ARTS Clint Eastwood's 17th film as director is about to be released, yet his first job was as a contract actor. Here he discusses the men who inspired him to move behind the camera
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YOU WANT me to talk about the directors I've worked with? Let's start with those I didn't get the chance to be directed by. Howard Hawks, for example, the first director I ever met! It was a brief meeting. I helped him round up his horses when I was about 16, 17. John Ford? I never met him but, sure, he's one of the ones I'd like to have worked with. I saw a lot of his movies when I was young.

I saw all the big hits, like everybody else: Grapes of Wrath, Gone with the Wind, etc. I also saw comedies like Sitting Pretty and westerns like Winchester 73. Very few foreign films were imported in those days, but I do remember seeing an Australian movie, Forty Thousand Horsemen. There was a lot of action. It was also the first movie where I heard actors use bad language. They'd say "Damn!" or "Hell!" That wasn't allowed here. The Hays Office saw to that. I can't remember who the director was - at the time, I didn't care who directed what.

Going back further, I remember Preston Sturges' comedies. I liked Sullivan's Travels, Joel McRea especially. Maybe he didn't have the stature of Gary Cooper, but he always gave the impression that more was going on inside him than he was revealing. There were also fantastic character actors in Sturges, Capra and Hawks movies. They all had interesting faces. It's very comforting for a director to know he can rely on the same actors movie after movie. I tried to do the same in Every Which Way and Bronco Billy. Someone like Ford liked the same faces around him. Ford wasn't the kind of director to analyse what he was doing with his actors. He knew their capabilities and what they could bring him. Could I have joined his gang? I don't think so. I'm not the gang type.

I met Capra when I was making High Plains Drifter. I was staying four houses down from him, and I got the chance to talk to him. Afterwards, every time I came by, I paid him a visit. He was always pleased to see me, but I never worked with him. Did Capra ever see Bronco Billy? I don't know. When I read the script, I thought, "Capra could have made this".

Capra's movies have an underlying energy which, although it's difficult to define, he alone possesses. Anyone can shoot a scene, but Capra added something which was neither written nor visualised, but which permeates all his work. All the greats had this gift to some extent.

Hitchcock? He was with another studio when I was under contract at Universal. Years later, I met him once, shortly before he died. I got a call from his office: "Mr Hitchcock would like to see you. His health isn't good, he may not make the movie, but he'd like to talk to you about the lead." We had lunch at the Universal commissary. It took us 10 minutes to walk from the door to the table. He walked very slowly and carefully. He ordered his usual lunch: steak and tomatoes. He talked brilliantly and I fell under his spell. The movie was set in Finland or Norway, on a train. He'd seen a few of my movies, notably Misty. We had a good time. But how could I have been his man? I was a generation too young.

The same goes for Ford and Capra, who were retiring when I started out. Anthony Mann? Yes, I'd like to have worked with him at his peak. I liked his movies a lot, especially the westerns with Jimmy Stewart. Nick Ray also did some good things but I never met him. Same with Sam Fuller. He was preparing a film at RKO, The Run of the Arrow, and I tried unsuccessfully to get a meeting. I only met him much later, in France.

At the time, Mann, Ray and Fuller were looking for new sources of inspiration and went to make movies in Europe. The top man was Elia Kazan. Ever since On the Waterfront, he was the director everyone wanted to work with. The trouble was he did his casting in New York and other places. I never managed to make a movie with him. The same applied to Stanley Kubrick. I saw The Killing when it came out. I would have liked to have worked with him, but the opportunity never came up.

On the other hand, I did get to meet Billy Wilder when he was casting The Spirit of St Louis. As often happens in Hollywood, the press was full of stories about him looking for an unknown to play Lindbergh. All the young guys, especially the gangly ones, were chasing the part. I met him once ... just for a handshake, not even an audition. His films had marked my youth: Double Indemnity, Sunset Boulevard, and so many others. I don't understand why he stopped working so soon. I don't know the circumstances, but I find it amazing that a man of his talent hasn't been more productive in the last 20 years.

