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6 Filmmaking Tips from Clint Eastwood

The legendary actor and director offers a fistful of advice.
Clint Eastwood in Cry Macho
Warner Bros.
By  · Published on September 8th, 2016

Welcome to Filmmaking Tips, a long-running column in which we gather up the shared knowledge of a particular filmmaker and assemble it all into the internet’s favorite thing: a list. This one is about the filmmaking of Clint Eastwood.

When it comes to rules, Clint Eastwood is mostly just known for inspiring an official DGA stipulation against actors firing their directors and taking over the helm, as he did with Philip Kaufman on The Outlaw Josey Wales. Otherwise, he’s like one of his favorite collaborators and biggest influences, Don Siegel. “He believed that there were no rules,” Eastwood said of the Dirty Harry director in 2009 in the French magazine Positif (via Focus Features), “or if there were rules, they were made to be broken.”

Like any filmmaker, the two-time Oscar-winning director (for Unforgiven and Million Dollar Baby, each of which also earned him Best Picture Oscars) has certain beliefs and practices when it comes to the work. And he’s been known to offer advice on occasion ‐ even if it’s sometimes horribly gendered. But for someone who has been making movies for 45 years, not to mention the more than 60 he’s been in the business as an actor, it’s not easy to find a lot of guidance from the man. Below are the six filmmaking tips we were able to squeeze out of interviews with and quotes from Eastwood.

The filmmaking lessons we can learn from Clint Eastwood

1. Get Sleep

Eastwood received a lot of attention for the advice he gave his actor son Scott, who says he was told to “be humble, work hard, and be a man.” But he also gave a big tip to daughter Alison, who has made her own leap from acting to directing, and it’s more valuable. Specifically for the directing side. She told The Hollywood Reporter last February:

He has a dry sense of humor. So his biggest piece of advice for me as a director was, “Make sure you get a lot of sleep, because you’re going to need it.” That was his big piece of advice. He has a funny way of giving support through different weird ways of saying things, so that it’s not so direct. He’s just kind of encouraging in a different way, and has a funny way of passing on words of wisdom …

Alison Eastwood is not the only person who has received this advice from her father, either. In 2010, when asked what tips he had for Angelina Jolie on the eve of her transition into directing, Clint Eastwood told People the following: “My advice for her is to get more sleep than the actors.”

How might you get more sleep during production when you’re in such a high-demand job? Work shorter days, apparently. In 1999, Eastwood’s longtime director of photography Jack N. Green told Entertainment Weekly the filmmaker does actually have some rules for directing. Three, in fact. And one of them is to “take it easy,” meaning nine-hour days instead of the 13-hour norm.

2. Be an Interpreter, Not a Creator

There are things Eastwood sees as being similar about acting and directing, mainly in how they both serve the story. Here’s an excerpt from a 1985 profile in the New York Times where he discusses an equivalency in his two positions:

Eastwood describes acting and directing as ‘’interpretive’’ functions, activities at a somewhat lower rung on his creative scale than writing a script. He waits for scripts, rather than commissioning them on a theme that interests him … When he says he can pick out a good script, but does not have the ability to write one from scratch, it is as if he is drawing lines and saying: ‘’This is me. This isn’t me. My limitations are real.’’

But one difference for him is that actors obviously have a presence in movies and directors should have none. Here’s an excerpt from an interview he did with David Thomson for Film Comment in 1984, as reprinted in the book “Clint Eastwood: Interviews” (Revised and Updated Edition), where he explains his way of directing, or lack thereof:

Well, there is no particular way. Most of my films have a different look, depending on what the film calls for. It’s a combination of pace and an eye for composition. I can’t explain exactly what it is, because there isn’t as much style to my films ‐ an individualistic style … I think what has happened these days is that an awful lot of people direct movies in a style they’d direct commercials in. Where they just kind of float around all over the place. Being an actor has one advantage ‐ you don’t need to make your presence known. You presence is already there. So I’m not trying to feature any tricks as a director. I’d say a director who is pretty straight is Sidney Lumet or Martin Ritt. Guys who never try to intrude themselves. They try to feature the story, because directing is an interpretative art, as opposed to writing, the creative art. Those are guys who’ve told the story very well.

Of course, it’s not that he just takes a script as is and is completely faithful to what’s on the page ‐ but that’s where the interpreting comes in and allows for changes. He does prefer scripts that don’t need alteration, but most need at least a little. He explains one example, the screenplay for Unforgiven, in the 2012 book “FilmCraft: Directing”:

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.

