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Lions For Lambs - Robert Redford interview

Robert Redford in Lions For Lambs

Interview by Rob Carnevale

ROBERT Redford talks about some of the motivations behind making new thriller Lions For Lambs, apathy towards politics and how his own political views were shaped during his time in Europe.

He also discusses the importance of giving every character in Lions For Lambs an acceptable point of view, Al Gore and the environment and why going into politics doesn’t interest him…

Do movies like Lions For Lambs mark a return to the type of movie making we saw in the ’70s, such as All The President’s Men?
Robert Redford: I don’t know if it’s a return to the ’70s. I don’t think you can ever return, really. I think Hollywood… well, there is no Hollywood anymore so let’s just call it the mainstream since the business is no longer Hollywood producing its own films and then distributing, they just distribute. There’s more investment capital available now to finance the films that studios will distribute, so there are a lot more films out there as you can see from this Fall.

Secondly, the mainstream usually follows trends, it seldom sets them except for a few films, so I think that the trend now is that it’s a little easier in my country to be critical of the administration because the administration has tanked in terms of its popularity. Five years ago, or even four years ago, you were labelled unpatriotic if you said anything that went against what the administration was doing. Now, with the exposure of the truth it’s easier. So, there are going to be a lot of films about Iraq.

But that did not interest me. I wasn’t interested in making a film about the Iraq war because I knew that would be well covered by films in a dozen others. What’s not easier, however, is to get these kinds of films financed because they’re considered risky commercial ventures. So if you’re asking about the ’70s, I think the ’70s was just a different time – and maybe that’s gone. But those are the reasons that this film was never intended to be about the war – it was about something different that contains the war as kind of an element, but it’s not strictly not about the war.

Q. And yet two of the characters at the centre of the story make the decision to abandon their comfortable lives to go and fight in the war against terror?
Robert Redford: Well yes, but they’d already been through risk far greater than most people. The student that my character is connecting with [throughout the film] has not lived with much risk. But those two men [played by Michael Peña and Derek Luke] grew up in neighbourhoods in the same general area that were extremely risky because they’re very violent. Those neighbourhoods do exist in America and many are lucky to survive the drive-by shootings and drug wars, for example.

So, these men managed to survive and they go to college on a part-time athletics scholarship but they want to get ahead and get an education. My character sees their potential and wants to bring them up, so he does that. His job is to inspire young people to aspire to greater things. But what he didn’t figure on happening was that they’d make that choice, particularly given his own background of having been in another war that he felt was a wrong war. But he had to finally give up his arguments and disappointment because they say: “Look, you told us not to sit on the sidelines, you told us to go for it and this is what we feel we should do – we should go and fight for our country because we think we’re qualified.”

And when he tries to talk them out of that, they give him another hard truth – that it costs so much to have a student loan, and they didn’t have any money, so it would take them 10 years to pay off the loan just to go to graduate school, whereas if they go into the Armed Services and come out, they come out on their money. He can’t argue with that. What’s heartbreaking is that they would choose to go into a war that he doesn’t believe is worth it. But they’re saying: “We can actually help make it better because we’re qualified.”

It’s intended that the film uses the issues of today as fodder for looking at deeper issues. We’re in a very complicated time with horrible results and it’s a question of how to look at a situation through the eyes of where education is today, where our politics are today, where our political administration is today, where the media is today… It’s meant to look at the broader situation through those eyes and to ask what is the role of the citizen today? The film attempts to bring the issues up and have a debate go on so that the audience or the public can just look at it and say: “Well, how do we feel about it?” The film doesn’t attempt to provide answers so much as ask questions.

Q. When you look back to your own 20s, do you feel there has always been some apathy towards politics among the youth, or is it more pronounced today?
Robert Redford: I think so… starting with me I couldn’t care less when I was a kid. I grew up in Los Angeles and Richard Nixon was my State Senator and he was so boring. I thought: “If that’s what politics is, I don’t want to be any part of it!” They were boring people in suits saying boring things so I never paid any attention to politics. I was interested in sports and athletics and art and getting an education by getting out in the world. That’s where my mind was. I didn’t think about politics until I came to Europe.

I was asked to leave school because I was a very poor student and I wanted to go Europe when I was 18 to get out into the world and experience other cultures and other histories. I’d been influenced by reading books on art and colonies that existed in Paris and places like that and so when I came to Europe I came to France and I had very little money, and I had to live low and stayed in a bohemian section of Paris with a lot of other students, who were from medical school, science school and art school. We all lived in a kind of communal way and I was challenged politically, because I didn’t have a clue and they would ask me questions about the Algerian War, which was very big in France in the late ’50s.

