Ahead of the opening of Sully, director Clint Eastwood talked about the switch from acting to directing, his favourite directors, how he picks the right actor for a part and Jazz! You can see the results below.
Sully opens today in cinemas nationwide.
What were you thinking when you switched from acting to directing?
I never really do self-analytical things about that sort of thing. I think what happens is, I started out as a contract player. It was so so many years ago. Twenty some odd years ago or whatever. And you just watch people. In fact, even though I was a contract player at a studio at Universal in the fifties, I never got any jobs or anything. You’re just a contract. You’re just there. And once in a while they’ll call you in and you play a bit part or something. You really didn’t get to learn too much except what you wanted to learn. I just went around the sets all the time. I just watched filmmaking forever. And then later on in the sixties when I was on a series, Rawhide series. We had different directors every week. You just got a feeling of what people did. You saw people do things that you liked and you saw people, things that you didn’t particularly care for. Eventually you had it in your brain. You said, “Well, if I ever was doing it, I would do it this way.” Finally one day I said, I want to try it. And I had done some trailers and things, various little odds and ends. But in the late ’60s I thought I wanted to do this picture. I was back at Universal for the different management and I said, “You know, I’d like to direct this picture.” And they said, “Fine. As long as we don’t have to pay you, that’s great.” So, I said, “that’s all right.” “I don’t think you should pay me.” “I think I should have to prove something before you do that so, don’t worry about that.” I just want the opportunity. So, I was in the picture and I was established as an actor. That afforded me the intro to get to doing it. And then, I just got to like it. I did a couple of pictures. One, which I wasn’t in, which was fun. Starring William Holden, and then some others. And that I did that I was in. And I got to enjoy the process. So, here I am, all these years later and still doing it. Though I’m not in the last couple of films, I haven’t acted in. And it’s been fine. Just fine.
What filmmakers most influenced your own directing style?
I loved Frank Capra movies. I loved everybody had the type of movies that they did. I liked Howard Hawks and John Ford and Billy Wilder and people like that. I’m trying to think of the years I knew some of these people but I never worked with them. Because when I was coming up most of these people were stopping. The John Fords and that era were stopping. And I never got to work with Ford or Houston. Or Capra, I knew Capra. I became friendly with him in his retirement but I always thought the guy is still brilliant, I wonder why he isn’t still directing? But in those days’ people retired earlier. And I’m the exception there. I don’t know when to leave. They can’t get rid of me.
How did you get to know Frank Capra?
I was working on Mona Lake on a picture. And he lived in a place called Silver Lakes, which is right off of Highway Three. What’s the highway between here and Reno? 395? It’s 395 and it’s right off of there. And Capra lived up there. He lived up there three months a year. And I think down in the desert or something in the winter. But he came by the set one time and I was introduced to him. And I just made myself at home and dropped by his house a few times. So every time I was on 395 going to Northern California or Reno, Northeastern California. I’d stop by and see him and chat. And he was always so lucid as an older fella, he was really lucid. So were a lot of the guys. So was Billy Wilder. He was only in his sixties and he quit. That sounds way too young for me. A guy who did Double Indemnity, and all these great films. I thought why are you stopping now? But I guess the industry just stopped around him.
You’re also a musician—what is it about jazz that appeals to you?
I always liked it as a kid. I guess I was out of the mainstream. I liked pop music, especially in the forties. They had some great bands. But I also liked jazz a lot. I gravitated towards that. I liked the improvisational aspect of it. I played a little bit myself. As a kid I’d play at assemblies in school. Mainly the things of that moment. Things that were popular at that moment. But I thought I wanted to be in music. And then I got drafted in the military. I got drawn away from it. I wasn’t good enough to be a military bands person. I had to get out. And then when I was going to school in Los Angeles. On to L.A. City College on a G.I. bill, I tried to get started in college again. After doing the tour I got interested in acting. And I went to acting classes with a friend of mine in the night. I went because it was about five to one ratio of girls over guys, so I said, “Yeah, they need me here.” And I guess you got hooked on it. Then I became a contract player. And eventually everything fell into place. So, a little bit of luck. A lot of luck and a little bit of skill. And you can do okay. But it is a feast or famine kind of industry, for actors especially. For technical people, it’s different. Once you’re in it. You’re in it. And you’re protected in it. But actors, if you don’t have something else you can do, you’re lucky to be working.