He explains another example, the screenplay for Million Dollar Baby, to Amy Taubin in a 2005 Film Comment interview:

This is pretty much what it was when I got it. I called Paul Haggis. I didn’t know him but I congratulated him and told him his script was very nice, and he asked if I wanted rewrites and I said, “No, but if I need something, I’ll call you.” I said, “I do make changes along the way.” And he said, “I’ll make ’em for you.” And I said, “Well, sometimes they’re just at the moment when you’re adapting to performers and other things.” Like when you walk on a set and realize that it would be nicer if the light came from here than there. Those are adjustments made along the way. The script is the same. It’s an architecture, but it’s not quite drawn to the specs of an architecture. You have to be free with it.

He also likes his crew to be adaptable technicians, as well. In a 1980 interview for Millimeter, also reprinted in “Clint Eastwood: Interviews,” he says of his DP selection and why he’s able to use the same one over and over:

I try to get the cinematographer involved with the story. I tell him what I want to accomplish and try to convey a feeling for what I think it should look like, because the style grows out of the material, and so the style changes really with each picture.

Here he is again on the script for Unforgiven at a 2009 AFI event:

3. Don’t Lock Yourself In

In addition to interpreting the writer’s words as he goes, Eastwood also believes in keeping himself open to changing his own mind and vision. Evolving over the course of the production. From a 2003 interview involving him and his team in DGA Quarterly:

“You visit the set. You get ideas. You say, ‘You know, I could bring the person in there and I could come around there.’ You kind of rough it out in your mind,” Eastwood explained. “When you come back, a month or so later, to actually be on the set, you might notice the art director’s got some nice things that you didn’t know he was going to have. If you don’t like them, you can move them around. But if you like them, you think it’d be nicer if the actor came in another way. It evolves. It’s like clay. If you’re locked into something, if it has to be an exact duplicate of the mold that you had in your brain and you can’t deviate from it, then you’re going to be locked in. Sometimes people aren’t comfortable. Or an actor comes up with a splendid idea, which sometimes they do. They say how about if I do this? And I say let’s do this one, and after I make sure we have it say, ‘OK, that sounds good. Try it.’ I’m very sympathetic to actors trying things because that’s the way I like to be directed myself.”

Interestingly enough, he seems to have offered conflicting (and insulting) advice to daughter Alison. Again from her THR interview:

He did tell me when I was directing my first movie [2007’s Rails & Ties], “Make sure that you make a definitive decision about what it is you want to do, what you want from the movie, or the characters or the actors, and don’t stray.” And then he made a somewhat funny, derogatory comment about women directors, saying that a lot of them can be very wishy-washy, not know what they want, and they end up shooting things all different ways and not really having a definite vision.

4. Put Your All Into It, Without Compromise

What he probably meant in his above comment to his daughter is more about not compromising for anyone. The way Philip Kaufman didn’t for him, ironically. In a very rare instance of him giving “advice for young directors,” as published in “FilmCraft: Directing,” he says:

I would say use everything you’ve ever learned in life and everything you’ve ever seen and incorporate it all. And don’t let people talk you out of strong idea on something. Be aware that there are pitfalls and that people want to make you aware of the pitfalls, but don’t give up on the idea if it’s a good one. You have to believe in yourself, believe that you can do it and just go out and do it. You don’t want to ponder something to the point where you get indecisive, and people can do that because there’s always a million reasons why something won’t work, but you have to say well there’s also a million reasons why it might work, so let’s go do it.

Regarding that first point about incorporating your all, some of that just comes from experience and influences and collaboration that make you who you are as a director. He says in the Millimeter interview:

I think you pick things up from people just as you pick up your own ideas as you go along. I’ve always said that you learn something from almost everybody you work with ‐ every director, actor, or actress, you always learn something. They do something particularly interesting or well that you’ve never seen before and you always remember it. And on the other side of the scale, you see a director do something that impresses you negatively and you always remember that too. You think, “Shit, don’t ever do that.”

Regarding the second half, Don Siegel gave Eastwood a relative piece of advice back in the day, which is to not compromise yourself as an actor for yourself as a director. “Don’t short yourself,” is the famous quote from Siegel. Eastwood explains the tip in a recent interview for Esquire:

What he meant was when you are directing and starring in a film, there’s a temptation to spend more time on the other actors’ performances, and then when you get to your own work, you kind of go, “Oh, yeah, well, let’s cut that.” And he said, “Take your time and make sure you do your work right.” It’s especially good advice if you’re going from one career to another.

