Screen legend Clint Eastwood tells the remarkable story of one of the great American institutions in You Must Remember This: The Warner Bros. Story to commemorate the 85th anniversary of the iconic film studio.
Eastwood, 77, a four times Oscar winner, has had a long association with the studio, dating back to 1976 when he made The Outlaw Josey Wales for Warner Bros. and he’s had an office on the Burbank lot ever since. His close friend, the film historian and critic Richard Schickel, directs the five-hour documentary and Eastwood’s distinctive, instantly recognisable voice, provides the narrative.
Eastwood is an American icon himself – he has made over 50 films as an actor including A Fistful of Dollars, The Good, The Bad and The Ugly, Where Eagles Dare, Paint Your Wagon, Play Misty For Me, Dirty Harry and more recently, directing himself in Million Dollar Baby – which won both Best Film and Best Director Academy Awards. As a director, he has proved himself to be remarkably versatile with an extraordinary body of work that includes Honkytonk Man, Bird, White Hunter Black Heart, Unforgiven – which also won Best Film and Best Director Oscars – Mystic River, Flags of our Fathers, Letters from Iwo Jima and Changeling, his latest picture which received critical acclaim when it was premiered at the Cannes Film Festival where this interview was conducted.
The first two hours of You Must Remember This: The Warner Bros. Story was also screened during the festival. The finished documentary will be five hours long.
Q: When was the first time you came to Cannes?
A: You know, I can’t remember exactly when it was, I think it might have been Pale Rider. I think I’ve been here about five times and I was here as president of the jury and that was interesting, I had to stay here for the whole time then, and that was interesting.
Q: Do you remember much about that first time in Cannes? Was it a good time?
A: It was interesting. I think I was a little more overwhelmed then because I didn’t know what to expect. But now you know what to expect, you go down and you go up to the Palais. You just hope that you bring a film and that the audience enjoys it and that’s really all you can hope from any audience anywhere, it’s just a little bit more celebrated here.
Q: Your new film, Changeling, is classic storytelling but at times complex. But you obviously expect an audience to have the intelligence to go along with it…
A: It is kind of complex and it’s made for people who want to think along with you and people who don’t want to think along with you then they should see something else. There’s always a good show for everybody, there’s something for everyone (laughs). And at this stage in life I’m doing stories that I want to tell. I guess it’s always been that way, I’m doing stories that I would like to see myself. I’ve done the genre pieces and the Dirty Harrys and the westerns and all that and those were all fun. But this is fun too, doing different stories and Changeling was amazing because it really happened, the people were all real, and it’s hard to believe that something like that would happen. And I’m particularly appalled by crimes against children and that had something to do with it.
Q: How far back does your association with Warner Bros. go?
A: In 1970 they asked me to do Dirty Harry and we made it in 1971. I was still at Universal at the time, making pictures for them, but I’d go back and do a sequel every now and then for Dirty Harry. So after about the third or fourth sequel I remember I had a western called The Outlaw Josey Wales and I remember I liked the story very much and I called up Warners and I said ‘look, I’d like to do that, and I’ll move over there if you want me to..’ So I did. And that was the first picture I did when I actually moved on to the Lot and I stayed there ever since.
Q: So you obviously like their ethos and way of doing things?
A: Yes, it’s different administrations now. That was John Calley running it then and there have been others since. It’s different but the Studio is the same and the distribution guy I like very much. But working for Universal this time on Changeling was fine too, it was fun to be back there but it’s a whole different regime there.
Q: Richard Schickel said that he thought that you had opened up as you got older whereas most people close down with age. Do you see what he means?
A: I think I’m trying more things, trying more stories. But then in the old days I would do things that were interesting, like renegade cops or Every Which Way But Loose or something, and they were all fun, they were all part of my personal history.
Q: It seemed for a while that your persona off screen was defined by what you were doing on screen.
A: I think so, yeah. I think mistakenly so. I think people wanted it. Like the kids who liked Dirty Harry when it first came out were disappointed that I didn’t pull out a 44 Magnum and wave it around and the people who didn’t like what I was doing and tried to put political connotations to it were probably disappointed when they found out that I wasn’t like the character and a renegade personality. But you can’t satisfy everybody so what the hell. You don’t even try, you just do the best you can and people have two choices – one is to embrace the idea or ignore it.
Q: What do you like to do when you are not working?
A: Oh when I’m not working I’m up in Monterey or Carmel it’s a whole different thing. I play golf and hang out or read material to see what you are going to do next. It’s a whole different thing. Life goes on and I like to be with the family. And it’s good to have that balance.
