The Sundance Kid: A Conversation With Robert Redford

Redford. For movie fans worldwide, the last name alone conjures cinematic images of a sardonic outlaw, an undeterred reporter and the love of Barbara Streisand’s life.

There’s no doubt that Robert Redford is a screen icon, but behind and apart from the camera he wears many other hats, and he wears them well: Producer, director, activist, philanthropist, environmentalist (he’s a trustee of the Natural Resources Defense Council) and founder-president of the Sundance Institute.

Over the years, Redford’s body of work has been celebrated with a slew of awards, from the Kennedy Center Honors to the National Medal of Arts to a Lifetime Achievement Oscar. This past October, he received the Légion d’Honneur, one of France’s most highly esteemed recognitions, to acknowledge his enduring movie career, his advocacy of artists through Sundance and his ongoing ecological efforts to save the planet.

All this from a kid who grew up in a lower working-class neighborhood in Santa Monica, California. Through weekly pilgrimages to the library and the movie theater, his parents helped nurture his love of literature and film, as well as an urgent desire to see the world.

Redford eventually studied painting at the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn and theatrical set design at Manhattan’s American Academy of Dramatic Arts. When he turned to acting, it was the stage and the small screen that beckoned first, with Broadway runs in Barefoot in the Park and Sunday in New York and guest appearances on shows like The UntouchablesPerry Mason and The Twilight Zone.

Redford debuted on the big screen in Denis Sanders’ War Hunt in 1962 and quickly went on to play leading men opposite such A-list actresses of the time as Natalie Wood, Jane Fonda and Streisand.

“I love Bob,” says Streisand. “He has a soulful mystery behind his eyes that makes him a great star. Collaborating with Bob and Sydney Pollack on The Way We Were stands as one of the greatest experiences of my career.”

Photograph by Kristina Loggia

Years later Redford would woo Glenn Close in The Natural and Meryl Streep in Out of Africa, but it was his “bromance” with Paul Newman in George Roy Hill’s classic Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid in 1969 that cemented this four-time Oscar nominee’s superstar status. (Redford shares that he was initially approached to play the more lighthearted Butch but, not wanting to be pigeonholed in comedic roles coming off Barefoot in the Park, asked to switch roles with Newman).

The movie’s success came during a period of introspection for Redford, who yearned to tell his own tales—tales that dug deep into the society in which he was living, or what he calls “the stories beneath the stories.” He began this exploration with a focus on the American culture’s obsession with winning in Downhill Racer and The Candidate, both of which he starred in and produced through his Wildwood Enterprises banner with director Michael Ritchie.

Wildwood also backed All the President’s Men, a landmark project for the politically-minded Redford, who found himself in what he has described as a “cloak and dagger” pursuit of Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, the reporters responsible for blowing the lid off Watergate. The film’s release, shortly after Nixon’s resignation, could not have been timed better and led to numerous accolades and eight Academy Award nominations for the film, of which it won four.

In 1980, Redford stepped behind the camera, making his directorial debut with Ordinary People, for which he won both the Oscar and Golden Globe for Best Director as well as the Directors Guild of America Award for Outstanding Directorial Achievement in Motion Pictures.

Since then, Redford has helmed The Milagro Beanfield WarA River Runs Through ItQuiz ShowThe Horse WhispererThe Legend of Bagger Vance, and Lions for Lambs, garnering many Oscar and Golden Globe nods along the way.

The Conspirator, Redford’s latest directorial effort, examines an untold story tied to the Lincoln assassination that will be released in April.

Brubaker was my first featured part in a major motion picture,” recalls legendary actor Morgan Freeman, who co-starred with Redford in Brubaker and An Unfinished Life. “I don’t remember if Robert and I even rehearsed. We did three or four takes after shaking hands and that was it. He pretty much is what he seems like: Talented, engaged, easy-going and a joy to work with. I think he’ll always be one of cinema’s iconic figures.”

Two years after Brubaker, Redford invited Freeman to help out at the Sundance Institute. Redford founded the treasured nonprofit resource for indie moviemakers, which has become synonymous with his name, in 1981, with the mission to discover and nurture new voices in cinema. Since its early days as a moviemaking lab, it has supported countless groundbreaking films and grown into an internationally recognized organization with several arms, including the Sundance Film Festival.

Born into BrothelsAmreeka and Me and You and Everyone We Know are among the more than 500 films to emerge from the Sundance Institute’s Feature Film Program, while sex, lies, and videotapeReservoir DogsLittle Miss Sunshine and many others were introduced to audiences at the organization’s annual festival in Park City, Utah.

