Clint Eastwood knows when a story’s been told. Over the course of his filmmaking career, the Hollywood icon has cultivated a famously no-frills style behind the camera, often shooting scenes in one take and excising material he deems extraneous — even if the sequence plays beautifully. That was the case with Eastwood’s 1992 Western, Unforgiven, his triumphant farewell to the genre that made him a star and won him Oscars for Best Picture and Best Director.
Premiering in theaters thirty years ago on August 7, 1992, the film originally had a different ending that Eastwood shot, but decided to leave out of the final cut. “I miss it to this day,” Unforgiven screenwriter David Peoples admits to Yahoo Entertainment. “But Clint got the movie right.”
The scene in question appears in a 1984 draft of Peoples’s screenplay when Unforgiven was still titled The William Munny Killings, after the movie’s central character — played by Eastwood — a retired 19th century gunman who reluctantly gets back into the killing game to collect on a big payday. Since hanging up his guns at the behest of his dearly departed wife, Munny has tried to make a living as a pig farmer working alongside their two young children, Will Jr. (Shane Meier) and Penny (Aline Lavasseur). But when the self-proclaimed “Schofield Kid” (Jaimz Woolvett) shows up with news that a $1,000 bounty has been placed on the heads of two Wyoming cowboys that slashed a prostitute (Anna Thomson), the veteran outlaw leaves his kids behind and walks a dark path back into a life he abandoned — a path that brings him face to face with another violent man, Little Bill (Gene Hackman).
Peoples originally wrote The Willliam Munny Killings in 1976, and Eastwood acquired the rights in the early ’80s, but held off on making it for years. By the time the movie did go before cameras in the fall of 1991, the director and star had changed the title, but very little of what was on the page — including the final scene that Peoples liked so much. After taking care of his bloody business in the town of Big Whiskey, the screenplay ends with Munny returning to his Kansas homestead where he has a tender reunion with his children, calling his daughter “a lady” and gently praising his son for taking care of the farm.
But a tension underlies that tenderness as he keeps the truth of his journey hidden from both children. “I guess you didn’t kill nobody then,” Will Jr. remarks to his father after Munny declines to explain the exact reason for their sudden financial windfall. “Naw, son, I didn’t kill nobody,” the killer lies through gritted teeth.
Peoples says that he modeled the scene directly after the final moments of Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather, where Michael (Al Pacino) lies to Kay (Diane Keaton), about his involvement in the gangland massacre that solidified his standing as the new Don Corleone. (Funnily enough, Coppola was originally attached to direct The William Munny Killings before Eastwood acquired the script.) “What’s good about that scene is that it means that the killings aren’t triumphant killings,” the writer explains. “Munny doesn’t say, ‘I killed that motherf***er.’ He’s ashamed of what he’s done.”
Eastwood filmed the ending as written, and screened it for Peoples — who wasn’t on set for production — during the editing process. “He did the scene beautifully,” he recalls now. But the director also had some bad news: as good as the finale was, he’d already decided to leave it on the cutting room floor. Instead, the final moments jump directly from the aftermath of Munny’s killing spree to Peoples’s elegiac postscript, which reveals that he and his kids abandoned the farm and started over elsewhere — possibly as a dry goods magnate in San Francisco — with only his wife’s grave left behind to mark their presence.
“He said he thought that it was a beat too many, and he wasn’t going to use it,” Peoples says of Eastwood’s reasoning for cutting the Munny family’s reunion. “He had this sense that the movie had already ended, and sticking on another scene wasn’t going to help. As the sensitive writer, I wish somehow it could have made it in, but he got the rhythm right. He has a brilliant sense of drama.”
To this day, Peoples is one of the only people who has seen that original ending, which has otherwise never been released, even as a DVD bonus feature. “I don’t know what’s happened to it,” he says. “I don’t know if it’s something Clint would want to re-release or put on a reel or something. Either way, it’s done. He made the movie, and it’s a beautiful movie.”
In an expansive conversation ahead of the film’s 30th anniversary, Peoples — whose other classic credits include the screenplays for Blade Runner and 12 Monkeys, written with his wife, Janet Peoples — shared other stories about the making of Unforgiven, including a now-famous line that Eastwood rewrote during shooting and what the film has to say about the Western genre’s history of violence.
You’ve said over the years that Unforgiven was inspired by Taxi Driver, which is an interesting reference point.
Yeah, in the ’70s I was trying to write some screenplays and I had found that the way people died in movies really didn’t seem credible. It was appropriate for big adventure movies like James Bond, but it just didn’t work in regular entertainment in my mind. So I resolved that I wasn’t going to kill anyone: I would write comedies or things like that. But then I saw Taxi Driver and I was like, “Holy s***!” It was an entertaining movie that also had a reality to it and a character in Travis Bickle who was so powerful and poignant. It knocked me out.
