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Clint Eastwood, Absolutely

MOVIES

He's directing his 19th movie, the political thriller 'Absolute Power.' On the calm set,he's ahead of schedule and under budget. OK? OK!

October 13, 1996|John Balzar | John Balzar is a Times staff writer

He listens as an outsider makes an observation: The debate over American film, the influence of violence and dubious values, is not just a domestic matter. Other countries fear assault by Hollywood on their cultures, particularly poor countries in the developing world.

"I can't say I blame them."

He expresses his own lament: The popularity of "can-you-top-this with special effects . . . comic books on film." Not that he doesn't appreciate razzle-dazzle or hasn't tried it himself, as with "Firefox" in 1982.

"But it seems there used to be more of a balance with the other films that are story-driven, character-driven," he concludes.

And he has more to say about the profligate ways of his industry. Like the studio executive who wanted to tinker with "In the Line of Fire."

"They were ready to spend $300,000 to shoot a different ending before they'd even seen the first one," Eastwood says. "I said, 'Wait. Look at this one first. Then decide.' They did and they liked it."

It is said that Eastwood enjoys speaking of his work and his approach to it. Today, as he methodically devours a slab of fire-grilled swordfish and gnaws cleanly back and forth across an ear of corn, his answers are short, crisp, practiced, like his direction.

He picks his films by "spontaneous judgment," not to round out his letters or fill in missing gaps or explore something new.

No, he does not strive to make each film better than the last.

"I don't put that burden on myself," he says. "I think I'd like to make the best movie I can at the time.

"If I like it, it's good enough," Eastwood says about his work. He volunteers that films like "Bird" (1988) and "Breezy" (1973) that he directed but did not star in proved to have narrower audience appeal than others. "But it seems like there'll always be an audience for them. . . . I'm proud to have them in my portfolio."

It seems that much of Eastwood's method has, by practice and refinement, crystallized into instinct.

"Twenty-five years ago, you'd dwell on it coming in in the morning and driving home; you'd dwell on it in your sleep. Now, you keep it with you, but you can go out to dinner or play golf on the weekends, something crazy like that."

If he appears to be brooding, he may be. But subconsciously.

"Somewhere in the abstract part of the brain the technical things occur, and the embellishments," he says, frowning as if he's not conveying himself exactly right, although the point is made.

The remainder is straightforward.

For instance, Eastwood doesn't study the set. He likes to come upon it when the crew is ready so it greets him fresh. Reactions go stale rapidly. That's why he moves the action along. It's the natural way for people to behave. Cast and crew appear relaxed, but they're not daydreaming. Eastwood may feel comfortable enough to print the rehearsal.

"I don't know things until I get to them," he says.

Eastwood shoots a scratch on the floor in less than half an hour with only one take. A week earlier, he does the same with a complicated outdoor scene in which two snipers shoot at him at the same time, splintering cafe furniture and sending actors diving for the ground. One take.

With the 19 pictures, including this one, that he has directed, Eastwood can recall looking at the "dailies," the processed, uncut film from the previous day, and only "once or twice" discovering he would have to go back and reshoot a scene to correct an actor's performance.

"You can feel it if it's right. And I've got good people whose judgment I trust."

He repeats himself: "You can feel it."

Back on the bedroom set, the filming has moved ahead and another scene is being arranged. Eastwood's directions are conveyed with a sweep of the hand by way of suggesting the path of the actors' movements. Then, he indicates that if the camera is positioned here to catch the action from the side, it can be moved there for the reverse view.

He pauses to scan the room with an expression that says, "Well?"

In the story, what is happening is that the president's chief of staff (Judy Davis) has discovered that an intruder, a burglar, saw America's chief executive in the boudoir and witnessed everything awful. And then fled.

For the 20 minutes it will take to light and prepare the scene, Eastwood orbits the room casually, yawns again, putting his hands in and out of his pockets, relaxed, moving with slow, gliding steps in high-top sneakers.

He strikes up small talk with actors and crew, one by one, his voice so quiet he cannot be overheard. In this setting, people do not speak face to face but shoulder to shoulder, so as to watch the crew.

He takes a turn with the outsider on the set.

If you say you are bewildered by the activity, he says that's all right, "we're just fooling around." If you say you are trying to learn, he says, good, he's learning all the time. If you speak about the art of movies, he says this:

"They talk about the director as auteur. Auteur? It's more like being a platoon lieutenant or captain."

But not such a heavy-handed one, eh?

"The yelling you get a lot of times on movies? We've gone beyond that."

What about tradition? What about a director who doesn't bark out "Action!" or "Cut" but merely says, matter-of-fact, "OK"?

Ah, he smiles.

"I learned that years ago on 'Rawhide.' When you say, 'Action,' it sends adrenaline through the actors. Even horses get very hip to the word 'action.' They know something's about to happen. Up in the saddle, the actor squeezes the horse, the horse jumps out of the shot. Then you start over. I realize horses have brains the size of a walnut, but even they are smart enough to figure this out. So I try to use a different word, like 'OK.' Makes everyone feel easy."

Well, that will bring him a few letters from horse lovers, the walnut-brain remark.

"I like riding. I like horses," responds one of the most memorable cowboys in film. "But on my days off, I'm not going to pull myself up on some slack-lipped, big-hoofed monster."

OK?

OK.

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