y family was too busy moving around, looking for work, for me to know what I wanted. Even after I got out of high school in Oakland, I had no idea what I wanted to do.
One of the biggest things when I was a kid—I always liked jazz. A wide spectrum of jazz. Back in the forties and fifties, I listened to Brubeck and Mulligan. And I loved Ellington and Basie. I'd get books on everybody: Bix Beiderbecke, King Oliver, Buddy Bolden. I tried to enroll in Seattle University, where they had a good music program. I got my draft notice before I got in there, though, and ended up at Fort Ord [California].
I served my two years and went down to L.A. City College, where I enrolled in business administration. In the service I had met some guys who were actors—Martin Milner, David Janssen—and when we got out, a cinematographer got me a screen test. I got an offer to go under contract with Universal, seventy-five bucks a week to start. They threw me out a year and a half later. But it was a pretty good deal for a young guy. We had acting classes every day.
I'd done Rawhide for about five years. The agency called and asked if I was interested in doing a western in Italy and Spain. I said, "Not particularly." They said, "Why don't you give the script a quick look?" Well, I was kind of curious, so I read it, and I recognized it right away as Yojimbo, a Kurosawa film I had liked a lot. Over I went, taking the poncho with me—yeah the cape was my idea.
There's a rebel lying deep in my soul. Anytime anybody tells me the trend is such and such, I go the opposite direction. I hate the idea of trends. I hate imitation; I have a reverence for individuality. I got where I am by coming off the wall. I've always considered myself too individualistic to be either right-wing or left-wing.
I think people jumped to conclusions about Dirty Harry without giving the character much thought, trying to attach right-wing connotations to the film that were never really intended. Both the director [Don Siegel] and I thought it was a basic kind of drama—what do you do when you believe so much in law and order and coming to the rescue of people and you just have five hours to solve a case? That kind of impossible effort was fun to portray, but I think it was interpreted as a pro-police point of view, as a kind of rightist heroism, at a time in American history when police officers were looked down on as "pigs," as very oppressive people—I'm sure there are some who are, and a lot who aren't. I've met both kinds.
I don't like the wimp syndrome. No matter how ardent a feminist may be, if she is a heterosexual female, she wants the strength of a male companion as well as the sensitivity. The most gentle people in the world are macho males, people who are confident in their masculinity and have a feeling of well-being in themselves. They don't have to kick in doors, mistreat women, or make fun of gays.
You don't play down to people, you don't say. "I'd better make this line a little simpler, a little more expository." For instance, in The Outlaw Josey Wales, when he rides off at the end of the picture, the editor and I had wanted [at one time] to superimpose the girl's face over him. He said, "We want the audience to know that he's going back to her." Well, we all know he's going back. The audience wills him back.
One of my favorite films was Pale Rider. I also liked Honkytonk Man. I feel very close to the western. There are not too many American art forms that are original. Most are derived from European art forms. Other than the western and jazz or blues, that's all that's really original. High Plains Drifter and Pale Rider both have elements of the classic westerns in them, mythological characters who drift in and have an effect on the people. In High Plains Drifter he is the bereaved brother who comes back and persecutes the people for their apathy or corruption. In Pale Rider the stranger comes to the aid of hard-working people, who are trying to eke out a living and are being harassed by the major corporate concern.
You have to trust your instincts. There's a moment when an actor has it, and he knows it. Behind the camera you can feel the moment even more clearly. And once you've got it, once you feel it, you can't second-guess yourself. If I would go around and ask everyone on the set how it looked, eventually someone would say, "Well, gee, I don't know, there was a fly 600 feet back." Somebody's always going to find a flaw, and pretty soon that flaw gets magnified and you're all back to another take. Meanwhile everyone's forgotten that there's a certain focus on things, and no one's going to see that fly because you're using a 100mm lens. But that's what you can do . You can talk yourself in and out of anything. You can find a million reasons why something didn't work. But if it feels right, and it looks right, it works. Without sounding like a pseudointellectual dipshit, it's my responsibility to be true to myself. If it works for me, it;s right. When I start choosing wrong, I'll step back and let someone else do it for me.
Actors know the most difficult problem in acting is to act in a scene with a person you don't know while you're both playing characters who know each other very well. You have to break down your natural reserve in the presence of a stranger. As a director, I can help actors do that sometimes. The plan was, when I first started directing in the 1970's, to get more involved in production and directing so at some point in my life, when I decided I didn't want to act anymore, I didn't have to suit up.
None of the pictures I take a risk in cost a lot, so it doesn't take much for them to turn a profit. Bronco Billy, for example, cost five million. We sold it to TV for ten. We don't deal in big budgets. We know what we want and we shoot it and we don't waste anything. I never understand these films that cost twenty, thirty million dollars when they could be made for half that. Maybe it's because no one cares. We care.
But I do want mood. I guess Unforgiven is a good example. When we're in the saloon, and I want it to look like it's coal-lit. I don't want an electronic feel. I want it the way the light would pool. I liked this film because even the perpetrators of the violence are touched by it, and a lot of good people are victims.
In The Bridges of Madison County, Kincaid's a peculiar guy. Really, he's kind of a lonely individual. He's sort of a lost soul in Mid-America. I've been that guy.
Most people who'll remember me, if at all, will remember me as an action guy, which is OK. There's nothing wrong with that. But there will be a certain group which will remember me for the other films, the ones where I took a few chances. At least, I like to think so.