In a HardTalk Extra interview screened on 28 January, Tom Brook talks to Robert Redford about his remarkable career, his passion for independent film and his thoughts on life in America today.
Redford's Sundance Film Festival celebrated its 21st birthday in 2005
For copyright reasons this interview is no longer available for viewing.
The following is a transcript of the interview as broadcast. While every effort has been made to ensure that it correctly reflects the interview, we cannot guarantee that it is completely accurate.
TOM BROOK: Robert Redford, a very warm welcome to Hardtalk Extra. We've just seen a clip there of The Motorcycle Diaries. Now this is a film that you were intimately involved with, you were the executive producer. What was it about the story that really drew you in.
ROBERT REDFORD: The fact that it was story not known, it was a story beneath the story that is known, which has probably been distorted mythology. And that's usually the case with me, I prefer stories that led to something happening that no-one knows about, whether it's All the Presidents Men or films like, it's about the story beneath the story that got told.
And in this case it had a particularly humane side that I thought if it were done well it could transcend borders and the film should absolutely be pure, should absolutely risk being pure. Meaning, in the language it was written, an all latino cast. I was not interested in the poster we've got plenty of that, and that's probably been distorted by myth and whatever.
It's kind of hard to distort the diaries written by a man who was nothing. This was a 23 year student, a medical student, who was writing about his personal feelings during travels on his adventure in life. So I trusted that, that's one of the reasons why I wanted to make it. Secondly, Sundance itself, associated with me, is pretty committed to developing international relationships in film. And exposing other film makers from other countries on the, on the belief that considering the spin that's going on around in the world, the globalisation of the world itself, and the spin that's coming with it, it makes it hard to find the truth anywhere.
Particularly where certain medias controlled by corporate interests. You're going to have, you're pretty hard pressed to get to the truth, so the idea of using film as a more cultural exchange is obviously appealing to me, and I think it's reached that level where it can be through international documentaries or documentaries. And films brought to us by other people from other cultures can increase our understanding from other cultures which might in turn effect our foreign policy.
TOM BROOK: When we look at Sundance and the film festival, what is it do you think was behind it? What are the aims of the festival and do you think that you've achieved that?
ROBERT REDFORD: I think the aims of the festival have been achieved beyond what I actually hoped. Which is, I could see the industry that I was in, which is the main stream part of the industry, even though I've made independent films within it, I was blessed by being able to be in the side, inside it to do it.
I could see the way the industry was moving in 1980, that it was likely that we were going to be maybe abrograting that space that was given over to more diverse fare. It wasn't so, it wasn't so dependent on the high concept, formulaic, special effects, following the young market which was going to go younger and younger and younger and you could pretty well track where that would lead us.
The work was undoubtedly going to get better, more skilled, as technology increased. But to me, the, more the humanistic side of cinema has always what's interested me where the really great stories are to be told and so I focused on that in 1980.
We think about the lab that we have developed, new talent, new voices, and then you think about the category of independent films, which is pretty well reduced to government grants in those days, by touching that category with new talent I would hope that we could create almost a separate category of alternative viewing and that would simply keep the industry alive and, keeping diversity alive.
So that was the objective, didn't know it would work, took a while to find out. But it has and we are committed to increasing the role of documentaries, increasing the role of international films. So if it's, if it's the United Kingdom, if it's Asia, if it's Africa, we're committed in Latin America, particularly Latin America because it's so close to America. They're more than our neighbours, they are really a part of us now.
So we need to understand these cultures. So bringing those films to these countries to broaden our understanding seems like a pretty good idea. And that's happening.
TOM BROOK: When people talk about Sundance, everybody points out that it is very inclusive as a festival. But how inclusive is it, because a lot of the films here are really challenging the status quo. They're left wing, for want of a better term, many of them. And you don't have many right wing films here, do you?
ROBERT REDFORD: We do. I mean, we have to be careful there because, bi-partisanship is built into our menu because we offer something for everyone. We don't lean in one direction or another, we don't even know what the themes of the festival are going to really be until it's over. So you see the combination of the demonstration in the market place and what audiences are responding to.
