Interview with Robert Redford
Cineaste magazine interviewed the highly acclaimed and prolific actor, director, and producer Robert Redford while he was in New Mexico directing The Milagro Beanfield War (1988). Based on the novel of the same name by John Nichols, the film centers on a theme that Redford often probes in his movies—that of “the little guy versus the big powers that overwhelm him.” Redford is notable among Hollywood celebrities for his dedication to using film as a medium to educate as well as entertain. The Sundance Institute he founded helps independent filmmakers complete films that tell stories often overlooked by Hollywood producers.
An Interview with Robert Redford
Cineaste: You’ve been coming to New Mexico a lot over the years. What is it that draws you here?
Robert Redford: I’m not sure I know entirely why. It’s got a lot to do with the land, the culture, and history, separately and combined. I think those three things combined creates an aura about New Mexico, particularly Northern New Mexico. But taken separately, just the land itself, I think it’s beautiful country. And the culture to me is very, very interesting. I grew up in a Mexican-American culture in southeast Los Angeles; I came from a very poor background. Also, through my mother’s side of the family—her roots were in southern Texas (San Antonio and Austin), and I would spend my summers there—I was juxtaposed to that Hispanic influence.
Northern New Mexico is different because it has the tricultural, the Indian mix. I happen to be very prone to Indian culture. I’ve spent a lot of time in it, around it, and studying it for the last twenty-some years. So it just stands to reason that this would be a place that I would like to come.
Cineaste: How much did the feelings you have for New Mexico attract you to making The Milagro Beanfield War into a film?
Redford: Well, there are specific things I look for in a film. As for this book, I happen to be a fan of the author’s. I like Nichols’s work very much. I’ve been aware of his work for twenty years, and when I read the book I really liked it. It also had these connections with things that I care about—the little guy against the big powers that overwhelm him. Particularly a culture, a situation that involves the possible squeezing out of a culture, part of our heritage by development, profit. It’s the David and Goliath context that I like. The land, yes. Just the fact that it’s this part of the country. This could have been shot anywhere, by the way. Outside of LA, in Oxnard Valley, the Imperial Valley; southern Arizona, to guarantee that you would have good weather, but I really don’t think I would have made the film anywhere but here. There were a couple of times when that was jeopardized, but I always intended it to be here.
Cineaste: With your film crew, you’re bringing money into a community that needs it, and you’re doing it in a way that development would not. You’re not going to change the landscape, you’re not going to move and alter the lifestyles here. Do you see, or have you thought about, what the solutions are to the problems the book raises about integrating a Milagro-type community into the 20th century economically, and not sacrificing the cultural integrity of the people?
Redford: That’s a great, huge question, and I’m not sure I have the answer to it. I have a hunch it has a lot to do with the people themselves that are the culture. In our case, our coming into this community, we wouldn’t have gone anywhere where we weren’t wanted. The people would have to want us here. I would absolutely, for example, respect any group that said, “We don’t want our situation changed by your coming here. We feel it would threaten our cultural stability, our heritage, our right to conduct our lives the way we want to. Therefore, we think you’re going to come in here with your equipment, all your Hollywood glamour that’ll attract the wrong kind of people, and all of a sudden we’ll have tourists everywhere—we don’t want it.” I would completely respect that. I’m not sure that I would want it.” On the other hand, if the people felt OK about it, then I think there are a lot of positive elements. You do increase the economic base of the community while you are here, you do draw attention to that area geographically, because it’s immortalized on film.
People are often influenced by things they see on movie landscapes. I know when we made Jeremiah Johnson in the Wasatch Mountains in Utah—most of it was made on property I own there—what happened was suddenly a lot of people wanted to visit that part of the country. The local economies benefited enormously by the influx of people coming to the area that they thought looked beautiful on film. And that could very easily happen here—Truchas could very well find itself with an increase in visitors. Now, whether they want it or not, that is their business, not mine. And that, in a way, also has to do with their future. If the people want to preserve their culture, there’s enough of the population to band together, to work together to prevent things they don’t want to have happen. What usually happens in a situation like that is that cultures get divided by the attraction of the dollar. You know, a developer usually comes in and makes it very attractive for a person to give up their land. And usually, it’s purely money. Very often you come into impoverished communities where industry has left, there’s no longer farming or ranching possible because our society and our world has moved on and we have more advanced needs for extracting goods out of the ground and so forth, so people can’t farm and don’t know what to do. So they say, what’s the point anyway? I might as well sell this, take the money and go retire and live happily somewhere else. The developer gets what he wants and people supposedly get what they want. What gets lost in that is the maintenance of cultural heritage. So, it really is up to the people.