I desperately wanted to be in Raoul Walsh's The Naked and the Dead. My agent couldn't get me an audition so I didn't get to meet him. Small agencies had no power. Walsh was a fantastic character. And he'd been an actor as well. It's always good to work with directors who've been actors. They're much more receptive. When I gave Don Siegel a part in my first film, Misty, I told him that way he'd learn to be more tolerant towards his actors while I'd learn what it's like to be a director. Often an actor only worries about his performance and his character. He doesn't realise a director can only spend 5 per cent of his energy on him, the other 95 per cent being devoted to the crew, the other actors and all the rest.

In my time, Universal mainly made B movies. They had a stable of contract actors: Rock Hudson, Tony Curtis, Jeff Chandler, Rory Calhoun ... But they couldn't afford stars like Cooper or Gable. I played a small part in Away All Boats, and Gable was offered the lead. I was in the studio commissary when he came in. It caused a sensation. No one at Universal had seen such a great star. But, in the end, the part was played by one of the house actors, Jeff Chandler, I think.

It was a good period, but Douglas Sirk was the only important director. Universal gave him all their prestige movies, big melodramas like Magnificent Obsession and Written on the Wind. I tried to get a meeting but failed. When you were under contract, you thought you could get meetings anywhere, at least with the house directors. You even thought you had the edge over actors from outside, but that wasn't the case at all. Sometimes directors were suspicious precisely because you were under contract. Familiarity breeds contempt. They could see you any time, but actors from outside had the advantage of novelty.

In those circumstances, it wasn't easy to get work with the greats. But I did work with William Wellman at the end of his career, on Lafayette Escadrille. It wasn't a great movie, the script wasn't up to scratch, but it was a period when Wellman, the eternal rebel, was trying something new. Perhaps he wanted to do something he hadn't been allowed to do before. I remember we had a conversation on the set of The Ox-Bow Incident. It was one of my favourite films. He was surprised by my opinion, because it was a financial disaster. He said it was Mrs Zanuck's fault. Everyone at the studio was very proud of the movie, but when Darryl screened it at home, his wife said, "But this is terrible! How can you let them lynch Dana Andrews and Anthony Quinn?" The rumour spread that the movie was jinxed. So it only got a limited release. It was only when the movie was praised by the French critics that Fox tried to run it again in New York. It had been shot fast, in less than 30 days, like a commando raid. That's how Wellman worked best. To save time on Lafayette Escadrille, he used two cameras to cover the same scene, something he'd never done before. His idea was that there'd be no continuity problems. He was right, but I think it meant making too many compromises with angles and lighting.

I've used two cameras very rarely, usually only for action scenes. I prefer using several lenses rather than several cameras. Wellman retired after Lafayette Escadrille, but I carried on seeing him and his family. He gave me a lot of encouragement during Breezy. He liked the film a lot, and wrote me some very nice letters. I think that because he was married to a woman much younger than himself, he identified with the William Holden character. He had a big influence in encouraging me to become a director.

I couldn't work with the greats every day. Which is why I worked with unknowns or semi-unknowns, such as Sergio Leone, who only had a couple of toga movies under his belt. Fistful of Dollars was his first big break. The Colossus of Rhodes, I admit, didn't make much of an impression, but people said he had a great sense of humour. I'd already realised this reading the script. I told myself I should maybe try something new and, if it didn't work out, I could always say I'd had a good vacation in Spain.

Sergio cast me after seeing an episode of Rawhide. Anyway, he didn't have much choice: the film was being made on a shoestring. I was even asked to bring my own costume. I was amazed, but I went off and bought some clothes in a shop on Santa Monica Boulevard. I bought a pair of trousers and washed them over and over again to age them, and grabbed the boots and gunbelts I used on Rawhide. I put them all in a rucksack and headed off to Europe. And I finally met Sergio. He was a char- acter. I didn't speak Italian and he didn't speak English. One of the assistants spoke English and would give me all the necessary instructions. After a while, Sergio and I got to understand each other quite well. The only time we really used an interpreter was when I wanted to cut dialogue I believed irrelevant. We talked a lot, discussed what we were doing, and ended up coming to an agreement. I was playing the character as I saw him, very controlled, with the minimum of gestures. The opposite of playing to the gallery. I showed no emotion whatsoever. If I'd tried to be as baroque as the others, it would have been ridiculous. Sergio understood what I was doing, but when the producers saw the rushes, they thought I was doing nothing, that it was a disaster. When the film was cut together, they changed their minds.