We can't define ourselves until the festival's over. That's why it's kind of a joke, I hear people defining us before we've even arrived, it's kind of getting boring. But that's the fact, that we're too easily categorised, I think because of me maybe, or some of the films I've made or the fact we're about diversity which includes dissent, includes freedom of expression, big stress and freedom of expression.
Considering the state of affairs in our country right now, that can be considered left. I don't consider it left, I just consider it democratic and so, that gets distorted from time to time. No, I don't think there are any left leading films, I'm sure there are, there are films about the revolution, there are films about Iraq.
There's a film here about the republican convention that went on in New York, telling the story that no-one saw, which is photographic footage of how the demonstrators and protestors were treated by the police. And all that footage was confiscated or edited out by the networks, but the stuff that was spared is being used into a storyline, for a film. That's simply the truth you know.
So, no I don't think, I think it's too easy to, first of all I don't like labels, red-state, blue state, that's crap, you know, diminishing.
TOM BROOK: Let me ask you, the public is bombarded with information from the mass media. A lot of these media organisations are controlled by corporate interest, but this is what people consume from TV and from newspapers. What role do you think does independent film provide that, is it an alternative in a way to what people are getting from the mass media, and do you think that's its proper role?
ROBERT REDFORD: I do. And that is true, and that is what's happening. The, our country right now, when you have both parties, both houses of government in control of one party you have a president, same party. You have an effort to redo our court system, which basically you have an effort not too thinly disguised to re-do our constitution.
You have an invasion of a more egalitarian government and so therefore any, any attempt to kind of go against that, just to keep balance and to keep diversity, which is democratic alive, anybody would be for that, otherwise the country's going to be inundated with information that is very distorted, one-sided, maybe manipulative and right now I think that's primarily the case, it's kind of joke to say, well the media's controlled by the liberal. That's not true, you've got a lot of examples that are just the opposite.
So a lot of the voices that get heard on the media, are voices from the right, and particularly now in this climate, the extremist, radical right. I call them, to me they're the real radicals, and so that extremist point of view is so dominant right now, I consider it a healthy and correct thing to balance it out with views of the other side. That's all. If it's too much in that direction, we want to be looking at a balance from the other side.
TOM BROOK: But you talk about this, you take the voice of right wing America, you have Talk Radio, it does reach millions of people. The films here don't have such a large reach, a lot of them are showing in art house cinemas, and just reaching a few thousand people.
ROBERT REDFORD: Well, I think that's going to change. I think not only is independent film on the rise, I think the bar has been lifted, in terms of the quality. I think diversity is stronger now than it was 10 years ago. I think you have whole industries, cottage industries that have come up out of the idea of developing independent film.
You now have smaller distributors, smaller production companies, they're simply to finance those films, the studios, the major studios won't. So there's a movement for it. I think the internet, which is really democratised film telling all kinds of stories from all different points of view.
All that goes hand in hand with what Sundance is about, which is providing as much information to the public, so that they can decide on their own, so it becomes discovery, so the festivals really as much discovery as much as anything.
TOM BROOK: You have lived through a lot in your life, by way of developments in the world. I mean, you were alive during World War II, McCarthyism, Reaganism, Clintonism, I get the feeling from talking to you or hearing you that you're very worried about what's going on now. Is it very different from what happened historically during your lifetime, do you think?
ROBERT REDFORD: Yeah, I've experienced in my life time some phenomenal terms in history. The Second World War, and right after that there was McCarthy. All of these were threatening to our security and our solidarity as a country, but we survived it, barely. Particularly McCarthyism.
Part of the closest parallel to our state of being right now would be the state that existed with McCarthy. Because there was fear, it was controlled by playing the fear card.
I think that's what we see now in this country. The fear's being used as a tool, and a very effective one, because no-one wants to see their security jeopardised, particularly if they're comfortable. And this country, I think was reasonably, aside from the poor people, the minorities and people not getting a fair shake, it's a pretty comfortable country all things considered.
So the idea of saying, oh there may be terrorists here and they may be coming after you in your neighbourhood, and there may be young people out their demonstration around the republican convention that are actually terrorists in disguise, people are going to support a violation of freedom of speech or civil rights. That's not a new situation, I think that's existed all through time.
