TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Our guest Robert Redford used his success as an actor to start the Sundance Film Festival, which has launched the careers of many independent filmmakers. Today we talk about Redford's early life and how he started his acting career. Redford's best known films include "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid," "The Candidate," "The Way We Were," "The Sting," "All the President's Men" and "Out of Africa."
He directed several films, including "Ordinary People," and "Quiz Show." His latest movie, "All Is Lost," just came out on DVD. I spoke with him in December, after it opened in theaters. Redford is not only the star of the movie, he's the only character. He gives what New York Times film critic A.O. Scott described as the performance of a lifetime.
This was a very physically demanding role for a 77-year-old actor. Redford plays a man alone on a small yacht in the Indian Ocean, between Indonesia and Madagascar. We don't know his name, why he's there or anything about his background except for what we can deduce by what we see. Early in the film, his yacht is rammed by a stray container that must have dropped off a container ship.
It leaves a hole in the boat that begins a series of problems this man has to overcome if he is to survive. The film begins with his voiceover, reading a letter he's writing. We don't know who he's writing to. After the voiceover, the action switches to eight days earlier. Let's begin with him reading that letter.
(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "ALL IS LOST")
ROBERT REDFORD: Thirteenth of July, 4:50 PM: I'm sorry. I know that means little at this point, but I am. I tried. I think you would all agree that I tried to be true, to be strong, to be kind, to love, to be right. But I wasn't. And I know you knew this in each of your ways, and I am sorry. All is lost here except for soul and body - that is, what's left of it - and a half-day's ration.
GROSS: Robert Redford, welcome back to FRESH AIR. That's such a stirring opening for the beginning of the film. You read that letter as if it were a poem. Can you talk about that?
REDFORD: Well, I think I probably saw it that way; I probably felt it that way. There's some marvelous objectives in it, you know. I think everybody wants to be true and strong. And it's the right parts that's difficult, and I think that there's kind of an arrow to the character around that when he says, and I tried to be right, although I failed. I think you can maybe imagine that that's where he fell short of what his objectives were.
GROSS: Yes, well we tried to imagine when we watch the movie because it's not spelled out for us. Did you want to know your character's back-story, like who he's talking to? You assume it's family. You don't really know anything about who he's writing to, what his life has been like, why he's out in this yacht in the middle of the Indian Ocean. Did you have to know this yourself?
REDFORD: In the beginning, I thought I needed to ask questions to the director, J.C. Chandor, but frankly, Terry, I was very drawn to what you did not know about this. I was very drawn to what was not said. There were challenges in there that were very attractive to me. One of them was that I saw the project - because there was only a 30-page script, and it was mostly sketches since there's no dialogue - I was attracted to the fact that there was no dialogue.
I liked the idea there were no special effects, it was a very low-budget film, very independent in its spirit and its budget and because I felt that it was more of a pure cinematic experience the way films used to be, maybe even going back to silent films. High technology has kind of entered the film business, maybe infested the film business.
But going to what you're saying, I think yes, I did ask in the beginning, is there something I should know about this? And the director evaded answering, and then I realized that this is what was intended, and so I went with that. I liked - yes, I could fill it in to a certain degree but not too much beyond.
GROSS: So the director said, referring to your reaction he expected you to have when first reading the script, he said, Redford's either going to say hell yes, this sounds amazing; or he's going to say why in the world would I do that. I have nothing to prove. Why would I put myself through that? And you really do put yourself through a lot in the movie.
I mean, you're being pelted by water through much of it. I mean, your yacht is flooded, so like you're wading in water. I know you shot some of this in a tank and not on the ocean, but some of it was, I believe, shot in the ocean, so you're out...
GROSS: ...in the ocean under the hot sun, you're in storms. I mean, it seems like it was a grueling shoot. Did you ask yourself, before saying yes, how much you wanted to subject yourself to?
REDFORD: No, I think that I must have assumed that because the other thing I enjoyed about this was how little there was in the prologue. I met with him, I liked his film, "Margin Call." That was the only other film he had made. I liked that a lot. I liked the script that he had written for this because it was so exact. It was so detail-oriented, and it told me that there was a vision behind this film that was very secure.
And that meant that I could put myself in his hands. So when we got together, what ten minutes into it, I said hey let's just do it. Let's go. Let's do this. It just felt right; it was an instinctive thing. And rather than all falderal that goes on these days before you do - before somebody commits you've got agents, you've got managers, you've got financial people that are all busy analyzing the plusses and minuses of it.
It was stripped of all that, and I love that. I could step into a film and really kind of get back to my roots where I originally started as an actor in the theater in New York and the end of live television, and that was the other attraction.
