Thursday, April 4, 2013

Redford is Good Company

The Company You Keep is Playing in Theaters
Redford is Good Company
from (4/4/13)
In my first book, Close-Ups: The Movie Star Book, published way back in 1978, I wrote an essay on Robert Redford that was very flattering but ended with a mild slap at the political liberal for making films with political themes that did no more than express already acceptable liberal attitudes. I concluded: "It is odd that for someone with a reputation as a political maverick and a Hollywood misfit, his movies have been relatively tame in content...There's no denying that Redford, who could handle it, has avoided controversy in his choice of subjects. That is his major failing." Since then, I have admired Redford's career as an actor and director, not to mention his amazing support of independent filmmakers through Sundance, but he never made that daringly political film I was waiting for. Until now. Scripted by Lem Dobbs from Neil Gordon's novel, The Company You Keep, which Redford directed and starred in, is probably not the most radical or bold political film to ever come out of Hollywood, but there aren't many other ostensibly mainstream fiction films that give such a respectful, empathetic portrait of the individuals who comprised the militant Weather Underground (or that subtly link today's invasive FBI with that of the J. Edgar Hoover era). I'm sure veteran leftist actors Julie Christie and Susan Sarandon were delighted to join Redford in his daring endeavor in which sixties radicals don't express terrible remorse for their extremist actions during their youth. Redford plays liberal Albany lawyer Jim Grant, who is a widower raising a young daughter, Isabel (Jackie Evancho). After Sharon Solarz (Sarandon in a small but effective role), a former member of the Weather Underground, is arrested after more than thirty years of living under an assumed name, an ambitious, apolitical young reporter, Ben Shepard (Shia LaBeouf) blows Grant's cover--he was once Nick Sloan, and, with Solarz, was part of a group of Weathermen who pulled off a bank robbery in which someone was killed. With an FBI agent (Terrence Howard) and Shepard on his trail, Grant searches for his long-ago lover, Mimi (Christie), the only person who can tell authorities that he wasn't present at the bank. In anticipation of the film's release tomorrow, I was at a press conference on Monday with Redford and cast members, Stanley Tucci, who plays Shepard's editor, rising star Brit Marley, who plays the daughter of Grant and Mimi, and Evancho. It was moderated by Annette Insdorf.
Press Conference
Annette Insdorf: Robert, what drew you to the material? Had you read Neil Gordon's novel of 2003 or was it Lem Dobbs' screenplay that attracted you to this?
Robert Redford: It was the book that I read about five or six years ago. I was drawn to the book--it was big and wide-ranging and had a lot of plot lines and characters. There was something at the core that captured my attention, and Lem Dobbs was hired to write the screenplay. Four or five years were spent shaping that material into what could be a film. There were many iterations of a screenplay that was reshaped and reshaped and reshaped, so it was kind of sculpted.
AI: Brit, you've starred in wonderful, idiosyncratic independent films like Another Earth and Sound of My Voice, both of which you co-wrote. But here you play a young woman who turns out to be the biological daughter of Julie Christie and Robert Redford's characters, and in Arbitrage, a year ago, you played the daughter of Susan Sarandon and Richard Gere, another pair of Hollywood icons. For you, is there is much difference between making low-budget indie films and these dramas with major stars?
Brit Marling (laughing): The crafts service table is different. I guess in some respect there are other differences. but for me honestly it always comes back to the story. How attracted am I to the story? When I read this script I was really moved by the idea of the Weather Underground and how it's not set back then but in the present day, with the group coming of age and now having wisdom and experience. And they're looking back, wondering about the radicalism of their youth, and whether they made the right choices. Would they do it differently now? I think my generation is grappling with a lot of the same ideas. I was very attracted to that part of the story.
RR: Can I add something to that? We were overjoyed to launch Brit's first film and her second one at the Sundance Festival. That's how I came to know Brit. Her work was really, really special. And I thought that some way and some time, I'll find a way to work with her. I was very motivated by what I had already seen, so it was a particular joy for me to be able to invite her onto this film.
BM: I should add to that the fact that I've been able to make a living as an actress and a writer solely because of Robert Redford and Sundance, the institution he created as a safe haven for artists and filmmakers to work independently. Without that I might be in investment banking--who knows what I'd be doing right now.
