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Author/Filmmaker Richard Schickel on Clint Eastwood, Martin Scorsese, and More

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Just prior to the release of his latest documentary on Clint Eastwood, I had the privilege of doing a telephone interview with Richard Schickel, one of the few interviews that Warner Bros. and Mr. Schickel are allowing. I have to admit that I was excited about it. Schickel is a very colorful, slightly controversial, and intelligent man. You never really know what he's going to say, but you can bet that he'll tell you exactly what's on his mind.

His most recent work is the documentary The Eastwood Factor included in the Clint Eastwood: 35 Films 35 Years at Warner Bros. box set, but he has been a critic for many publications, including Time, for more than 40 years. He has also written biographies and documentary films on many of Hollywood's greatest talents.

He has a wicked, mischievous sense of humor, evidenced by his ongoing vendetta against Robert Altman. God may have forgiven Altman his sins, but Schickel is not about to let a little thing like death excuse the man for making bad movies. You gotta love this guy. He's easily as fascinating as any of his subjects. I didn't want the interview to end. I could have listened to him for hours.

During our interview he talked about making The Eastwood Factor, his upcoming books, one of which is a memoir of sorts, about his long friendship with Eastwood, and the other a book of conversations with Martin Scorsese to be released sometime next year. He talked about John Travolta's new action movie, Martin Scorsese's late night loquaciousness and he took another humorous swipe at Robert Altman. But most of our conversation was about Clint Eastwood, offering us a personal look at their unique friendship and the impact that Eastwood has made on the movie industry.

I know you've done films on other people. Why did you choose to do this documentary on Clint Eastwood?

Actually Warner Brothers came to me with that. I'd done two previous films on Clint and a sort of formal biography of him about ten years ago and we're known to be friends, so it was kind of a natural thing for them to do. They were preparing this box set and they wanted a documentary to go with it and then this book publisher came along, also an old friend of mine, and said well, maybe we could do a book on it so it all just formed together in a fairly casual way. It was a natural sort of thing I think.

The Eastwood Factor, what do those words mean to you?

[laughing] They don't mean anything. It's not my title.

It's not?

It's the title Warner Brothers came up with and, you know, I didn't come up with anything better so it just kinda stuck to it.

It's a great title.

But I don't think it means anything. He's got one movie that just appeared in theaters a couple of months ago and he's got another one coming along, I think it's going to be released in the fall. He's turning 80 at the end of May. They wanted to do this box set which is kind of unprecedented.

If you could narrow it down, what do you think is the key to his longevity in Hollywood. What has he got that everybody else seems to be lacking?

That's an interesting question. I don't know that Clint ever planned to have a career this long. He has an interesting pace. He likes to work. In his early days as a filmmaker, starting somewhere I guess with Play Misty For Me, he just likes to keep working. But on the other hand, I would never actually characterize him as a workaholic, I mean, maybe he is, technically speaking, but he moves along at a nice easy pace and he leaves plenty of time for himself, for just hanging out up in Carmel with his family or they, as a family, travel a fair amount. He has a number of homes scattered around. But he leaves time for his golf and his reading and he has a very active business life outside of the movies.

So basically, the key to his longevity is his pace? He's paced himself well?

He's not a man who I've ever seen acting as if he's under strain, do you know what I mean? I mean, he has evolved a way of making movies that is just a nice steady pace. Unfrenzied. Unfrantic. He shoots quickly, he's always a few days ahead of his schedule. A few bucks under his budget. That's sort of a part of longevity. I mean, a lot of actors, they direct a picture or two and they get all full of themselves, suddenly the next picture is millions over budget and everybody's feeling the pressure from that. Clint just doesn't do it that way.

That's a very good point. That's really helpful for new directors.

Look. He's very rational when it comes to making movies. There are no hysterical decisions there. No desperate ploys. He works with people he knows and is comfortable with. When you look at a guy like Clint, you sort of wonder why other people don't do it the same way, because it's completely sensible. And that fact is so important and, comparatively speaking, so rare. There are other people who do it that way, I mean Spielberg is that kind of a producer/director. You never see Steven all bent out of shape while he's making a movie.

Is the new book about his life? His history?

The new book is about Clint and me really. The opening essay is really almost like a reminiscence of how I've known him and what we've shared.

Is there ever a point where it becomes uncomfortable and things get too personal and you say… you know what? I'm going to take that out.

No. You know it's odd for someone like me and someone like Clint to have become friends. I don't know of any relationships quite like that around town. It's unique and I can't explain how it happened. We're people with not entirely dissimilar backgrounds. We didn't come from rich folks. We share interests in all kinds of things, movies, sports, books. It's like any other friendship.

Have you ever had to give a friend a poor review?

No, I don't think so. If you're friends with somebody, a director or even an actor, you wouldn't be friends with them if you didn't, in general, approve of what they do. It's a question of "Oh yeah. He makes the kind of movies I, generally speaking, like."

