Written By November/December 2011 : Page 18
18 • WG AW Written By NO VEMBER/DECEMBER 20 11 Clint &L portraits by art streiber
Clint & Lance
A conversation with Clint Eastwood and Dustin Lance Blank
Almost everyone calls him Clint. The Warner Bros. Security guard. His office staff in the bungalow that he’s occupied on the studio lot since 1976. Grips. Actors blessed by the experience of being directed by The Man. Clint.
But for screenwriters, there’s more than gratitude or respect in their voice when they say “Clint”—there’s reverence. It goes beyond a good writer/director working relationship. Clint Eastwood is the only Hollywood director whom screenwriters universally love to love. They speak of his respect for the integrity of a screenplay. They describe his intuitive understanding of the writing process, his appreciation of a good story well told, his knowledge that without solid structure and compelling characters no film can succeed. For screenwriters, Clint’s the living archetype of the perfect director. Their gold standard. The Man.
How did Clint get to this pinnacle?
Perhaps Eastwood’s aesthetic wisdom evolved out of a career dating from early television in the western series Rawhide. Maybe his tough times during the 1950s searching for serious film work taught him the art of surviving impossible odds—experience he shares with every writer working in Hollywood. No doubt his passion for jazz honed his instincts for that elusive heart of filmmaking: emotional truth. Certainly his emergence as a major movie star via the Sergio Leone “spaghetti westerns” gave him the power to select screenplays based solely on merit. Ultimately, while starring in the iconic Dirty Harry action films, guided by legendary director Don Siegel, Clint absorbed an invaluable lesson: Don’t fuck with a good script.
Once he committed more to directing than acting, Eastwood began an ascent into the ranks of the great independent filmmakers. He somehow makes personal films within the studio system—in 1988, celebrating his beloved Charley “Bird” Parker with a seemingly improvisational style reflecting jazz itself; in 1992, saying goodbye to the Western with the elegiac Unforgiven; in 2006, an extraordinary homage to both American and Japanese soldiers during World War II, simultaneously directing the Flag of Our Fathers in English and Letters From Iwo Jima in Japanese; Gran Torino defied politically correct thinking on both sides of the 2008 multicultural divide—only Clint could have gotten these movies made.
This year it’s J. Edgar, Eastwood’s 33rd directing achievement. J. Edgar affords Clint the opportunity to explore his youthful admiration of G-Men, to expose the cost of political and sexual repression, and to subtly warn Americans of historic as well as contemporary threats to their liberty, both outside and within the Republic. Dustin Lance Black’s seamless mosaic of a script about FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover provided Eastwood an ambitious story for crafting a personal art film hidden within a big-budget studio picture. Eastwood is never hesitant to acknowledge Black’s screenplay as the foundation and inspiration for this achievement.
Black’s previous feature Milk earned both the WGA’s and Academy’s Best Original Screenplay awards. For the following conversation, he came to Eastwood’s Warner Bros. Bungalow. Just a few days prior to this meeting, gay activist Black had been in New York watching the world premiere of 8, his original play about the gay marriage ban imposed by California’s Proposition 8.
At age 38, Lance appears to possess wisdom beyond his years; at age 81, Clint talks with the enthusiasm, vitality, and humor of a gifted college kid. Both writer and director share stories on a comfort level that must mirror their collaboration during the making of J. Edgar.
Richard Stayton: You’re the first pure director, meaning nonwriter- director, to be on the cover of Written By. Ever since becoming editor in 1999, I’ve heard stories about how much writers appreciate working with you. We’d be talking about their experiences with directors and if one had worked with you, they’d always express sincere gratitude. Every writer said you were not only the best to work for, you are also the rare professional at any level of the industry to truly understand the screenwriting process.
Clint Eastwood: Well, that’s just because I believed in that work, I guess. I believe if you like a script, don’t deny what your feelings are. If you deny it, you’ll start revamping it in your mind like I almost did with David Peoples [on Unforgiven]—I could have easily wrecked that. And I learned years ago from Don Siegel, who was always saying, “People come in all the time, everybody wants to change everything, they want to kill it with improvements.” I mean, everyone’s got ideas but you shouldn’t approve a script or greenlight something that you don’t think is any good, because you can’t go back and redo that. The same thing would have happened in this script. You can’t unwind one thing without unwinding others and you’re just filling holes. When you get a good script, it’s unusual. Appreciate it.
And it’s just a feeling you get, or an intuition, that this script is the one for you to make?