AI: Stanley, your character belongs in this wonderful tradition of hardboiled newspaper editors. How did you approach your role and how much was he a result of improvisation vs. rehearsal in order to find the nuances of the character?
companyyoukeepeditorwriter.jpg Shia LaBeouf and Stanley Tucci
Stanley Tucci: I have to say it was all there on the page. The character was very well written, very well-realized in the script. I dont know that I had to do that much. And I had Shia LaBeouf's energy to work off in my scenes and Robert's very clear and succinct directions. Rehearsal was really minimal for the most part. Shia and I rehearsed one day and then we did it. The scenes are very straightforward. Ray Fuller is the classic curmudgeonly, exhausted editor. I think particularly in this day and age he's interesting because he's part of a dying breed. We're not going to see those guys around too much any more.
RR: I want to add a few words about Stanley. We have some history together; we go a ways back, and like Brit, I'm very indebted to people who come in for no money at all, and volunteer their services to help. Stanley was one of the first advisors that we had at Sundance--he gave up his time at a crucial point in our development. That's how Stanley and I got to know each other, and then we did the first film that he directed and that was a joy for me. And over the years Stanley and I have engaged at different points in time. To be able to cast Stanley is one of the great honors I'm able to share with you all. Let's face it, there's no money in film these days and you have to depend of the kindness of colleagues to come in and help you. I was blessed by having a wonderful cast, certainly with Stanley and Brit and Jackie. Stanley didn't have to come in, there was nothing in it for him except the joy of working with me [laughter]. But he came in, and to show you what a pro he is, he didn't need any rehearsal, because he's such a well-crafted actor. He so understood the part. He just talked about Shia's energy, and Shia has a fast mind and a fast tongue, and Stanley was able to work with that and still be the character that he had to play. He had to play a man in control within an industry that was going out of control, which adds its own dynamic. The fact that he could manage the energy by creating a counter-energy as Shia got more crazed. Stanley goes the other way, which creates a dynamic. As Shia slows down, Stanley goes for his throat. I enjoyed watching that.
AI: I think it helps when the director is also an actor.
ST: See, that's the thing. Robert is an inspiration for me. first as an actor, and then as an actor-director. If he can do it, anyone can do it! To watch him as an actor is always enjoyable, but then to see the movies that he directs, and the way he so effortlessly goes back and forth from one side of the camera to the other is an inspiration. And then the creation of Sundance, which gave us all a huge, huge opportunity and continues to give us all an opportunity [to make movies], is a great thing. For that reason alone, to be in this movie was an honor. You want to give back whatever you can, even if it's just, "OK, Ill be in your movie, if that makes you happy." Robert, why that would make you happy I dont know [laughter], but Im glad it did. It was great.
AI: Jackie, you're a newcomer among these acting veterans. Your background is singing--since 2009, you're recorded at least five albums, including one platinum and one gold, with three Billboard 100 top-ten debuts. In 2010, you competed on America's Got Talent and finished second. I'm curious, what led you to acting?
RR: Let me do the lead, because it's a wonderful story. I was in Vancouver getting ready to film in a few days, and I couldn't find a young actress to play my character's 11-year-old daughter. I was flustered in the interview process, because I was interviewing girls who were lovely, and fine, and their mothers were dressed like they wanted a part in the movie, too. I like kids to just be and these kids were too busy acting. I was sitting in a hotel room, depressed, mindlessly surfing the channels although I don't watch much television, and suddenly boom. There's this vision on the screen, an angelic creature who was 11-years-old. I said wait a minute, what's this? She's singing Puccini. How does that work? So the camera pulls back, and there's this huge orchestra in a symphony hall, and this creature standing there is just belting this music out,; it was so powerful. I said somebody who has that composure, who can do that in front of that kind of an audience, with that kind of register, that kind of complexity, maybe that's the one. So I contacted our casting person, and they found out she was in Pittsburgh. They went there and sent back a tape of her. It was clear that she didn't know what was going on, but I thought there was something and decided to take this chance. She was hired on Tuesday and we filmed on Wednesday, the first day I met her. We had fun together, improvised together, and I can only tell you that from that point on I figured I am one lucky man, because she turned out to be absolutely lovely. I ended up the beneficiary of risk-taking.