Does your experience as an actor affect the way you direct?
Absolutely. In other words, there’s certain things you get to dislike. In the old days when you’re working on a set in a studio especially, they’d always ring bells and stuff. They’d ring the bell and some assistant director would come out and yell off his lungs. “All right, everybody, quiet, everybody.” And nobody was being noisy, really, but they always had to go through this routine. And then, all of a sudden they had to expect the actor to. By that time he’s so intimidated that you’re lucky to get it out. I always thought, “You know, I’m not going to do it that way.” And the one time I was visiting at the White House, somehow I can’t even remember who was President at the time. But I noticed the whole Secret Service guys are sitting around and they are having a conversation while everybody else is talking. But it’s all on radio. And I said, “Hey, we’re in the movie business, we can close off all that.” So, I closed it down so nobody talks and just keep it quiet. And everybody can talk if they have to among themselves. Assistant director can tell everybody that they’re rolling the cameras without shouting. And then all of a sudden it becomes a whole different atmosphere. And it makes it better for the actors to act. They can think about what they’re doing rather than what everybody else is doing around them. And so I developed a way of doing that. And the actors love it because that’s what I find that most actors have the same gripe. It’s just too much chaos. And then all of a sudden they’re trying to organize it and it doesn’t work that way. The best thing to do is just make it like its just happening. And nobody seems to mind it, and everybody goes to lunch on time. And it’s okay.
How do you choose what actors to hire for your films?
When you hire an actor, I’m not hiring to disrespect him or to doubt their ability. I’m hiring them because I think they bring a certain talent and a certain thing to the part. So, I just try to keep them in that frame of mind. Don’t let him know that and have the confidence of knowing that I have faith in them. And I don’t have to yell or call and cause a lot of attention to myself, in order to get that out of them. I can make them the attention and in a way that isn’t nauseating to them.
Why did you choose to make this film?
Like everybody else I had seen the news stories about the plane and the pictures of the plane sitting in the water of the Hudson. With all the people on the wings and the iconic picture. And I remember the event, though I wasn’t in New York at the time, I was out west. But I did think everybody remembered the event. And they remembered the enthusiasm with which Sully was received and which everybody gave towards being saved from any tragedy. I think when I first heard about it I was just thinking, this is a good subject matter. I read the script, liked it. I didn’t realize there was a conflict in it. And conflict being the backbone of drama. I figured I must do this story. And I must show this stuff that we don’t know. Which is that particular drama, and it was also for Sully. It was interesting because he had doubts, a lot of people tried to cast doubts. Not a lot of people, but a small group tried to cast doubts on his job and how he handled it. And then eventually he unwinds it and finds out I was right in the first place and these people were wrong.
Why was Tom Hanks the right actor for the role of Sully Sullenberger?
Because he just is. I don’t know why. You’ve met him. He’s very personable and very outgoing. But he’s not quite as an introvert as Sully appears to be. He can play that everyman kind of thing. Three years ago, somebody was comparing him to this generation’s Jimmy Stewart or something like that. And I don’t know if that was a good comparison but Jimmy Stewart was the kind of guy who would play Sully if he was alive and working in that generation, or that kind of performer, sort of a guy who could play every guy.
Were there challenges in making this film?
There were immense challenges right from the beginning. With how we going to replicate the event of the crash landing? And putting it in the middle of the city, practically. In the river that’s in the middle of a city. In between New Jersey and Manhattan. So that was the big puzzle. We just went to work on that and then get the actors to play it. That part’s the easy part, really.
Was it difficult filming both on location and in the studio?
Yeah, we did both places and then it all blends together, hopefully. Knock on wood, it goes together.