Eastwood: Yeah, it’s intuition. I think more with my gut than with my brain. My brain can get in the way. Whatever you want to call it, whether it’s in your heart or in your soul—it’s just something of a feel. You’ve got to listen to your own feelings. You can’t analyze—it’s not an intellectual art form really. It’s an emotional art form, and you’ve got to stay with that, wherever the emotions carry you. And if you start intellectualizing, you start dissecting it and doing things for the wrong reasons rather than [trusting] that first impression, that first read-through. Not the second, third, and fourth. What grabbed you? And if it grabbed you, with exception of the third act, then you can say, “Okay, I love it except for the third act.” And then you go to work on that or revisit it with the writer or what have you. But most of the time it’s just screwing up perfectly good work that somebody’s spent a lot of time on.
Dustin Lance Black: But you were saying, on the first phone calls, “Where’d you get this, is this real? Where can I read about it? And you better have your shit together.”
Is that what he said?
Black: No, he didn’t say that to me, but that was the feeling. But it was like, You better not be selling me a pack of lies here.
Eastwood: Well, it’s not that I wasn’t trusting, but I just wanted to know. We went back afterward and put in some voiceover that Lance found out of Hoover’s book. So it was great, adding the voiceover style a little more to the picture, but at the same time we weren’t putting in anything that [Hoover] didn’t say. Right up to the last word [of the book written by Hoover].
Black: Yes, during the last section of work [on the film], we ended up putting in a voiceover that I think helped get even closer to this [Hoover] first-person perspective.
Adding that voiceover was Clint’s suggestion?
Black: He said, “How about we use Sunset Boulevard as kind of an inspiration.”
Eastwood: Kind of what Billy Wilder did with Sunset Boulevard and Double Indemnity. I always remember the speech from Sunset Boulevard: “Nobody thinks anybody ever writes these things; they think the actors just make up the lines as they’re going along.” That’s what the public thinks, but we all know it isn’t that way, though you want a movie to feel like this is the first time anybody’s ever said it or did it, [while] the technicalities are hidden of course. Actually, writing to me has always been the true art form. Directing and the acting [are] the interpretive art forms. So writing’s the most important.
Black: That Hoover voiceover is not in the script [Clint initially read].
Eastwood: It’s so logical because we start out with Hoover doing his memoirs, so the memoir just keeps going on [as the voiceover]. But for that, you went back to Hoover’s book, didn’t you?
Black: For the voiceover, yes, because I was looking for stuff that was very internal and personal. But if I was going to write that, I didn’t want it to be me [Black’s own words], because then people would say, “Well, that’s not Hoover, that’s Black.” And then, in one of his books that he wrote in the late ’50s, early ’60s maybe, about Communism— in a foreword—Hoover had this personal stuff where he talked about his political philosophy and how it related to Love. You don’t expect that to be coming out of Hoover. I brought that in and showed it to Clint, who said isn’t this surprising and sort of lovely and personal and revelatory in a way.
Eastwood: Yeah, we fit it in right away.
Black: I’m eager for some critic to be like, “Well, that’s not Hoover,” and I can say actually this is right out of this thing he wrote. Or maybe he wrote it. Who knows, maybe his assistant wrote it.
Eastwood: Maybe. At least he’s taking credit. Maybe some guy sat next to him and said, “How about this?” And he said, “Yeah, great, what the hell?” Black: Your career started with acting. When you first confronted a screenplay, what was it you were looking for? At that point, where you were starting to pick, I want to do this versus this.
Eastwood: I don’t know. My first impression with a book or a screenplay is, Would I like to see that? Is it a story that excites me in one way or the other? Then the next question is, Would I like to be in it? And the next question is, Would I like to direct it? A chain reaction like that goes through your brain. But mainly, Is it a good read and does it seem visual? Do you see the pictures along with it? I’ve always pretty much done everything at a visual level.
Black: So the questions—what were you looking for as an actor and what were you looking for as a director—have the same answer?
Eastwood: It’s the same answer for both departments. But sometimes it’ll be more confusing. Would I like to act in it, yes, but I wouldn’t like to direct it, because it would be too complicated, or it’s too much effort in one area. Or I might want to direct it, but you don’t see yourself in any of the characters.
The scripts you end up doing, you usually read in one pass. I usually don’t like to sit down with a script unless I [have the time to] read the whole thing. I liked the script [of J. Edgar] right away. I liked the style of it. I liked that there’s an enigma. When you’re at the end, you’re still wondering where he came from. But it’s a great love story. The [Hoover’s career-long secretary Helen] Gandy thing is more of a mystery. But the [Hoover’s FBI assistant and lifelong “traveling companion”] Clyde Tolson relationship, they’re obviously inseparable pals, so it’s a great love story. To what degree the love story played out in life, nobody really knows.
