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“Speaking Freely” show recorded June 2, 2001, in Nashville, Tenn.
Ken Paulson: Welcome to “Speaking Freely,” a weekly conversation about free expression, the arts, and America. I’m Ken Paulson, joining you today from Nashville. We’re honored today to welcome an Academy Award-winning director, a highly successful actor and producer, a fervent supporter of independent films, and a champion of the environment, Robert Redford. (Applause) We’re delighted to have you here, both for the remarkable body of work you’ve done and for the fact that very, very few of our guests have ever been hung in effigy. That had to be a wake-up call for an emerging activist.
Robert Redford: I hope there’s not a sequel to that.
Paulson: You’ve dedicated your life both to your art and to what you believe in. Have you paid a price, trying to balance being — between being an activist and an actor?
Redford: Yeah, I have. I think there’s always a price to be paid when you step out and speak up on, on anything, because there’s always another side to the issue. So, yes, I’ve, I’ve paid a price, and I’ve been rewarded at the same time. I mean, if you speak out because you believe in something or you feel that there’s the danger of the loss of a voice, which everyone should have and use — and you feel that that becomes endangered, then you speak out to, to hold it in place. And you’re going to create problems with people that don’t agree with you, and that’s the negative price you pay, because people that don’t maybe understand what you’re doing or why, or their own views are so limited, they can’t understand the broader meaning behind it, then they’re going to get angry and bitter and, and resentful. And they will punish you in some way. I’ve had that. That’s the negative side of it. The positive side is when someone comes up and says, “Thank you for speaking out on an issue. It makes me feel better.” Or, “You don’t have to do this, that you would take this time.” Or, or better than that, “I hadn’t thought of it that way.” That’s very rewarding. So that’s the positive side.
Paulson: The incident in which you were hung in effigy came in the mid-’70s, and it had to do with an environmental issue. And clearly, that’s a passion in your life, and yet as I read your biography, you were raised in an urban neighborhood, a diverse neighborhood, hardly the wide-open spaces. Can you identify the moment you became captivated by the environment?
Redford: I can. It’s true; I was raised in what I guess would be considered a poor neighborhood. It was a Mexican-American neighborhood in the south part of Los Angeles. I didn’t know it, because all I knew was what I knew. My father was a milkman, and we lived in a neighborhood that was, dominated by Mexican-Americans. But there was no prejudice. There were no lines that I was aware of, because it was during the Second World War, when I was a child; everybody’s united by the war effort. So there was no prejudice, there was no anti-Semitism, at least that I was aware of. There was no anti-minority — whatever. And I, I thought very highly of my neighbors and my friends. Many of them had sons and daughters off to — fathers off to the war. And that’s how we were united. When the war ended, I was shocked by what came afterwards. Rather than the celebration of the victory — certainly there was that, but what, what threw me was this wave of stuff I couldn’t imagine: anti-, anti-. So I think that’s where my, my early concerns or interests began, with, “Well, why is this? Why are these people that I understood and got along so well suddenly wary of me, and, and what influence is causing that? I know they’re good people. What’s going on?” In terms of the environment, yeah, I grew up in a very cramped world, and my only way out was through sports, and so I took advantage of it. And God knows I was in my share of trouble as a kid, wanting to be out, wanting to be in a different place. But it was when I went to Yosemite National Park — I was about 11. And I’d — I was in competition very early in my life, and I had had a small case of polio. It wasn’t enough to damage me, but it was a hit at the time, about six weeks. And when I recovered from it, my mother wanted to reward me somehow, I guess for surviving it. And she took me to Yosemite. And that was a big deal for us, because it was not easy to get out of Los Angeles. Drove through a tunnel. When I got through the tunnel, I couldn’t believe what I saw. I had never seen anything like that, couldn’t even imagine it except in Maxfield — Maxfield Parrish storybooks. But there it was: this unbelievable view, this pure view that nature carved itself. And I thought, “I just can’t believe this.” And it wasn’t that I was looking at it like a postcard. I went beyond that; I went to the point of, “I have to be a part of it. I just want to be a part of this.” And that was an impulse when I was 11, and that began something that grew and grew into what eventually became a very active concern for the environment.
Paulson: You know, we had Harry Belafonte here not long ago, and it was interesting to hear him talk about how the causes he believed in, and, and, and the culture he pursued — his work — initially were not combined, but they grew together in a way that he began to make career choices that were based on his beliefs. As a young actor, you would not have had that option early on. You did television shows, “Twilight Zone,” guest appearances. At what point did you recognize that you had enough star appeal, enough clout to begin to, to make choices that reflected your values?