GROSS: Give us a sense of some of the things that you had to endure, like when you're in the storm, in one of the storms, and, you know, you're being rained on. What are you experiencing - how are you protecting yourself?
REDFORD: Well, it was a real - first of all it was a real storm because the - yes, as you said, a lot of it was on the open water. But when we had to get into the really tough stuff, we went into a giant tank where they have these big wave machines, these big cylinders that can cork up the waves to six, seven feet, that will swamp the boat and maybe turn it over. You had rain, violent rain machines; then you had wind machines.
And you had crewmembers with fire hoses hitting you with water, heavy streams of water, so when all those things are cooking at once, you really are in a storm. So I really did feel, while I was doing this, that I was actually in a storm, and I had to feel like I needed to feel, like I'm really in a storm. What am I going to do? How am I going - and it became very physical. I also went into this, I guess at my age wondering what I can still do.
I always, because I was in sports as a kid and, you know, was athletic pretty much my life, I always enjoyed doing my own stunts when I could. And I thought, well at this point in my life what can I still do? I'm not sure. So it was in a way a test. I said let's see what I can do, you know, and I'll do what I can. And then you push yourself and your ego kicks in to gear and you say well maybe I should really - let me do this.
And of course, when I did that, J.C.'s ego kicked in. He said yeah, let's push the guy. So we're pushing each other, I guess.
GROSS: You know, I read that during some of the filming, because of all the water that was attacking you, you got an ear infection and I think temporarily lost hearing, 60 percent of your hearing in one ear. Is that accurate?
REDFORD: Yeah. Yeah, it is.
GROSS: Is it temporary?
REDFORD: I wish it was.
REDFORD: It's sort of permanent.
GROSS: So I hate to put it this way, but if you had it to do over again, would you have saved your hearing and said no to the film?
REDFORD: No. No. The hearing thing isn't that bad, and I would've done what I did. I would've done it all over again. I would be happy to do it again. I may not be able to, but I would be happy to try.
GROSS: You know, watching the movie, I thought I would never be the person in this yacht in the middle of the Indian Ocean alone.
REDFORD: Well, I wouldn't either, Terry.
GROSS: Well, no, I thought maybe you would be. I thought you were...
REDFORD: No. No. No. No.
REDFORD: As a matter of fact, I said this is really good because this tells me this is something I never want to do.
GROSS: I already knew that.
REDFORD: No, that stuff's for somebody else, you know. But, you know, there was another thing about this. I guess this might be an ego thing as an actor, but one of the things that was challenging was to - you had to be completely there as the actor. And because there were no filters, there were no barriers created by voiceovers, that there was the chance for the audience to come close to you as you were going through this.
You had to be real in what you were going through. You had to be absolutely there. And that's also an attractive thing as an actor, to be completely occupied with your character on all levels, emotionally, psychologically, including things like fear and what you don't understand, you know, all those things, you have to be there with it.
Well, this gave the audience a chance to come closer to the character. So if it was going to work, then the audience could feel at a certain point like they were taking this journey with you.
GROSS: You know, in the credits roll it says cast: Robert Redford. And that's it. That's it.
REDFORD: That is embarrassing.
GROSS: You were the cast. And then after that there is this like long scroll of, you know, camera people and effects people...
GROSS: ...and the people who dealt with the fishes and the people on the ships. And I'm thinking like...
REDFORD: I know.
GROSS: ...this is like huge group of people working on the film, and you're like the only person ever on camera. And that must have been such an odd position.
REDFORD: When we - when I saw that, you know, I've only seen the film once. I was at the Cannes...
GROSS: I'm surprised you saw it. Don't you sometimes not even see your films?
REDFORD: Sometimes, yes. Sometimes I have not seen, yeah, some films I've not seen.
GROSS: Yeah. But anyway, you were saying.
REDFORD: That's a whole other story.
GROSS: Yeah. Yeah.
REDFORD: But anyway, the first and only time I saw it was at the Cannes Film Festival. And so when the film, because, you know, they boo films there.
REDFORD: And so when the lights came down, I'm thinking geez, you know, this could go either way.
REDFORD: And I'm sitting here in a tux. How embarrassing to be in a tuxedo and be booed, you know. So I'm sitting there thinking God, I'm wondering how this is going to go. So then I saw the screen cast member, just me alone, and I thought, oh my, I'm really in trouble now with this thing because they're going to be booing me, you know. Anyway, it went the other way. Happily, it went so much the other way that in itself was a shock, a pleasant one.
GROSS: You know, a couple of years ago, there was a biography of you written by Michael Feeney Callan, and I was reading that and I was really surprised to learn that as a child you had polio. I mean you're such a physical person. You're so athletic and so physically fit, and now even at the age of 77, you're so physically fit. You needed to be in order to do "All Is Lost." And the thought of you being paralyzed for a while as a child was shocking to me.
