Child of Depression applies lesson to directing

To be a successful director in Hollywood, you need talent; a vision; a knack for picking the right material and projects and stars; and all the leadership qualities necessary to marshal and inspire a small army of actors, crew members and production staff.

But to maintain an A-list career over decades demands some other key ingredients in the helmer’s makeup — most notably, stamina, discipline, flexibility and, perhaps above all, a healthy regard for budgets, schedules and the bottom line — the cold, hard realities in the dreammaking equation.

And in these tough economic times, the latter qualities have become all the more important. Hollywood is strewn with the ruins and rubble of once great studios and companies laid to waste by the hubris and profligate spending of visionary — and talented — men (the name Cimino can still send shivers down executives’ spines).

Clint Eastwood, a proud child of the Great Depression, is not one of those men. “I grew up in an era when you knew the value of a buck, and I’ve never forgotten it,” he says. “My old man used to preach to me, ‘Nothing comes from nothing, no one’s going to give you anything,’ and that’s probably the best advice I’ve ever had.”

Ask him what drives him nuts, both in life and in the movies, and he shoots back: “Waste. Total ineptness, total inefficiency.”

Eastwood, in turn, has harnessed such lifelong aversions into a careerlong, pragmatic pursuit of the most efficient and economical business and production models. And while so many of his contemporaries tolerated inflated and ballooning budgets, and then burned out, Eastwood, a tightfisted, fiscal conservative in the grand tradition of Hitchcock and Preminger, is having the last laugh.

“Gran Torino,” the biggest box office hit (more than $260 million worldwide) of Eastwood’s entire career, made when he turned 78, was budgeted in “the mid ’30s” according to Rob Lorenz, Eastwood’s producing partner since the late 1990s. The film was shot in Michigan “for the great tax incentive,” reports Bill Bowling, worldwide locations executive for Warner Bros. Incentives also help explain why the thrifty Eastwood ended up using Iceland, of all places, to double for the South Pacific tropical island of Iwo Jima when he shot “Flags of Our Fathers.” It may sound counterintuitive, but tax breaks — and the geology — “made total sense,” Lorenz adds.

“The minute he arrives on set, he knows the meter’s running and he’s very focused,” notes Lorenz, who has made 14 films with Eastwood and who won an Oscar nom for producing — with Eastwood and Steven Spielberg — “Letters From Iwo Jima.” That film’s compressed schedule — a mere 33 days — and tight budget “says it all,” he adds. “Clint doesn’t waste a penny or a minute.”

Eastwood’s new film, “Invictus,” starring Morgan Freeman as Nelson Mandela, was shot entirely on location in and around Johannesburg and Cape Town, and produced with Hollywood veteran Mace Neufeld (“Patriot Games,” “No Way Out”). “It was my first time working with Clint, and if I’d worked with him since day one, I’d have been able to make twice as many films,” he says dryly, listing the reasons why: “One, he shoots the script, unlike a lot of directors who want to keep rewriting. This was a totally white script — with none of the usual colored pages for revisions — and that was a first for me. Second, he knows exactly what he wants to get, and most of his production team have been with him for 10, 12 years, so they all know what’s expected from them. There’s no waiting for the usual lighting setups. And third, he never uses a video recorder on set.”

Neufeld estimates that this efficiency alone saves “maybe 90 minutes a day. Clint watches action on a handheld monitor, it’s generally just two, three takes, and there’s no playback for actors. Then he moves on.

“There’s no prolonged discussion or angst about how to do a scene, and it also helps that actors know his reputation, so they’re all ready to go when they arrive.”

And despite a seemingly leisurely pace — “Clint likes 10 a.m. calls and wrapping by 5 p.m., which for me was unheard of — I’m used to 6:30 a.m. calls and shooting well into the night” — the producer reports that “Invictus” came in under budget and a week ahead of schedule. “He’s simply the most efficient, judicious director I’ve ever worked with.”

“It’s that Depression-era upbringing,” says Lorenz, who’s currently producing “Hereafter,” Eastwood’s next film, which is already shooting in London and Paris. “We’ll walk out of my office, and Clint will go back and turn out the lights.”

TIP SHEET

What: Museum of the Moving Image Salutes Clint Eastwood

When: Tuesday Night

Gala screening: “Invictus,” Paris Theater, New York City, 6:30 p.m.

Gala dinner: 583 Park Ave., New York City, following screening

Filed Under:

Follow @Variety on Twitter for breaking news, reviews and more