Jackie Evancho: All I can say is that I'm extremely honored to have had the chance to actually act with you guys, I was really, really excited that I got the role, and I really had a lot of fun. So thank you.
AI: Were you nervous the first day?
JE: I was extremely nervous, I didn't know what to think.
RR: She was nervous, but she was so busy having fun that it disguised her nervousness.
AI: Jackie, did you know the name Robert Redford, and had you seen any of his films?
JE: My dad always talked about him with his brothers, so I knew the name, but I wasn't very familiar with it. The only thing that I knew was that my dad told me he played a cowboy. That's all I knew!
Q: Robert, what do you want people in the 21st century to take from this movie about the legacy of the Weather Underground?
RR: There are probably a number of things I'd like people to take away. To simplify, I'd say probably the biggest thing would be that they think. Some films are made not to necessarily cause anyone to think--it's like eating cotton candy and you have a wonderful ride and that's all you really want. And other films are designed in a way to make you think about what happened and make you ask questions afterward and maybe have a dialog with somebody. That's what I would prefer. That would be the first thing I'd want, and the second thing has to do with a criticism I have of my own country. I don't think we have been very good at looking at history as a lesson to be learned, so that we don't repeat a negative historical experience. We're not good at that. Looking back and kind of saying this happened then, what can we learn from that? I just think it's an American tradition to be so busy looking forward and driving forward and doing, doing, doing, so we don't look back and say, Gee, what can I learn from the mistakes I made before? So I guess the hope, that's all it can be, is that [this movie] makes you look back at that moment in time. By the way, when [the Weather Underground] happened, I was of that age. I was of them in spirit, but wasn't part of it because I was starting an acting career in the New York theater and was also starting to have a family, I was obligated to those tasks. But I was certainly empathetic to what they were doing, because I also thought it was a wrong, unnecessary war that was costing lives. It was also a war designed by people who had never gone to war. [My making this movie] had a lot to do with the kind of tragic history of the United States and the mistakes it has made and never seemed to learn from--that's my own personal criticism about my country and history. So I guess I would hope we look back, and this time it's not about what happened then but it's about those people more than thirty years later. There's a wonderful poem by Yeats, one of my favorite poems. Yeats was so sick of what was happening to Ireland; he could see that calm Ireland was about to be disrupted by vandalism, by revolt, and by revolution, and that Ireland would probably never be the same, and so he was bemoaning that by taking a conservative stance. In that poem there's a line--"The best lack all conviction while the worst are full of passionate intensity." It was such a nice thing for me to play with. As these people who were filled with that passionate intensity grow older, and look back, they're trapped by their pasts because in order to stay free from the law, they must go underground with false names. How long can you live without your true identity? That's what interested me, to tell that story. Not then but now.
Q: Have you had the opportunity to meet any of the people who are represented here?
RR: No, I didnt feel I needed to. I was already aware of them, as I said earlier. And I saw a documentary several years ago on the Weather Underground, I felt that the documentary, about the actual people, was very well made. I didn't feel I needed to meet them because this was a piece of fiction that was really about their lives later. I did meet the son of Bill Ayers, who lives here in New York and Chicago. He's a teacher. That was it. I figured, it's dramatic fiction, and I wanted to be able to take it on, using people who really were as the basis but creating characters.

Robert Redford  Photo: Brad Balfour
Q: You wouldn't want to talk to any of them now?
RR: No. I'm happy to talk about this film, I'm proud of it, I'm proud of the actors who were in it, and I was able to make the film I wanted to make the way I wanted to make it, and I'm proud of that. But after you work onsomething if you stay with it too long, it's not a good thing.
Q: Are you critical of modern journalism in your film?
RR: Well, it's kind of tricky when an artist starts to mess around with journalism. I've done that before. I dont know that the media is comfortable being criticized so you have to be careful. Basically, I was tempted by a story that was written by someone else and just documented that. On the other hand, I have such a huge interest in the media because it plays such an important role in our society, and I'm very concerned if it's ever threatened in any way. And if it is threatened, I would like to know how and why. I think that the internet has so drastically altered the landscape of journalism because now we sometimes get too much information. How does anyone find the truth? Where do citizens find the truth? So much is coming at them. You have the far right and the far left hammering stuff, and so much of it is lying that the public just gets fed up and turns away. So I'm really curious about the state of journalism, where it is right now.
