns were no exception. The pasta pictures were the cultural Muzak for the post-Kennedy era; the Man With No Name became the big-screen version of J.F.K., who forced Khrushchev to back down over the Berlin Wall and the Cuban Missile Crisis, launched the Bay of Pigs, and cultivated the Green Berets.
Along with the James Bond pictures, Eastwood’s films ushered in a new era of cinematic violence. Some fifty people are killed in A Fistful of Dollars. The line between the hero and the heavy was becoming blurred. With the war in Vietnam heating up, there was no time for niceties. “In Josey Wales, my editor said, ‘Boy, you shot him in the back,’” recalls Eastwood. “I said, ‘Yeah, you do what you have to do to get the job done.’ I think the era of standing there going ‘You draw first’ is over. You don’t have much of a chance if you wait for the other guy to draw. You have to try for realism. So, yeah, I used to shoot them in the back all the time.” Eastwood and Leone changed film history together, but they barely knew each other. After The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, Leone wanted Eastwood to do Once Upon a Time in the West, but Eastwood had had enough. “I went home, and I didn’t see him for a lot of years. I think he was resentful—I had started becoming successful. And he didn’t do a lot of movies. Many years later, when I went over to Italy for Bird, he called. We went out together one evening and got along better than in all the times we had worked together. I left, and he died. It was almost like he had called up to say good-bye.”
Eastwood’s first American western, Hang ’Em High, in 1968, for United Artists, was in the spaghetti mode. His next picture, Coogan’s Bluff, began a lengthy collaboration and friendship with director Don Siegel. “When we met, it was a very sort of surly relationship,” says Eastwood. “‘I don’t like your suggestion for this.’ ‘I don’t like yours.’ Finally, we just zeroed in, started agreeing on a few things, and then we became fast friends.” Eastwood had always wanted to direct, and he picked a small story, Play Misty for Me, to start with. The studio, Universal, preferred he stick to his six-guns. This was a sort of proto–Fatal Attraction, in which a disk jockey gets involved with a psychotic woman. Eastwood prepared well, perhaps too well. The night before the shoot began, “I was lying in bed, going over the shots in my mind. I had them all planned out. I turned out the light, thought, ‘I got this now.’ All of a sudden, I went, ‘Jesus! I got to be in this thing!’ I turned on the light and started approaching the scenes all over again from the actor’s point of view. Needless to say, I didn’t get much sleep.” The critics were not nice, Eastwood recalls. “They said, ‘We’re not ready for him as an actor, much less a director.’”
Misty was a modest hit. And then came Dirty Harry. The tenor of the film was evident from a tag line that was never used: “Dirty Harry and the Homicidal Maniac. Harry’s the one with the badge.” But the critics were not amused. In the highly polarized political climate of 1971, many people felt that Dirty Harry said it was okay for cops to trample civil liberties in the pursuit of crooks. Plus, the Scorpio Killer wears a peace sign, as if Siegel and Eastwood were turning a whole generation of kids who fought for social justice and an end to the war in Vietnam into a bunch of Charles Mansons. Kael was particularly vocal. She wrote that Dirty Harry is a man who “stands for vigilante justice” and termed the picture “fascist.” Eastwood answered his critics by insisting it was just a defense of victims’ rights. “The general public isn’t worried about the rights of the killer; they’re just saying get him off the streets.” So far as the peace sign went, “that was a thing where the actor wanted to do it and everybody just thought, ‘Well, that’s irony. A lot of people hide behind the guise of being peaceful, and they’ll be the first ones out there advocating violence.’”
After Dirty Harry, Eastwood was given considerable freedom at Warner’s. “The guy had a story sense about his own persona that nobody else had,” recalls Wells, who is now president of the Walt Disney Company. “You’d make the deal and not see him again until the preview—of an under-budget movie. We always did what he wanted to do.” Except in the case of Dirty Harry. Eastwood did not want to do a sequel, but the studio was implacable. Ironically, Magnum Force was based on an idea spawned by the febrile brain of wild man John Milius. Eastwood considered it a liberal riposte to Dirty Harry. “It showed that just because these guys were killing people who deserved to be killed doesn’t mean that’s the way society should go about it.” “Eastwood was typed early on as a guy who could do only one thing—Harry—over and over, and he was the only guy in the mix who thought, ‘I can do better than that,’” says Dennis Shryack, who co-wrote The Gauntlet and Pale Rider.
