I have a reputation for always going with the first or second take. Of course, I don’t always get it in one or two takes. It’s more that I want to get the feeling that we’re moving. You have to keep the crew and the production going at a business- like pace so they get the feeling they are part of something that’s actually moving forward.
The cast and crew feel like they are going somewhere when they go to work each day and feel like they are accomplishing something and not just doing the same scene each day. I like to do whole sequences in one day, so everyone has the feeling that all the parts are there and, besides, it helps for editing purposes. It’s my job to make sure that the set and atmosphere that everyone is working in is comfortable. That’s the way to get the best out of people.
Sometimes I don’t change a good script at all. I bought the “Unforgiven” script in 1980 and put it in a drawer and said I’ll do this some day—it’s good material and I’ll rewrite it. And I took it from the drawer ten years later and called up the writer and said I had a couple of ideas and wanted to rewrite some of it, and he was fine with that. I told him I might call him because I wanted him to approve my changes. So I went to work and the more I tooled with it, the more I realized I was killing it with improvements. So I went back to him and said that I had been working on these ideas and I really felt I was wrecking it, so I was just going to go with it the way it was. So I did. Of course, you make improvements along the way, but generally when you start intellectualizing it, you can take the spirit out of it.
On other occasions, you get a script where the idea is terrific, but the execution isn’t quite right or doesn’t suit the actors that you’re hiring, so you adapt it and add things to it. I’ve made changes to everything I’ve done, but with some of them it’s a minor knick-knack here and there, and on others you rework it entirely from the start.
During shooting, I have certain objectives, but I am never locked into things. In other words, when I am going on a location, I don’t say it has to be this way because this is the way we looked at it two months ago so this is the way it has to be. I’m always flexible, I always improvise. If we looked at the location in the fall and the sun in the summer makes it a different place, I change it. If an actor is left-handed instead of right-handed, I ask them to come in whichever direction is more natural to them. I am using simplistic analysis here, but there is no rule that has to be stuck to rigidly.
Likewise, I am flexible with the script during production. Sometimes I get an idea in one scene that will stimulate something else. Or I’d like to see the actors do that, or maybe this character would do that.
I always like to feel I am doing something different on every picture. If I’m not, if I feel like I am doing something reminiscent of a lot of things I’ve done before, it would cause me anxiety that I was repeating myself. That’s why after “Unforgiven,” I thought that was a perfect time for me to stop doing the western. Not for anybody else, but I would hate to be doing the same genre continually. That’s why I left Italy, because after doing three movies with Sergio Leone I felt I had done as much as I could with that character and I thought it was time for me to go home and get other ideas.
When I did "Bird," it was a surprise to some people, first because I wasn’t in it and second because most of the films I’d been doing were cop movies or westerns or adventure films, so to be doing one about Charlie Parker, who was a great influence on American music, was a great thrill for me.