Black: The toughest part about the script for me was navigating the politicizing of the far right and the far left and all the things that they said about him. Was he a perfect all- American hero or was he this guy running around in dresses at Roy Cohn’s house?
Eastwood: The dress thing I had heard way back when. I don’t think back in the ’40s, but maybe in the ’50s.
Black: Certainly by the 1960s people were saying it.
Eastwood: You never know when you hear that stuff. Everybody likes to think, Well, obviously he is a cross-dresser. Or was it just a Halloween party? What I liked about the way you handled it is how you related it to the other, most important character in his life. The only thing [in the script] that even slightly resembles that [cross-dressing] is when he wants the closeness of his mother, who has just passed away. So that doesn’t go into a real quirky thing so much—well, I shouldn’t say [quirky]. We went back [to Washington, D. C.] and met with the FBI, and the opinions of him were so varied. An awful lot of people thought he was a terrific guy and just a straight-ahead great cop. Others thought he was a crazy bastard and manipulative with his relationships and manipulating all the people with his [secret] files. And this [script] is probably all of that, little segments of everything that’s true.
Lance, you did other revisions on J. Edgar for Clint, yes?
Black: We did notes based on the FBI finally engaging, because once it’s green, then all of a sudden the FBI took interest in a way they hadn’t. They were always very cool, but John Fox, the historian, wanted to fact-check it, so that was helpful. There was one scene you wanted to hear out loud, which was the letter-writing scene. And that became an opportunity to create this emotional ending for [Hoover secretary] Helen Gandy. There had been a great dramatic ending with the shredding of the papers, but then we added an emotional, like Where has my Edgar gone moment.
Eastwood: Yeah, like she’s watching him lose his mind.
Black: And that was a rewrite idea. That was the first day I came to set.
Eastwood: The way it was written, you had it as he’s saying it out loud, reading it.
Black: Yeah, he was reading it to himself.
Eastwood: It seemed like such good dialogue, it was a shame not to have the actor act it out. But like you say, it was important for her too because that way it comes alive in her mind that [Hoover’s] actually losing his.
Black: But then Leo [DiCaprio] started doing his own research and started finding things. I was like, “Leo, I don’t know. I think Clint wants to shoot the script how the script is.” And Leo, you know, also is headstrong: “But I want to do this stuff.” And I’m like, How did I find myself in the middle of this? So it would be funny because [Di- Caprio and Black] would talk out things and they were all good ideas. But in the end, I said, “I think it’s up to you, Leo, to audition it for him.” Then he would come and read it for you.
Eastwood: Leo works differently. Every actor has their own way of approaching things and he likes to approach it out loud. He likes to rehearse out loud and talk about it. That one speech in the Congress, that one that he’s rattling on? He told me the next morning, “I said it so often my girlfriend told me to shut up.” I guess he was driving her absolutely fruitcake with it.
Black: We all got to hear that speech many, many times. And that’s one of the speeches where we added a lot of the Hoover language that Leo had dug up in his research. But you almost always said, “Yeah, let’s try it.”
Eastwood: Sometimes you hear something like that—from any actor, not anybody specifically—and you go, “Yeah, let’s try it.” It might not be any good and maybe your first impression as a director is that it isn’t any good. You say, “I don’t think we’re gonna go with this,” and then all of a sudden maybe you see something or hear something that sounds good. And I’ll do a take of that, and then I’ll say do an abbreviated take, or go back to the way it is in the script, let’s try it that way. And sometimes it works better one way and sometimes better another. But I try to leave myself open for anything that anybody brings in.
Black: I’ll remember that if we have a next time.
In the same issue as this, we’ll have a special tribute section from writers.
Black: Writers you’ve worked with are saying these very nice things about having worked with you and that it’s different than working with other directors who do this thing called development. Who get a script and start to develop it and develop it and develop it.