In real life, Eastwood was far different from the character he became identified with. He did collect guns, but he didn’t care much for hunting. It’s said he once stopped his daughter from stepping on a cockroach. “I don’t like killing,” he says. “It’s one thing to fantasize about it in a movie, but I never saw the sport in removing a life from the planet.” In 1976, he directed himself in The Outlaw Josey Wales, another tale of revenge and his best western up to that time. Even though critics constantly compared him to John Wayne, Eastwood—and the Duke—knew different. Wayne wrote him a letter after he saw High Plains Drifter (1973). “He said, ‘That isn’t what the West was all about. That isn’t the American people who settled this country,’” Eastwood later recalled.
Eastwood’s westerns were more akin to Elizabethan revenge tragedy than to John Ford. “I was never John Wayne’s heir,” he once said. Ford believed deeply in the civilizing impact of society, the transformation of the jungle into the garden. In Ford’s dusty towns, there is always a church or a school going up, the frame building standing starkly against the raw landscape. Eastwood’s westerns are about darkness and pain, and even when the evil has been avenged, the wounds rarely heal. In Unforgiven, there is a house going up, built by Little Bill Daggett, Gene Hackman’s sadistic sheriff. At the end, with Munny’s weapon aimed at his head, Daggett says: “I don’t deserve this… to die this way. I was building a house.” Munny replies, “Deserve’s got nothin’ to do with it,” and pulls the trigger. Ford westerns are about deserving, and this scene would never have happened.
Until 1976, aside from the Dirty Harry movies, Eastwood for the most part worked for Universal. But he had long been dissatisfied with the way the studio was marketing his movies. The Universal tour was the last straw. “I had a really nice bungalow, a very comfortable place to work,” he recalls. “But I’d walk out of my office and the bus would be sitting there with people yelling. So finally I called Frank Wells [at Warner’s] and said, ‘I’ll move over there if you’ve got a space for me, but if you ever have a tour, I’m leaving.’ He said, ‘We’re not in the tour business.’” Moreover, Eastwood had an itch. His career has always gone against the grain. He was making genre movies in an era when the most interesting work was devoted to subverting genres, particularly the western, which more or less died under him. He was riding tall in the saddle in an age of antiheroes; he was the laconic star for Nixon’s silent majority. If Dirty Harry was a decade ahead of itself, when the Reagan-era zeitgeist caught up with him, in 1980, Eastwood had already moved along.
While George Lucas and Steven Spielberg were busy reinventing the old formulas that Penn, Scorsese, Altman, and others had buried, one thought, for good, Eastwood started tinkering with his image, journeying into the shadows of his own persona. He told writers Shryack and Michael Butler that he regarded their script The Gauntlet, in which he plays a feckless cop, as a bridge to a new kind of character. In 1980, the beginning of the Reagan era, he further cut the ground out from under himself in the self-mocking Bronco Billy, where cowboy Billy is a purveyor of illusions. While Reagan was using the symbols of the West to promote the illusion of a heroic America that no longer existed, Eastwood was increasingly obsessed by the limitations of the human condition. “Exploring the dark side sort of came about when I started doing things like Bronco Billy,” he says. “I’ve played winners, I’ve played losers who were winners, guys who are cool, but I like reality, and in reality, it’s not all like that. There’s sort of that frailty in mankind that’s very interesting to explore. Heroics are so few and far between.” When The Gauntlet didn’t do as well as hoped, Warner’s became concerned that Eastwood was making the wrong choices.
He always had a streak of Burt Reynolds redneck humor about him, and when he wanted to play opposite an orangutan in Every Which Way but Loose, Warner’s did some market research that indicated a negative reaction to the title, to the orangutan, and even to the idea of Dirty Harry in a comedy. But Eastwood doesn’t have much truck with market research and went ahead anyway. It cost about $8 million and grossed about $85 million (about $150 million in today’s dollars), making it his biggest film. Even Bronco Billy grossed $33 million. Finally, the East Coast establishment climbed aboard. In 1980, the Museum of Modern Art in New York gave him a retrospective. Two years later, Robert Mazzocco wrote a widely read appreciation in the New York Review of Books, calling Eastwood “the supply-side star.” The essay registered his anointment by Upper West Side “neos”—both liberals and conservatives. Then, in 1985, the French, who had always lauded Hollywood directors without honor in their own country, gave Eastwood a retrospective at the Cinémathèque, as well as a Chevalier des Arts et Lettres decoration. Mazzocco was right. Eastwood had indeed benefited from the Reagan-era cultural shift. But liberals applauded him, too, falling all over themselves to find the bleeding heart behind the “fascist” veneer. His acting, previously “stiff,” became “spare and stylized.” Honkytonk Man was compared with The Grapes of Wrath.
