Robert Redford was at the Marrakech Film Festival in early December to receive a career tribute and attend a conversation about his career. The actor, director, producer and Sundance Film Festival founder has technically retired, yet he will be seen in two Sundance 2020 entries; the documentary Natalie Wood: What Remains Behind directed by Wood’s actress daughter Natasha Gregson Wagner, and the Miami-set omnibus comedy Omniboat: A Fast Boat Fantasia.
The 83-year-old did not discuss those films during his on-stage Marrakech Conversation, but he did share his thoughts on his career, his famous films, and his future. Below is an edited and condensed version of the lengthy discussion with Redford.
COLLIDER: What was the first film you ever watched?
ROBERT REDFORD: My first film was a Walt Disney film. I was a little kid during the Second World War and there was no television, only radio, and the dream was on the weekend to walk to the neighborhood theater and see a movie. To me that was such a joy. You couldn’t wait till the weekend to see something on the big screen. What I miss with all the advanced technology making viewing easier, the streaming services, the multiple channels, is the time when you could walk into a theater and sit in the dark with other people. The lights would go off and you could feel some magic happening on the big screen and feel the energy of the people around you. Now that’s pretty much gone.
Why did you become an actor?
REDFORD: The idea of being an actor was to have a sense of freedom. You were free to be, to act as someone else, if you were paying attention to the people around you. You had a chance to be an artist, because acting is an art form. You had a chance to say, “I know this person, I’ve seen this person before and I want to bring that forward”.
How do you view your 50 years of working in cinema?
REDFORD: Fifty years? It’s been that long? Wow. I have to put my mind on that.
You don’t want to look at the past?
REDFORD: I think I have always looked forward, so I haven’t spent a lot of time thinking about the past unless there’s some value in bringing the past forward in storytelling, but that’s all. I always was very fond of the writer F. Scott Fitzgerald and had the pleasure of being in a movie called The Great Gatsby. In the film Nick Carraway, who was an observer to Gatsby, sees that Gatsby is obsessed with things of the past, his love of Daisy, but it’s no longer the past. Gatsby has thrown this big party and is really keen for her to come and says afterwards to Carraway, “I think everybody had a good time don’t you?” And Carraway says, “But Gatsby you can’t repeat the past.” Gatsby replies, “You can’t repeat the past? Of course you can.” I love that moment.
Who are the other writers you liked to read?
REDFORD: I was an avid reader of Hemingway and I loved J.D. Salinger.
What do think about the state of America?
REDFORD: When I think about my country it’s hard not to be critical, because having grown up at the end of the war I remember what that energy was. When I was five or six everyone was gathered together to raise money to sacrifice for the greater good, which was to fight fascism in other parts of the world, in Nazi Germany, so we all bonded in unison to preserve our liberty. I didn’t understand what it was all about but it felt good for our country.
We are now living in dark times.
REDFORD: I think that’s probably obvious to anyone who is reading the news. We are now in dark times certainly in America. I see some of the freedoms that I cherished growing up threatened by overpowering ego, by one-dimensional thinking, by inexperienced people running things, by people assuming power. I probably won’t be able to get back in my country!
What can you do?
REDFORD: I think the most important thing to do if you’re an actor or producer or a citizen is to pay attention to what’s around you.
In Three Days of the Condor and All The President’s Men your characters were in search of the truth.
REDFORD: In movies it’s important to tell the truth, when you can find a story that’s really telling the truth. There are certain publications that say they’re telling the truth, but you don’t really know unless you dig deep.
When did you become interested in politics?
REDFORD: When I was young I was not really sophisticated, but when I became a teenager the Vietnam War was happening. That affected my life because we had the draft. Everything was changing but I was too obsessed with my own career. I wanted to create art and I kind of pushed away the politics. When I got into the art of filmmaking I realized the role art could play in society. Art criticizes society. It keeps us honest.
When you became a director what approach did you take?
REDFORD: I remember coming to a conclusion about how I wanted to use the camera after I saw a documentary made by D.A. Pennebaker and his team of filmmakers. They came up with an idea that instead of being outside, to go inside and be part of the action, witnessing it like an observer. I was very stuck by it, because it’s much more active and you don’t know what’s going to happen next. So that’s what I was after when I appeared in The Candidate or Downhill Racer or some of my early films. I wanted to make it like you were in the action.
Which is easier, acting or directing?
REDFORD: Being a director for me really had to do with control. I’d been an actor and I’d worked with some good directors and some not-so-good directors. But I felt there was a part of me I wasn’t using. I wanted more of a voice in how this thing is shaped and the only way I could do that was to direct. I think directing for me became easier because I’d been an artist before I became an actor. My art form was just travelling around, sitting in bars and cafes with a sketchbook and watching people around me. Those sketchbooks kept me company.
Do you still do sketches?
REDFORD: Moreso now than ever since I’ve kind of retired from film. I said, “I’ve been there, done that, it’s 50 years of my life now.” Not that I’m not proud of what I’ve done, but at this time in my life you feel like you want something fresh. So I’ve gone back to where I started: sketching and drawing. The only trouble with retirement is you should never announce it. Then you have a lot of people saying, “Before you go, could you just do this? Could you just do that?”
