Clint Eastwood reveals why he's an old dog who's willing to learn new tricks

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Clint Eastwood in "Gran Torino"

It’s safe to say that Clint Eastwood has still got it. At an age when most actors and filmmakers are retired, barely working or doing substandard work, Eastwood is an A-lister who’s still making Oscar-worthy films that often become big hits. In 2008, two movies that he directed — "Changeling" and "Gran Torino" — arrived in theaters and got critical acclaim and industry honors. But it was "Gran Torino," which went into wide release in January 2009, that became a blockbuster by topping the box-office charts and grossing more than $148 million in the U.S. box office alone.

In "Gran Torino" (released June 9 on DVD and Blu-ray), Eastwood stars as Walt Kowalski, a cranky widower and Korean war veteran who resents the presence of immigrants in his crime-ridden suburban Detroit neighborhood. When the teenage son of Walt’s Hmong neighbors, Thao Vang Lor (played by Bee Vang), unsuccessfully tries to steal Walt’s beloved Gran Torino car as part of a gang initiation, Walt and Thao form an unexpected friendship. But the gang problem in the neighborhood won’t go away, and it leads to an unforgettable showdown between Walt and the gang members.

Eastwood’s performance in "Gran Torino" earned him the 2008 award for best actor from the National Board of Review of Motion Pictures. In January 2009, just hours before he attended the ceremony in New York City to receive the award, Eastwood stopped by the Apple store in the Soho neighborhood to talk about "Gran Torino" and his other memorable experiences in filmmaking. During the question-and-answer discussion with a moderator and audience members, the Oscar-winning Eastwood (who was also one of the producers of "Gran Torino" and wrote the Golden Globe-nominated song "Gran Torino" for the film) shared stories about his career (even going back to his "Rawhide" days) and set the record straight about whether or not "Gran Torino" will be his last film as an actor.

How did you end up doing "Gran Torino," which is the first movie from screenwriter Nick Schenk?

Nick Schenk is somebody who tried to get [the script] to my agent, and it didn’t get there. And finally, [producer] Bill Gerber sent it over to my associate and he read it and said, "I think this is an interesting story, but you might not want to do it, because the guy’s kind of a racist and he’s kind of a wild guy. But it’s an interesting story." I said, "It sounds good to me." Not that I particularly want to play those things, but I just thought it sounded like you could take him on a little journey and start on one side of life and move him to the other.

The message of the story is great, because it shows you’re never too old to learn, whether it’s tolerance or anything else for that matter. I’ve always been a big advocate of that. I’m still working at 78 years of age, because I like learning something new all the time. And every time you do a project, you always learn new things. That makes it fun. Also, the Hmong culture was new to me, and I thought it was fun to deal with that.

Clint Eastwood in "Gran Torino"

What was it about the Walt Kowalski character that specifically appealed to you so much that you decided this would be your first role as an actor since 2004’s "Million Dollar Baby"?

I didn’t have to worry about dialogue. I just had to sit there and go [he makes a growling noise]. He just sort of growls all the time; you can just fill in a few lines here and there. There’s not a lot of great roles for guys at this age. I was in the military during the Korean War, although I didn’t go to Korea. I knew a lot of guys like this. I grew up with a lot of guys in the ‘30s and ‘40s that were like him — either the uncles or fathers or grandfathers of kids that I knew. So this guy [Walt Kowalski] seemed like a real person that I had seen in my mind somewhere.

What do you think about the fact that the script doesn’t hold back with Walt’s racist rants?

You can’t do that. I think people in general are tired of walking on egg[shells] anyway. That’s what we’ve been doing the last few decades: wandering around on eggshells, because everybody’s worried about being sensitive. And this way, you can sit there and vicariously live through a guy who’s totally insensitive. It’s fun. I think everybody would like to be Walt Kowalski for about 10 minutes and drop it from there.