The Los Angeles Times, doubtless with Sudden Impact in mind, called him “the most important and influential… feminist filmmaker working in America today.” But just as Eastwood was never a fascist, his new liberal threads did not quite fit him either. In the early years of the Reagan administration, he gave a reported $30,000 to a former lieutenant colonel in the Special Forces named James “Bo” Gritz to launch an “incursion” into Laos, and then agreed to act as Gritz’s liaison with Reagan. “I said, ‘If there’s a possibility of saving just one person, I would certainly spend any amount of time and effort necessary,’” recalls Eastwood. “But it wasn’t The Dirty Dozen—I think they ended up spending most of the dough hanging around Bangkok. They brought back a bunch of bones—some of them weren’t even human. Remains weren’t worth risking lives for.” (Gritz denies dribbling the money away in Bangkok and insists that the remains were human.) A registered Republican for most of his life, Eastwood criticized Reagan for visiting a military cemetery in Bitburg, Germany, where SS troops were buried. He ran for mayor of Carmel in 1986 and won—but spent $25,000 to land a job that paid $2,400 a year.
Although Eastwood feels his two-year term was plenty, his editor, Joel Cox, says, “I think it was the best thing that ever happened to Clint. He’s always been a loner. It sort of opened his personality a little bit.” Eastwood rejected George Bush’s request for help in the last election. “I think what the ultra-right wing conservatives did to the Republicans is really self-destructive, absolutely stupid.” He voted for Ross Perot. “Perot was kind of out there, with dirty tricks and all. But in the final analysis, he’s the only one I believe. I would have loved to have seen four years of the little guy from Texas rolling his eyes, screaming and yelling, ‘Time to bite the bullet.’” In the last ten years or so, Eastwood has chosen more personal, character-driven projects: Honkytonk Man; Bird; White Hunter, Black Heart; and Unforgiven. He gets away with it because he is so financially responsible. Asking Warner president Terry Semel about Eastwood is like asking a kid about Santa Claus on Christmas morning: “Clint is the best producer I’ve ever worked with. He is more careful with our money than he is with his own.” Warner’s is not going to lose much on an Eastwood picture, no matter what it’s about. Says Valdes, “I think if Clint Eastwood wants to make a cooking show, he will call [Warner chairman] Bob Daly or Terry Semel, and we’ll be doing a cooking show.”
Bird is a period drama about a black jazz musician—an alcoholic, a smack addict, and a wife beater—who dies at the end. But Eastwood knew he could bring it in under $10 million, including his fee, at a time when an average picture cost $18 million. And he did. At the same time, Warner’s counted on him to deliver commercial product. The problem was that Heartbreak Ridge, The Dead Pool, Pink Cadillac, and The Rookie were not that commercial. For the first time, Eastwood’s career looked as if it might be in trouble. Then came Unforgiven—not, on the face of it, much more of a box-office draw than Bird, a risky project for someone who hadn’t had a real hit in nearly ten years. But as with Bird, he kept the costs down. He brought it in in fifty-two days for $14.4 million, excluding his fee.
With some exceptions, Eastwood always had trouble getting marquee names for his movies; they were seen as his movies. “You’d start talking about Meryl Streep and end up with Patty Clarkson,” says Marco Barla, Eastwood’s project coordinator. Hackman didn’t want to do Unforgiven. “The violence of the characters I portrayed had begun to wear on me,” he says. But Eastwood convinced him that the film made a statement about violence. “He was very explicit about his desire to demythologize violence,” adds Hackman. Later, Hackman quipped, “I’m really glad Clint convinced me this was not a Clint Eastwood film.” “When Unforgiven came out and started doing business, I was shocked,” says Eastwood. “Because I never try and romance the audience. You’ve got to forget that there’s somebody out there eating popcorn and Milk Duds. I figured that if people want to see it, they’ll see it. If they don’t, screw it.”
