Bathed in focused light but isolated in a surrounding darkness that conceals the cracks and decays of a weathered gym called the Hit Pit, a female boxer named Maggie methodically punches a bag with all the patience of a classical pianist in deep practice. What Maggie doesn’t see approaching her is Eddie Scrap-Iron Dupris, a kindly ex-pugilist who helps out at the Pit. Eddie, who has eagle eyes for talent, sees Maggie, though, and he calls out to her, with only his feet visible in the light flooding Maggie.
That’s just the start of one scene in “Million Dollar Baby,” whose full telling would require hundreds of words. But having honed his craft as director for 33 years, Clint Eastwood sheds the words for a few succinct but revealing images, redolent with meaning. “The trick with filming a good story,” Eastwood says, “is that you have to lose most of the words, find your own way into the story visually, and keep what makes the story great.”
Eastwood reckons that “because I’ve been an actor for 51 years, I don’t need to impose myself as a director on the audience,” which translates to creating often extremely worked-out camera moves and lighting formulations while never drawing attention to what he’s doing with his camera. He doesn’t believe that there are any fundamental rules to filmmaking, but he sticks to the ones he’s established for himself, and they start with the idea that the camera and camera movements should be invisible, “because we’re trying to feature the story and characters.”
A widescreen look tends to apply to his films, even when he doesn’t shoot in widescreen format: “I may sometimes shoot in 1.85 spherical, but I go for a widescreen look, as in ‘Bird.’ I can get that with uncluttered images — the less fuss, the better.”
While firmly grounded in tradition, Eastwood and his current cinematographer Tom Stern are eager to try the latest tools, such as the new generation of ultra-fast film stocks.
“Those true blacks –we’ve worked very hard to try to get them on screen,” he notes, “and the new stocks are fantastic, since you can get real blacks and yet shoot under any low-light conditions.”
Another Eastwood rule is to capture the actor’s performance as early and as fresh as possible, which sometimes means actually filming and printing the rehearsal.
“This may be another influence of (late mentor and director) Don Siegel — he always tried to get it on the first take. This approach always works well for the actors and crew, since it keeps everybody alert and on their toes. If you get into a groove of as few takes as possible, that’s ideal.”
Every director has influences — “deep down,” says Eastwood, “you’re influenced by what you’ve seen” — and what Eastwood grew up with were such classical Hollywood masters as Howard Hawks and John Ford, whose often extremely different work shares the same notion that a good movie begins with the story and builds from there.
“If you’re raised on their movies, you’re going to see things differently than people who grew up more influenced by television.”