At the same time, I also read The Shootist by Glendon Swarthout, which had just been made into a movie with John Wayne and Jimmy Stewart. The movie was this sweet thing, whereas the book is dark and disturbing. So that combined with Taxi Driver got me thinking about William Munny, and that’s where the script began.
I do have to add: after the movie came out, 20th Century Fox called me about introducing a DVD package of three Westerns, including Henry King’s The Gunfighter from 1950. I saw that film when I was 11 years old, and it had stayed with me, but I was never able to rewatch it because it wasn’t findable. They send me the DVD, and I watched it for the first time since I was a kid and I was stunned at how much it had influenced Unforgiven without me being aware of it! So if you ever watch the movie, you’ll realize how much it influenced me, even though I didn’t realize it at the time.
There were also a number of revisionist Westerns in theaters at that time as well — movies like The Wild Bunch and McCabe and Mrs. Miller. Did any of those influence you?
I was very into revisionist Westerns, but I didn’t care for The Wild Bunch that much. There’s a lot of good stuff in it, but that kind of flashy, phony violence didn’t work for me. What interested me were the Westerns like Winchester ’73, The Great Minnesota Northfield Raid and The Culpepper Cattle Co. I liked the Westerns that weren’t that big John Wayne and John Ford stuff — the ones that weren’t mainstream, so to speak.
How did you feel about Clint Eastwood’s Westerns specifically?
I really began to be a huge fan of his when I saw Bronco Billy in 1980. That’s an absolutely wonderful film and Clint gives a superb performance in it. So I was aware that he was a really good storyteller, and I began to notice that he made movies where he was a big star and made a lot of money and then he would also make a movie where he just wanted to tell a story. When he bought Unforgiven, I hoped I would get the terrific Clint Eastwood, because there were some Clint Eastwood movies I didn’t love. I thought, “Well, I hope he does something good,” but there are never any guarantees in the movie business.
Since you were inspired by Taxi Driver, did you ever hope that Martin Scorsese might direct it?
I don’t know that I ever thought of that, but I do know that just the thought of Martin Scorsese directing something always got me going. I remember that when Janet and I wrote the original draft of something that eventually became Steven Spielberg’s Munich, we thought it was much more a Scorsese picture than a Spielberg picture. But I never thought of him directing a Western — it just didn’t come to me.
Eastwood’s iconography as a Western star plays a major role in the film: did you expect him to have to wrestle with that when he acquired the script?
You know what? I don’t think I thought about it very much. After he bought the script in 1984 or 1985, he mentioned to me on the phone that he thought it was good and that he’d like to grow into the part — that he wasn’t ready for it. But when he was ready, he did it. And when I was writing it, I wasn’t thinking of Clint Eastwood as much I was just thinking about those other movies I mentioned earlier. I was just hopeful that he would do what was there on the page, and he nailed it.
Aside from the ending, one of the other major differences between your script and the film is that Munny was originally intended to only have three fingers on one of his hands. When did that detail fall away?
Yeah, his nickname was “Three Fingered Jack.” I never took it out of the script, so I think that Clint probably just didn’t want to do that. I mean that’s a lot of work and it’s also time consuming! I liked it because it wasn’t usual, and I think people in those days were a lot more beat-up than we are now. They lived very physical lives, so it was about trying to get a feeling for the time. But acting with a three-fingered prosthetic would have been a workout, and Clint achieved the feeling of the time without it. If you look at that ’84 script, you’ll also see there’s a lot of snow in it, and I think he knew that snow would have made the movie a more extravagant production than he wanted to do.
I also noticed that his famous line, “Deserve’s got nothing to do with it,” was originally written as “Deserve don’t mean s***.”
Yeah, he changed it because he said it sounded too modern and I respect that. I originally thought “Deserve’s got nothing to do with it” sounded a little awkward, whereas “Don’t mean s***” had a better rhythm. So I felt a little bad about it for a while until I heard people quoting it! When that happened, I realized, “Clint knew what he was doing.” [Laughs] That’s normal for writers: we can react very negatively to any line that changes, sometimes because it’s changed for the worse and other times because it’s just different than what we heard in our heads. It’s just like the movie’s title: when Clint said, “What do you think of Unforgiven?” I said, “That sounds okay,” because I didn’t have a better title to offer. Lo and behold, all these years later, I realize it’s the perfect title — I just didn’t know that at the time.”
When he made those kinds of changes to the script, would he alert you ahead of time or would you learn about it after the fact?
I learned almost everything about the movie when I saw the movie. He did once ask me to do two pages of rewrites, but when he invited me over to see a cut of the film, I said, “The rewrite isn’t in there.” And he said, “Nah, it was better before.” That’s one of the things that makes me admire him tremendously: in Hollywood, people tend to write things until they get really bad, and then they either make them or put them in a drawer. But he doesn’t rewrite things to death. My rewrite wasn’t an improvement, so he threw it away and that’s pretty unusual, which gets my respect.