[laughing] For example, I've always really disliked Robert Altman's movies, okay? So I would never become friends with him.

On the other hand I'm finishing up a book, Conversations with Marty Scorsese, the book will be out like a year from now. But I like Marty's work. Or we wouldn't have, I think, undertaken that book together. It's a Q&A book about his life and career. I wouldn't have undertaken it if I didn't essentially like what Marty does. It's as simple as that.

[laughing] I don't really want to be a starfucker. If I like the guy's work and the opportunity presents to have dinner with him, then that's fine. But if I didn't like the work I wouldn't do that.

There are a lot of crappy action movies that have been coming out and Clint Eastwood is still making great action movies.

Well, I like very much the new John Travolta movie [From Paris With Love]. Wonderful piece of action filmmaking.

Clint isn't really doing action movies anymore, The kind of movies you're talking about tend to be big scale, he's not really doing those anymore, his most comfortable scale is a more intimate one. We don't have anymore in Clint's body of work multiple car crash action movies, they tend to be somewhat more character driven and they tend to be on a smaller scale. But that's his taste. He's made a couple of bigger sized action pictures in his life which I don't think are among his best work, because I don't think that's a natural fit for him.

You did a book on him already.

It was kind of a big formal biography about a decade ago.

The Eastwood Factor is also very much a story of his history and his life, but it's visual. It's visiting places and looking back at the movies.

The unique thing about the film is that we kinda wandered around the Warner lot to four or five places that are significant to him and, of course, his career at the studio. We spent some time with him in Carmel, which is kind of rare, I don't know of a lot of shooting that took place with Clint up where he lives, he kind of tries to keep those two things sort of separate. The film, The Eastwood Factor, I think what's interesting about it is… he and I know each other so well that there's a lot of easy and mutual trust going on there. He is, I think in the film, very low key, humorous, and casual. He's really a cool guy. That's the Clint I know. I feel kind of lucky that somehow that quality of him got into the film. I like that aspect of the film the best.

One of the things that I have observed about Clint, when I first knew him, there was a lot of shyness in him and he was not, I believe, entirely comfortable being interviewed by people, especially when I was writing that first book about him. You know, I look at those interviews and he was just awkward with the press. He was trying hard, but he just… [laughs]

It's typical Clint that if there's something that he feels he needs to learn to do, he'll go ahead and learn to do that, so as the years have gone on I think the interviews he's given to the press have become more comfortable. I think he's easier doing that, but that's just because that's the kind of guy Clint is. If he's afraid of flying airplanes then he teaches himself to fly a helicopter.

He will make a really serious effort to master something that's important to him, that he feels he's not absolutely great at doing. I've seen that in lots of areas of his life. When I first knew him he was not, for example, the reader that he now is, he's now a guy who loves his Kindle and is always reading, but when I first knew him I think his reading was much more confined to the material he was considering making a movie about, and now it's much more generalized. Probably even extends to his golf game, you know? He's interested in golf, he wants to play it better than he does, so he's sort of mastered it to a degree. And he's sort of funny about it, he's ironic about golf. As he says in the longer show, "I don't want to have to play golf, but I want to be able to do it when I feel like doing it. I don't want it to be the only thing I'm doing." So he keeps things in perspective in that way.

If you could invite anyone to dinner tonight, living or dead, who would that person be and why?

Clint would be high on the list, we do dinner fairly often when he's around town here. Or just friends I like, most of whom are not famous, just people I enjoy keeping company with… [laughing] I have no agenda when it comes to having dinner.

I'm not a hugely social person. I have a circle of friends, those are the people I tend to see and Clint is part of that circle. There's probably a half dozen people that I'd be perfectly happy to see tonight.

Probably a little tired of Martin Scorsese by now since you guys had to spend so much time together?

Marty and I, we did that book, it was a series of interviews. Basically three groups of interviews where I would go to New York and I would spend probably four or five days, and mostly we would meet at night because Marty's kind of an evening person. They were very long interviews, some of them. I mean wow, we'd start at 8 o'clock at night and I'd come staggering out of there at one in the morning. Marty's a very articulate, talkative guy. That would never happen with Clint.

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  • http://etierphotography.blogspot.com/ FCEtier

    Sounds like you really had a great time!
    Now that your review has been published, here’s the chance for an encore.
    What question and answer did you leave out that you would really like to have included — but didn’t?

  • http://woodnotwood.blogspot.com A Geek Girl

    FC, I do wish I would have picked his brain a bit more about his least favorite movies and why. We started, for a moment, to talk about the media (tabloids and paparazzi, etc) and where the line should be drawn between celebrity and privacy. I wish we would have followed that through. Other than ‘off the record’ this is pretty much the whole of the interview. He’s an incredibly fascinating person to talk to. Great sense of humor.