REDFORD: Yeah, it was to me too.
REDFORD: I - it wasn't a severe case. I think we should, you know, I want to make sure we get this straight. It wasn't an iron lung case. It was a case of mild polio. But it was severe enough to put me in bed for two weeks. And because in those days, polio, before the Salk vaccine was discovered, what hung over your childhood was always the fear of polio because all you saw were people with iron lungs.
So, yeah, when I got it, it was because of an extreme exertion in the ocean, in the bright sunlight in the ocean, and it was alarming, but it wasn't serious enough to go much further.
GROSS: Were you paralyzed at all?
REDFORD: No. No. I was down - I couldn't move very well, but I was not paralyzed.
GROSS: So you said that you got that polio because of what - overexerting yourself at sea?
REDFORD: Yeah. I was just with another kid. Another kid and I were out on the ocean, and we had these little things that are called pedalos(ph) and they were these little wooden kind of crates where they would float, but you would have the peddles inside and you would peddle, and it would move the thing. But they were wide-open.
So I got carried away with this guy, and we were competing and going as fast as we could and I got carried away and went way too far out, way too far, just peddling my brains out. And I got so far out there I thought Jesus, where am I? Well, there is the - mainland is way, way back there, so we turned around and came back in. But I had kind of done myself in, exhaustion, heat, sunstroke, everything.
GROSS: So what message did you take away from that? Like I should never over exert myself again, or...
REDFORD: That I would never get into a pedalos again.
REDFORD: I don't think I went beyond that because I love the ocean, I love surfing, and I love - or as a kid I loved to surf.
GROSS: And, tell me if I'm getting too personal here. So soon after you had the polio, your mother gave birth to twins who died shortly after birth.
GROSS: I'm just thinking that's a lot of trauma at one time.
REDFORD: Yeah. I guess it depends on how you're raised and what your genealogy is. You know, it's family, you come from maybe a dark, more of a dark family, integrated from Ireland and Scotland and didn't talk much, didn't complain - you don't complain much. You don't ask for anything. You bear the brunt of whatever comes your way, and you do it with grace.
So when my mom had twin girls that died, there was no talk about it. And that goes all the way back to when I was a little kid when I - I was very close to my uncle, who was in the Second World War, and he was with General Patton's Third Army. He was an interpreter because he spoke four languages fluently. And so I was very fond of him.
And he would - on his furlough, he would come down and play baseball with me and so forth. And he went away to war and he was killed in the Battle of the Bulge. But when he died, I was very close to him. The way the family dealt with it was it just wasn't talked about.
It just happened, and you didn't ask a lot of questions. It just was what it was. And so I think that was sort of built-in to a family structure. So as a result, when my mom went through that, there was no talk about it; everybody moved on.
GROSS: My guest is Robert Redford. His film "All Is Lost" is now out on DVD. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with Robert Redford, the star and only actor in the movie "All Is Lost." It's just come out on DVD. Your mother died when you were 18. She was sick. I'm not sure what she died of. How did that change the course of your life? Did you have to, like, rewrite your plans and...
REDFORD: Well, I don't know that it changed anything at the time. She was a wonderful person. She died very young. She was full of life, full of laughter, full of love. She was out there. I mean she would take chances, and she was very risky, and she taught me how to drive a car when I was 10, and nobody knew about it, I mean that kind of stuff, so we had a close relationship.
But also I was of a young mind just like all the other kids my age were. You didn't want your parents around, you didn't want your parents doting on you, you didn't want attention or anything like that, and you had a mother that wanted to give you that attention, and you kind of pushed it away. I feel bad about that.
GROSS: You went to college. And from what I've read, academics was not your thing so much and that you did a lot of drinking and rode motorcycles...
REDFORD: Yes. Yeah. Yeah. So the whole thing.
GROSS: ...or drag races or whatever.
REDFORD: The whole thing.
REDFORD: Well not - I don't know about that because that came a little bit later. It was really I went to college to get out of Los Angeles. I went to college because it was Colorado, and it was the mountains and I - by that time I realized that nature was going to be a huge part of my life, that Los Angeles for me was a city that when I was a little kid at the end of the Second World War, I loved that place. I loved it. It was full of green spaces.
And suddenly, when the war ended, and the economy revived, suddenly Los Angeles had no land use plan. It felt like the city was being pushed into the sea that I loved because suddenly there were skyscrapers and freeways and smog. And I said wait a minute, what's - I wanted out.
So I went into the mountains, into the Sierras, worked at Yosemite National Park and fell in love with nature that way, and I realized that nature was going to be a big part of my life. So I sought land elsewhere that I thought would be kept free of development.