We have Watergate, we have McCarthy, we have Reagonomics, we had the Iran contra. And in those cases we had a Teflon leadership that never seemed to get tagged for the offences that occurred. Now you have it again, these people seem to be Teflon, no-ones taking responsibility, let alone admitting what grievances we've created. And it keeps happening.
So my guess is we're probably doomed to that in our history. I guess I have faith in the American people that in a form of justice that says no matter how come, how close we come to the breach of evil force. I think people probably get fed up and say, hold it. But I think it's a pattern. I'm not sure that that's ever going to change. That's not going to bleep. I think that's true.
TOM BROOK: I know you don't like labels but a lot of people do think of you as being a liberal politically, but they will say, or a lot of people say that liberalism as an ideology is passť. That there's no way that a liberal platform could get a president of the United States or a candidate elected. Do you believe that to be true?
ROBERT REDFORD: No, no I don't. First of all, let's take me as a liberal. I have liberal tendencies, that would be true, but to be labelled a liberal, I don't think so. Because if I was a strict liberal, or a strict democrat, that would mean that on principle alone, I would only vote one way. That's not true. I think I've supported people in the past that have been republicans because I thought they were good people.
I think they were people that stood for being on the right side of an issue. And I thought they were people with courage. And I would support them, and I still do. So for me, it's more the issue, and it's more the person, and whether that person, that issue is going to embody fundamental principles that I think have kept this country strong. It's as simple as that.
So, I'm not the classic liberal. If I'm going to be categorised that way, one of our Hollywood actors, director. I'm a Hollywood character, so to speak, although I don't live in Hollywood and I don't see myself that way. I'll be classified, because it's easy. But no, I'm no, I'm more interested in, right now I think the only answer for us is by partisanship and without that I think we're deep cockup.
I think we're already living in a very dangerous time. More dangerous than any time in my lifetime.
TOM BROOK: You are obviously are a champion of independent film, but how important is it for you right now, to maintain a profile as an actor, as maybe a Hollywood actor?
ROBERT REDFORD: Well, if you go straight across the board, every corporate fear, people make decisions in the corporate world that are based on fear, going to lose their job, they don't want to lose market share what have you, they'll take short cuts, they'll hide funds, if it gets caught Hollywood sticks its neck out there.
Hollywood is a business and the only thing in my mind that ever really threatens Hollywood, really threatens Hollywood, is if money is threatened. Then you will see some reactions. So for example, if there is a film that moves over in that direction this side, or that side they'll absolutely go with it unless they feel it may hurt their financial figures.
TOM BROOK: What about your own career as a movie actor. I know you don't like labels but at one point a lot of people did call you Hollywood's golden boy. And I'm sure, I mean you have an ego, does it bother you than when you make a film nowadays you don't get as much attention for your acting?
ROBERT REDFORD: I don't know that I ever did, until I got labelled a golden boy. I started out in theatre on Broadway and I did theatre and live television, a lot of television up until about 1963. I played mostly killers, rapists, insane people, just 'cos they were great parts. I didn't get labelled a crazy. The labelling didn't start until success came in, you know when you have a picture that's very, very successful, then suddenly you go along with it and you become labelled according to the film.
So once the labelling came I wasn't bothered in the beginning because I thought it was so absurd, but then I realised that that's the way it is and there's only so far you can go complaining about it, or trying to turn it around.
The only way you can turn it around is just to keep doing diverse parts until it no longer fits or people get tired. It was hard until I realised that there was nothing I could do about it. You just have to live with it.
TOM BROOK: What about watching your work on the screen. I read that you don't really like to watch your own movies.
ROBERT REDFORD: I don't. I never did though. And that goes all the way back to square one, I just didn't. I kind of want to analysis it and take it to therapy thing. I never was comfortable about it, I'm not particularly comfortable in seeing films that I've done. Looking backwards is sort of not my thing.
I think I've gone to a fault, I think I've gone too far in that direction and I think not having seen some of my work is a mistake. I certainly think now of all times I can do that. So that's probably some flaw with myself. But it is true, I don't particularly watch myself, I don't like to sit in dailies.
When I'm directing myself or producing a film on, it's hard, because of the editing. And as to exactly why, I don't know, maybe it's because I used to make fun of actors when I was a kid. Go to the movie theatre and say, Oh hey, you tell them lover. And here I am up there, it's maybe that's weird. I don't know, it's not important.