5. Be Efficient For Everybody

Maybe you’ve heard that Eastwood doesn’t do a lot of takes. Well, he doesn’t like that chatter, but he can explain it. Again from the DGA Quarterly interview:

“Everybody keeps saying, ‘Well, he only does one take.’ “ Eastwood said. “Even if that were true, I don’t like the reputation. I don’t think anybody likes that efficiency label. What I like is to be efficient with the storytelling. To me, it’s whatever it takes to do the job. I’m not out to save a buck. We’ve budgeted a film and it will live within the budget, that’s for sure.

“The big question, for me, is how to do it so that it’s efficient for everybody, so the actors can perform at their very best and with the spontaneity that you’d like to find so that the audience will feel like those lines have been said for the very first time, ever,” he added. “Then you’ve got a believable scene, then a believable group of scenes and finally a believable picture, because everybody is thinking it seems real. It seems like they’re saying it right away, instead of saying it for the 50th time. Everybody’s heard those nightmare stories of somebody doing a take 20, 30, 40 times. Other than obvious errors like forgetting a line, often I can’t see any difference between take one and take 20.”

In addition to its allowance for the more natural spontaneous performances, it’s also good for production. Here he is again from “FilmCraft: Directing”:

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.

He goes so far as to say a lot of takes are for lesser filmmakers in the Millimeter interview:

Anybody can make a film if you shoot forty or fifty takes on everything. If you run off enough footage you can put all that together and get something out of it. But whether it’s any good or not, has any soul in it, is another thing again. It’s like firing a shotgun. You can hit a lot more things with that than you can with a rifle, but it takes a lot less skill and it has a lot less impact.

6. Keep Quiet

The other thing Eastwood is best known for as a director is that he doesn’t yell “action!” or “cut!” while shooting. This is related to his efficiency, as he sometimes rolls during rehearsals, if he’s even rehearsing, or begins a take more organically and then uses an end slate when the shot or scene is done. He explains the process in the 2005 Film Comment interview:

Everybody’s ready. That’s the key for me. They know I’m ready to go at any moment. And the sound guy. I’ll just roll my hand and they’ll know. Especially with children. Children are brilliant but if you let them know the camera is going, they get self-conscious. And the set is usually so quiet we can just go ahead and start shooting. I’ve even done that with experienced actors. And then you don’t have to have someone yelling “Quiet, quiet,” and bells ringing and all that kind of thing. I remember once I walked on the set for In the Line of Fire at MGM. It was the first time in a while that I worked for another director. And there were bells going off. And I said, “What are these bells for? There isn’t a fire.” And the assistant was yelling, and I said, “Now just relax. If you’re yelling, everyone is going to be yelling to get over your yelling. So just talk quietly and everybody will talk quietly along with you.”

He reveals in the DGA Quarterly interview that it originated when he was observing the Secret Service (presumably for his role in In the Line of Fire):

“They had earphones in the ears,” he said. “You didn’t hear them talking, but they were all talking with one another all the time. I thought, ‘How come these guys can do this, but on a movie set you hear all these guys screaming and yelling all the time?’ So I decided I wanted set communication just like the Secret Service. Everybody should be able to communicate without having all this yelling and screaming.

That’s the way I’ve been working ever since. I have all the departments on headsets so they can say, real softly, ‘We’re shooting.’ It’s quiet. You don’t have to have that ‘ACTION! QUIET EVERYONE!’”

What we’ve learned about filmmaking

Eastwood doesn’t have definitive rules, which can make him seem easily inconsistent, and some of his interview comments haven’t helped there. But he is consistent, he’s efficient, he’s an interpreter, he’s a collaborator, and he’s also the captain in charge. He runs a tight ship but one that is free to change course to follow the most natural direction. He doesn’t like to overwork himself or his crew or actors, in retooling the script or a scene, to the point that they’re all just “killing it with improvements,” as he says in “FilmCraft: Directing.” He also likes quiet, which possibly helps in his preference for plenty of rest.

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Christopher Campbell began writing film criticism and covering film festivals for a zine called Read, back when a zine could actually get you Sundance press credentials. He's now a Senior Editor at FSR and the founding editor of our sister site Nonfics. He also regularly contributes to Fandango and Rotten Tomatoes and is the President of the Critics Choice Association's Documentary Branch.