Q: Will you do the Nelson Mandela film (The Human Factor) next?
A: That’s looking very good and looking like it’s going to happen. And then I’ve got another thing called Gran Torino, which we’re thinking about doing in the near future.
Q: Will you appear on screen in Gran Torino?
A: Yes. That’ll probably do it for me.
Q: Really? That will be the last time we see you on screen?
A: Yeah. I thought Million Dollar Baby would be a good one to quit on as far as being in front of the camera, and just stay on the other side. And it was successful picture and it just seemed like you always want to quit while you are ahead, you don’t want to be like a fighter who stays too long in the ring until you are not performing at your best.
Q: But with Gran Torino you feel there’s something you can do on screen?
A: Yeah, I think there is something to do there. I like it. It’s got a little statement to make that’s nice. The same that Million Dollar Baby had a statement to make – the loneliness of two different people, the father who never had a relationship with his daughter finds a relationship with a girl whose father has passed on. It was the father she didn’t have and the daughter he didn’t have, so it was an unusual father and daughter love story.
Q: Angelina Jolie who you directed in Changeling was saying how amazed she was at how quickly you like to work on set.
A: Yes, I like to work like that. I’m just trying for it at the beginning; I’m trying for it early. I know what I want to see and when I see it. You know the only virtue I have probably, is that I’m decisive, for right or for wrong. When I see something I like it and I progress on through it. And technically I know how much coverage I need. So if it’s an actor who really proficient and likes to work spontaneously, like Angelina does, I like to work that way. If not and they have trouble that way and they need to rehearse more, then I’ll rehearse more. I like to direct films the way I liked to be directed when I was a young actor. That’s where I’ve come to that particular style and most directors I admired growing up were this way. I remember David Lean was famous for being kind of slow. I remember Robert Mitchum telling me that when he did Ryan’s Daughter he said
they went up on the cliff and he was supposed to stand there against this sky I think he was trying to get sunset or something. And he said that they waited for days, three or four days, where every day it was raining all day long and then he said ‘God, this guy is never going to shoot.’ and then all of a sudden Lean said ‘OK, get out there now..’ and he said he stood out there, did the shot and it was one shot and that was it. He just wanted a certain atmosphere and it wasn’t that he was slow; he just knew what he wanted. When he saw what he wanted he knew it. John Ford and people like that always knew it too, and when they saw it, it was like ‘OK, that’s it.’ And Hawks, all those people worked that way. I never had the opportunity to work with those people but they all kind of got to it a lot more than they do nowadays.
Q: It always seemed that you knew when the time was right to move on in your career – whether it was from the westerns or the Dirty Harry movies…
A: Yeah, I don’t know why, it’s just an instinctive thing. It was like ‘OK, I’m at a certain age now than I was when I was that guy..’ So I’m looking at it from a different standpoint. I’ve played more things and I think I probably know more now.
Q: Dirty Harry is about to be re-launched on DVD. Do you watch DVDs? Do you have one in your house?
A: I have a crystal set (laughs). No, I have a DVD. I’ve been active with Warner Bros. and a lot of the studios in trying to keep DVDs in the same format. DVDs are great and if you have a favourite movie, whether it’s a Harry or some other favourite film, and you can have it in your house without taking up very much space at all.
Q: What do Warner Bros. mean to you as a company?
A: Well, I just ended up there. I started out years ago as a contract player at Universal and then I went back to Universal in the 1960s and I was there until the 1970s when I went over to Warners for Dirty Harry. I just gradually gravitated towards it because I liked the studio. The administration of the studio was great and they gave me complete freedom. The first picture I moved over on a semi permanent basis was for The Outlaw Josey Wales in 1976 and I just stayed there ever since. However, I’m not a contract player or anything, I just liked them. I liked Warner Bros. pictures as a kid like Richard (Schickel) did. All of the films, or a good portion of the films, shown in his documentary are films I grew up watching in the 30s and 40s and it’s fun to look back on them now. It’s also fun to watch my son and daughter and other younger people watching the documentary and getting a history lesson because they haven’t seen these films. So that’s good information to put out there. And for anyone who is a cineaste it’s a good way to start. And the more you learn about history the more you learn about the present.
Q: It’s interesting because we see some of the great movie stars of the 30s and 40s in the documentary but the nature of fame seems to have changed in recent years..