I was humiliated and ashamed that I didn’t know much about my own country’s politics. So, that humiliation made me start to learn about it but from this place in the world. And so I would learn about my country from the points of view of Italy and France and from conservative and liberal newspapers. And by doing this, I realised that the point of view was very different from the point of view that I had been raised with.

I was raised in California during the Second World War and into the ’50s and everything was fine, everything was great. The sun always shone, everybody looked healthy and wore ties and smoked in restaurants, and there were cars for everybody – except us, because I came from a lower class neighbourhood. But [in France] I realised there was a different point of view, so when I came back to America a year and a half later I was much more focused on my own country culturally and politically.

I think that was the beginning of me putting a critical eye on my own country. I also saw how blessed we were by travelling around Europe, because I went through some places that were having a really hard time. I saw how people were struggling. When I came back, I realised that we were very blessed, so I’d be very critical as we began to trash those blessings. And, over time, I became an actor and was able to make and produce my own films. By 1969 I’d developed a very critical outlook about my own country and I wanted to put that into films like The Candidate, All The President’s Men, Three Days of The Condor and others. These were basically points of view gained from my own experience.

Q. Are your children more politically aware than you were in your youth?
Robert Redford: Essentially, my kids grew up with the emphasis on the environment because I became a political activist in about 1969 and it was not an easy time. Those were the days when the oil and gas companies pretty much controlled the show and anybody speaking about solar energy or carbon energy would get smashed down as being a radical or a tree-hugger or what have you. So I was out there feeling very often alone and my kids would get that. We also had a divided life where we lived the issues. We were in New York City, where they went to school, and then we had a place in a very semi-wilderness area in Utah in the mountains, which is now Sundance. But it was just a cabin we built very high and it was very primitive, so they’d spend part of their time there so they knew what nature really was. And so that became a part of their lives. It [politics] broadened into other areas but that was on their own.

Do you have any political friends that might perhaps have influenced the portrayal of Tom Cruise’s senator in the film?Because it would have been very easy to portray him in black and white terms, whereas the film does give him shades…
Robert Redford: Oh no, I don’t believe in abject propaganda. Look, we’re in pretty bad shape right now as a country – and deservedly so – so it would have been very easy to talk about this administration and talk about the president and so forth… But to me that would have been shallow because there’s a deeper way to look at it. We all have some responsibility, all of us – the public, students, media. We should look at this in a much broader, deeper way.

So, the point of the Tom Cruise character and the thing that would make him dangerous was that he’d just be a better, dressed-up version of what we have now. If you were to have a continuation of the policies and strategies that are going on now, considering what’s happened in the last six years in America and our place on the world stage, it would be pretty serious. So, the idea was to present him as somebody that could be quite good – popular, attractive, an embodiment of all American qualities, articulate, strong and dangerous. If you made him a moustache-twirling villain he wouldn’t be dangerous.

The point I would make about that character is that he had to be given a point of view that would be acceptable. Every character in the film has to have a point of view that’s acceptable – even the student that I argue with, who says: “What am I supposed to do? Should I feel guilty because I’m enjoying my life?” Tom Cruise’s character says to Meryl Streep at one point: “So, you want to keep talking about the past and how we got here? I’m saying, ‘it doesn’t matter how we got here, we have to move quickly’. We’re the problem now.” And he’s got a point. But she [Meryl Streep] also asks: “What about bringing the troops home?” And he says: “So, you mean just leave? OK, let’s play it out…” And then he gives a speech that says: “If we leave, the Taliban metastasizes into something far worse than it is now…” – which, by the way, it has since we started the film.

We started this in January and a lot of the issues in the film are now passé. I knew they would be. But we give the Tom Cruise character a point of view that’s kind of reasonable until it turns back the other way and he says: “We’re going to stay here and we’re going to do whatever it takes because we’ve got to win.” Well, then that’s his main thing – winning. But why does he want to win? What’s the point? Finally, she asks: “Why did we invade a country that didn’t attack us and leave the country that did?” And he says: “How many people are going to ask that same question?”

But that’s exactly the way that this administration behaves. So, the film was meant to turn this way, then that way, and then this way. But you couldn’t have that unless he [Tom Cruise] had a genuine point of view. So, what I wanted was that if you went to Dallas, Texas or some conservative states in America and showed this film, they would think that Tom has a point.