Do you remember what was in your rewrite specifically?
Yeah, he wanted Delilah [the prostitute whose face is sliced] to show up at the very end. I thought that wasn’t a great idea, but I wasn’t going to argue with Clint Eastwood! [Laughs] I wrote it and I was surprised that it worked better than I thought it would. It wasn’t the stupid, sentimental Hollywood ending that I expected, but it was also better without it.
Eastwood cast Morgan Freeman as Ned, Munny’s friend and former partner-in-crime. The script doesn’t specify the character’s race and doesn’t really address race at all. Is that something you might have changed had you known in advance that Freeman would be playing the role?
I had deliberately kept race out of the picture pretty much, but the idea of a great actor like Morgan Freeman saying stuff I’d written thrilled me. I just regretted that I didn’t say, “Let’s call him Black Ned.” Many of the characters in the film are referred to by their physical characteristics. Strawberry Alice [played by Frances Fisher] has red hair, and there’s also Little Bill and English Bob [played by Richard Harris], so Ned probably should have been called Black Ned. People would have called him that at that time, I think.
What I didn’t understand was how nasty it would make Little Bill appear when he tortures Ned at the end of the movie. In this case, I didn’t see Little Bill beating him because of his race — he’s beating him because of who he is. Ned has come there to kill people in his territory, and Little Bill was going to beat the living s*** out of him whether he’s white or Black. We look at that scene today, and it seems to the audience like he’s beating him because he’s Black, and I certainly understand that. But that’s interpreted through a modern vision. At any rate, Morgan Freeman is wonderful.
How did you feel about Gene Hackman playing Little Bill? He won an Oscar for the part, but did you have someone else in mind originally?
No, I didn’t. I certainly wasn’t disappointed when he came on, but I couldn’t have dreamed how good his performance would be. When I finished writing the script, all of Little Bill’s lines were funny as well, but when I’d re-read it, I’d think, “This is too talky.” Then I saw Hackman onscreen, and he did everything right. He was funnier, cooler and better than the Little Bill in my head. Clint cast the movie brilliantly.
The crux of the movie for me is the scene where Munny tells the Schofield Kid, “It’s a hell of a thing, killing a man.” Do you think Eastwood was aware of how his own history as an actor would impact that moment?
He’s a very smart man, so I’m sure he’s aware of a lot of things. But it wasn’t anything I specifically thought of. That scene worked out terrifically, because the characters were doing their own talking. Interestingly, when I started writing the film, the crux of it for me was the scene where Munny is lying there thinking that he’s dying. I just thought that no one had ever seen a tough guy like this be scared of dying unless it’s some kind of last minute thing. So that scene was important for me to write, and was very much influenced by The Shootist.
You mentioned how you have an uneasy relationship with violence in movies. Do you wish more films addressed the ramifications of killing in the way that Unforgiven does?
Well, I think a lot of them do. It’s interesting: Clint Eastwood had made some movies in which the violence is at least on some level celebrated, and some people have said that Unforgiven is anti-violence. I never thought of it that way. I thought of it as trying to do what Scorsese does in most of his pictures, which is make violence a part of life. It’s not a good thing or a bad thing, but something that we all carry within us and that comes out in circumstances in all sorts of people. I like movies that aren’t celebrating violence, but also not preaching that violence is bad, because it’s part of human nature. So I never saw Unforgiven as an anti-violence picture. I saw it as a picture that accepted the fact that violence is part of who we are.
It’s interesting to me that Unforgiven remains Eastwood’s last real Western. Movies like A Perfect World and Cry Macho have elements of the genre in them, but he’s never revisited the Old West in the 30 years since that film.
I’ve liked a lot of stuff he’s done since then. I love The Mule and I love Gran Torino. He keeps on making good movies. But I sure do love Unforgiven, and I was so lucky that Clint took the picture. He understood every scene, and knew what he was doing. A lot of directors forget that the writer had much to do with a film, but he has always been very courteous in his interviews to refer to my script and share the credit. I’m as grateful for that as for the fact that he made a brilliant movie.
Have you ever contemplated revisiting Munny or Little Bill in a prequel film?
I did think sort of think about what Munny would have been like as a young man, and that idea veered off into a script that wasn’t literally about him, but a young man that was somewhat like him. But I never got anywhere with it. There are people you could write more about from that film, but only if you had the feelings for them, and I don’t think I would feel that way about Little Bill! They did do a Japanese version [2013’s Yurusarezaru Mono, starring Ken Watanabe in the Eastwood role]. I haven’t watched it, but people have told me that it’s really good. I haven’t watched some of the pictures I’ve written myself, so that’s just how it is! [Laughs]
Unforgiven is currently streaming on HBO Max