A: It’s kind of hard to relate to it. It seemed in the era from the 40s to 70s it seemed like movie actors had their place but now it seems like people are famous for everything, being a niece of a hotel magnate. So everybody gets famous for different things and it’s different now. It seems like the tabloid media seems to cover people for one reason and then there are other media that are more serious about what the accomplishments are of individual people. In the early days with people like Bette Davis and Joan Crawford and Ingrid Bergman and Humphrey Bogart and Cagney, they seemed like they were special kind of people who had special talent. Cagney was a great favourite of mine because he was fearless and could do so many things and would do so many things even if he wasn’t successful. I was always interested in
Q: What was the most interesting thing you learnt working on the project? And what scene from Dirty Harry would you like to have in the documentary?
A: You mean as the series progresses? Well, it will be quite a while probably. Warner Bros has such a rich history. It was great for me to see images from I Am A Fugitive From A Chain Gang (1932) and all of these wonderful pictures and it ends ironically from one of my favourite scenes from a Raoul Walsh movie (White Heat, 1949) which is the scene where Jimmy Cagney finds out that his mother has died and he is in prison and he goes crazy. I just thought the way Raoul shot that was very unique and very spare and when you hear how it was done in a few hours it’s inspiring to somebody who likes to make movies in an efficient manner. As for the Dirty Harry scene, I don’t know, that will be up to Richard of course. Most people gravitate towards that early one ‘did you fire six shots or only five? I’ve forgotten in all this excitement but
this is a 44 Magnum the most powerful handgun in the world, it will blow your head clean off and you have to ask yourself one question, do I feel lucky?’ (laughs). Anyway, maybe it will be something more original than that.
Q: Do you think that the Dirty Harry series could have been made by another studio? Because at the time they seemed very much to fit in with the Warner Bros. ethos.. A: Yeah it could have been. Originally when it was offered to me at first I was working at Universal. And I told Universal yes, I would do the project if they could buy the script. But they promptly went out and blew the sale so they didn’t get the script so it ended up through a long circle of events at Warner Bros. and Warners came to me again and I was familiar with the material. So it could have been made at Universal and it would have been made in the same way, because it was Don Siegel (director) but whether it would have been handled as well I don’t know. I remember one of the reasons I moved over to Warner Bros at that time was because a fellow named Dick Ledderer was the head of promotions and sales and marketing and he was kind of brilliant. He was the inspiration for the film, he loved the film and he went
out and marketed it in such an aggressive way and an imaginative way so that’s why I stayed at Warners, because of him.
Q: Do you ever watch your own films? And if so, what picture do you like the best? A: I don’t do that too much because I’ve made so many films. If I go back and start watching myself I’d grow up again. The last film I watched that I was involved with was The Outlaw Josey Wales because they’d made a new print of it and they’d put it through a digital process with 5.1 sound. I was going to watch for five minutes and I ended up watching all of it. But my wife had never seen Dirty Harry and she was broadcasting with the NBC affiliate in Monterey County and the fellows in the newsroom would always say to her ‘you haven’t seen Dirty Harry and you’re going out with Clint Eastwood’ and she’d say ‘no, I’ve seen a lot of his films but not that one..’ and they said ‘well, you don’t know what it’s about..’ So one day I put it on for her and that’s the last one I watched and she loved it. Anyway, it was some sort of verification because we’re still married..(laughs).
Q: Is there one period of filmmaking you particularly like?
A: For me particularly it’s right now. The recent films I’ve done are the ones I remember the most and because I’m doing more variety now than I did I wasn’t hung up on any particular genre like maybe I was forty or fifty years ago. So I’m happy now and I guess I’m living in the present more than in the past.
Q: Would you ever pick up a Magnum and play Dirty Harry again?
A: You know I would go out to a range and target shoot with somebody but I don’t think the San Francisco Police Department would have a 77 year old man on the police force so it would be highly unrealistic. People have asked me over the years ‘would you like to re-visit Dirty Harry?’ and everything would have depended on a script. But, really, no, there’s a time to leave things alone – you do a few sequels and have a good time with it, but my brain is in another place right now. But I love looking back on it.
Q: When you got involved with Dirty Harry did you know immediately that it was going to be special?
A: Obviously I felt that way because I went ahead and did the project. I felt there was something that would make an exciting police drama. Yeah, I felt there was something there. On every picture I’ve ever done I’ve felt instinctively that there was something worth telling but whatever height they reach as far as public appreciation is strictly up to the public and sometimes they haven’t been appreciated as much and sometimes they are appreciated more than you expect. That part of it is a crapshoot. But I’m a judge of that – you only do the best you can and then it’s up to someone else to make the judgement on it by going to see it or not going to see it.