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When Robert Redford talks, you listen. The man is a bona fide Hollywood legend, an Oscar-winning director, lauded actor, tireless champion of independent cinema as founder of the Sundance Film Festival, and, at 76 years old, he’s still busy adding achievements to his lengthy resume.
He directs and stars in his latest film The Company You Keep, a political action thriller in which he plays an ex-Weather Underground radical on the run from a sharp young reporter (Shia LaBeouf), he pushed his physical prowess to the limit as the sole actor in the upcoming survival film All Is Lost, and he recently signed on for a prominent role in Marvel’s Captain America: The Winter Soldier (as we reported earlier this week, Redford confirmed to Spinoff he’ll be playing the head of S.H.I.E.L.D.).
Redford met recently with a small group of reporters in New York City to discuss The Company You Keep, which opens today. A conversation about the movie’s themes of morality, duty, activism and journalism quickly turned into a mesmerizing account of Redford’s experiences, and how they’ve informed his opinions.
During the exchange, Redford touched upon the changes in film funding, the evolving nature of journalism, his iconic role as Bob Woodward in All the President’s Men, and his close relationship with director Sydney Pollack.
On how film funding has changed since he first began acting
I think more and more … certain kinds of film have declined, in terms of being made. Budgets have gotten much lower, studios are more into a tentpole situation where they will finance stuff that’s pretty guaranteeable, like franchise films — Harry Potter, Bond. That’s where they feel safe. The rest of them are too risky. So films like the one that I made [The Company You Keep] probably would have greater financial support in the 1970s. But now it’s really, really hard, so it has to go more independent, which means you go for a lower budget, which makes the whole thing tougher.
Why the basis for exploring LaBeouf’s character arc lies in the changing nature of journalism
Obviously I’m fascinated by journalism. I’ve made journalism a point in some of the films that I’ve made. I think I might put a critical eye on journalism occasionally, but fundamentally I’m such a supporter. I think journalism is so important. I think the big moment when I really took the bull by the horns was making All the President’s Men. That was not about Watergate, it was not about President Nixon, it was about those two guys and the work that they did. I wanted to put a spotlight on something that I didn’t think many people knew about, which is, How do journalists work? How do they get the story? … At that time, my view of journalism was totally heroic, because I see journalism as a path to the truth. So here we are, 30, 40 years later, it’s so drastically changed because of the democratization of information. Anybody can put something up, anybody can tweet. So therefore, it’s harder and harder to find where the truth is. The rules that governed journalism when I was younger — which was, you had to get two people to go on record before you could quote a source — gone. And I think what took it away was the effort to compete — you had to compete, and therefore you had to scoop. Sometimes you couldn’t wait around to do it the ethical way, you just had to jump to get ahead of the next guy. … It was sort of my effort to say this is how journalism has changed, this reporter — Shia LaBeouf’s character — is a reporter of today. And you can see how he behaves: He’s ruthless, he’s brilliant, he’s amazing, he’s skilled, highly skilled, but he’s tricky. Because, is he going after the story for his on aggrandizement, is he going after it for his own ego satisfaction? Or is he going after it because he really wants to get the truth? I think both.
How he happened upon his iconic role in All the President’s Men
It started in 1972, when I was on a train promoting a film called The Candidate. The media was part of it — there was the entertainment media and the political media on the train. And I heard these people gossiping about the Watergate break-in that happened just two weeks before. So I’m asking the journalists, “What happened with that? It just kind of went away.” And they looked at each other like they knew something, like they suspected something. They said, “Whatever is going on, it’s not going to come out.” I said, “Why?” And they said, “First of all, Nixon’s gonna win. Secondly, everybody does it – it’s dirty tricks, both sides do it.” I got so upset by the fact that I didn’t think they were going to do anything. I went home kind of depressed … was reading The Salt Lake Tribune and then, about a week and a half later, a little story popped up — two guys, a dual byline. I thought, “Somebody’s doing something!” A few days later, another one. And this thing kept popping, on a regular basis, it was always two names. Then, the whole thing blew wide open in September, and I realized, wow, I was already tracking something just on a personal notion. … That’s when I read a little article on the side about who these two guys were, and when I saw that profile about their differences, and yet they both worked together, I thought, “Gee I wonder what that was like. I bet that’s a little movie … I’d like to make a little black-and-white movie that I could produce with two unknown actors … and just have it be about what they did.” One thing led to another and I finally met them. They said, “Well we’re going to be writing a book.” I said, “I’m just interested in what is not being talked about, which is what you guys did, how you did it.” A year and a half later, they said, “Well, we’re told we have to write our book first.” Finally what came is that the studio bought the rights and they said, “Well, you have to be in it.” I said, “I think that might distort it.” “Well, we’re not going to make it unless you’re in it.”
Working with Sydney Pollack
Sydney and I became very, very close friends acting together in a movie in 1960, a little black-and-white independent film [War Hunt]. He played my commanding officer and I played a young recruit. He told me then that he wanted to be a director. I went back into the theater, did a couple of plays … he started directing television, and then we came back together when I was coming to Hollywood to do my second film [This Property is Condemned], and I was working with Natalie Wood. We had this script, it was a mess, and no director really wanted to touch it. And on the list of directors, Sydney’s name was way down at the bottom. I said, “Oh, get that guy!” Because I figured, he’d be my friend! [laughs] And she said, “Who is he?” So one thing led to another, Sydney Pollack calls me and he says, “I got a call from Natalie Wood — she wants to see me!” I said, “Well, go see her!” He said, “Yeah, but my hands sweat when I get nervous.” I said, “Well put gloves on and go see her!” So that’s how it all happened, and the rest was history.
The Company You Keep opens today.