You’ve produced extensively and directed nine feature films including Ordinary People, Quiz Show, The Horse Whisperer, and The Company You Keep. Will you direct again?
REDFORD: I can’t answer that. I don’t think I will. You never know. There is one project I’ve had for a few years on a very interesting topic, but I haven’t decided if I’m going to be in it. I developed it and originally was going to direct. It’s called 109 East Palace, which refers to an address in Los Alamos, New Mexico where the atomic bomb was developed and Oppenheimer was the chief guy behind it. I love the story because the guy was a hero when he invented the atomic bomb in 1940, but when they discovered he had been a Communist in his youth, he became a villain. This was during the McCarthy period of the 1950s, and how things could change is such an interesting story. But because I’ve decided I don’t want to direct any more I’m in a quandary. Some part of me would like to direct it. It’s very character-oriented. Maybe I’ll just produce it.
Can you talk about your work with Sydney Pollack, your director on This Property is Condemned, Jeremiah Johnson, The Way We Were, Three Days of the Condor, The Electric Horseman, Out of Africa, and Havana?
REDFORD: I had a wonderful relationship with Sydney. I was his actor; he was my director. We originally met on a small black and white film War Hunt (1962) when he was an actor and we became friends. Then he became a director and I knew he was able to apply his experience as an actor and he could understand me. He also was a great manager and was happiest when he was in control. Our relationship drifted apart when he realized he could also be a mogul and maybe run a studio. He was not entirely happy; he was aiming very high.
Which directors have had the most impact on you?
REDFORD: Sydney Pollack and George Roy Hill. It makes me sad when I see certain directors getting a lot of attention, in some cases too much attention, when Roy was one of those who should have got that attention and didn’t. If you read his biography he rises to the top, when you think about Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid and The Sting he never got enough credit for those films.
As an actor it’s important to hand yourself over to your director. When we were getting ready to make Butch Cassidy I had come out of a comedy, Barefoot in the Park on Broadway and suddenly had to do that film. The original title was The Sundance Kid and Butch Cassidy. Paul Newman was set to play The Sundance Kid and I was being put up for Butch Cassidy because I’d done the comedy. But that part didn’t interest me. What interested me was The Sundance Kid because I could relate to that based on my own experience and particularly my own childhood and feeling like an outlaw most of my life. So I told George and he knew Paul really well and knew he was much more like Butch Cassidy, so George turned it all around. He went to Paul and they argued a bit until Paul finally realized that George was right. He was well known and I wasn’t, which is why they switched the title too.
How was your relationship with Paul Newman?
REDFORD: We became very good friends based on our experience working on films together. Finally on Butch Cassidy the studio didn’t want me. I was 29 years old and Paul was 42, he was considered a star at the time and I wasn’t. So George and I went to meet Paul in New York and we spent some time talking and Paul decided he could work with this guy. He even told the studio he would support me being in the film. So from that point on I had a great deal of affection for him, for what he did for me. He didn’t have to do that. So we did the film together and it fell easily into place. What a lot of people haven’t realized, particularly critics, was that in the next film we did, The Sting, the roles were completely reversed. In Butch Cassidy I played the cool guy and he’s the happy-go-lucky guy and in The Sting I’m the happy-go-lucky guy and he’s the cool guy.
Are you tired of being considered a Hollywood star when you’ve largely worked in independent cinema?
REDFORD: That just tells you how shallow the thinking is, because I’m not a Hollywood actor. I grew up in Los Angeles, I grew up loving Walt Disney but I never paid attention to something called Hollywood. I wanted to be a serious actor in the theater, l wanted to be in New York, so I left Los Angeles at an early age. I had success in a couple of plays on Broadway so I was a New York actor who came to Hollywood to make a film.
When you established the Sundance Institute and the Sundance Film Festival what was your goal?
REDFORD: The goal for me was very simple: to celebrate people who don’t get celebrated, who are ignored or undiscovered and who deserve to be discovered. When I started there were a few independent films out there, but they had no traction. There was no real category called independent film. Even if I’d been in the mainstream in my career I was always interested in the alternative point of view, in the idea of independence, not to be obligated to be this or that, to be free to be what you wanted to be. So I started the non-profit Sundance Institute to support independent filmmakers, to create a mechanism that would help develop their stories and skills. That led to the Sundance Festival, which is mostly focused on independent film.
How do you define a successful life?
REDFORD: Success is tricky. For some people it’s one thing, for other people it’s something else. So it’s hard to define as just one thing.
Do you compromise?
REDFORD: I’m sure I have at times. I’ve been very rigid about not compromising, but at some point you realise that if you refuse to compromise that means you’re getting more and more narrow-minded. So maybe there are times when I should keep myself open.
What advice do you give to young actors and filmmakers?
REDFORD: To pay attention to the world around you and to avoid having a narrow point of view.