Q: Do you think the influence of journalism in this country is positive?
RR: I don't know about positive as much as valuable. I consider journalism so valuable. I would almost take it personally if journalism failed. It provides the one [way] we have to receive the truth. So if I'm going to portray journalism in a film, which is tricky business, then I want to at least give it its due, and I want to describe the threats there are against it. In this case, Shia's character Ben Shepard is interesting to me because our impression is complicated by the fact that we don't know if he if he is going after this story for his own personal aggrandizement, or for the thrill of just getting a good story? But what should be unmistakable is what he learns about himself. In his pursuit of finding something about somebody else, what does he learn about himself that may change him? That was exciting to me, but you have to be really careful about not being too pedantic or academic [when commenting] on journalism. You have to test certain things, and let the audience go with it. In terms of this film, there's a little hint of a story that I've always loved. There were two stories I loved as a kid. One was The Phantom of the Opera. I wanted to play that part. I really did ! The other story was Les Miserables and I saw similarities in Ben Shepard and Inspector Javert. And in a sense, my character is Jean Valjean. Jim Grant takes on a new identity to escape prison time. He too lives a clean life and has a daughter. The daughter, Isabel, means everything to him. He had to give up another daughter, Rebecca, before she meant too much to him to give up. That was painful, and he doesn't want to make that mistake again, and yet there's someone on his tail, the reporter, who might expose him in a way that will make it impossible for him to keep the love of Isabel. So that was the mix, the complexity, which sparked me to make this film.
Q: What exactly is the price that your character pays for his past?
RR: The price he pays is that he's going to have to give up the life he's been leading under an assumed name so that his relationship with his young daughter can be clean and pure. He was innocent of the crime. but he's not seen as innocent and the only way he can clear his name is by getting to Julie Christie's character Mimi.
companyyoukeepredfordchristie.jpg Julie Christie and Robert Redford
The run is almost impossible; the odds are totally against him. He's willing to try to beat the odds because of his daughter. He wasn't able to live with his first daughter Rebecca--although (laughing) had I known Brit was going to play her, he probably would have had a whole different storyline. But it's all about cleaning yourself out, and sometimes you have to face a hard truth in order to do it. So I think that's what he has to do in order to be able to face his daughter again and live a clean, honest life. There are probably going to be some losses, but in the end it's worth not having to lie anymore.
Q: You worked with Julie Christie for the first time. She's great in this and I hope you're going to make an effort to get her an Oscar nomination.
RR: I would never try to get somebody an Oscar nomination. That's not my business. Awards are not my business. But Julie became my business because I knew her when she was younger. We were both roughly the same age, we both had film exposure around the same time, and realized that she was radical then, and thought that she might have stayed that way. I had no idea beyond that. She seemed to disappear from the face of the earth, then she showed up in a film about Alzheimer's, Away from Her, and I thought, unless that was a real-life thing for her, maybe I should call her and see what she's doing. It took a while to get her. She's remote, she's in a remote area of Spain and sometimes London. It took two months of trying to find her and then listening to her tell me why she shouldn't do it, didn't want to do it, and didn't think she could do it--until the day she finally came and did it. I think the effort should speak for itself.
Q: How did Terrence Howard come on board to play the FBI agent?
RR: He was in a movie called Hustle and Flow when I first met him. I wanted him in the role and I'm glad he did it. He's a wonderful actor.
Q: Mr. Redford, there's a wink in this film to your past, through the use of some of your early photos. Can you talk about your decision to use them?
RR: It's not terribly interesting, I just had to go through archival stuff and find old photos of myself and be depressed [laughter]. And some of the photos had to be right for the film, to show time passing and that people age.
Q: Were you trying to draw from anything in particular from your era, the sixties and seventies?
ST: I was four-years-old. I know I look a lot older, thanks very much [laughter]. I didn't have anything personal to draw on, only people I talked to, including a cousin who fought in the war for two tours, and things that I've read. But you know, when you approach certain films, after you've been doing it for a period of time, if it's there on the page, sometimes that's really all you need. Sometimes you do need a certain amount of preparation and research, but for this role, it was all really there.