GROSS: You're talking about Sundance?
GROSS: But let's get back to the drinking part in college. That sounds...
REDFORD: Oh. OK. You want to...
GROSS: You know, just reading briefly about that, you know, it sounded like an almost like rebel without a cause era, you know, because like...
REDFORD: Well, you know what it was, yeah, OK, I guess it was. Yeah, I was very...
GROSS: You know, like you're breaking loose and everything, but there's no - it sounds like there was no like social, political, spiritual, whatever, drug even, like context to put it in.
REDFORD: Well, there was alcohol. There was social.
REDFORD: The sociability was tied mostly to the alcohol in those days. And so yeah, I certainly had my fill of that. But was at the heart of all this, I think, was the fact that I never really; I was not a good student through my entire life. My mind was out the window. I drew underneath the desk. I drew pictures.
I just didn't - I wasn't learning the way I was supposed to learn. And I think I realized that my education was going to happen when I got out in the world and engaged with other cultures and other places and other languages and had the adventure of exploration. I felt that's my education. So I left. Actually, I was asked to leave, so...
GROSS: Why? Why were you asked to leave?
REDFORD: Because my grades - because I was such a terrible student. My grades were terrible, and the interests I had were not anything that was going to amount to much of a career for me. You know, anthropology I loved. Psychology I loved. And geology I just really loved.
So you put all those things together, what are you going to be in life? And, anyway, I took off and earned some money in an oil field to earn enough money to last for a year in Europe, and I went there when I was 18 to be an artist, and that's when I began, I think, that's when my education really began.
GROSS: We'll hear more of my interview with Robert Redford in the second half of the show. He stars in the film "All Is Lost," which just came out on DVD. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Let's get back to my interview with Robert Redford, which we recorded in December. His latest film, "All Is Lost," just came out on DVD.
You did a lot of episodic TV early in your career in the early 1960s: "Maverick," "Rescue 8," "The Deputy," "Playhouse 90," "Perry Mason," "Naked City" "The Twilight Zone."
REDFORD: Hey now, Terry, "Perry Mason," now look, you know what the...
REDFORD: ...title of that? That was what, 1959? You know what the title of that was?
REDFORD: "The Case of the Treacherous Toupee."
GROSS: That's great.
REDFORD: That was the name of it. How's that? And I was so excited to have a job, you know.
GROSS: Who had the toupee? Was it - it wasn't you, right?
REDFORD: I couldn't remember now. It wasn't Raymond Burr, but somebody did, some blonde did. But those were your apprenticeship years and it's always sort - one of the things that's sort of weird is to see yourself characterized so often as somebody that looks well, that has glamorous looks or is appealing physically. That's nice. I mean I'm not unhappy about that, but what I saw happening over time was that was getting the attention. And sometimes - because I always felt that I was an actor and that's how I started.
I wanted, I was a person who loved the idea of craft, and that learning your craft was something fundamentally and good, and I wanted to be good at my craft and therefore, I would be an actor that would play many different kinds of roles - which I did. I played killers, I played rapists, really deranged characters. But most people don't know about that because that was in television.
So suddenly, you're seeing yourself in kind of any glamour category and you're saying well, wait a minute, you know, the notion is that well, you're not so much of an actor, you're just somebody that looks well. And that was always hard for me because I always took pride in whatever role I was playing, I would be that character. Like, you know, if you look at say "Jeremiah Johnson," you know, the character in the wilderness and within the same year I was doing "The Candidate." And you put those two together and you would hope that somebody would say well, somebody is acting here.
GROSS: I wanted to play a clip from your early episodic TV years. And was thinking well, I'm a big fan of "Route 66"...
REDFORD: Oh, are you?
GROSS: Have the box set. Yeah, I love that show. I loved it as a kid and I love it looking back at it.
REDFORD: As a kid. Thanks a lot.
REDFORD: What were you, 10, when I did my segment?
GROSS: Hey, I'm alive, I was alive then. A lot of people weren't.
REDFORD: What I liked about "Route 66" was not so much the show as it was the route, because I remember hitchhiking as a kid back-and-forth on Route 66 because there were no freeways then, there were no turnpikes or anything like that. And so Route 66 was the way you got from Chicago to LA or vice versa.
GROSS: So anyway, so I figured, whoa, let's do a clip from "Route 66." And then I'm reading your biography and I read this line on page 87, and that you're saying to your agent, I'd rather rot and be remembered for "Route 66."
REDFORD: I said that?
GROSS: You were quoted as saying that. What can I say?
REDFORD: Am I?
REDFORD: I can remember the show. Do you have a clip, you say?
GROSS: Yeah. Yeah. So this is - you don't even remember doing it? This is from a 1961 episode with Nehemiah Persoff as your father.