In terms of Indian culture, I think the single most important thing that could happen to preserve their culture is educational scholarships for the kids on the reservations to attend universities. They can become educated so they can come back and help their own people. That would be the single most important thing. You can’t fault developers for wanting to develop—that’s what they’re here for. But if people don’t like the results, then they should stop. I think a lot of the development in this country we could do without. I think development is very important, and I think certain kinds of development are essential, but a lot in our country is so much waste. What we waste per year, per day, other countries could live on. I have real strong feelings about the amount of waste, and I think a lot of development, a lot of second home development, a lot of recreational development, is not necessary. Some of the best recreation is just visiting the pure, raw countryside. But, for people who are interested in just turning a profit on development, they couldn’t care less about it. That’s what these cultures are going to be up against. They’re going to have to decide their own future.
Cineaste: There’s a dilemma here, because the American way is for people to make money, to get ahead, to get out of where they are.
Redford: Yeah, but we’re a schizophrenic country. Here we are, a country that was established through liberalism, that was formed by a group of people who were liberals. They left a situation in another country because they wanted freedom, a new way, they wanted to be more liberal in their lives. They came to a new land, discovered it, inhabited it, developed it, and then they adopted conservatism in order to hold it. I think it’s really ironic that the thing that brought us here is liberalism, but the think that’s holding us here is conservatism. There’s a kind of main trunk, a main body running through this country that’s conservative, and now the liberal elements are sort of on the fringe. It’s just the reverse of what it started out to be. So there’s a built-in schizophrenia in this country: we claim we want independence and freedom, we came here because of it, yet, on the other hand, when groups start espousing freedom and independence, the conservative elements in this country call it communistic, threatening, stopping progress, what have you. What you’ve got built in, therefore, is a very schizophrenic quality. It applies straight down the line. It applied to cultures which face the question: “Do you want to change or do you want to stay the way you are?” Some people feel staying the way you are is doom and disaster, and others feel it’s a wonderful way of life, and you should stay that way. To me it’s endlessly fascinating.
Cineaste: You said in a press conference several weeks ago that you really like history, that it’s a chief interest of yours. History is a great teacher, teaching us about ourselves. Film does that, too. Do you see your role when you make a film as being not only entertaining and artful, but also edifying?
Redford: Absolutely. At the risk of sounding pretentious, if I have the opportunity, film for me is always the chance to educate and to entertain at the same time, in equal balance. I don’t believe many people respond to being hammered over the head—you know, there are many films out there that have a quality to them that says, “It’s like taking medicine, or going to church. But the film may be bad—boring and uninteresting. People go to it because they’re made to feel it’s their responsibility—it’s about a situation involving a minority, or a family being relocated, or something. And yet, it’s not a very good film, so it’s not entertaining. It’s just straight education.
Other films are just straight entertainment and have no educational benefits at all. I’ve always believed that you could entertain people while at the same time educating them as to how things work. Jeremiah Johnson was an education as to what mountain men were really like. They were a part of our pioneering history—our earliest pioneers were mountain men. The Candidate was a real education about how the political system works behind the scenes. And yet, hopefully, it was also entertaining. Downhill Racer was about how athletics works, about the emphasis and priorities in athletics in this country. Ordinary People was about feelings, if you want to put one word to it. This country has very complicated notions about feelings. At the same time that film told you about a part of our country sort of isolated from other areas, other realities—a slightly privileged, upper middle class section north of Chicago. Hopefully it told you how people live in that part of the country. Hopefully Milagro will do the same thing. So, yes, I believe it’s possible to combine entertainment and education in a film, and, in fact, I prefer that.
Cineaste: In Ordinary People the camera movement was discreet, you didn’t have a lot of motion. You really kept the camera on the actors—everything came from them. Are you going to change your directorial approach with Milagro?
Redford: There will be more movement here because there’s more land to see. The land is a great element in this film—it’s literally another character. There will be shots that feature the land more, there will be more camera movement. But what doesn’t change is that the focus is on these people. Therefore, it will be on the actors, on the characters. The attractive thing about this project is the wonderful characters that inhabit the story. The difference with Ordinary People is that it was very contained, very intimate. What I had in mind with that film was to suggest peeking into someone’s life, looking through a keyhole into someone’s life. Here, it’s more opened up to a whole community of characters. But it’s still the same. It’s a matter of heart—where’s the heart?
Cineaste: With Ordinary People and Milagro there’s a healing process that goes on. In Ordinary People, the drama involves Conrad healing himself, and also the peripheral people who become involved in that healing. In Milagro the characters experience a healing where their cultural integrity is mended, strengthened. Experiencing a film can provide a vicarious sort of healing or strengthening, when you understand a character’s motives. Do you see this as a valid thing for a film to do? Do you aim for that?
