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As far as Clint Eastwood is concerned, society’s current obsession with political correctness began with his 1971 movie Dirty Harry.
Coming in the wake of his three Sergio Leone Westerns that began with 1964’s A Fistful of Dollars, the violent San Francisco-set cop story consolidated Eastwood’s growing stardom, and he makes no apologies for it.
“It was far-out at that time, so I brought it to [director] Don [Siegel], and he liked it,” Eastwood recalled Sunday during a visit to the Cannes Film Festival. “A lot of people thought it was politically incorrect. That was at the beginning of the era that we’re in now with political correctness. We are killing ourselves, we’ve lost our sense of humor. But I thought it was interesting and it was daring.”
That was about as political as Eastwood got as he discussed his films in a master class, answering questions posed by Los Angeles Times film critic Kenneth Turan.
The veteran actor/director came to Cannes to introduce a screening of a restored version of his 1992 Oscar-winner Unforgiven, which unspooled as part of the Cannes Classics sidebar to mark the film’s 25th anniversary.
“I thought I’d just sit through the first five minutes, but after a while I thought, ‘This isn’t so bad, so maybe I’ll stay for it,’” Eastwood admitted. “I enjoyed it. I saw a lot of things that I’d forgotten.”
The filmmaker recounted how David Webb Peoples’ script first came to him as a writing sample around 1980, and he immediately thought, “This would be a great last Western for me.” But after optioning it, it sat in his desk for 10 years before he finally got around to making it.
During the course of the discussion, Eastwood paid tribute to his two mentors, Leone and Siegel. “Sergio had a different way of looking at the size and scope of films. I learned a lot from him,” he said. “Don Siegel was extremely efficient, he was faster than anyone I’ve ever seen, but that’s because he thought faster.”
Eastwood called his reputation for quickly shooting as few takes as possible “a lie,” but then admitted, “I like to always shoot the first take. I like to see the what the mechanism is in [the actors’] faces the first time it comes out of their mouths. If it works on the first take and you print it, everybody gets in that mood — ‘Okay, we’re going somewhere.’”
Eastwood explained how he likes to keep his sets calm and drama-free. On other films on which he’d work, he noticed how an assistant director would go around yelling, “Quiet on the set!.” But after a visit with one of the many U.S. presidents he’s known — he said it was probably Gerald Ford — he was impressed by how quietly the Secret Service agents communicated with each other through their lapel mikes and ear-pieces, and so he adopted that practice on his own sets.
And, Eastwood explained, it’s always been important for him to set the tone, saying, “If the director is not positive about where he’s going, the whole crew becomes sedate and nobody moves forward.”
As for why he decided to make so many of the specific films he’s made, the laconic director said simply, “If you have good luck with your instincts, you might as well stick with it. Intellectualizing or pseudo-intellectualizing, you can get yourself in a real box.”
Eastwood is currently readying the next project he will direct, The 15:17 to Paris, which is the true story of three American friends who defeated an attempted terrorist attack on a train bound from Brussels to Paris in 2015.
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