Robert Redford may be in his element in the thick of the Sundance Film Festival he helped to originate, but the publicity-shy actor, a Hollywood golden boy for some three decades, still cannot avoid criticism. Still ruggedly handsome at 66, Redford is quietly spoken and introspective.
Reluctantly agreeing to talk about his starring role in the dark thriller The Clearing, co-starring Helen Mirren and Willem Dafoe following its Sundance premiere this past January, attention has focussed to Down And Dirty Pictures: Miramax, Sundance And The Rise of Independent Film, a new book by journalist Peter Biskind that blasts the star as an ineffectual, passive-aggressive leader who has nurtured, then abandoned, struggling filmmakers and allowed a truly independent festival to degenerate into “cell phone Sundance.”
This is not the first time that Redford’s Sundance has been subject to criticism, but nothing as staggering as Bisking’s claims, resulting in one of the best-selling Hollywood insider tomes of recent memory. Redford says he hasn’t read the book, but admits to being hurt and disappointed at its claims. “You have to be disappointed but you also know that there is impotence to your position. In fact you’ve got your hands tied behind your back when somebody chooses to take a low road in to you, there is nothing you can do about it, and so you just live with it and move on. In this particular case it happened once before, so it was like deja-vu which. There is nothing I can do about this stuff and I am pretty well ok with the fact that I think Sundance is not going to be stopped by it, because he Festival is itself now, and doesn’t need me out there to talk about it like I did years ago,” says Redford, referring to his reluctance to do publicity. “But the results are here, and after 20 years they speak for themselves. Sundance is now too strong to be stopped although it’s clear that some people are desperately trying.” The actor continues.
“It just makes me sad when someone feels compelled to look for the dirt or the low just to get attention,” Redford says. “He did the same thing 14 years ago (in Premiere Magazine), when he tried to sabotage the festival when we were very vulnerable. We survived that and now he comes back and it’s the same deal. Will somebody just give him a free ticket and put him out of his misery?”
It is clear, however, that the Sundance Film Festival has grown far more than he certainly intended when Redford took over the ailing American Film Festival, which even Redford is even prepared to concede. We’re bulging at the seams as it is as you can see by the gridlock,” he says, referring to the amount of traffic jamming the Park City streets, yet at the same time, he doesn’t want to see the festival scaled back. “We’re better now than we were two or three years ago and getting better films. I wouldn’t want to cut it back, but I don’t want to get any bigger because that means more volume and volume threatens quality.”
At this Sundance, Redford appeared on stage for the first time to introduce a film in which he was a participant. While many scoffed at the notion that he waited this long to actually star in a film debuting at his festival, Redford says that The Clearing is by no means his first independent film. “This is the first independent film that I’ve been in as an actor in the festival, but I’ve done a lot of independent films. I find the difference is that I guess that I was fortunate that I could do the independent films within the studio system,” he says, referring to past works as A River Runs Through It, The Candidate, Downhill Racer, Jeremiah Johnson and Ordinary People, for which he won a Best Director Oscar.
These were all films Redford also produced, but in the case of The Clearing, Redford was purely an actor, in which he stars as an affluent businessman who is kidnapped by Willem Dafoe, with Mirren portraying Redford’s wife. “It was about time to put my body where my mouth was, being in the festival in different way rather than being a spokesperson for our cause or what have you,” Redford says when asked why The Clearing as his Sundance acting debut. “The other factor for me was that all the elements were good, in that ou had a first time director who I’d met, whose mind I liked and whom I was willing to trust. Then you have a first time screenwriter who had written a piece that I thought was off-beat smart, had an off-beat quality, and also had risk because there was going to be something relentlessly dark about it. It was going to be complex without perhaps a satisfying conclusion, because that’s life.”
One of the prevalent themes of The Clearing, which deals with class and privilege, is the fracturing ethos of the so-called American Dream. Here is a story about a self-made man, his public, versus his private, self. Redford dodges discussing parallels between the character and actor, but says that the film reflects a collision of the two American dreams, “his and mine, colliding and then where’s the truth? My character was a character adrift. Sometimes you can have success and you work so hard on the basic American dream, but you’re not aware of the sacrifices and losses that are occurring along the way.” In some way, The Clearing becomes a comment on the nature of celebrity in relation to the American Dream, about which Redford can obviously identify. “I’ve been interested in much of my career, with the American dream and the ethic of what’s achievement, what’s success, undersize that and celebrity comes into that,” Redford adds.
Redford has been in the public eye for some 40 years, having starred in some of Hollywood’s seminal classics. Even at 66, and some 40 films later, Redford admits avoiding seeing himself on screen, which made it difficult for the actor to sit through The Clearing. “If you’re an actor you know what I mean. The worst pain I’ve ever been in is directing a movie that I’m in.” To this day, Redford has never seen one of his most popular films: The Way We Were. “When the work is done, it’s done, that’s all I know. If you hang on too long, there is such a thing as staying around school too long. When you graduate, get out,” Redford says emphatically. “I don’t like looking back.”
In looking forward, Redford is just as busy acting, having finished An Unfinished Life, starring Jennifer Lopez, whom he doesn’t mention when describing that movie. “We made a film in the spring with Morgan Freeman, which is great because Morgan and I are old friends and it was nice as actors to just come together, having been in Brubaker together.”
Redford also continues to maintain a passionate interest in politics, and he has had no qualms about speaking out when it comes to discussing America’s post September 11 political climate. “I think we’re in worse shape than we were a year ago and freedom of expression is now more important than ever.” And that makes an independent film festival such as Sundance, even more important than ever, he adds. “So the good news is that we have more reason to exist.” Redford also plans to direct a sequel to his 1972 classic The Candidate, which he hopes will reflect contemporary political ideals, but it is unlikely to be completed in time for this year’s US election. “There’s something unappealing about being too perfectly timed.