Redford: I think a film is a journey for the audience to share with a character. The character takes the audience on a journey, and you go with them through their experience. So it’s up to the actor to present him or herself in a way that has the audience feel like they’re going with them. And so, if that’s the case, they can go with them. And then it becomes not quite such an objective experience, but more of a subjective experience. I guess that’s when film works for me—when it becomes an intimate experience. By that I mean you go with the person and feel what they feel, or share with them, maybe even some bad stuff, for two hours. That’s why to me there are no real villains, and no real heroes. If you really are with them closely enough you’ll at least understand why they do some things. You may not approve of it, but you understand it. And if you understand it, you’ll go with them.
There are a lot of villains in motion picture history that audiences love, because they’ve gone with them. Ordinary People was not just about that boy. The boy was the stalking horse for the other characters. It was through the boy’s problem that you were brought into their lives. They behaved in a way that they didn’t know you were coming in, they thought you were coming in to look at the boy, but you were really coming in to look at them. So it was as much about the father, and the father and other, and the father and son, and mother and son, and the son’s friends, and the community, as it was about the boy.
In Milagro, it’s the same thing: each character has his own space in this film, and yet it is a composite of all these people that make up what the town is. So by going in, it’d be like looking at a painting by Brueghel or Hieronymus Bosch. Just looking at the painting you get one overall feeling. Then you go in and pull out one character or another, examine that character and look at it, and then you put it back in and it all fits. That way you’re kind of going along with these characters. Hopefully, if it’s done right, there could be a lot of experiences to share, a lot of things to look at and to feel. It’s also mystical, which Ordinary People is not.
Cineaste: I got the feeling in Ordinary People that when you directed that you put a certain energy in that was from the gut, sort of intuitive…
Redford: It is from the gut. There’s an intellectual overlay, but finally, your gut is what speaks to you. When we’re here making this film, it’s the gut that’s really making it. That’s the way it has always been with me—in sports, and in painting, when I was an artist. I always went from that, rather than from the head. I tried very hard to get my head to catch up with my gut, but never quite pulled it off. I had no real education, you know. I’ve tried to educate myself.
Cineaste: You seem to be self-educated, and to have a genuine, natural curiosity about things.
Redford: Really. That’s absolutely true. So, whenever you go into a situation your gut sort of tells you where to go with it, and you try to bring your mind up to speed, justify what you’ve done, intellectually or whatever it is, or add to it, enhance it. I’m trying to think of a film director who’d be maybe the opposite…
Cineaste: Maybe Hitchcock?
Redford: Uh, no, I think Hitchcock worked from his gut because he was scared [profanity deleted]. I think Hitchcock was so badly scared as a child that it forever directed what he did, and he operated out of his gut, which was fear. Everything he did was affected by the fact that he was a man, at some point in his life, scared to death. Now, he crafted it, he was in control. He worked it all out before he went in there. Why do people respond so much to Hitchcock? I don’t think it’s his head. They get scared. Most of his films really, truly scare us, because he knew what it was like to be scared. So his gut led him. Alain Resnais is a French filmmaker who I think works more from his head. By the way, I’m not saying that one is preferable to the other. It’s just the way it is—one person works this way, another that way. There are a lot of directors and actors who work both ways.
Cineaste: Do you tend to have a clear visualization of what you want, but, when you actually work on it, and work with the actors, do you let it flow, do you let it take a direction that you may not have anticipated?
Redford: Absolutely. I think that’s the best thing in film. I don’t think I could ever make a film where I locked it all up beforehand, because you’re eliminating the excitement of what happens when you get live, on the spot. Film can capture live things happening, including accidents. Like today, it was a simple shot of just a guy plowing his field. It’s going to be a piece of a montage, that’s all. It’ll last about five seconds. I got out there and looked at it, and suddenly got the notion of him being with his boy on the tractor, with his boy throwing fertilizer. So we quickly improvised a shot with the boy, just an idea on the spot. A lot of times you might change your mind completely about something. I’m quite suspicious of someone who never changes their mind.
Cineaste: How does being an actor give you skills or qualities that help you with your directing?
Redford: The truth of a scene, on what is being acted. I can empathize much more with the actors and their problems—how they need to go, how they need to work to get to where they need to be. In many cases, I can almost take on the actors’ roles with them, so I can go right along with them, I can feel it. Like the scene we’re doing here, I have a very clear ideal of what each character feels. So I can get in there and feel the same thing and help them.
Cineaste: Do you ever actually go through the motions and show an actor what you want, or do you always let them do it first, and work from there?