Eastwood: I’m much more excited about picking up a piece of material and reading it and saying, “Yes, this is good and I like this because...” Or maybe I don’t even know why I like it. I haven’t thought about it—it just kind of unraveled. And that’s the way it was with this script, that’s the way it’s been on a lot of scripts I’ve done for my career. I’ve just read this script and said, “Yeah.” With Unforgiven, I changed things, but only as we went and they were minimal. Same as [J. Edgar]. Not changing the whole construction or changing the intent of characters or what have you. Million Dollar Baby [written by Paul Haggis], all of those. The last picture I sort of consigned a writer to do was Letters From Iwo Jima. I took a little tiny book of letters that a [Japanese soldier in World War II] had written home to his daughter, and I gave it to a writer who was a student of Paul Haggis. Because I couldn’t afford Paul, I was strictly speculating. I just said, “Paul, I can’t afford you, but do you have a student or somebody you’re mentoring along?” And [Iris Yamashita] came in and said, “Well, here is how I see it,” and started telling me the characters. And I said, “Gee, I love that, go home and write that.” She went home to write it, and we started from there. And sometimes, even today I wonder, How did that click?
An earlier consignment, as you call it, might be Mystic River.
Eastwood: Yeah. I read a review of [the Dennis Lehane novel] in USA Today and the reviewer was critiquing the storyline. And when I read the storyline, I said, “I’ve got to get that [book].” So I went down—I think I got it at Costco—and I read it in a day, and then I asked my agent to read it too. We all just thought it was terrific. So I called Brian Helgeland, and he read it, and he liked it, and he said, “But it will take weeks to do this thing; I don’t know if I can conquer this.” And then about two weeks later, he comes up and said, “Well, I got this...”
Black: He wrote it in two weeks?
Eastwood: Yeah, I was figuring it would be months, you know, but it was two or three weeks—I can’t remember exactly now, but it was very, very fast. And a couple of weeks after that we were in production. So some go real fast and others don’t. Unforgiven, I bought it in 1980 and didn’t pull it out of the drawer until 1991.
Was that because you were waiting until you were a certain age to act in it?
Eastwood: I tell everybody that, but I just didn’t feel like doing a western at that time. I’d done so many western genre films through the ’60s and ’70s and some of the ’80s. But I liked the story very much. I just said, “I’ll do this some other day, and it won’t hurt for me to be older because he’s supposed to be a guy who is at the end of his career and has done a complete 180 in his philosophies.” And when I took it out the second time in the ’90s, I said, “God, this script’s really good.” Then I called David Peoples and said, “It’s really good, but I’ve got a couple little suggestions.” And so I started screwing around with characters and stuff like that and then one day I just said, “You know, I’m wrecking this. This thing’s perfectly good the way it is, what am I doing?” And so I called David and said, “Forget all those suggestion ideas…” I’d been giving him notes over the phone. “Forget all that, I like it just the way it is.” So I started in and whatever changes I made, I just made them along as the actors came aboard and you found out what their strengths were and their high points.
I just watched it again last night, and it holds up beautifully.
Eastwood: Oh, did you? I haven’t seen it since 1992. I’m waiting for it. One day I thought I’d sit down and put it up on the big screen and watch it.
You won’t be disappointed.
Eastwood: So there’s no rule, everything’s different, including this one [J. Edgar]. I’ve always hated directors who say, “Oh, you’ve got to do this, and this has to be there.” I once was on a set with Vincent Minnelli. He was on a huge crane and way up, and he had thousands of people around him. I was just an observer, back in the old Rawhide days. He said, “Take me down, take me down.” He gets off the crane, and he goes like… [Eastwood demonstrates a tiny gesture of moving a small object with one hand]. “Take me back up, take me back up.” And I wondered, Why didn’t he just ask somebody to kind of go move it, while he was up there, from the camera’s point of view? But everybody has their own style. My style is, Just put the goddamned thing down.
Writers on Set
Black: I got to see that because you actually invited me to the set. Is that rare, to have your writer on the set with you?
Eastwood: Sometimes. If the writer wants to be there, he’s always welcome. Most writers don’t want to be.
Eastwood: To watch you butcher their scene?
Black: No, you guys stayed true to it.
Eastwood: Well, we did, but I can’t say I do that all the time. Sometimes I’ll totally revamp something if it’s not working right. But if it’s working well, and you’ve got the right actors and the right thing—this was one of those circumstances. Unforgiven, same thing. I’d start scenes with Gene Hackman and Morgan Freeman and I’d go, Stop, okay, roll this, I don’t want to waste this, I want to see it the first time they really run it, I want to hear it the first time. Because sometimes that time’s better than any other time. Sometimes, it might be three or four takes down the line. Or if you get actors who are good at improvisation, they just go for it—add anything, let’s see what happens.
How about Gran Torino [story by Dave Johannson and Nick Schenk, screenplay by Schenk] which said so much about our multicultural wars?
