Film Scouts Interviews

Robert Redford on "The Horse Whisperer"

by Karen Jaehne

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"Where's Bob?," we cried, as we slogged through the snows of Sundance. "Where's Bob?" we wailed at the Oscars when "A River Runs Through It" got shut out. "Where's Bob?" we grumbled, juggling our shrimps and chardonnay at the opening of the Sundance Channel. "Where's Bob?" bawled all the broke babes, when word went out he was offering a million bucks for a roll in the hay.

"Where's Bob?" we yowled, yet again stranded on the slopes of Deer Valley, missing the films and parties and glamour. "Where's Bob?" we asked last year in Connecticut, hearing he was shooting a film with The English Patient's Kristin Scott Thomas. The next time we asked "Where's Bob?" he was in Montana, busting broncos and starring in the movie he was producing and directing all in the same corral.

"Where's Bob?" brought us to be the top of the line at the very first screening of "The Horse Whisperer." "Where's Bob?" we quizzed the usher. Shhhh! hissed the critics, mesmerized at a movie about healing the savage heart.

He rode off into the Western Sky, and we waded through wet kleenex to join the crowds gawking at the limos waiting for the stars. We murmured, "Where's Bob?"

A savvy publicist turned on a dime and said, "Bob? Bob who? You don't mean Robert Redford?" Well, of course we did, and this gentle creature led us across the river of streets and into the hotel cliffs lining Central Park and there, deep in the gloaming - (I'm not sure what it is either...) - deep in the fern-green shadows of the Tivoli Room of the Essex Hotel we found Bob, older, wiser and as nice as a neighbor who'll loan you his tractor. The backlight of the last rays of sunset glanced off his burnished hair, then ricocheted round the room like a newborn colt untamed, unbranded, but not unsung.

"Hello," said the small, unprepossessing man in a soft, intimate tone. "I'm Robert Redford."

We started singing: "Here's Bob!" and rolling the tape to deliver the definitive Bob. He may not be back through these parts again soon. Here's what went down.

Q: Mr. Redford, there are two moments in "The Horse Whisperer," when the character you play, Tom Booker, is asked what he fears most and then again, if he has inner peace. Are those the things that made you want to make this film - and to play Booker?

A: Inner peace? You mean on top of the mountain, when he tells Grace what he fears most is growing old. But they're not two questions, because the one involves the other. Getting older may be biographical, but the inner peace is there, if you're living a useful life. Sure, that would be a concern of mine.

I'm not afraid of aging and not about to go to drastic lengths to arrest it. I like to be physical, and I like to be of use. I was always athletic - I like to ski, ride a horse and swim. When the time comes that being old takes you where you can't command your body to do what it loves to do, that is a far country.

Q: You're part athlete, part artist. Part movie star, part director. Connoisseur, organizer, you wear a lot of hats. Do you ever get confused about which is your cowboy hat and which is your director's cap?

Redford: I started out in life to be an artist, a painter. I see the world through that lens, all my life. It caught me by surprise the first time I directed, and I suddenly was putting that to use - that sense of spatial formation and control within a frame. I had thought that part of my life was behind me, but it wasn't. And I was so happy to rediscover it - it's one of the real joys of directing, but I have very strong feelings about the visual elements of film.

Having a cinematographer who understands you is the most important thing to achieve the scale that I want to work on in cinema. Now, a cameraman is someone who spends a lot of time studying visual techniques and technological innovations. Richardson does his own camerawork, and he and I spent a lot of time on the visual design of this film. I also spent a lot of time on the sound-design - all part of prep for a movie. We discussed light and dark, chiaroscurro, silhouettes especially in the darkness of the Manhattan part of the film, where the urban winter environment closes things in - as do the lives of these people. It all automatically compresses the frame.

And there are things that I'm not sure everybody is aware of, but it's important. There's something called a 1:85 matte, which is the regular ratio for a film, and how the movie starts. But it opens to a 2:35 matte, as they are driving across the country. It's disguised by a cut with rain on the windshield, so you don't actually see it shifting, so it would be a subliminal effect. Then it's like wide-frame vistas like I remember from movies I loved.

The sound is also subliminal. Once the story moves to New York City, there isn't a single moment where there's not a sound - a siren or fax machine or all the bombardment of technological sound we live with...then there's the radio that takes them across the country. By the time we get to Montana, there are only sounds found in nature - birds, ranch life and what comes with that. A lot of time was spent on that.

