When a big-name Hollywood director first optioned David Webb Peoples’ script for “Unforgiven,” Peoples was not so far removed from his work co-writing another classic film, “Blade Runner.” Yet “Blade Runner” came out in the summer of 1982 and “Unforgiven” would not ride into theaters until the summer of 1992. In the 10-year gap, People’s “Unforgiven” script would pass from Francis Ford Coppola, the director of “The Godfather” and “Apocalypse Now,” to Clint Eastwood, who eventually won two Academy Awards for producing and directing the film (and received a Best Actor nomination for starring in it as well).
In “Unforgiven,” Eastwood plays William Munny, an outlaw-turned-farmer and widower who comes out of retirement to collect a bounty on two cowboys after they leave a prostitute’s face cut up. Peoples explained in the book “FilmCraft: Screenwriting,” edited by Tim Grierson, that “Unforgiven” originated as a script called “The Cut-Whore Killings,” which he wrote around 1976. That was the year of Martin Scorsese’s “Taxi Driver,” a film that had a surprising influence on Peoples when he penned “Unforgiven.”
In an interview with the Los Angeles Times back in 1992, Peoples explained why “Unforgiven” had such a long road to the screen, and how Eastwood came to take the reins from Coppola. He said:
“Francis Ford Coppola optioned it in ’84. He took it around, but couldn’t get financing. Clint picked up the option in 1985 and said he was making it ‘next year’ a couple of times. The year before last, my wife was at the Telluride Film Festival and Clint walked on stage. He was overwhelmed by the scenery, he told the audience, and figured it was probably time to make his Western. I was thrilled.”
Eastwood was unusually hands-off with the script
Francis Ford Coppola was in the midst of a career decline when he optioned “Unforgiven.” His 1982 musical romance, “One from the Heart,” was such a box-office disaster it came to be regarded as the final flop demarcating the end of the New Hollywood era. Peoples told The L.A. Times, however, he had full confidence in Coppola, though he acknowledged perhaps no one could have made “Unforgiven” like Clint Eastwood did. It helped that Eastwood was already a big international star, trading on the image he cultivated in Westerns like Sergio Leone’s Dollars Trilogy. Peoples explained:
“Francis would have done it brilliantly as he does everything else, but it’s hard to imagine anyone making it as straightforwardly and uncompromisingly as Clint. No studio would have made it that way — dark, moody. With a lot of voices, things generally end up becoming blander and more accessible. ‘Unforgiven’ was Clint Eastwood saying ‘This is what I’m going to do … get out of my way.'”
As a director, Eastwood has a reputation for shooting very few takes. He brought the same sensibility to “Unforgiven,” which remained largely unchanged from page to screen. Peoples concluded:
“I didn’t meet Clint in person until he invited me to see the movie at Warner Bros. But he and I were enough in sync that he didn’t feel it necessary to ask for rewrites. One of the stars [of ‘Unforgiven,’ Eastwood’s then-partner], Frances Fisher, told me that this was the first time she saw a shooting script that was entirely in white. Most of them are multicolored, full of blue and red pages or whatever representing various changes in the screenplay.”
Hollywood is filled with stories of projects that had a revolving door of screenwriters, but Peoples received sole credit for “Unforgiven,” and he would also pick up an Oscar nomination for Best Original Screenplay. It’s nice to know there are at least some movies where studio interference was kept to a minimum and the director was respectful of the writer’s vision enough not to mess with success.