It was fun working with Sergio after Rawhide, where the stories were so conventional. I remember that Lee Van Cleef thought Sergio was completely crazy when we started making For a Few Dollars More. Maybe Sergio's methods and ideas weren't very orthodox, but they helped me discover another point of view. He was a great admirer of the masters of the western, Hawks and Ford. But he had his own vision of what a western should be, and some of his ideas were truly crazy. Sometimes I'd have to intervene to keep the ship on course. But we made a good team. We were on the same wavelength. Sergio liked to say there were fights on the set; but that wasn't true in this case. Later he got a little jealous because I was more prolific than he was. It was neither his fault nor mine. After the premiere of Bird at Cannes, I went to see him in Italy and we spent a great day together. I think he held it against me for having turned down Charles Bronson's part in Once Upon a Time in the West, then the part of an Irish gangster in Once Upon a Time in America. I would have liked doing Once Upon a Time in the West if I hadn't done the three westerns before. It was time for me to move on and try something new.

When Coogan's Bluff came up, Don Siegel heard I'd asked to see some of his movies. The only one I vaguely knew was Invasion of the Body Snatchers. They screened for me his two previous movies for Universal, Madigan and Stranger on the Run. When he found out about this, Don asked to see the films I'd made with Sergio. He liked them, and that's how our association started.

We only had one argument, right at the beginning. Don always insisted on writing the story where it was set. If the story was set in New York, then he'd go and live there. I'm the opposite. I prefer concentrating on the story and making the necessary adjustments afterwards. He liked going to the locations and planning everything around them. This is what happened on Coogan's Bluff. The problem was, Don got so involved in the geography that he completely forgot about the story. When he came back, the script had to be rewritten, which is what we did together.

Don always needed an opponent, either the studio or a producer. This went back to his fights with Jack Warner, and usually the enemy was the producer. When we were getting ready to shoot Dirty Harry, I said to him, "Now you're your own producer, you won't be able to find any scapegoats." He laughed, but ended up blaming the production manager! Don never liked production people. He must have known them when they'd been assistants or secretaries, and he treated them like they still were.

Don hated the old studio system. And I showed him how to escape it. I'd come up the ladder while the new system came into being. My power wasn't linked to any particular studio. This was the age of Frank Wells and John Calley. They didn't tell you how to do your job; they just let you get on with it. But Don was used to endless interference from studio executives. When I was at Universal, I used to slip into the back of the screening rooms where executives were watching rushes and listen to what they said. There'd be at least 20 of them and right in the middle, forced to listen to their idiocies, would be the poor director. We had a bit of that on Coogan's Bluff, but managed to get away from it afterwards. At Warner's it was completely different. When I got Don to come over for Dirty Harry, all they said was: "Now it's up to you." All of a sudden, Don had more time than he'd ever had before in his life. Seven or eight weeks seemed to him an eternity. Don could be anything but extravagant. He was always grumbling but, my, he was efficient! He knew what he wanted and he knew how to take decisions. He kept to his budget and to his schedule. His frugality rubbed off on me, I'm sure. On Escape from Alcatraz, I persuaded him to shoot in the air-shafts where the escape happened. Why spend $100,000 building a set?

Don knew exactly which shots to shoot. But he wasn't rigid. He could add or change a shot at the last moment. I've worked with directors who are completely pole-axed if you suggest a change in a scene. I bumped my head while we were shooting In the Line of Fire. To hide the bruise, I asked Wolfgang Petersen whether I could enter a shot from the right rather than the left. Wolfgang had a lot of trouble reorganising the scene, because he'd imagined it all from the one angle. A detail had changed and it threw him off balance. This was never the case with Don. Sergio would have taken time to think and then probably have said OK, but Don wouldn't have blinked an eyelid. He believed that there were no rules, or if there were rules, they were made to be broken.

From 'Projections 41/2 in association with Positif', ed John Boorman & Walter Donahue (Faber, pounds 9.99, publ. 4 Sept).

! 'Clint Eastwood, the Director' season: NFT, SE1, 0171 928 3535, from 1 Sept. 'The Bridges of Madison County' (12) opens nationwide on 15 Sept.