Q: You acquired "The Horse Whisperer" as an unfinished novel. How did that happen?

A: With a lotta dough, that's how. And the help of Disney. It was one of those projects that cashed in on a changing environment in film. It was one of the major signs of the twinning of the two industries of film and publishing. A bidding frenzy occurred when word got out that there was this novel about a love story set in the West. He was only halfway through it, but there were enough elements - for me, at least, unless they were going to go to another planet or something. There was enough there for me. I was enthusiastic enough, but when I spoke to the author, he hadn't worked out the ending yet. It was very expensive. All the studios bid, but Disney stepped up on my behalf.

Q: That's odd, because you're known as someone who champions small, feisty, independent movies, but every time you make one, it's huge. Epic. Grand.

A: Not always. "A River Runs Through It" was 12 million dollars, completely independent - we had to find distribution for it after it was made. It got bought by a studio, and I've been lucky to get financing from the mainstream for most of my work, but there's usually a trade-off - like I have to act in it or appear in a more mainstream film to offset the risk. But that's OK, because one of the great things about the industry is that it's wide. There's nothing wrong with making blockbuster films, as long as there's equal room to make more individual stories which is where my interest lies. I started working both sides of the street, so I could make things like "The Candidate" and "Jeremiah Johnson," "Ordinary People." Not to be defensive, but to counter the image that I champion one thing and appear in the other: "The Candidate" cost a million dollars, "Ordinary People" only six. Sure, those were different times, but that was still a small scale.

Q: And the stories and ideology were obviously not messages fit for the mainstream.

A: That's your job.

Q: Would you talk about casting? Your casting is surprising, but then again, it all seems so right, as in this film - where you seem to have got these actors at the last minute...?

A: I believe very strongly in counter-intuitive casting. I get an idea and I don't let go. For example, I had to cast Sam Neill in the role of Robert, because the character needed his strength and the decency he would bring to it. Negotiations got too many fingers in the pie, and finally, when he and I talked, it was a done deal. The artists can usually get through to each other, but...I do these things the best you can. I didn't want him to be wimped out. It's a tougher film, if Robert's smart and a good man - it changes the way you look at what Anne and Booker feel and do. We were 2 weeks into the shoot when he was cast, so I had to go get him.

And Kristin, well, it took me a long time to decide if the character of Anne would remain English or if I would make her American. As the script developed, I could see it, because Anne is referred to as tribeless, growing up in the diplomatic corps and rootless, so there was something she and Booker could connect on. And Kristin has a sharpness to her persona that was perfect for the beginning of the film, and taking that to a softer, vulnerable beauty at the other end of the film promised to be a terrific journey of consciousness.

With Scarlet, who plays Anne and Robert's daughter Grace, was just a terrific find, because the character is at that stage in adolescence which is very tough - for everybody. It's tough to go through it - and harder to make it credible on screen. Sometimes, with kids, you're dealing with the girl one day, and the next day, she shows up on set a grown woman. And then you're into disguising stuff and all that. It's slippery, but Scarlet has a determination and talent to be a very good actress. She's smart enough to listen and intelligent enough to take what you say, and make it her own. And she has a feisty quality that makes her a duplication of the mother and able to go after her mother and make it tough. Scarlet's also an urban child, 13 going on 40. I took my time making that decision, because the job was so hard.

And the finished film has a different ending from the book, as you now know, because I wanted a tougher film. To have Booker die at the end makes it easy for everybody to just go back to do whatever. Decision makes it tough. A moral certainty exists in this ending, instead of a convenient loss - but none of that would matter if the casting wasn't perfect enough to make you care.

Q: To make us cry. You also took pains to create a picture of the West that is not the usual TV or Hollywood West, it seems.

A: Well, my heart's in the West. I live in New York and out there. That's my life, but I was born in the West, and you know how important Utah is to me. The truth of that is not easy. It's been so mythologized in so many films that a romantic version is at work in people's heads. The real West is romantic enough just as it is and powerful in its real dimensions, not bigger than life.

I wanted to present the audience with an aspect of life in the West that is about to disappear - the family ranch where people live so close to nature. It's being replaced by real estate. I saw this as an opportunity to make an hommage to that kind of life.

For example, the branding sequence. There are various ways to brand cattle, but we showed the most old-fashioned way there is. Each calf must be wrangled, wrestled with and branded with its tatoo, then returned to the mother. There's a technological way to do it, but it's more brutal, because it keeps the calf away from the mother much longer. It's cruel. Some ranchers still do this though.