He is honest in his feelings, but then he goes somewhere and he changes due to the Hmong culture next door. His telling moment is when he says, "I have more in common with these people than I do with my spoiled, rotten family." And it also talks about family and the feeling family has toward the father and the grandfather. They’re always wanting to put him away, in the American style of putting [the elderly] in assisted living and [wanting to] get rid of them, so the family can go on about their lives and people wanting to get their inheritance.

As a director, how do you think about how the film is going to look after you read the script? And can you talk about spacing your shots, as opposed to using close-ups?

It just depends. When I first started directing years ago, I was more interested in close-ups, because I was an actor-turned-director, and actors always love close-ups. But as time goes on, you start realizing that space is very important. And now, when I watch television shows and everything that are shot almost exclusively in close-ups, I think "They’re losing so much out there."

In the old-fashioned days of John Ford and Howard Hawks, they used close-ups also, but they didn’t use them constantly. They give it a chance to breathe and then all of sudden, they punctuate the close-ups. But now, people are almost punctuating almost constantly … And this picture ["Gran Torino"], because it’s in a small neighborhood and only a very few characters, you’ve got the feeling that there’s some open-ness to it; give it some size.

Can you talk about the casting for "Gran Torino"?

Casting is very important. It’s the most important part of a movie, really. It’s just getting the right faces, the right look, the right performers. Now, in the case of the Hmong culture, there were no actors that I knew of. It wasn’t a large array to pick from, so we just started testing new people. These kids [Bee Vang and Ahney Her] were both 16 and 17 when we did the film, so they were very young. [Ahney Her] had done maybe a high-school play. They really were not experienced people, but they just had a look that looked real to me, so eventually we started, and they jumped right into it and got with the program.

Bee Vang, John Carroll Lynch and Clint Eastwood in "Gran Torino"

Let’s talk about the scene in the barbershop where Walt Kowlaski shows Thao Vang Lor how trading insults is a form of friendly banter.

I grew up in a neighborhood where we did that. Everybody called each other by their names and called each other by their ethnic affiliation. Even Italian people would call themselves by those names. Everybody did it, but they always did it with a smile on their face, of course. If you didn’t, it was another thing again. People weren’t worried about that sort of thing.

Some of the reviews of "Gran Torino" mention your Dirty Harry character in comparison to Walt Kowalski. Did you think about Dirty Harry when you were playing Walt? And what do you think of being described as "iconic"?

I’m not thinking about anything, really. When you’ve been doing a certain job for 55 years, a lot of different generations have come and gone with you. A lot of people made out in front of the TV set to "Rawhide" … I did the Italian Western genre and then up through the detective stories of the ‘60s and ‘70s.

Most people associate me with a time in their lives. Maybe it’s senior high school, maybe it’s junior high school, maybe it’s grammar school or whatever. That’s where the "iconic" [description] of me comes from. If nothing else, I just out-stayed my welcome.

You’ve really evolved as a director, ever since 1988’s "Bird," which seemed to be a turning point for you.

You just do different things. The one thing I always fought against back in the ‘60s, when I was doing the dollar films with Sergio Leone — which were great fun, by the way — but at some point, I knew I had to come back into this country and start doing films locally, and I had to start doing films outside the Western genre. As much as I love the Western genre, I figured if I kept doing those, I’d eventually run out of steam on that and that would’ve been the end of it.

So I just kept expanding the career. And in 1970, I started directing. I directed a film in which I played a disc jockey ["Play Misty for Me"], and against a lot of the advice of the studio. They said, "Nobody wants to see you play a disc jockey." I said, "I love being a disc jockey. I’ve always wanted to play one. Play music and have a good time. Why not?"

Clint Eastwood in "Gran Torino"

You also sing, and your singing on the song "Gran Torino" can be heard in the end credits of the movie.

[He says sarcastically] Oh yeah, it’s great. I’m not going to lose my day job, I tell you.

What do you think about how "Gran Torino" is a portrait of contemporary America, addressing issues such as the economy, crime and immigration?