Q: This movie is a family drama, a thriller, and a newspaper drama. I was wondering how your experiences with those types of movies in the past helped you.
RR: It helped in the sense that all three parts came together in one film. I made those films for specific reasons relating to those specific areas in our culture, and on this I saw a chance to combine them all into one film, and then have the relationship between the reporter and his editor drive the story. Get the story, wheres the story?, don't make any mistakes, be cool. That's the journalist part and it has its own energy. The thriller part is the man on the run to save his life and his relationship with his daughter. Then you have the family part because that's what it is about--a man who is haunted by his past having the chance to finally, after he failed before, to have a real life and a family.
Danny Peary: Jackie, if you really were Isabel what would you ask her father in their last scene together, when we can't hear them?
JE: I'd probably ask, "Where were you?, What were do doing?; and Why did you leave?"
AI: That's interesting, because we don't get to hear that because Robert respects their privacy.
CompanyYouKeepBritJackieBrad.jpgBrit Marling and Jackie Evancho
Photo by Brad Balfour
DP: Brit, I really like you Another Earth.
BM: Thank you!
DP: If Rebecca got to ask Jim Grant, the father she's never met, one question, what would it be?
BM: It would be interesting to know what he think about radicalism today. The Weather Underground felt like the center of radical accountability for what their country was doing then. Where is that sense of radical accountability in my generation? How come we don't feel the same responsibility to create change and stand up for the things we believe in?
RR: I was thinking about that time. That was a young people's movement. And I think I know you well enough, Brit, to know you would have been somehow connected. But that generation came so close to getting to the final destination and it collapsed before it got there. It was a movement that kind of ate itself. I just wish it would have gone one step further, because that was the generation that was speaking for me. Now it's more than thirty years later, your generation is Occupy Wall Street or other organizations. I'd be curious about your personal feelings about that movement. 
BM: It's funny that [my writing partner] Zal Batmanglij and I were writing something that was sort of about the Occupy Wall Street movement before it happened. And when Occupy Wall Street happened, we went, "Great, someone's finally tapped into the collective unconscious [and started] organizing." But I think what happened is all these ideas came up but then it was, Where's the action? I dont know why the Occupy movement didn't quite take off but maybe so many people are so comfortable that they haven't walked away from their lovely comas. But I watched a lot of young people leave their jobs and go knock on doors for Obama because they were so excited about the possibility of change, so I still think it's very, very possible. Maybe my generation is straddling [the fence with] one foot in being an anarchist, and the other foot in playing by the rules and trying to change the system from within. Do you eventually have to pick a side or can you fall between? I'm not sure, I wrestle with that every day.
RR: It's interesting that you said it's a possibility. Because that's what your screen mother, Mimi, says in the film when she and Jim Grant are arguing. His argument is that Hey, it was over and we were wasting our time beyond a certain point. And she says, No, it's never over as long as the cause is there, that the reason to revolt is still there. That's a good point, and he's saying you dont want to waste your time, time moves on. So my character and Julie's character are having that debate, and I think it is structured in such a way that maybe the audience will [be inspired] to have that same discussion. But Brit, you wanted something to happen that would reflect the voice of your generation. One of the things that's beautiful about Brit, and makes her such a joy to work with, is that whatever she does, whatever way she plays, there's always the truth. She's a person of supreme truth in whatever she's doing. Truth just comes though. It's such a valuable asset. I felt that when we met and first talked, I felt that in her work that I saw at the festival. And she let that happen in the film. It wasn't anything I did or said [as the director], it was just, Brit, take it and go with it because I know that whatever you do the truth is going to come out. And that's going to be a powerful force against what Shia is playing with [in their scenes together]. I would think that maybe Brit [feels the same way] I did when I was young. I was disappointed with my generation and my voice [because] I wanted to succeed. We thought we were not being told the truth in this country, so we wanted to be the voice of truth, and the fact that we couldn't make it happen was kind of disappointing. Now I see Brit as an emissary for her generation.
(L-R) Brit Marling, Jackie Evancho, Stanley Tucci, Robert Redford, moderator Annette Insdorf

Photo: DP

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