Eastwood, sitting in his trailer between takes on Line of Fire, is dressed in a conservative gray Secret Service suit, scuffed and ripped in places from his exertions in the name of national security. He looks tired. There is a half-pint container of milk on the table. “Better get rid of that,” he says softly to Frances Fisher, whom he has been seeing for some time and refers to as “Bad Fran.” “Else you’ll be Big Bad Fran.” Eastwood has said he doesn’t know if Unforgiven, which has now grossed more than $100 million worldwide, will be his last western, but it should be. He’s come full circle. Unforgiven is Dirty Harry turned on its head. After two decades, Harry, still above the law, has become the sadistic sheriff, Hackman’s Daggett, while Scorpio has evolved into Munny, the killer now reformed. By killing Daggett, Eastwood purges the identity that has imprisoned him throughout his career.
Richard Schickel once said that Eastwood is a man who works in the American vernacular, an artisan whose art emerges from the craft. As Barla puts it, he is like a body-and-fender man who’s been beating out dents for thirty years and then builds his own car. Everybody oohs and aahs, and it goes in a museum. Eastwood, of course, will never make any extravagant claims about his own work. “I sort of just do my thing and make films, and the body of work just sort of adds up year after year,” he has said. “Eventually you do something someone thinks is okay.” More than okay, and the beauty of it is, he’s still working. In the Line of Fire is not Unforgiven. But neither is it Dirty Harry. Yet the executives at Columbia Pictures just can’t get Dirty Harry out of their minds. Line of Fire’s killer (played by John Malkovich) has been taunting Eastwood’s character, Frank Horrigan, insisting that history is about to repeat itself. There’s a scene in which Horrigan stands by Kennedy’s grave, staring at the flame, and mutters to himself, “It’s not going to happen.” When the execs heard that, a light went on: if he spits out “It’s not gonna happen,” it could resonate like “Make my day.” They could use it in the trailer.
They ask the screenwriter, Jeff Maguire, to add the line during the climactic fight between Eastwood and his doppelgänger. There’s no way to do it, unless Maguire makes the killer—a clever fellow, and by no means a cardboard villain given to thundering imprecations—shout something like, “I’m gonna kill you,” or “You’re a dead man.” Maguire doesn’t want to do it. But he’s only the writer, and, worse, this is his first script. So it’s up to Eastwood to draw a line in the sand, tell Columbia, “It’s not gonna happen.” But it’s not his picture. Under pressure, Maguire rewrites the dialogue. Malkovich looks at the new pages and says, “Why would I say that?” One day, while they’re shooting the fight, Eastwood says, “Let’s do it.” They shoot the scene. Malkovich threatens; Eastwood fixes him with that cold stare and retorts, “It’s not gonna happen.” But he doesn’t pause for effect. He says it quickly, swallows the words. They are nearly inaudible (they ended up reshooting the line so it can be used in the trailer). But no one can say Eastwood is hard to work with, or throws his weight around, or is on a star trip, or acts like Dirty Harry. He doesn’t. He’s not.
Clint Eastwood on making Unforgiven, and on making a Western film more true to what living in that time period might have really been like.
JACK N. GREEN, ASC
Jack N. Green, ASC, connects with AC via Skype to discuss his work on Clint Eastwood’s acclaimed Western Unforgiven. Touching on his three-decade collaboration with Eastwood, Green discusses several aspects of the project, including the decision to shoot in Alberta, Canada; how he worked with production designer Henry Bumstead to develop a period-correct lighting scheme and muted color palette; the importance of shooting anamorphic; and what it’s like to collaborate with a director who is also the star.
Interview with Clint Eastwood. Published as Entretien avec Clint Eastwood in Cahiers du cinéma, no. 460 (October 1992).
Unforgiven is a Western relatively different from the ones you have directed or acted in before. Why the desire to take up this genre again, and what would you say is the difference between this one and the others?
I couldn’t tell you exactly why I wanted to make a Western again, because I didn’t have any reason to make one or not to make one; it wasn’t a decision that came out of a particular trend, there wasn’t any prior reason in fact, and that’s what made the project all the more exciting to me: I prefer to do things without giving myself a starting direction. So why a Western? That seemed to be the only possible genre the story was calling for, because in fact everything grew out of the story. In any case, I’ve never thought of doing anything because it’s in fashion, on the contrary I’ve always felt a need to go against it. And anyway, I probably feel a little guilty of always having tried to go against success like that, against the fashion. As for what makes this Western different from the others, it seems to me that the film deals with violence and its consequences a lot more than those I’ve done before. In the past, there were a lot of people killed gratuitously in my pictures, and what I liked about this story was that people aren’t killed, and acts of violence aren’t perpetrated, without there being certain consequences. That’s a problem I thought it was important to talk about today, it takes on proportions it didn’t have in the past, even if it’s always been present through the ages.
