Robert Redford for “The Legend of Bagger Vance”

A star for three decades, Robert Redford was Hollywood’s true golden boy of the 60s and 70s, appearing in classics as diverse as Barefoot in the Park, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and The Sting. By the 80s he was equally at home behind the camera winning the Best Director Oscar for Ordinary People.

A true iconoclast, Redford is fiercely passionate about his work and the consistent growth of American cinema,, with his Sundance Institute paving the way for continued development of independent film. His latest film as a director, The Legend of Bagger Vance, continues to define themes and issues that remain important to the legendary Hollywood icon, revealing as much about its director as its characters. Paul Fischer reports on the man behind the myth.

The youthful looks may have dissipated, but in their place, Robert Redford is still ruggedly handsome. A quietly confident artist, like the central golfing character of The Legend of Bagger Vance, Redford has remained an uncertain hero of sorts. Like the stumbling golfer that Matt Damon plays, there have been times, Redford recalls, when he had to find his own swing. “When you’re going to do a film, and you’re going to be committing the kind of energy it takes to direct a film, {that is if you take it personally), it becomes all-consuming. It ends up being 16-hour days for about a year, so before you go down that road you want to be pretty well hooked and committed to what you’re going to do, because it’s not going to be easy.” For Redford, who has been in this game in one way or another for almost forty years, he continues to search for something that has that power to consume him. “You look for things that are going to hook you.” In the case of Bagger Vance, a lyrical period film about a young man searching for himself through golf, with a little help from a philosophical caddy, the hook Redford speaks of was not there originally. “When the story was being told to me, I wasn’t that interested in it. That is, until I got to a particular phrase: ‘Authentic swing’.” That was what clicked. He thought of the idea of someone losing their swing, finding it again and the metaphor that swing has for the loss of one’s soul. “I saw golf purely as a metaphor, and that was my main concern.” He was also interested in making a film that was uplifting, a film that was the antithesis of the kinds of films, Redford says tend to dominate “the bleak entertainment landscape, with the obligatory violence and all the cynicism.” Redford wanted to make a film that he calls old-fashioned, “something that had a redemptive quality that we could feel good about and had a spirituality to it.”

Based on the novel by Steven Pressfield and set in 1931, The Legend of Bagger Vance tells of WWI veteran Rannulph Judah (Matt Damon), once a skilled amateur golfer, who agrees to play Bobby Jones (Joel Gretsch) and Walter Hagen (Bruce McGill), two of the game’s most distinguished players, in a 36-hole match. Since Judah’s swing is not what it used to be, a mysterious gentleman named Bagger Vance (Will Smith) is recruited as his caddy. As Bagger helps Judah to get his game back, Judah discovers that many of Bagger’s lessons apply to life as much as to golf.

Though the film is not about the game, Redford remembers that when he was a boy, he and his boyhood friend used to sneak into the snobbish Bel Air Country Club in Los Angeles to play golf. “We used to divide his mother’s golf clubs and we’d tie them on our bike, and after school go along this street in L.A. where I grew up,” says Redford, and along the street there’s this long par-5 hole and a long row of hedges. We’d hide in the bushes and wait for the foursomes to come through. And we’d watch them play. That way we’d learn their swings and so forth. As soon as there was a gap between the foursomes, we’d throw balls out there and hack our way down this par-5 hole. And when we’d see a foursome coming to the tee, we’d grab everything and jump back in the bushes. That’s how I got started,” he says, grinning.

It took Redford some 60 years to return to golf when his grown son became fascinated with the sport. But Redford, 63, has done more than perfect his swing on the fairway.

Like Redford’s other sports-themed movies – “A River Runs Through It,” “The Horse Whisperer” and “The Natural” (which Barry Levinson directed) – “Bagger Vance” is part mystical and part secular. “I’m really interested in sport as a metaphor. Because I was an athlete I’m very connected with sport,” says Redford, who attended the University of Colorado on a baseball scholarship. “I see this as real good dramatic material, particularly metaphorically. But what interests me is getting underneath it. What is it about this sport that makes people behave the way they do about it? Why do people get hooked on fly fishing? Why do people get hooked on golf? They become like a junkie. The only way to solve that is to get underneath it,” he says. “And one of the ways to do that is have you feel it. So going inside the sport to illustrate what it is about is challenging and attractive to me. And part of that – by moving it back in time – you’re also maybe asking the audience to look at how the country was at that time. And ask them if they miss it.”

