09/14/2011 03:36 pm ET | Updated Nov 14, 2011

'It's Definitely a Democracy': Clint Eastwood's Self-Portrait as an Experimental Director

There is a common belief that all movie auteurs are dictators, like Stanley Kubrick, Steven Spielberg, and George Lucas, who carefully plan every detail of their films, then meticulously control the performances of their actors and the work of their technicians in creating the films. This belief is simply wrong. John Ford, Howard Hawks, and Robert Altman were great auteurs who created innovative bodies of work through the practice of artistic democracy. Each wanted their actors and technicians to feel the freedom to make their own independent contributions to the collective final product.

There is a fundamental difference between these two groups of directors. Kubrick, Spielberg, and Lucas are conceptual directors who want their films to communicate their ideas. For them, filming is an (often frustrating) exercise aimed at reproducing on film the images they have already formulated in their minds. In contrast, Ford, Hawks, and Altman were experimental directors, who wanted spontaneity and discovery in the process of filming to produce a final product more profound and exciting than anything they could have preconceived on their own.

Clint Eastwood belongs to the ranks of the great experimental directors. A recently published book of interviews by Michael Wilson (Eastwood on Eastwood, Cahiers du Cinema, 2010) can be added to the earlier collection edited by Robert Kapsis and Kathie Coblentz (Clint Eastwood: Interviews, University Press of Mississippi, 1999), to create a rich portrait of an experimental filmmaker in his own words.

Like all experimental artists, Eastwood avoids preconception of his art. So he does not use storyboards:

I hate to be the prisoner of a diagram. The best ideas come to me when the camera is in place, ready to shoot... Of course, I have a general idea of the sequence, but I try to remain as flexible as possible. I'll always try to leave an actor the latitude to modify one of his movements if he has a good reason.

He believes that exciting shoots make exciting viewing:

I don't like long shoots. I like to work hard and fast... It's when you have an adrenaline rush that you give your best. Otherwise, you rack your brains, you doze off, and there is a strong chance the audience will be doing the same.

Discoveries come from the unexpected, and the unrehearsed, in the act of filming:

I'm often asked, 'Why are you so obsessed by the first take?' Because you never know what's going to happen, what a great surprise you might get... I like to capture the actor when he is still wondering, asking himself a lot of questions, rather than trying to re-create a previous take.

Eastwood likens the spontaneity and collaboration of making a movie to that of his first artistic love, jazz:

Sometimes the rhythm of a scene comes to me like the rhythm of a piece comes to a jazzman that is improvising on a given theme. This happens to me on the set and also in the editing. I like to be free to greet whatever fate has in store; and free to incorporate what my collaborators may contribute... Your story may have the most intricate construction, but it should never prevent you from remaining open to the invention of the moment, whether it's your own or that of the actors or technicians.

He doesn't believe in trying to control actors:

The most a director can usually do with actors is to set up a nice atmosphere in which to work.

He wants actors to develop their characters:

I'll let the actors create their own roles, find what it is in the material that means something to them, what connects for them emotionally.

His sets are not autocratic:

It's definitely a democracy. If I have any qualities that work as a director, it's that I try to stimulate everybody to be as creative as they possibly can. I like them to contribute to the film and not just do their jobs by rote. It makes for a better atmosphere and ultimately for a better film.

He wants the camera to be invisible:

There are many camera moves in Million Dollar Baby, but you don't notice them, probably because I avoided any arbitrary moves. What's important is the story and the characters.

He changes his movies as he films them:

I change pictures as I go. I just use a script as a framework.

He values substance over form:

I'm not interested in special effects. I want to do stories about people.

He believes movies should treat significant themes:

Real drama is hard to find nowadays; it seems everything is either infantile or cartoonish.

And Eastwood believes that he never stops learning:

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... They do something particularly interesting or well that you've never seen before and you always remember it.

In 2004, the critic Roger Ebert wrote: "Some directors lose focus as they grow older. Others gain it, learning how to tell a story that contains everything it needs and absolutely nothing else. Million Dollar Baby is Eastwood's 25th film as a director, and his best... [It has] the simplicity and directness of classical storytelling: it is the kind of movie where you sit very quietly in the theater and are drawn deeply into lives that you care very much about." Simple, direct storytelling is quintessentially experimental: Ford, Hawks, and Altman would have been pleased to have their films described in these terms, just as they aimed to draw their viewers deeply into the lives of their characters. And Eastwood clearly fits the model of a great experimental innovator who makes his greatest contribution after decades of experience, for he directed Million Dollar Baby when he was 74 years old.

Experimental artists are often overshadowed by their more precocious and more flamboyant conceptual counterparts. Yet Clint Eastwood's success, with Oscars as best director for films he made at the ages of 62 and 74, once again provides evidence of the artistic value of experience and maturity, and demonstrates that dictatorship is not the only way to make great movies.