TOM BROOK: I don't have to tell you, but last year this book came out, Down and Dirty Pictures, which really in a sense, it looked at independent film, but it took aim at you and one of the things that came through in the book was that you in a way were very meticulous about things and vain and a bit of a perfectionist. Is there any truth to that and how did you feel about the book?
ROBERT REDFORD: I didn't read the book. It was partly true. Vain, I don't know about that, I don't think I have a vanity in the way we understand it. I think I'm vain about wanting to see my work the best it could be. I don't think it was a physical vanity, otherwise I'd have done different things.
But, I think the problem with something like that, the book was so distorted and it was so one sided and that particular author had done it to us before. I think he was harbouring some grief because he was not sort of brought in to inner circle.
I think he's cut from a very similar profile of wannabes on the outside that realise that the only way they can get inside is by lobbing grenades over a fence. In the territory they really don't know how could they because they haven't been there. So there's a lot of distortion and a lot of, there's huge distortion, a lot of people were upset by it. I realised about 13 years earlier that same guy had written something just like that.
We were just starting our festival. He went after the festival and it was very, very critical but he never interviewed any of the film makers. He interviewed people who had left their job or had been let go. When you have that kind of distortion tied to some, that kind of small minded negativity then that person has a problem and you can't worry about it. In the end it will come out the way it should.
I don't think the book had any real power, because it was so distorted it was so not true, I just didn't bother to read it. Because I knew, when I heard, oh dear he goes again. He's got some burr under his saddle that has him want to get at us in some way, but I can't really be bothered with it.
TOM BROOK: As you go through life though, do you think that you can learn from criticism? Is it something that you encourage other people to do, in relation to you?
ROBERT REDFORD: Yeah, absolutely. I think that criticism, how can you be discerning about your own criticism, but I guess you are. There are certain things, it's too easy to say, well that negative review, that guy didn't know what he was talking about so I'll dismiss it. Well that positive review, hey.
Well I don't go there because I've had positive reviews that I didn't agree with, as to why they liked it. I've had negative reviews that I thought were terribly unfair. They seem to say more about some grief the critic, like the book you were just mentioning.
That has a lot, that's got more to do with the guy, a mean spirit type of some smallness in himself, simply unsatisfied. Then he takes out on others, that's of no use 'cos you see it, you see it's so distorted it's not going to do any good.
On the other hand, it is important, although I don't read reviews anymore. I did, and I thought you know I've look for something that feels constructive. I'm not perfect. No-one is perfect. I'm actually, I like criticism. But when it's distorted by personal agenda, then you have to learn to forget that.
TOM BROOK: You have achieved a tremendous amount in your life, and the Sundance film festival must rank, to you I'm sure, as one of your major achievements, but do you have a grand plan, or anything to match Sundance that you want to put your energies into for the future?
ROBERT REDFORD: That's a great question. I think if my family, or close friends, if they heard that question they'd try to yank me out this chair right now, before I could tell you what that might be 'cos I'm already involved in maybe too many things.
But no, right now, I don't see anything on the horizon. Not politics, more people ask me that, because I have an interest in politics, because it controls my life, but do I want to go into it, not on your life. Too full of compromise, so that's out.
But, no, basically I'm an artist, that's what I started out to be and that's what I am, so acting, directing, writing, producing is where I want to be and will always be. Sundance was just something that was started to give opportunity to others, because I think you should put something back. And that opportunity turned into other opportunities. It felt like good sense, and then finally good business and so I went there.
I don't want to be in that world. That's not the world I belong in. I'm not interested in being a business executive. I had to be one just to protect the investment, so to speak, but I don't really need to do that anymore, just sort of see it through and make sure it can holds its course and maintains its integrity.
But, I see, following that through and any new opportunities that come from it, I would seize them because the plan is to take independent film and push it to its maximum and give the best opportunity you can to the new talent, and give them the best showcasing they can get. So we will continue with that for, but fundamentally my candle burns hottest with doing.
TOM BROOK: Well, Robert Redford, thank you very much indeed, for joining me on Hardtalk Extra and that was very interesting to hear your views.
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