Throughout much of his career, both as actor and director, Redford has always been drawn, he says, to larger-than-life stories, be they those classics of the past to recent directorial efforts such as The Horse Whisperer and Bagger Vance. “I think those choices have had to do with mythology as a foundational storyline, which I believe in.” Not to mention his own childhood. “We grew up in Los Angeles in a fairly poor, Mexican neighbourhood during the war, and you didn’t feel the differences, the class distinctions, because everyone was united by the war effort.” Redford recalls that there wasn’t much to do in those days and in his social milieu except in the case of HIS family, “you went to a movie on Saturday night and the library on Wednesday night.” It was as much in the hallowed halls of the latter, that young Bob “zeroed in on mythology because I was in this small house and depressing community, that mythology, with these larger-than-life characters and gods, was what I would take home.” Redford became drawn to myth, “because without the likes of television, you had to create in the streets with your friends.”

The actor who shot to fame in such movies as “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid,” “The Sting” and “The Way We Were” could easily have continued as one of America’s top leading men, but that was not enough for Redford. “When I made the decision to become a director I had an awareness – kind of a revelation – that came after I started directing. But the initial reason was I had started as an actor in 1959, started on Broadway and in the theatre and television and film in the mid-’60s, and by 1970 I was wondering whether I wanted to stay in film because I was beginning to get frustrated that I didn’t have more choice in the matter, than just showing up and being an actor for hire,” he says.

By then he’d already worked in filmmaking for 15 years. “I was beginning to want more – more out of my life, and out of my career, just wanted more. I thought what I’d really like to do is make my own films, at least control the vision of the film, the story to be told the way it was told, that kind of stuff. Couldn’t do that when you’re just an actor for hire. So that led me to producing.” In 1969, he produced “Downhill Racer” with Gene Hackman for $1.5 million. It was meant to be a trilogy, he says. “The theme would be the Pyrrhic victory of winning. The three subjects would be sport, politics and business – those were three areas that had an impact on our lives. I was going to tell different stories with the same theme. I did two of them, ‘The Candidate’ and ‘Downhill Racer.’ But I never got to the third.” He went on to such films as “Jeremiah Johnson” and “All the President’s Men,” and won his Best Director Oscar for “Ordinary People.”

“I was starting to put body English on things when I worked with another director, even a director I liked. I found myself going, ‘Can’t we do it this way?’ ‘What about that?’ I thought, ‘You know what, just do your own. Make your own movie entirely. Working, writing and just do it.'” And that is precisely what he did. He admits that he was fearless. “I had such a clear notion of what I wanted to do I was excited about doing it. I was excited about getting it on the screen. I did my own storyboard in frustration because I’d never learned the language of the camera like a lot of kids do in film school. “There was no film school when I started. But I knew what I wanted. I knew what the lighting and all that (should be) but didn’t know how to explain it in terms of the camera. So in frustration, when the cameraman was asking, What lens? What kind of light?, I took paper and started to sketch it. And then he got that. Pretty soon our dialogue became a series of sketches.” It was then that Redford realized that his long time passion for painting – which he’d studied in school – was being realized in this new work. “So it was combining performing with painting and that’s when it got really excited about directing,” he says. Even that began to pall, he says. “I’d worked so hard in the ’70s, done so many films, I was just tired. I thought it was time to take stock and rethink everything. Maybe do something different for a while just to rejuvenate. You can get numb by just going from movie to movie to movie. Your work begins to look like it. You begin to phone it in. I didn’t want that, so I started to develop Sundance. I kind of fell out of pictures while I was building Sundance.” The Sundance Film Institute in Park City, Utah, fosters independent filmmakers and has been an efficient way for unknowns to get their work shown.

Even at 63, Redford has worn well and happily admits that he is unconcerned about growing old. “I’m not afraid because I AM. It happens to all of us. Some people try to arrest it with cosmetic surgery. I don’t happen to be one of those people. I believe you wear your life the way it has been.” Redford keeps himself fit, and therefore young in spirit, “by always being physical. I like being able to swim and ride and run and move my body. And when I get to the point where I can’t do it anymore, that will be tough.”

Redford remains a fiercely private man. He mainly resides in Utah, venturing beyond its borders when making a film. He rarely does publicity, shying away from the attention he is given as Robert Redford, movie star. “It’s not comfortable, but you learn to live with it. Whether you like it or not, you have to wear it like a coat, because it’s always there. But in time, it fades to a degree, and I’d rather have people staring than be completely ignored in life or frowned at all the time. You have a couple of choices. You either are with it all the time and find a way to enjoy it, or you kind of check out a little bit. And with me, just to have some sanity, I’ve done both.”