Unforgiven is dedicated to Sergio Leone and to Don Siegel. What relationship does your film have with their cinema?
In my mind, the film doesn’t have much to do with Sergio and Don. But it’s equally true that we never know to what extent the things of our life, the people we’ve worked with or haven’t worked with, will come to play a role in what we do—whether it’s John Ford, for instance, or others. They’re two people I’d worked with at important moments in my life, and both of them, ironically, died in the course of the last couple of years; that’s why I wanted to pay homage to those two men who had influenced me so much, whether they had anything to do with the film or not. I like to think they would have liked the story. Maybe not, but I think Don would have liked it a lot.
Did you change the screenplay, for instance regarding the theme of violence?
The theme of violence was already present in the screenplay, as well as its repercussions on the characters, whether they’re the victims or the perpetrators. This theme is interesting in a Western because Western stories have always been built around violent behavior, a frontier of violence in man. And this one called certain things into question, notably concerning the theme of justice. You could think that if the Little Bill character [Gene Hackman] had granted justice to those women in the beginning, that would have changed the whole story. And his lack of concern in the face of an act of violence, or even his indifference to it, actually sets the story in motion—straight towards his own death.
Is there a connection between the political situation in the United States today and your film?
I think you could make some comparisons, yes. But that wasn’t the original intention. Deep down, it’s a matter of eternal concerns, not just those of a given era, but considering the present situation in the United States, it seemed to me this was the right time to make this picture. Even though the screenplay of Unforgiven was written a long time ago, I was quite influenced at the time of making the picture by a number of recent events.
Do you think it would be possible to reconstruct your personal trajectory through all your films, which all to a certain extent tell a human story, your story?
Well, I’d rather say that from one point of view there’s a little bit of me in all my characters, and from another point of view there’s nothing at all of me in all the characters I’ve had to interpret. After all, I don’t have to be in agreement with any of the characters I’ve played. Some of them absolutely don’t correspond to my philosophy, others undoubtedly do more. I’ve played a few good characters that were “losers,” like the fellow in Honkytonk Man for instance, men who self-destruct. But I chose to play them because I know a lot of people who are like them, and I’m somewhat fascinated by them. So, even though I don’t resemble them deep down, I’ve seen so many of those men given up to self-destruction, who didn’t make use of their talent—when they had a talent… I don’t know. Some of my pictures, more than others, get a message across that I agree with. And finally, I always see an implicit message there that corresponds to what I am.
Is it true that Unforgiven will be the last of your films where you will also appear as an actor, and that in the future you will only act for other directors?
I began to direct my own films in 1970. At that time, the only means I had to be able to direct was to act in the films… It was a practical question at the time. Afterwards, I grew to like it. There was one of my pictures, the second or third, that I didn’t act in. Then I continued doing both things when I was especially involved with a project. But in the future I don’t think I’ll do it so continually. It’s a lot of work to act in a film you’re directing. So from now on, I think it will be easier for me to let someone else have the job of directing when I’m acting, or of acting when I’m directing.
You’re a producer too…
Yes. But it’s easier to be an actor and a producer, than an actor and a director.
Do you differentiate between films like Pink Cadillac and The Rookie on the one hand, and films like Bird, White Hunter, Black Heart, and Unforgiven on the other hand, or in your opinion do they all come from the same development?
I consider them all to be different, because none of them is really connected to the others, it seems to me… There could be similarities between some of the characters, in the problems they try to confront, but I don’t think there’s a real relationship. And if there had been one, I probably wouldn’t have done it in such a repetitive way.
Do you consider the films in the first group to be commercial films, and the others to be less accessible films?
I don’t make my films with regard to the commercial aspect. In that respect I’m entirely in agreement with the phrase of John Wilson in White Hunter, Black Heart: “I won’t let eight million popcorn eaters pull me this way and that.” If you’re constantly thinking about what the audience’s reaction is going to be, you stop thinking in terms of how the film should look, because the film will end up by being made around preconceived notions, on a hypothetical expectation of what the audience will do. It’s impossible to tell a story with ideas like that. And most of the time your work will be degraded by the contact with this kind of compromise. The essential thing is to stick to what you want to say, to the impressions you want to express in a picture. Then afterwards, it’s up to the audience to accept it or not. Having had both sorts of experiences, it finally seems to me that all you can do is resign yourself to fate. The audience seems to know what it wants to see and what it doesn’t want to see, it seems to sense whether such and such a picture will agree with them or not.