Eastwood: When I read that, everybody thought, Well, he won’t like it. But I’ve known that guy [recently widowed Korean War veteran Walt Kowalski]. I’ve known people like him. I loved the fact that the writer had taken this thing of putting him on the outs with the family that he should be on the ins with, and the guy ends up with the people he dislikes the most. And [the Hmongs, Southeast Asian immigrants] turn out to be his family, so to speak. It was just politically incorrect enough that it probably scared people away. But you have to be somewhere to go somewhere else, and if you’d made him just a benign guy who takes the easy road to everything—he had to be a bigot. He had to be one of those hard-assed guys from WWII or Korea. He’s the least likely person in the world to ever become a mentor to this young boy and a girl and [identify with] this Hmong culture.
After reading Gran Torino, if you had second-guessed your instincts about the script and not committed to making the movie, you’d have been denying your own feelings. Again, you’re trusting your intuition.
Eastwood: Yeah. How many times have you, starting in grammar school, had multiple choice questions—is it A, B, C, or D? And it’s C, no it’s A, no it’s B. But it was C, the first one [you started to select]. And if you go through multiplechoice tests and you know none of the answers, if you fill out that first impression, the chances are you’ll at least get a passing grade.
Black: Is that how you got through school? That’s pretty good.
Eastwood: Well, kind of. If your instincts are telling you to mark C, then chances are there’s something in the back of your brain—maybe it’s information from reading something, or maybe it’s just strictly animal cunning—but that first impression is a lot of times the correct one. Not always; no rule of course.
Your script-reading process, with its emphasis on intuition and feeling, reminds me of jazz improvisation.
Eastwood: Exactly. When you’re playing riffs, you don’t go back, you play it as you think it. You don’t go back and correct it. I mean, sometimes you can. I was always taught at a piano, when you hit a bad note, go back and hit it again, just so you make people think that that’s what you intended to do. So that way you cover your bases. And most jazz guys will tell you that’s true. Actors can do that too. I used to work on improvisations. We didn’t do scenes for a year or so in a class I was in, just improvise. You’re doing a television series, like what happened to me in the late ’50s or early ’60s—the material isn’t good sometimes, or sometimes it’s hard to play, or sometimes it’s clumsy. And I drove the producer crazy because he was a writer and he’d come back and say, “I didn’t write that. Oh, well, if he wants to say it, what the hell.” But it saves you because if you want to make any quick changes you can make the changes and you don’t have to take overnight to think about it. Just kind of go with your gut.
Is there anything else you guys might want to talk about before we end this?
Eastwood: Is that picking up [pointing to the digital recorder]? Do you think those machines pick up what we’re saying?
I hope so. If they don’t, I’m—well, that’s why I use two. Backup.
Black: If they didn’t record, just make it up.
Eastwood: It’s been a pleasure working with [Dustin Lance Black]—he’s a spectacular writer. The script jumped right out at you. I was curious about the subject matter right away. A lot of people that I talk with on the street are curious about it too. So I’m hoping that there is an audience for it. But if there isn’t, we can’t worry about that. That’s all the fate part of it.
You don’t worry about audience appeal or box office?
Eastwood: No. An awful lot of good movies have not done well and an awful lot of bad ones have, and vice versa. You do it the best you can and walk away from it.
To Protect and Serve
I remember we were doing a picture and a studio exec, a young guy, junior exec, wanted to change the whole ending. And I said, “Change the whole ending?” And he said, “Rewrite the ending. We’ve got to do a rewrite on the ending.” And I said, “Well, wait a second, didn’t we all agree that this was—I mean, why did you go ahead with this project if you didn’t like the ending?” “Well, we just think we can do a lot better.” And before I told him to buzz off—I was kind of staying diplomatic, you know—I said, “I’ll tell you what, rather than spend at least $350,000”—or whatever it was going to cost to redo a bunch of scenes—“why don’t we just shoot this and if it’s really bad, you got me for free for whenever you want me.” That was my older self. In the early days, I would have probably said, “Get the fuck out of my face.” But anyway, this time I just said, “Let me shoot this end thing, and then we’ll chat about it.” It was the same ending that the writer wrote. They’re saying, “We’ll bring in this guy, we’re gonna do [a rewrite].” Shows you what kind of waste studios can get to if they want to. They could have ruined that picture. It would have ruined the whole thing. And even the guy told me afterwards— he was very nice—he said, “Thank you for not letting me talk you into that.” I said, “No problem.” I mean, everyone’s got ideas, but I said it’s definitely a good lesson.
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