The Sundance Channel, established in 1996, brings uncut and commercial-free indie product to American television viewers; the venture launched successfully in Europe last year. Still other expansions of the Sundance brand include the Sundance Catalog, to help market Institute artists and their work, and Sundance Cinemas, which circuit currently has locations in Madison, Wisconsin and San Francisco.

Redford is like a proud papa when it comes to singling out any particular film to come out of Sundance—he simply won’t do it. “They’re all very different,” he says.

MovieMaker spoke with the 74-year-old film icon about the origin and evolution of Sundance, his stellar career spanning nearly 50 years and what he loves most—and least—about making movies.

Julie Jacobs, MovieMaker Magazine (MM): What’s the story behind naming the land you purchased in Utah Sundance?

Robert Redford (RR): Well, actually there was a big argument over that. At the time, I was making Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. People loved the name, but I said, “I can’t do that. What if the movie comes out and it’s a bomb?” I tried to come up with an alternative, but I couldn’t and I was overruled. I had to admit it was a great name and, fortunately, the movie turned out to be a hit.

It is such  classic, but who knew? When I saw the rough cut, I thought, “Well, this is screwed. It has a song in it!” I said, “What’s that all about? It’s nuts.” Well, I was so wrong. I had the most fun doing that movie.

MM: What prompted you to create the Sundance Institute and what was your vision at the outset?

RR: I had a very productive 10 years, career-wise, and had expanded my role by producing. After Butch Cassidy, I started to fain some independence with films like The CandidateDownhill Racer and Ordinary People. They were successful and I came to realize the value of independent film.

Also, I was turning 40 and I had worked really hard in the ’70s, doing movies back-to-back. I thought that if I kept doing that, I’d get stale and begin to repeat myself. Maybe I should take a year off, step back and revitalize—think about where I am and what I’d like to do.

That’s something I’ve done my whole life. I call it “returning to zero.” You’re at a high point in your lie and, rather than ride it too far, you jump off and start all over again, like it never happened. I came up with the idea to give something back to the industry that had been good to me. Also, there were two other things happening then simultaneously: One was that video and cable were about to explode and that meant an explosion for distribution. But at the same time, the Hollywood system was becoming more centralized, narrowing their focus to the youth market. That meant that we’d probably have a reduction in quality.

I saw a space in there that could be filled, and I thought about what I’d personally want to do with it. I thought it would be great to have a place where people could come and work and not be afraid of failing—a place away from the pressures, the agents, the money and so forth. Artists would have freedom and maybe, by putting it in the mountains, there might be additional value. It turned out to be good and that’s how the institute started.

MM: What was your role?

RR: The concept, the idea. And because nobody votes for new or risky ideas, I couldn’t get support from the industry. I don’t know how they viewed it, whether hey thought it was a good idea or that “Redford’s starting an insurgency up in the mountains.” Whatever was going on, I didn’t get any money.

MM: Did you ever second-guess yourself as a result?

RR: Oh, yes. Doubt is a sidebar to any artist. You always carry doubt with you. Maybe people were thinking, “Redford, we know what you get paid. Do it yourself.” But I probably wouldn’t have gotten any traction that way. So I went to the National Endowment for the Arts and got a $25,000 grant to start and credibility I might not have had on my own.

I cobbled together another $100,000 of my own and other people’s money to get the Lab going. The Lab had a rough six years where there was no money and not a lot to offer. I had to fly on the generosity of colleagues—writers, directors, editors, actors, cameramen—for them to come up and give their time for nothing and work with new artists. The idea was, “Hey guys, we all started somewhere. Remember how hard it was?” I couldn’t have done it without them.

Robert Redford sets the scene on The Conspirator (2011)

MM: What was the notion of independent film then versus now?

RR: Fundamentally, I don’t think a whole lot has changed. It was difficult then, it’s difficult now. Back then the indie film world was reduced to small grants for small films. Independent film was not a category the way it has been built up today. But when El Norte broke through the ice and got into the mainstream, I thought that we might be onto something.

Then I thought, “We’re improving artists’ skills with these indie films and we’ve got great product, but where can it go? Maybe we could do something where artists could see their work, work that had nowhere to be seen.” So we started the festival and moved it to Park City, because we didn’t have the infrastructure.

In the beginning, I was told it wouldn’t work. But I thought, if we were lucky, someone would come. There was only one theater on Main Street then and we tried to get people in there. It was five or six years before we realized some success and that was with sex, lies, and videotape. That had a huge impact and, slowly but surely, we had a platform.

By 1992, we had a pretty big audience coming from all over and Park City was adding more and more theaters. I saw we could branch out internationally and exercise documentaries, which I’ve always been a big dan of, and then shorts. We could go beyond Park City and that’s how we got the idea for the Sundance Channel.

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