Before the somewhat disappointing debut of ''Flags of Our Fathers,'' its legendary director Clint Eastwood told Steve Daly his feelings on studios and making money for them

By Steve Daly
Updated October 31, 2006 at 05:00 AM EST
Clint Eastwood, Flags of Our Fathers

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: At this point in your career, do you care much about box office? [Editor’s Note: Shortly after this interview, Flags of Our Fathers had a relatively disappointing debut weekend; its two-week total stands at around $20 mil.]
CLINT EASTWOOD: If somebody came in and said, ”I’ve got this script here and we could make a ton of money with it,” I’d say, ”Don’t tell me that.” I don’t want to know that. I just want to know about the story and the characters. Is there a chance to make it interesting? I wasn’t there, but I’m sure that behind the doors on Mystic River, people were going, Oh, s—. That’s a dark story. And Million Dollar Baby, we took it to another studio, because here [at Warner Bros., Eastwood’s home studio for years] they said, ”Feel free to shop it around.”

And yet, those two pictures they weren’t keen on — Mystic River and Million Dollar Baby — made money and won Oscars.
I don’t want to put myself in an I-told-you-so position. I don’t harbor any animosity about it. That’s just the facts of life.

To be fair, Warner did eventually buy back in on both movies and participate in them and support them. But given all the money you’ve made for that studio over the years, you’d think it would be easier getting your ideas greenlit.
Well, there was a day like that. But the regimes changed. New people come in, and they have their own ideas about what’s commercial and what isn’t. And I guess they say, Well, Jesus, if Clint Eastwood came in and said, Let’s do Dirty Harry again, we’d go for that.

You’ve said that you now take virtually no money up front, except a guaranteed guild minimum. Instead you take a percentage if a picture performs.
It’s back where I was 37 years ago, with Play Misty for Me.

Your first time directing a feature.
Yeah. When I asked the studio to do that, and told ’em I wanted to direct it — it was Universal at the time — Lew Wasserman said, ”Sure. But we don’t want to give you anything. We don’t want to pay you.” And I said, ”Fine. You shouldn’t pay me. I should have to show you what I can do. And if I can’t deliver, then you shouldn’t have to pay me.”

Did having Steven Spielberg and DreamWorks aboard as producers on Flags make it easier to get this movie launched?
Steven was involved with Bridges of Madison County, and he and I [worked together during rewrites of] the script. I did one of his Amazing Stories episodes, too, when he was producing that [circa the mid-1980s].

It was in fact the night of the Governors’ Ball after the 2004 Oscars that you first spoke with Steven about doing Flags, right?
Yeah. I had tried to buy the book when it first came out [in 2000]. Then they informed me that DreamWorks already owned it. So I said, Oh. Okay. I put it out of my mind.

What appealed to you about it?
I kind of liked the idea of a mystery story about a son trying to find out about his father. You could just imagine the look on a little kid’s face hearing about these war stories. You know how kids love to hear about all that stuff. But then imagine having a father who wouldn’t tell you his war stories, just never saying much about it.

Essentially this movie is the story of how a battlefield moment was turned into show business to raise money.
It’s sort of the beginning of celebrity being used as a selling point, the way we know it. In the old days, you didn’t have Gary Cooper or Humphrey Bogart selling products. Or not too often. It seemed like this whole thing of making these guys celebrities to sell an idea was new. The comments about celebrity and the comments about heroism in it are two things that cross over very well to today, I think.

You also do something you never see in old WWII movies: You emphasize how incredibly young the soldiers are.
These were just kids. The average age was 19 years old, barely out of high school. I was raised with pictures during WWII where they had all these 35- and 40-year-old actors playing 19-year-old kids. Y’know, Robert Taylor and Lloyd Nolan and Randolph Scott and John Wayne. All these guys were mature people. You never felt these were kids. But this cast [in Flags], they all look very young. They look right.

What’s the vibe like on your sets when you’re filming?
I keep the set quiet at all times. The assistant directors are all like the secret service. They all have earpieces. It’s all very quiet. That way you don’t have the actors getting nervous or upset. If you have an assistant director who’s running around going, Shhhhhh! Quiet, everybody, quiet! QUIET! — that’s no good. It’s very important that when I just move my hand a little, we’re shooting. And the crew knows this. The crew doesn’t get outrageous [between takes] or start talking or joking around, because we’re all working. Everybody knows they could be shooting any time. I don’t even use the word ”action” on the set at all. If it’s a big scene with hundreds of extras, I might say, ”Come ahead, action.” But a regular scene? I just say, ”Whenever you’re ready. Just talk.”

Now that you’re in your mid-70s, do you think about your own mortality more?
My dad passed away when he was 63, and it was very sudden. He was a wonderful man. His father had lived to be about 97. So he kind of thought, genetically, he had a long haul. But I don’t think my dad kept quite as good care of himself as his father did. It was a big shock to me. You go through the usual guilt you have. Why didn’t I call him up more often? I was always busy doing my own stuff. Why didn’t I call him and say, ”Do you wanna play golf?” So you go through that. And then you realize there’s no good time for a family member to go.

Is 76 the new 56?
Sure. Maybe it’s the new 46. I don’t feel any different, except that I feel maybe I know more than I did at 46. As long as I’m, y’know, firing on 8 cylinders, I’m fine. When I’m firing on 7 cylinders, then they’ll probably have to excuse me. Send me to the back of the room.

How would you like to go out of this world?