Q: Yeah, I know. I grew up around cattle and watched my family do this with other families every spring. Nobody thought it was wrong. It was fun, and you show that. I also like the dinner table scenes - tons of food, asking grace, the silent signals around the table.

A: We filmed on a ranch where the family is really like the Booker family. It's a very small part of the West by now - and about to disappear. I thought it was worth getting it down on film, especially a vision of how hard they work.

To get the character of Tom right, we brought in someone who does exactly what the "horse whisperer" does. Now, that's not a name anybody in the West would recognize. The novelist Nicholas Evans assumed a lotta poetic license, but the "whispering" is a way of retrieving a horse who's having difficulting.

On our set, we had someone named Buck Brannaman who conducts clinics and helps horses recover from the messes they can get into - not of their own making, obviously. He has a way with horses, the way my character Booker should know horses, and it was a real pleasure having him there. I learned a lot from him, and it grounded the entire story.

Q: Was it difficult directing yourself?

A: Yeah, there were times when I felt self-conscious taking time away from my role as director. It was obviously not cool to keep asking myself for retakes. I like detail, and I like watching a set work - the ensemble. As an actor, I always liked finding the space I was in and relating just to what I had to do, to focus on the job at hand. And I sure didn't like thinking about the camera or what the director had to think about.

I chose to play Booker, because as an actor, I wanted that role. It was a good part, and as a director, the whole piece had all the elements - the journey, the mythic proportions, the primal relationships, mother and daughter, darkness and light, east and west, the complexity of human relationships, family dynamics and the physicality of a part of the country that I love. And horses. Who wouldn't want to be in that film?

Q: One way you can look at the film is how it picks up on the traditions of old westerns.

A: Well, it's more bout reality - on ranches and farmes, people live hand to mouth these days. But they try to have fun wherever they can. So, as in the branding sequence - what people back east may find brutal and strange is normal to them - part of the way they make their livelihood. They struggle, they get kicked, hurt, fall down, get their hearts broke, too. But who you gonna go see about it? There ain't a therapist for miles around.

Q: What about the animals? There are a lot of scenes that could be interpreted as being tough on the animals...

A: Oh, branding - well, it's got to be done and, like everything, you can either do it right and humane or you can do it the other way. I have such a respect for horses that nothing would have happened to an animal on my set, even if the ASPCA representative had not been looking out for them.

What I have to do in this film with Grace's horse Pilgrim is to bring him back to a place of trust. It took a lot of physical therapy, just because a horse going through such a bad accident would be very spooked. It takes time, and nobody wants to let nature take up their time. But that's the lesson here. Patience brings understanding. My character has to just sit and wait and prove that he's not there to hurt Pilgrim after a long series of painful events. You seldom see a horse in that bad condition, but it happens.

When Booker has finally got the horse to let him near, even to ride him, then Booker has to restore the relationship back to young Grace. The scene where I rope him may look cruel, but it's not. I rope him to show him that he can be roped without harm. And when I have him kneel down, it goes to that mythic place about man and beast that stirs something very ancient in us. He has control over the horse, and he can do anything he wants, and the horse knows it. But at the moment he could hurt the horse, he makes sure the horse knows he won't do that. That's an arc in the film that is repeated in all the relationships.

Q: The mythic elements of the film come out of old traditions, but the observations about modern life are also very accute. It would seem that the West wins out over the East, and that the wilderness has more to offer than Broadway.

A: That's right, and that's sort of your job to write about all that, but I just hope everybody sees it that way. It's pretty well known that I love the West. After all, I was born out there and raised - in a pretty poor family - but I used to go out in the mountains. And I had family down in Texas and back east, so I got to know all those places. At the age of 14, I decided I wanted to go to New York someday. I didn't know what I was going to do when I got there, but it was a goal. Now I have a place here, but the place out west is where my heart is. The city's exciting and you can't beat it for a certain kind of stimulus, but I have to take myself out of it and connect with nature so I can do my best work.

Q: What kind of conditions do you need to do "your best work?"

A: I need to know where things are coming from, and to trust myself. Then other people will trust me and we can make something together. It's not that different from dealing with horses.

Q: Is that what we call horse sense?

A: Probably. I'm not sure what people mean by horse sense, but I think it's a good, sure-footed thing. 

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