I definitely liked the script for that one reason. We’re going into Michigan, where, in the story [Walt Kowalski] had worked in the Ford factory for a number of years. And here we are talking about the depressed business there, the American economy that wants to be bailed out and is having problems. And here this guy’s retired from it, and then the immigration factor — all of these things make this picture contemporary in that sense. Not to mention all of the things about family, about his relationship to religion (or lack thereof) and then finally his decision on the way he decides to rescue this kid.

As an actor, are there any directors you wish you could’ve worked with in your career?

A ton of them. I always admired the two fellows I mentioned earlier: Ford and Hawks. I did get to work with William Wellman once in a very small part in a picture, but not in one of his great pictures in his heyday. Preston Sturges. I did work with John Sturges one time, too. These were all interesting people. I sort of missed that generation of the ‘40s, when a lot of great directors came along.

Because I started in television, there were a lot of television directors coming up. We had a lot of old-time directors that came along and worked on "Rawhide" — Stuart Heisler and Lazlo Benedict and people like that who had done a lot films quite well. So it was a great learning experience.

Ahney Her and Clint Eastwood in "Gran Turino"

Howard Hawks had a similar directing theme that you have, which is about the movie’s characters making their own family.

He did, and he also did a lot of different genres, too. He’d do "Red River" on the one hand, and then he’d do "His Girl Friday" — two completely opposite styles. It’s what made those guys fascinating, I think. They weren’t mired down in just one thing. And Ford, even though he was very well-known for the Western genre, some of his biggest hits were other types of films.

What directors did you learn from the most?

I’d have to say all of them, whether I worked with them or not. I just ended up watching the films. You kind of learn a lot about them and you learn what their thoughts are. But I did learn a lot from Sergio Leone, because even though it was an American genre, it was an Italian’s take on it. So that was great fun. Don Siegel, of course, was a close friend of mine and a mentor. I worked on four or five films with him. Maybe more. I can’t remember now. I have to flip the file.

You’re an actor, director, composer, singer and artist. Is there any part of filmmaking you enjoy the most?

I don’t know. I started out as an actor although the ‘50s and ’60. But I wanted to become a director, and I started in 1970 with "Play Misty for Me." I wanted to become [a director], because I felt that someday, I would not want to be an actor anymore. So I started working my way into that. I figured that you’ve got to look up on the screen someday and say, "That’s enough of that." I’ve said that many times, but I still end up doing it, so I have a masochistic streak somewhere.

I think I like directing the best, at least at this point in life. My ego maybe would’ve liked to see my golden locks, which are no longer golden, when I was younger. Who knows? I can’t remember that far back.

You’re known for being a very efficient director who does very few takes. How much time do you spend rehearsing with you actors?

It just depends; sometimes none, sometimes a lot. For example, in "Mystic River," the actors all wanted to rehearse, because they were all sort of an ensemble, and they had a lot of scenes together. And also they were [concerned] about using the Boston accent. So the actors all got together and they rehearsed at night, and I encouraged that. But I didn’t sit in with tem. I let them go. I let them work it all out.

In this particular picture ["Gran Torino"] in which I used new actors, I just got them in the situation and just let them go. I tried to keep them relaxed and feeling free about it. And once in a while, you’d go back and remind them that they have to listen more intently and you have to make certain transition points, but just basically, let everybody be.

I find that a lot of directors who talk a lot are trying to talk themselves into the scenes; they’re not doing much favors for the actor. It depends on the experience of an actor. Some of them just like to jump right in. I like to see what they’re going to bring, too. That’s one of the fun things about directing a film, is to watch and see what the actor’s imagination is going to bring, because they’ve read the same material and are working from it, as you are. And if they’re on track, you encourage them to stay on track. And if they’re off track, you encourage them to get on the track that you would like.

Clint Eastwood directing on the set of "Gran Torino"

As a director, you have a very relaxed atmosphere on your sets. Is it true you don’t like to say, "Action"?