GROSS: And it's set in a mill town in a Polish-American community. And like you've gone off to out-of-town college, so you've gotten out of the mill town, but you're back on a college break. And the episode opens with you chasing after your girlfriend who is running away in the woods. And we don't know what this fight is about, but you're trying to catch up to her. You're not trying to attack or anything, you're just trying to catch up to her and to reach her and to communicate with her. She accidentally kind of falls off this hill and hits her head and dies. And you don't know what to do. So you don't call the cops. You don't tell anybody. You try to tell your father, but your father, your father just doesn't want to hear anything. You're having trouble communicating with him. He doesn't want to hear it. Later, the police discover her dead. You're implicated in her death and you're trying to explain to your father what really happened, because he's on the verge of killing you. Your father doesn't know that you secretly had this girlfriend who was the daughter of your father's good friend.
So, anyways. So here's you trying to explain to your father played by Nehemiah Persoff what was really going on with your girlfriend and what was really going on with your relationship with your father.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "ROUTE 66")
REDFORD: (as Janosh) Do you know why she ran? Because she said to me, do you love me? Will you marry me? And I couldn't answer her with the truth. I couldn't say, yes. Oh boy, I want to marry you. Before God and the whole world, I do. How could I say that to her and hurt her even more? I wanted to marry her. Would you have stood for it, Papa?
NEHEMIAH PERSOFF: (as Jack) If you had to marry her...
REDFORD: (as Janosh) No I didn't have to. It was never anything like that.
PERSOFF: (as Jack) Then why should I've allow you? Why you not come to me? Why you not come to me?
REDFORD: (as Janosh) Have I ever, ever, ever been able to come to you, Papa, with anything that was my own idea? Haven't you always decided everything for me? Haven't you decided everything for me always, who I must be, what I must be, how I must be?
REDFORD: I don't remember that at all. I'm not ashamed of it, obviously. But I don't, god, that's so interesting. I don't remember, I just don't remember that at all. That's amazing.
GROSS: So your voice sounds, you know, so much different. It's higher.
REDFORD: Well, yeah. I was recently - J.C and I - J.C. Chandor and I were having a...
GROSS: The director of "All Is Lost." Yeah.
REDFORD: Director of "All Is Lost," J.C. and I were at a festival and they ran clips of my career that I'd never seen. They had clips going all the way back, all the way up to now and it was very uncomfortable - very uncomfortable. Clips from different films, and it went back into TV. And it went back into something around the same time about a year earlier, "The Iceman Cometh."
REDFORD: When we looked at this clip, I'm playing a young kid that is going to commit suicide, you know, Don Parritt, who commits suicide at the end of the show. And you're right, the voice was very different just like you're describing. And I did the last "Playhouse 90" that was ever done. And I just thought that was the best show. When I was a kid I thought that was the best show on television. And I was fortunate enough to be in the very last "Playhouse 90" that was written by Rod Serling and I was able to be - I played a young German lieutenant, a very sympathetic Nazi lieutenant. He gets corrupted by - or somebody else tries to corrupt him, but he resists the corruption. And Charles Laughton played the rabbi.
GROSS: Oh, acting with Charles Laughton must've been so interesting. But there is a great story that's told in your biography about the slap?
REDFORD: Oh, yeah. Yeah, right. He was intimidating. It was one of my first parts and there was a scene with George Macready who played my commanding officer. And it's during a pogrom and they're calling out names in the street to be packed into trucks. And then afterwards, as we come up to the rabbi's apartment and there's a tension between the rabbi, played by Charles Laughton and Macready. And there is an intellectual challenge involving Nietzsche and God and so forth. And so I'm just there clueless. I'm this young, innocent, naïve guy. And at one point Laughton drops something; he drops his Bible. And I reached down to pick it up, which is a no-no. And Macready sees this and realizes oh-oh, this kid needs some training. And the rabbi sees that my instinct is to be compassionate - I reached down to pick up the Bible. And so he looks me in the eye, and the look is like, I see who you really are. I see who you really are. Macready says, apparently you feel like you have to be sympathetic to the rabbi. He says, therefore, I instruct you to slap him. So then I supposedly slap him, reluctantly, but I slap him. And as we're getting ready to do it, it was going to be live. It was going to be a live telecast. As we're getting ready in rehearsal, Laughton comes up to me. He says, dear boy, you can't do the slap. What are you going to do? And I said, what do you mean what am I going... He said, what are you going to do because I can't be hit. I said you can't be hit? No. I can't be hit. What are you going to do? I thought oh, gee. Now what am I going to do, you know?