For years your production company, Malpaso, has collaborated with Warners, which is distributing your latest film. Are you completely independent?
Yes, I am independent. Warners has distributed most of my films and shared in their financing. But I work in complete freedom. The people at Warners have been very supportive for more personal projects, like Bird, without forcing a commercial obligation onto it that would have changed the nature of the film. It wasn’t Batman Returns… And I think in the long run they thought the film was good. Not every picture can be a great financial success. But you have to try, or else production companies wouldn’t be able to take the liberty of working with proper means. Of course, it’s not always the best pictures that are the most successful. Sometimes you get lucky, the film hits home, and people are knocking each other over to see it. It’s like a “home run,” to use a baseball term…
You’ve worked with two cinematographers in particular, Bruce Surtees and Jack Green, and you seem to attach great importance to the lighting in your films. As time goes by this lighting gets darker and darker. Why?
Jack Green was camera operator on Tightrope, and he replaced Bruce Surtees as cinematographer when Bruce fell ill. He did a good job, and I decided to give him a chance by continuing with him. There are some of my films that I conceive more as brightly lit films, and so you have the lighting I asked Jack for in White Hunter, Black Heart, which isn’t a particularly dark film. Unforgiven is quite simply a “stormy” film… What you have to remember is that it takes place at a time when people didn’t have much to use for lighting, and the only artificial light came from oil lamps. So if in shooting a night scene we had decided to flood the action with light, people would have done right to ask us where all that light was coming from…
In several respects, Unforgiven reminds me of My Darling Clementine by John Ford, a film that already had this very dark lighting scheme, and your acting is not without a connection to Henry Fonda’s. Have you seen this film?
Yes, and even if I’m not sure that Unforgiven is much like My Darling Clementine, I know what you’re trying to say. Ford’s picture has a number of nocturnal scenes, all right. Maybe I was unconsciously motivated by an idea close to Ford’s. I tried to light my film—or rather I asked Jack Green to light it—like a black and white film. The costumes and the scenery were likewise conceived as a function of this particular lighting scheme, like one in black and white.
It seems you like to remain loyal to the people you’ve worked with, like Bruce Surtees, then Jack Green, who turn up in the credits for most of your films, or Joel Cox, your editor since Sudden Impact. Is this a desire to have a “film family,” with people you can trust in completely?
Some of the people I’ve worked with have seemed trustworthy to me, sure. Of course, it’s certainly easier, when you’re working with someone, to be able to communicate, to be able to explain to him in a few words how you see things. And that’s possible for me with the people you mentioned. I don’t have any trouble making Jack Green understand how I envision a scene and how it ought to be lighted. So if I were to find myself with a new cinematographer for every picture, someone I didn’t know, I’d have to start all over again. It’s the same with Joel Cox, my editor, I can call him up on the phone because I know he’ll understand very quickly and very accurately what I expect from the editing of a scene.
Your films appear to be very detached from all that is going on in American cinema at present, and to only depend on yourself. Do you have the feeling that you’re playing the “lone rider” in the cinema as you conceive it?
In the American cinema I’ve always felt I was a little bit “somewhere else” (Laughs)… There certainly has to be room for a great variety of movies in any country. But it’s true that in America today, everything is subject to the sway of statistics and information science to such a degree, in the form of data that tell you who is going to see what, where and when, that people impose it on you to make a certain type of picture under the pretext that the age of the audience is exclusively between sixteen and twenty-one… I would especially hate to have to work that way, it would seem incredible to me to have to make a picture entirely for people between sixteen and twenty-one. With a little luck, a sixteen-year-old could like my film, in the same way a person of forty or more could. Why force adults to stay home by insisting on producing only films that aren’t meant for them? I recall the last time I was in France, the Cahiers du cinéma, I think, asked me why the United States was no longer producing anything but children’s pictures… And it’s a question that bothers me: why must important themes be treated on an infantile level? If it’s really difficult to get people to leave home to go to the movies, you have to want to take up the challenge. Instead of which, the types of pictures that get made are more and more limited.
Then what do you think of Hollywood today and those who reproach it for its violence?