I find that [saying], "Action!" gets everybody tense. I learned that years ago when working on a Western series. The directors would always want to scream, "Action!" And I remember four or five of us were out there on horseback and we were going to come back in and ride up to the camera and say a few lines and that was the end of the sequence. We we’d come riding up, the director would yell, "Action!" at the top of his lungs, and the horses would go every which way. They’d scatter out, and the horses didn’t like boom [microphones] coming down for sound.

Finally, I went to the director and suggested, "Why don’t you just not say ‘Action!’? Why don’t you just stand there and go [he points his fingers], because we’re not stupid. And we’ll just ride up there and say the lines." It seemed to work, at least that one time. So we did that, and I felt very proud of myself. So that started a style.

Do you have plans to write a book or work in other film genres in other countries?

Actually, I sort of became known as a director in Europe before here [in the United States] — at least I was accepted there [as a director] before I was in this country, back in the ‘70s, so I’m sort of partial to all kinds of genres and all kinds of philosophies that come from different societies.

To write a book, I’m not sure about that. I never felt that I had to spill my guts. I’ve been kind of an introvert at times and I don’t feel it’s necessary to share everything in the world. I cooperated with a book [1997’s "Clint Eastwood: A Biography"] that Richard Schickel wrote. I don’t know what else I’d say. I don’t have any plans [to write a book].

What about writing music?

I love songs. I love music. I started out in music when I was a kid. I was interested in that and I kind of lost direction there and then I came back to it, so that’s been great fun.

Clint Eastwood in "Gran Torino"

Is it true that "Gran Torino" will be your last film as an actor?

You know, I don’t know that. I think I was musing in front of a British journalist, "I don’t know I think this might be the last one." I think I’ve been saying that for years. When I did "Million Dollar Baby," I said, "This is the last film." When I did "Unforgiven," I said, "This would be the perfect last Western." And it has been so far.

And with "Million Dollar Baby," I thought this would be the perfect last film to act in, because [my character] wanders off … and that would be a perfect way to go into the sunset. However, you never know. You never say never. So I was musing in front of this journalist, and he put it out as the gospel, and so there we are.

It might be [my last film] … I don’t know if they have any kind of roles for guys my age. I could play butlers and stuff like that and become the Clifton Webb of modern-day times.

You don’t look your age.

[He says jokingly] It’s amazing what a belt sander will do. And we’ll send you to an opthamologist.

Are there any actors or actresses you’d like to work with that you haven’t worked with yet?

A ton of them. They’re too numerous to nail down, but there are so many wonderful talents coming along and existing talents who are working. I’d love to work with them. I got to work with a lot of great actors. Angelina [Jolie], who of course is easy to look at and she’s extremely talented. In "Gran Torino," I got to work with new people. It’s always evolving. Everything’s evolving and that’s the fun part of the job.

Bee Vang and Clint Eastwood in "Gran Torino"

You mentioned that Don Siegel was a mentor to you. Are you currently or have been a mentor to anyone?

I’ve worked with a lot of actors over and over again, but not quite as much as Don and I did. I’d like to think I leave some impression with actors and I suppose you become that. I’m a mentor to anybody who’s interested. If they’re interested, then I’m interested, but I don’t have any specific person [I’ve regularly mentored].

What advice would you have for aspiring actors and aspiring directors?

I would just say, "Keep after it. Keep working. Keep learning new things every day, and eventually, when a great break happens (hopefully it happens to everyone), be ready for it, jump on it and beat it into the ground."

What made you comfortable when you first started directing? Because when you started, there weren’t many actors-turned-directors.

I know it. I first tried to direct in the ‘50s or ‘60s. On "Rawhide," I wanted to direct an episode of that. They promised me that I would be able to do one, and then they reneged on the deal. I guess because some other series had an actor-turned-director and he had gone way over schedule. I just don’t know.