REDFORD: And so I go to the director and I said, what am I supposed to do here? And he says oh gee, don't bother me. I've got enough troubles. So we get on the show and I'm sitting there and as we're getting to the moment, I'm thinking, who is this guy to tell me what I'm supposed to do - what I can do and what I can't do? And I got so riled up and I was so nervous on top of it, that when it came time, I thought who is he to tell me what I can do and can't do. So I hauled off and really whacked him.
REDFORD: And it wasn't a slap. It was a whack. And his jowl - spit came out of his jowl. You know, and he looked at me and tears came out of his eyes, and he looked at me and...
REDFORD: ...when it was over I thought, oh boy, you know, I'm going to get a mouthful. So I go to his dressing room to apologize, I'm really sorry. And he says no, you did the right thing. You did the right thing.
GROSS: That's such a great story, and it's so interesting that you have such a vivid memory of doing that "Playhouse 90" edition and of the Charles Laughton story and no memory of "Route 66."
REDFORD: Well, I think it's because "Playhouse 90" was such a big deal as a kid.
GROSS: Yeah. Mm-hmm.
REDFORD: There were two shows on television, the Sid Caesar show - I've forgotten the name of it. It was, you know...
GROSS: "Your Show of Shows?"
REDFORD: "Show of Shows." Yeah. And it would come to Los Angeles via kinescope, I think. And "Playhouse 90," those two shows with a top-of-the-line on drama and comedy. And it made a huge impact on me as a kid. You know, I just thought they were wonderful shows. And the idea that I could be in one, and particularly since it was going to be the last one, was a big honor. It was a real thrill for me.
GROSS: My guest is Robert Redford. His film "All Is Lost" just came out on DVD. More after break. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. If you're just joining us, our guest is Robert Redford.
If you're just joining us, my guest is Robert Redford and he's the star and only cast member of the movie "All Is Lost." And this month, he won the New York Film Critics Circle Award for best actor for his performance in that film.
So skipping ahead to 1969, you make "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid" with Paul Newman. And this is the movie that makes you kind of iconic. Had you - did you are a know how to ride horses? Did you like Westerns when you were making this?
REDFORD: Yeah. Yeah. I knew how to ride horses. I loved horses. I liked doing my own stunts when I could. When it first came up, because of the age difference between Paul and I, which was like 12, 13 years, and he was really well known and I was not well known. I had just done, I think, the film "Barefoot in the Park." But he had a career obviously, that was very high. And so the studio did not want me to - the director, George Roy Hill and I met in a bar on Third Avenue and they were putting me up to play Butch Cassidy because I'd done this comedy on Broadway. So they, you know, nobody thinks very deep about stuff like that. They said well, if he did a comedy maybe he should go up for Butch Cassidy. And so we were sitting in this bar and I told him at the time, I said yeah, I can do that. But that's not the part that interests me. I'm more interested in the Sundance Kid. I feel more comfortable in that role. I feel more, I could connect more to that character.
And that surprised George and then he got kind of sold on that idea, but the studio didn't want me. And they tried everything to keep me out of the film at that time. It was 20th Century Fox. And I think it was Paul Newman and William Goldman, the writer, and George, that stood up for me against the studio. But the one that really pushed it aside, of course, was Paul. And when I met Paul, he was very generous, and he said, I'll do it with Redford. I never forgot that. That was a gesture that I never forgot and I felt that I really owed him after that. And then he and I, in the course of that film, became really, really good friends. And that friendship carried on to the next film and then it carried on into our personal lives.
GROSS: He was originally supposed to be the Sundance Kid and you were supposed to be Butch Cassidy?
REDFORD: Yeah. That's right. The original title of the script was "The Sundance Kid and Butch Cassidy," that was the original title that Goldman had written. And Newman was to play Sundance, but he had played that kind of part before. And George was a guy that saw Paul - he saw a side of Paul that many hadn't seen because he had worked with him and television and he knew him personally. He says no, this guy, he's very nervous, he talks a lot, he tells bad jokes. He - I think I see him as Butch Cassidy and he saw me a Sundance, so he had to fight for that. So when it was finally done, then they changed the title to "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid."
GROSS: Would you mind if I played a scene?
GROSS: OK. So this is a kind of a famous scene where, you know, you're both bank and train robbers. And at this point, you're not exactly surrounded, but you're cornered. You're on a...
REDFORD: A ledge.
GROSS: A ledge. Yeah. And on top of you on this, you know, rocky ledges or - is the posse that's hunting you down. You've got no place to turn. You've got no place to go except for the water that's underneath. And that's - you're up really, really high and it's a very rocky...
GROSS: ...river or stream. But anyways, as Butch Cassidy is trying to figure out what their options are, what you want to do is, like, shoot your way out. And so you speak first.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "BUTCH CASSIDY AND THE SUNDANCE KID")
REDFORD: (as Sundance) Ready?