Are you afraid that with the three of you having apparent democratic sympathies that people will see the film as more of a PR coup?
Robert Redford: I just assumed that would happen. I can’t speak for Europe of course, I can only speak for America, but considering where we are now, the bloggers are already out there. I mean, there are right wing bloggers condemning the film who haven’t even seen it. They just assume it’s a left wing film. But you kind of expect that. I’ve been an activist, of course, but not to the extreme that Michael Moore and some other people are… I’m not out there slashing away. I’ve been focused more on the environment. I have very strong feelings about that, so I kind of stay in that area. So, of course I’m critical but I’d rather put it in film. I wouldn’t have been interested in making a film that just smashed the administration and smashed Bush – that’s too easy. It’s about making a film about deeper things that everyone can look at and finally coming out and asking: “How do I feel about all of this? How do I feel about my country in terms of education, in terms of the military, in terms of the policies and the politics that affect the military and affect students? And where is education in our country right now? What are teachers getting out of teaching right now?” Those were all the issues I was interested in.

Q. What did you think about Al Gore winning the Nobel Prize and not running for President?
Robert Redford: Well, why would he, unless he felt a moral call to duty. But right now, the political system so restricts public office and compromise. He’s making a lot of money, he’s having a heroic moment, and he suffered enormously [at the election]. That was partly his own fault because he didn’t run a good campaign but I never believed that Bush actually won. I think there was stuff that went on there but whatever it was Gore was treated very badly. Part of that was his fault, because he presented himself wooden and stiff, whereas George Bush went in like a regular old guy – a guy you could drink with. I don’t know if that’s who you want as your president but because our country is very focused on cosmetics, it’s like, ‘so who makes you feel good?’ So therefore he just made some people feel better. It must have been really hard for Gore to suffer all that. But he found a thing to come back with, which was the environment, and then he got a lot of money behind him because the Clinton administration had a lot of money contacts, as you can see now with Hilary. He was able to call on that money to build himself a new campaign and pick an issue. And he picked an issue that just happened to arrive at its moment in time.

You’ve long been involved with that issue yourself, though, haven’t you?
Robert Redford: I was involved in that issue in 1985. I had an environmental organisation at Sundance that was interested in conflict resolution. We brought industry people together with the environmental groups to take a particular issue and wrestle it out. This started in 1980 but in 1985 we had a conference on clean air in Denver, Colorado, and two scientists from the Centre for Atmospheric Research came to make a slide presentation on global warming. It was so shocking and so devastating that we kind of asked: “What?!” But no one knew about it. And this was really a mind blower at the time – they described and showed Mt Kilimanjaro with no snow and how Antarctica and the Arctic ice caps were going to shrink.

I got so focused on that and a year and a half later I happened to be in the Soviet Union on a film and the Soviet Academy of Sciences was having a conference and they’d heard that I was involved with the environment and so invited me to visit. I sat in there with earphones and they were talking about global warming, so I said: “Well wait a minute, if two scientific communities are talking about a major issue that nobody knows about, don’t you think you ought to get it out of the halls of science and into the public?”

So anyway, I invited them all to come to Sundance, which was insane, and we had a big conference in Sundance in 1989 called Greenhouse Glasnost and that involved the two scientific communities coming together to debate and discuss this issue. It was a three-day conference, very well attended and resulted in a signed document that acknowledged this was a very serious issue that must be addressed now. I thought: “Well, there you have it, it’s indisputable. How can a government deny that? We had the scientists of the two most polluting countries in the world at that time agreeing on something.” I was so proud that I made the mistake of sending it to George Bush Sr who said: “Thank you!” And then pushed it into one of his lower drawers. I thought how stupid of me. So, it never got out.

But even if it had got out there is a thing called timing and it was too early. Kyoto hadn’t come yet and when that came, we didn’t join, and Kyoto didn’t have the traction… It’s only now, in the last year, and it’s really because of two things: Wall Street realised there was money to be made by going green and it finally came to roost that the health issues were becoming clear. Those two things created a tipping point that came about a year and a half ago and so Gore came in at exactly the right time with that film [An Inconvenient Truth]. He was able to get funding for a film that I don’t think he could have got five or 10 years ago.

Q. Would you ever consider going into politics?
Robert Redford: No way. I’m much better doing what I’m doing. First of all, I’m not good at compromise. It’s too complicated a system that I couldn’t be happy there. The only reason it’s come up is because I’ve made films that have been critical of various political scenes.

Q. So who would you like to see taking over at the White House?
Robert Redford: Just somebody different from what we’ve got. I don’t know that they’re out there yet. I don’t get involved on the national stage, I get involved on local issues. So far, there’s not anybody terribly inspiring.

b>Read our review of Lions For Lambs

b>Read our interview with Michael Peña