What do you think of Italian movies?

I grew up watching "Bitter Rice" with Silvana Mangano and all those few Italian films that would be released in the States. I liked Vittorio De Sica a lot, and I got to work with him once in a segment movie. He was a great director. He was a very charismatic character and a guy I watched a lot when he was directing. I like Italian movies. I was frequently there in the ‘60s, in Rome and the vicinity. It was a great period in life. I was very influenced by their stuff.

Clint Eastwood, Bee Vang, Brooke Chia Thao, Chee Thao and Ahney Her in "Gran Torino"

How long did it take to make "Gran Torino," from the time you got the script?

"Gran Torino" was very fast. We were doing post-production, editing "Changeling," which we’d done earlier in the year, and we started preparing "Gran Torino" almost immediately. Rob Lorenz, my associate, he took off for Michigan and put the deal together. It just came together really fast.

And then we found the Hmong communities. There’s a large group in Fresno, California, and St. Paul in Minnesota, and a smaller group in Michigan. So we ended up sending the casting people out into the Hmong community and found the various people who would be in the film. We shot the film in 32 days around Detroit.

Wasn’t the film’s story originally supposed to take place in Minneapolis?

Yeah, he [screenwriter Nick Schenk] had it in the St. Paul/Minneapolis area, and I suppose he had it there because there’s a very large group of Hmongs there. But the story plotline was about a guy who worked in the Ford factory, so it seemed to make more sense for it to be in Michigan. Plus they had a tax-rebate deal that made it really attractive. So we had a little bit of the W-H-O-R-E [about the budget] …We went with the economics of it all. It was actually very practical to do that, rather than do it in St. Paul or something like that. Our leading lady [Ahney Her] was from Michigan. Everything worked out quite well.

Clint Eastwood in "Gran Torino"

How did you find the Gran Torino that’s in the movie?

We found the car in Utah or somewhere. Some guy had one he had restored and wanted to sell, so we bought it hauled it over to Michigan.

What specific things do you look for in the casting process?

It’s just a look and a sound. And naturally, you want the person to be good and have a certain experience as an actor — or unless you’re doing a film like this one, where you’re willing to go with less-experienced actors. But the main thing is the look, the sound, what have you. With "Bird," I remember looking at Diane Venora on a tape, and they had about six or eight actresses on it. And when I saw Diane Venora, I said, "No, we’ll just stop right there." And the guy said, "Don’t you want to look at the rest of them" I said, "On the next picture." It was an inspirational thing. She did a wonderful test on it and she was great in the film.

It changes all the time, but mostly, it’s the look, the sound, how a cast fits in, the overall ensemble and how it’s going to appear in the film. The casting is the most important thing, because if you cast a film well, you’re 80 percent there. And if you cast a film poorly, then you’re never there. You may get up to "fair," but not much better. But it’s no insult for a person if they don’t get a role, because most of the time it’s just a different look that the director’s looking for.

Do you prefer doing a film on location or on a soundstage?

This film ["Gran Torino"] is all location. "Changeling," because it was a period film, there was some interior work on soundstages, and some of it was on location. My first film I ever directed, "Play Misty for Me," I did all on location, and that’s exactly what we did on this film here. But some films are different. If you’re doing a space film, you have to be on sets, because there’s no way you can go on location — maybe in some other time frame in history. [With] science-fiction movies, you can make the location what you want it to be.

"Changeling" was difficult, because we had to put Los Angeles back to 1928. And in 1928, there were no buildings of any great size, except City Hall. It was very, very sprawling. It was a much smaller city than it is now. And they have street cars and stuff that they don’t have now and they shouldn’t have gotten rid of, but they did.

Location dictates a lot. When you get there, it colors the picture. The way you look at everything is different when you get on location. You can scout locations and look at them, but I like first impressions. Sometimes I don’t like going to locations too early. That could be laziness or it could be that you like to get the inspiration of a new look.


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