PAUL NEWMAN: (as Cassidy) No. We'll jump.
REDFORD: (as Sundance) Like hell we will.
NEWMAN: (as Cassidy) No. It'll be OK. If the water's deep enough, we don't get squished to death. They'll never follow us.
REDFORD: (as Sundance) How do you know?
NEWMAN: (as Cassidy) Would you make a jump like that you didn't have to?
REDFORD: (as Sundance) I have to. And I'm not gonna.
NEWMAN: (as Cassidy) Well, we got to. Otherwise we're dead. They're just going to have to go back down the same way they come. Come on.
REDFORD: (as Sundance) Just one clear shot. That's all I want.
NEWMAN: (as Cassidy) Come on.
REDFORD: (as Sundance) Unh-unh.
NEWMAN: (as Cassidy) We got to!
REDFORD: (as Sundance) Nope. Get away from me.
NEWMAN: (as Cassidy) Why?
REDFORD: (as Sundance) I want to fight 'em!
NEWMAN: (as Cassidy) They'll kill us.
REDFORD: (as Sundance) Maybe.
NEWMAN: (as Cassidy) You want to die?
REDFORD: (as Sundance) Do you?
NEWMAN: (as Cassidy) All right. I'll jump first.
REDFORD: (as Sundance) No.
NEWMAN: (as Cassidy) Then you jump first.
REDFORD: (as Sundance) No, I said.
NEWMAN: (as Cassidy) What's the matter with you?
REDFORD: (as Sundance) I can't swim!
NEWMAN: NEWMAN: (as Cassidy) Why, you crazy? The fall will probably kill you.
GROSS: How reassuring.
REDFORD: Yeah, right.
GROSS: So that's my guest, Robert Redford, with Paul Newman from the 1969 film "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid." Were you surprised at how famous that scene became?
REDFORD: Yes. I was. I mean, that - I was surprised at the whole thing. I remember when I saw the rough cut - I mean I loved making the film. I had a lot of fun. I've never had so much on a film as I have that one. But when I saw the rough cut of it, I said wait a minute. What's that song doing in it?
GROSS: Oh, "Raindrops Are Falling on My Head," the Burt Bacharach song.
REDFORD: Yeah. I said wait a minute. What's that all about? I said, what in the hell? I said raindrops - first of all, it's not raining. Secondly, what's that got to do with anything? I thought, well, that - they just killed the film.
REDFORD: It made no sense to me. And, you know, how wrong can you be? I had to listen to that song on the radio for six months.
REDFORD: But the film also, Terry, another thing that's interesting about how - I guess the value of word of mouth. I remember when the film came out George Roy Hill and William Goldman were very upset and depressed because the reviews were mixed to negative. And word of mouth is what made the film build, but when it first opened it had these mixed reviews.
I didn't read them. I remember they were very upset and depressed. One of the reasons the reviews, some of the reviews were negative was that the anachronism of the dialogue. Like modern day talk then. I found that pretty inspiring and fun. It was just fun. But apparently that's what some of the negative response was, but it was, I guess, overridden by the acceptance of the whole film.
GROSS: By the way, I had the same reaction about "Raindrops Are Falling on My Head" in the middle of the film. I thought what...
REDFORD: Did you?
GROSS: Yeah. I mean, it made absolutely no sense to me.
REDFORD: Well, it's just you and me then. There's two of us.
GROSS: My guest is Robert Redford. He was nominated for a Golden Globe today for his performance in "All Is Lost." We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: GROSS: My guest is Robert Redford. When we left off we were talking about his role in "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid." So not long after shooting "Butch Cassidy," you founded - co-founded a new organization called Education Youth and Recreation to promote alternative films on university campuses. And this was...
REDFORD: Yeah. That was a big mistake.
GROSS: It was a big mistake? Why was it a big mistake?
REDFORD: Well, because at that time I was already beginning to feel the urge to do something - to do something that would be maybe more supporting more independent type films. And the idea was that we would get some funding together and that we would buy up films that had been either poorly distributed like Billy Friedkin's "Birthday Party" or "Dynamite Chicken," you know, some of the documentaries.
Because I always loved documentaries. I was always extremely positive and supportive of documentaries, and so whatever I could do to promote them even back then, 1970. We thought, well, what if we buy up documentaries that were either not distributed or poorly distributed and films that were the same, put them into a package and went for the college market? Went right to the colleges and say, OK, we're bringing this to you.
Well, what we realized is no one came, that we assumed that there was a college market, but no. What most of the students wanted to do was to go into town and see "Dr. Zhivago." So there were just very few that wanted to see films like this; they were kind of film buffs. But that wasn't enough to create a college market. So it failed.
