Moving behind the camera, Redford’s diverse and outstanding filmography as director includes nine ambitious works that demonstrate great commitment: Ordinary People (for which he won an Academy Award in 1980), The Milagro Beanfield War (1988), A River Runs Through It (1992), Quiz Show (1994) and, most recently, The Company You Keep (2012).
Redford also has nurtured hundreds of significant filmmakers as founder of the Sundance Institute and the Sundance Film Festival. His vision and efforts established the American independent film movement as a major force in the world of expression.
And Redford has long remained one of the world’s most recognizable and determined environmentalists. First working on a local level in Utah (his work to stop a coal-fired power plant brought death threats not only to him but to his family), he has for the past 35 years served as a trustee of the Natural Resources Defense Council.
He comes to Telluride with his most powerful performance in years in All Is Lost.
MATTHEW ROTHSCHILD: How did you become an environmentalist?
ROBERT REDFORD: Well, I grew up in Los Angeles, and it was a beautiful place when I was a little kid. Then after World War II, suddenly there was smog. It was overdeveloped. Concrete going everywhere. It was like a gold rush. I saw places that I loved disappear faster than you could count. So I began to seek refuge in the Sierra range, and I was working at Yosemite National Park, and I was near the ocean so I could swim and surf. Whenever I was in the natural environment, I was happy, and when I saw it being taken away, I took it personally.
I read that you faced death threats for your environmental activism.
In 1975, I came across a plan that some companies wanted to build a huge coal-fired power plant in southeastern Utah, and they weren’t holding any public hearings, and they weren’t going through any permit process. The coal was going to be burned on a plateau going into Lake Powell, and that was right in the middle of five contiguous national parks and monuments. And I thought, “Good God, what is that?”
So in desperation I went to 60 Minutes and said, “There’s something going on in the West that might be of interest to you guys, and it might make a show.” And the producer said, “That is interesting. We’ll do it if you’ll do it.” And I said, “No, no, I don’t think that’s a good idea because I don’t think actors are particularly trusted in that area.” But he insisted.
That’s when I met Dan Rather. I told him we’re not going to sit in a room and be talking heads. We’re going to go down into the area, and I’m going to show you the petrographs that are going to be destroyed by this development, and we’re going to see the Native ruins that are going to be wiped out. And then we’re going to go to Rainbow Point, where you can see for a hundred miles. The show was extremely successful. They got 6,000 pieces of mail.
The next thing you know, the companies pulled out, and they blamed me. And because the local people had been promised that the plant was going to bring jobs to a fairly depressed area, I was the guy who was taking bread off the table. The threats got pretty intense: “You come down here, and we’re going to blow your ass off.” But when it came to the kids, when they were threatened too, I concluded it wasn’t fair to my family, so I started to take a different approach.
What inspired you to create Sundance?
I had just turned 40 and had spent ten years working hard with a good amount of success. And I thought, I could keep going, but I’d run the danger of repeating myself. When you have success, you sort of fall in love with it and want to repeat it. And I didn’t want that to happen.
Can you describe your concept called “returning to zero?”
To refresh yourself, you stop and say, “OK, I’m going to take some time off and rethink, and pretend that I’m just starting out again and look at things freshly for the first time.” It gives you a kind of energy. It’s recharging, and it allows you to keep taking chances rather than getting safe with the ones you’ve taken.
And so it was one of those times. I’d just won an Academy Award that I wasn’t prepared for. It was the first picture that I’d directed. When it happened, I thought, “Well, this is kind of dangerous,” so I stopped and took some time off and thought about what I might put back into the industry. The studios were showing signs of becoming more centralized, and they were going to follow the youth market and follow the money. I was worried that the films that I like to make, films that are more on the humanistic side, might be dropped away. A thought came to me: What could I do to put something in place that might keep such films alive and also create opportunities for new voices and new artists that come along? I came up with an idea of having a place where you could come and rehearse and make mistakes and stumble and fail and not have that be the end of the world. And the process helped people improve their skills. Those films were getting better, but there was still no marketplace for them.
That led to the idea of the film festival. I couldn’t do it anywhere except Utah because of the expense. People said, “Utah? Good luck.” And I said, “It’s going to be about diversity, and enough people might respond to it. Put it in the middle of winter, make it tough to get to, make it a little weird. And make it different.” The first year, it was just me and two other folks standing on the streets of Park City trying to get people into the theater, like a guy standing outside of a strip joint. After Sex, Lies, and Videotape, one thing led to another.
You’ve gone to Capitol Hill in the past to talk about the importance of arts funding. Right now, in state after state, they’re slashing funding for the arts.
A country like ours should be subsidizing the arts—other countries do, like Britain, that have less money than we do—and we have to beg, borrow and steal for a few pennies. I hope we can eliminate some of the old saws that have been used against the arts: that they’re dangerous, or trivial, or not an economic driver. It’s not true. Take Sundance. Sundance now brings $50 or $60 million to the state of Utah in just ten days. So don’t tell me it’s not an economic driver. Don’t tell me it doesn’t create jobs and opportunities for all the service people. Think of the billions of dollars that come from the arts. And art can transcend gender and class and race.
You’ve written, “Art nurtures the soul of society.” What do you mean by that?
In my mind, art is the language of the soul: poetry, and photography, and painting, and all the other forms of art. That’s why it’s important to subsidize it. Art helps tell the stories. I believe in stories. I grew up in a family with a pretty tough bunch. They had a very dark side, and you had to figure things out yourself, and you didn’t complain about it. If you wanted an answer to a question, you would get a story, and you had to figure out what the answer was. I loved that. And I loved going to the library, where I would get these books on mythology. They were like a window on a greater world, some bigger thing out there. At night my parents would tell me a story to get me to calm down. Stories have been embedded in my life. I believe in their power.
Matthew Rothschild is the editor of The Progressive. Reprinted with permission of the author.
b. August 18, 1936,
in Santa Monica, California
All Is Lost (2013)
The Company You Keep (2012)
Lions for Lambs (2007)
An Unfinished Life (2005)
The Clearing (2004)
Spy Game (2001)
The Last Castle (2001)
The Horse Whisperer (1998)
Up Close & Personal (1996)
Indecent Proposal (1993)
Legal Eagles (1986)
Out of Africa (1985)
The Natural (1984)
The Electric Horseman (1979)
A Bridge Too Far (1977)
All the President’s Men (1976)
Three Days of the Condor (1975)
The Great Waldo Pepper (1975)
The Great Gatsby (1974)
The Sting (1973)
The Way We Were (1973)
Jeremiah Johnson (1972)
The Candidate (1972)
The Hot Rock (1972)
Little Fauss and Big Halsy (1970)
Downhill Racer (1969)
Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969)
Barefoot in the Park (1967)
This Property Is Condemned (1966)
The Chase (1966)
Inside Daisy Clover (1965)
Situation Hopeless... But Not Serious (1965)
War Hunt (1962)
Tall Story (1960)
The Company You Keep (2012)
The Conspirator (2010)
Lions for Lambs (2007)
The Legend of Bagger Vance (2000)
The Horse Whisperer (1998)
Quiz Show (1994)
A River Runs Through It (1992)
The Milagro Beanfield War (1988)
Ordinary People (1980)