I suppose there’s room for what they call program pictures, the films that draw crowds with action, according to a certain mentality that says that if there’s not an action scene every five minutes, the picture will seem boring and the audience will get up and leave… But I’d rather think—maybe I’m wrong—that audiences are more intelligent than people believe, and that it’s enough to tell them a good story for them to want to keep their seats, to see how a character is going to evolve, how a story is going to take place, instead of saying, “I’m going to keep my seat because in five seconds an armored car is going to crash into the wall.”
Do you attach importance to your recognition as an auteur in Europe?
Yes, very much. This time, the U.S. has been very appreciative of Unforgiven, and they’ve begun to recognize that I might be a director. But it all started here, a number of years ago. Actually, the Europeans encouraged me much more from my first film as director, Play Misty for Me, than the Americans, who had a hard time convincing themselves I could be a director because they already had a hard time recognizing me as an actor. They were asking, “Why is he doing that? Who does this guy think he is?,” that sort of thing. The Europeans, on the other hand, supported me a lot in the beginning and tried to find some value in what I was doing. But that’s an historical process, it’s far from concerning only me; quite a few other directors have had this sort of reaction in the past. Especially here in France, there are those you call “cinéphiles”—is that the word?—who are interested in movies not only as an entertaining spectacle to eat popcorn by. Now the rest of the world is beginning to come to an agreement around this way of thinking. The coming of film schools in the universities and other places causes people to begin to think of film in terms of artistic merit. France was a pioneer, with the creation of cinémathèques, for instance, but I believe that today this influence is felt all over. One of my favorite pictures is a film by William Wellman from the forties, The Oxbow Incident . I worked with him once, I had a small role in one of his pictures, not one of his best. And I asked him quite a few questions about The Oxbow Incident, which I thought was a great film. He told me that at the time, the wife of one of the studio bosses had hated the film at its first screening—she thought it was the worst crap a studio had ever financed—and then the producers had more or less gotten rid of it by distributing it as a B film. But when it was released in France, the critics were very appreciative of the film, they emphasized the value of its point of view, of what it had to say about capital punishment, about mob violence, about justice: Wellman’s picture had a right to excellent reviews. Then it came back to New York by way of France, and the Americans began to see its qualities too, but it was already too late, the film was at the end of its run and was taken out of distribution. It was a terrible fiasco—and totally unmerited. Today, people see it again with a different eye, and, I hope, in the U.S. as well as elsewhere…
Can you explain to us the choice of the title Unforgiven, which has no equivalent in the French language. Moreover, there is already a film by John Huston that bears the same title.
Yes, I think I was given to understand that there is no French translation for “Unforgiven,” and that the film is being called “Eem… Impi- toyable,” that’s it. Huston did make a picture by the same title, in the fifties I think [editors’ note: The Unforgiven, 1960]. Well, it’s a good title, it seemed to me to suit the film perfectly, and since I think the film by Huston isn’t one of his best, like The Treasure of the Sierra Madre or other classics, I didn’t see anything wrong in using it for mine.
What do you concentrate on above all at the moment of beginning a film?
I try to concentrate above all on the story, because it’s there that it’s all tied up, it’s the “kernel,” so to speak. Then I try to see how the image can best agree with the story, what form I want the story to appear in, with what emotions, what sonorities. In Unforgiven, there is this storm that becomes almost a character itself, a determining factor: the three protagonists, as they approach, seem to be bringing the storm along with them. This sort of thing isn’t written in the screenplay, it gets inserted later on. But the basis of the drama, the question of justice and violence, all that was already present in the screenplay.
In your films, art is frequently connected to destruction and self-destruction, as in Bird, Honkytonk Man, and White Hunter, Black Heart… Is this a subject that fascinates you?
Bird and White Hunter, Black Heart are in fact two pictures that deal with this subject, like Honkytonk Man with its character who has a real talent and “kills himself” before this talent has really had time to express itself. I find it hard to explain what fascinates me about this subject, they’re things you so often encounter in real life, probably that’s what attracts me to it. Take Charlie Parker, for example, it’s such a great loss, such a waste when someone very creative, gifted, the bearer of new ideas, self-destructs as he did. No one can ever properly understand how a person could have so much talent, so much enjoyment in playing, and at the same time set in motion his own destruction. That remains a mystery, and undoubtedly I’ve always been fascinated by mysteries.