GROSS: Did you lose money personally on that?
REDFORD: No. I didn't have my own money into it. But I suspect that over time if I look back on it, that was probably the...
GROSS: The roots of Sundance?
REDFORD: ...genesis of what later...
REDFORD: ...became - yeah.
GROSS: Mm-hmm. Mm-hmm. You know, it's interesting that back in the late '60s, early '70s, you were already thinking in that direction.
REDFORD: Yeah. And it was different then because, you know, one of the beauties was that I was able to work in both - within the mainstream. In those days the studios would allow for smaller films to be made under their umbrella. So if I had - like, I wanted to tell stories about the America that I grew up in. And for me I was not interested in the red, white, and blue part of America.
I was interested in the gray part, where complexity lies and where things get complicated, but I wanted to tell stories about issues that were American that had impact on people, like politics and sport and business. And so I got two of them made, and I wanted to make them like documentaries. So one was "The Candidate," the other was "Downhill Racer." I was a ski racer.
But in those days you would do a larger film but you would also be able to - if you did those films you could say, well, would you allow me to make this smaller film? And they would do it. So "The Candidate" and "Downhill Racer" were done at Warner Brothers. At the same time, I would do a larger Warner Brothers film like "All the President's Men" or what have you.
So that carried through the '80s, until the business changed and suddenly Hollywood became more centralized. It was following the youth market. Technology was creating more chances for special effects, which would be more of a draw for the youth. And so Hollywood, which basically Hollywood follows the money - that's what it does - and so it was going that direction.
And it was beginning to leave behind those other kinds of films. And so there was this gap there. They weren't likely to be making those films anymore. They were going to be offloading them. That led to the idea of, well, to keep this thing alive, because this is where new voices are going to be developing or new films can be coming that are independent, that are more exciting and more humanistic and stuff like that.
So that was what led to the idea of Sundance first with the labs and then the festival. But if I look back on it and think back in time, it probably started way back then with that first venture that failed.
GROSS: Well, yeah. What's interesting, taking the films to college campuses failed so you started it on your own campus and people would come to you.
REDFORD: For a guy that never graduated from anything, that's pretty interesting.
GROSS: When you were young did foreign films or art house films play a role in your life? Did you seek them out?
REDFORD: Yeah. There were - as a kid growing up I went to a lot of movies when I really, really little. We didn't have a car; we would walk to a neighborhood theater when I was a kid and you would see sometimes two features. You would see a Pete Smith short. You would see maybe a serial, a "Wonder Woman" or "Flash Gordon," "Tarzan" or something. Then it'd be a cartoon.
And that's what you got for 40 cents or what have you. And then as time went on things changed and the film business changed. If you think about that time then jump to more recent times, you're showing one movie and you've got six trailers blasting your ear drum out. And you got thin walls and you got multiplexes. I felt that film had lost some of its magic.
It's lost some of its special appeal about creating a space where you could just go in the dark and lose yourself and lose yourself within a story. Whatever could be done to bring that back would be a good thing. And also treating the audiences - giving the audience the chance to be a part of the process. That's why at Sundance, you know, when we have the festival we encourage the audience to stick around and engage with the artists.
Who would come up onstage and talk when the film's over. They can come and talk about their experience.
GROSS: Do you try to see a lot of the films that come out of Sundance?
REDFORD: I try to, yeah. I sometimes don't get to see all of them. It's been a little - in the beginning it was more fun. It's not quite the fun anymore it was when it was just starting because you're uphill, you're kind of against the odds and there's something exciting about that risk. And you're pushing it and pushing it and there's something exciting about it.
And then once success comes, then suddenly other elements come into it that kind of load it all up. And then you find yourself doing, like, publicity or interviews or having to meet this top person or that top person. And all that's right. That's proper, I guess, but it's not the fun it was when you were standing out there trying to get people in.
Like you were standing outside of a strip joint, you know, and say, hey, you want to come in and see this movie?
GROSS: Well, unfortunately our time is up but I hope we get to continue this conversation.
REDFORD: I look forward to a part two.
GROSS: Yeah. Yeah. Absolutely. There's so much we haven't gotten to. It's really been a pleasure to talk with you. Thank you so much for coming back to FRESH AIR.
REDFORD: Well, thank you, Terry.
GROSS: It's been such a pleasure.
REDFORD: And your voice is a lot more pleasant than mine.
GROSS: Oh, I wish.
REDFORD: No, it is. It is. You have a beautiful voice.
GROSS: I wish. Oh, thank you so much. I'll play that back in my mind.
GROSS: Robert Redford recorded last December when his film "All Is Lost" was in theatres. It just came out on DVD.
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