Redford: It varies. It depends on the actor, and on the situation. In this case, we have a very difficult situation because many of the performers in this film have either not acted, or are from another profession, or have very little experience, or are very old and can’t hear very well. Some prefer to be talked through it by the numbers; some forget; some are self-conscious about the fact that they’ve never acted in front of a camera and you have to work a special way with them. An actor who is a professional, you can let alone. You tell them what you want, and sit back and watch them. It varies, and so it’s really kind of a balancing act, particularly when you have them all working together—that’s a killer.
Cineaste: Since you extend yourself to feeling the actors’ roles with them, how do you keep yourself from being exhausted?
Redford: I don’t! I get tired. These are long days; we’re here till eight o’clock at night. Yeah, you get tired, but have you ever gotten tired enjoying your work? I enjoy this, I really do. I’m physically tired, but I’m feeling good. I can be worn out, hardly able to lift my head, and all I have to do is get in the car and drive that road down to my home. You also are working with a lot of energy that actors give you—it rejuvenates you. You can take it and work it that way, or you can let it defeat you. And I just so love actors! I happen to think actors are among the world’s greatest living creatures. I think they’re the most courageous, the funniest, most interesting. I mean they’re just out there with it all, and I just love that.
Cineaste: So you take the energy and use it in a way that doesn’t deplete you, but replenishes you.
Redford: Yeah, to me it’s very replenishing, and it’s a gift, you know. If someone gives you the gift of their energy, it should be thought of as that, as a gift. You treat it carefully. I did it enough times myself over the twenty-some-odd years I’ve been acting, where you walk on a set or the stage, and you don’t know the director and he doesn’t know you, and you give him part of your id. You say, well, I don’t know you and you don’t know me, but here it is! What are you going to do with it? It’s pretty tough, and many times in my life that was abused. That openness, that giving of yourself and putting it in the hands of someone, only to have it abused, that was tough. So I’m very sensitive to that. I wouldn’t want to abuse it if it was given to me.
Cineaste: Speaking of film as an art form in general, do you have any thoughts about the future of film? Has it reached its full potential, does it have to change?
Redford: A lot of the way I feel about film is involved in the institute I started over in Utah—the Sundance Film Institute. It’s an entity to help new filmmakers with other kinds of stories to be told. The film business is becoming so centralized and expensive and monogamous, it worries me that the quality will decline. The only way to keep it up is to encourage diversity in the industry, with things that don’t cost a fortune to make. If a film costs $30 million, chances are quite poor it’ll make its money back. So I would like to see more films made more responsibly, having to do with subjects that might affect us, might touch us, inform us, as opposed to just shocking us, or scaring or titillating us. Not that those are bad—I think the industry will always have a place for that—I just wouldn’t want it to be at the expense of the wonderful stories to be told about our country and about the people who live in it. That’s what interests me.
… The Institute is a process where resource people from my industry, veterans of the industry—writers, directors, cameramen, actors—come up there and give some of their time to help new filmmakers with their projects. They bring a project to Sundance, and we work on it. We help them get it made. Most of the projects that come here would never have gotten made because the subject matter was about Puerto Ricans relocating in the Bronx; or immigration problems along the border of Mexico; sanctuary; old people being forced to move into a retirement community—you know, little subjects like that are not exactly the stuff that Hollywood has jumped off bridges for. But a well-made film on any of those subjects could teach people. So that’s what we’re trying to do there.
There aren’t enough writers in the film industry. It’s become so entirely visual. I mean, what kind of writing talent do you think it takes to make an MTV video? It’s visual slapdash, it’s visual sleight of hand. It’s pretty Philistine stuff. There’s not a lot of incentive for writers. And yet, outside of actors, I think the most important ingredient is a good script, a good story. What I love about Milagro is that it has a wonderful story. So we’re trying to encourage that at Sundance—people learning how to tell a story, learning how to write a screenplay.
Cineaste: What do you find most personally rewarding about filmmaking?
Redford: To me it’s always been—I hate to sound Eastern about this—but the doing is thrilling to me. Of course, you want the result to reach people, but I’ve always had odd trouble with the result. When I was in athletics as a kid, the joy was in the competition, not getting the ribbon. Oddly, for me, it was always a letdown, after the first couple of times. That kind of rush—‘Gee, I won that thing! You will recognize me!’—I realized that the enjoyment I got was in the doing. The thrill of the award didn’t mean as much. Of course, you want the result to reach people, and you like the appreciation of it, you like to know that people have been reached, but the awards, the critical reaction, are not important to me. That’s not to say that you wouldn’t read a review, or be affected it was a bad review, or feel pleased if it was a good one. It just doesn’t mean that much to me, because nothing can ever quite get close to the doing.
Source: Copyright ©1998 by Cineaste Publishing, Inc. Reprinted by permission from The Cineaste Interviews II: On the Art and Politics of the Cinema. Crowdus, Gary and Dan Georgakas, eds. Chicago: Lake View Press, 1998.