In a scene from 1995’s “The Bridges of Madison County,” Meryl Streep’s farmwife gazes over one of the bridges as Clint Eastwood, playing a lanky photographer passing through, catches her off guard with a candid snapshot. He’s delighted that he has captured her in a natural moment. One of many sequences highlighted in “Eastwood Directs: The Untold Story,” it underscores what the director is always chasing.
In the Tribeca Talk Saturday following the world premiere of “Eastwood Directs,” the 82-year-old director/star told younger director Darren Aronofsky (“Black Swan”) that he learned a key trick from directing children: “It’s best if you get them when they don’t know they’re being filmed.”
“Eastwood Directs,” directed by friendly critic/documentarian Richard Schickel, almost panders with careful reverence. In the film a wide range of actors, directors, and producers attest to Eastwood’s gifts—especially his ability to direct actors. Not surprising for a man with a full-fledged acting career before and after he started directing, Eastwood seems most in his element as an actor’s director.
After the screening Eastwood told Aronofsky that he’s never worked with a bad actor. While he undoubtedly works with skillful people, this may be more testament to Eastwood’s sensitivity. Streep, Hilary Swank, and Kevin Bacon each say that they could barely tell when Eastwood was directing them.
The director learned early to make sure camera crews were ready during rehearsals to capture key performances. He told Aronofsky, “I do more shots than a lot of people, and reverse masters– just not as many repetitions.” Eastwood swears on the first time, either rehearsals or first takes, as the source of acting brilliance. “Mystic River” was primarily comprised of first takes and performances from Morgan Freeman and Gene Hackman in “Unforgiven” were built from many rehearsal takes.
Throughout the documentary, the same sentiments about Eastwood were echoed again and again, confirming the director’s industriousness, vision, versatility, loyalty, and “seductive diffidence,” as Streep puts it. “The second we try to pigeonhole him, he does something out of left field,” noted Spielberg. And several admitted that upon seeing a rare flash of Eastwood’s anger, they wanted to never see his temper again. That intimidation factor also inspired excellence.
Throughout his career, Eastwood continues to reassemble his cast and crew. Directors who worked with Eastwood early in his acting career, Sergio Leone and Don Siegel, were his primary inspirations. After casting Siegel in a bit part in Eastwood’s directorial debut “Play Misty For Me,” he told his mentor, “I’ll have you there in case anything goes wrong.” Eastwood also quotes Siegel’s advice about refraining from over-editing: a Hollywood plague of “killing it with improvement.”
Even with all his Oscars and accolades, Eastwood’s humility and work ethic remain evident. He discusses fighting to make films that the studio rejected for being too dark or potentially uninteresting to audiences. When studios said that no one would see a movie about a female boxer, Eastwood responded: “Who the hells wants to see anything? You don’t know till you get to it.” He pushed for “Million Dollar Baby” and eventually the studio conceded. “If you fail on your own terms,” he says, “you can fail with your head held high.”