Several months ago, we interviewed Jodie Foster for her first film as director, and according to her actors probably possess more aptitude for directing a film, because they succeed in functioning naturally at the emotional and intellectual level at the same time. What do you think of that idea?
There are indeed quite a few precedents, actors who directed their own films. You can go back to William S. Hart or Charlie Chaplin, Welles, and so on. Directing seems to be a natural extension of the actor’s performance. When you find yourself involved in a story in front of the camera, you’re not so far from being able to find yourself behind the same camera. If you’ve come from editing, or from screenwriting, the gap is greater, because you’re used to working alone and you haven’t had any experience with a film crew. And then an actor undoubtedly has a greater understanding of the language of filmmaking, its difficulties, its insecurity, things that are inherent in the production of a film. But at the same time, I can’t say that there’s a rule. It’s an individual question. An actor might have the aptitude I’m describing for directing a film, but that depends heavily on the capabilities of each one. There are editors and cinematographers who also make wonderful directors.
What do you think of the behavior of Little Bill Daggett (Gene Hackman) in your film? Do you consider him to be a sort of dictator?
I think he’s a good sort, at least in appearance. He has a certain charm… I believe he thinks he’s doing the right thing, just a man who’s doing his job. He probably has a violent past, the same as William Munny, my character, but he hides it behind a rational appearance. He’s the representative of the law, and so he’s on the side of the Good… But he isn’t prey to guilty feelings like Munny with regard to his past deeds. He’s deeply convinced he’s doing right with his decision to have total gun control, and he believes that the acts of violence he commits for the sake of setting an example are a lesson that will discourage everyone else from coming to town to make trouble. He’s a sadist at heart, and whether this sadism is innate or whether he’s developed it in the course of the acts he’s committed all his life is something that can’t be known. But in encouraging violence as he does, violence giving rise to violence, it’s also his responsibility that comes into play. Deep down, he considers himself to be a worthy human being, he’s building a house so he can sit on the porch and watch the sunset, he’d like to live a good life, a quiet life… But he has no way of stopping the wheel of destiny.
With Unforgiven, did you intend to tell the truth about what the West was like, or is it a fable?
I think it’s more of a fable, but a fable that would demythify the West, in a certain way, by appealing to other elements than the classical Western. As, for example, the fact that it’s not so easy to do things, that people’s aim isn’t so precise, that guns don’t always work every time they’re fired the way they’re supposed to. I don’t know if that’s the truth about the West, but the film probably does approach it. Oddly, it contains two stories that coexist in parallel, the one of the journalist who wants to print the legend of the West, and the one that runs through the film and contradicts it completely. The meeting of these two stories was what I liked about the script. Everyone changes in the course of the story, everyone starts out from one place and finishes somewhere else, just as in real life we learn something every day that transforms our way of looking at things. All these characters are taught a lesson in a tragic way, at least for most of them. And from the tragedy everybody can learn something.
Do you think you have related the story of a vengeance?
I don’t know that it’s a question of vengeance, even if there is a connection to vengeance in the film, because of Morgan Freeman’s character who gets killed. You could see the triumph of vengeance there, but, deep down, no one wins anything at all in this story; everyone suffers some sort of a loss, whether it’s a part of themselves or… their life. And that’s what happens when people indulge in violence in order to obtain justice.
A last ritual question: What are your next projects?
I’m getting ready to make a picture in which I’ll just be an actor, and where I won’t have a hand in the production this time: I’ll be a humble employee. This film will be directed by Wolfgang Petersen, produced by Castle Rock-Columbia, and John Malkovich and Rene Russo, among others, will be in the cast, which isn’t complete yet. As director, I’m working on a project I may do next year. But it’s only at the planning stage at present… On the other hand, I’m planning to do this other part as an actor and only as an actor, for the first time in quite a while, and it has a good chance of being well received, I think, I hope. In any case, this time I’m letting someone else have all the responsibilities and the headaches (Laughs)…
The Clint Eastwood/David Peoples classic Unforgiven is deconstructed by Kirk Ellis (Into the West) and Robert Knott (Apaloosa) as they explore its gritty action, ambiguous morality, and the tried-and-true tropes of its genre.
A closer look at Unforgiven: A History Of Violence, by Luís Azevedo.
Here are several photos taken behind-the-scenes during production of Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven. Photographed by Bob Akester © Warner Bros., Malpaso Productions. Intended for editorial use only. All material for educational and noncommercial purposes only.
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