Redford: When I was able to produce my own work, which started in 1969. And I was getting more and more anxious as an actor. I was happy acting, but there was something missing. And there were a num — a number of things that came together at the same time. One — the fact that I was an actor, getting to satisfy — the nature of the business was turning — it seemed to me that it was beginning to lose something and that I was getting tired of not having any choice and seeing the work that I did controlled by somebody else who didn’t understand what, what, I — and I thought, “You know, if I just had the chance to do my own thing.” Being able to produce the first film started it, and I realized then — and the next film was “The Candidate” — that I could begin to put my own thoughts and feelings and concerns on various issues out there, but it would have to be in the form of entertainment. If it was in the form of straight propaganda, that’s no good. So I thought, “Well, that’s a good use of my, my feelings.” That coincided with the film work around “The Candidate” and “All The President’s Men,” having a lot to do with freedoms, having to do with freedom of speech, freedom, freedom of expression, and feeling like you had a voice that was going to be heard. That’s how it started.
Paulson: And you mention “The Candidate.” You had to be more than a little surprised to hear Dan Quayle say he modeled himself after you in that film.
Redford: That scared me for the country. I thought if he, if he — if that was his model, then he really missed the point.
Paulson: And we see so much of that. We had Bruce Springsteen having to demand that the Republicans stop using “Born in the U.S.A.” because, as he pointed out, this is not a patriotic ballad.
Paulson: And there seems to be kind of a surface-level reaction from politicians, a certain art, wanting to latch on to it. And yet the message of “The Candidate” is something that no politician would embrace. I understand that, that — for those who haven’t seen it, it has to do with an idealistic young man who says what he believes in as long as he’s not likely to win. And then things change.
Redford: The fundamental theme of the movie was to take a hard look at, at how we get people elected in this country. And that was what the real point of the movie was. The other was the characters to embody that theme, and, and the, the — kind of the Faustian bargain that people make going into politics, when they think, “I can be — I can maintain my integrity. I can maintain a level of truth.” But they have no idea what happens when you enter the political system. It’s so full of compromise, and now more than ever — insidious, devious stuff to, to — rather than tell the people the truth, to keep it from the people while appearing to be truthful. So that, that kind of thing was what we were trying to say in the movie, that the only thing that matters is winning. And so — this character gets sucked into that. And it was about how we get people elected in this country, and we were answering it by saying, “Unfortunately, it’s too much by cosmetics, not enough by substance.”
Paulson: I understand that George McGovern was deeply offended by it at the premiere.
Redford: Was he?
Paulson: Well, that’s what I understand, that it was —
Redford: I didn’t know that.
Paulson: That it — I think there are — there’s a generation of politicians who view it as public service and resent the kind of cynical take on it.
Redford: Yeah, I think that’s true. I heard from others that — the same thing. They said — I was at a — I was doing research for “All the President’s Men,” and I was in Washington. I ran into a reception where there were a lot of politicians, and a politician and the wife of another politician sort of cornered me and were very critical of the film. They said, “It’s a pretty ugly view of the political system. It’s a very negative — pretty dark.” And I said, “Well, I think it has a dark side.” And they said, “Well, I don’t think it’s very fair, because it is the highest calling of the land.” And that’s what the argument was: it is a great public service, it’s the highest calling of the land, not everyone is like that. I said, “It’s true, but there are just enough who are that I’m afraid they’re going to take over the process themselves.” And it was like a, a warning. But more than that, it was freedom of expression of art. That’s — you can disagree with it. It’s all right.
Paulson: Well, you mentioned “All the President’s Men.” That was a watershed film for a lot of reasons, especially for those people who are interested in a career in journalism. I mentioned earlier, I was sitting in a theater trying to decide whether to pursue a career in newspapers and was inspired. And, and the film is important for so many reasons, one of which is, I’m not sure I’ve seen a film that made the case for the First Amendment so well. This is not — those 45 words of the First Amendment, not typically the theme of many action films today. And to tell the story and the importance of the First Amendment, you know, is quite an accomplishment. You seem to have a take on the press then, and I’d like you to talk about that, and then — and I’d like to know if that’s evolved. You gave interviews talking about the movie being about Watergate threatening the First Amendment and Woodward and Bernstein playing a role in protecting it, clearly a very positive sense of the press then.
Redford: Yes, it was gratitude, almost more than anything. I mean, for someone in my position, it’s, it’s tricky, you know. You’re — it’s kind of an uneasy alliance when you’re a public figure in your relationship with the press, because you’re going to be — you’re going to be criticized. But you accept what comes with that. What that was about was really how close we came to losing our First Amendment and the dangers when a government or a political party that takes control of government no longer sees themselves as responsible to the people, but for the people. That kind of — the beginnings to totalitarianism, which could lead to fascism. That’s scary stuff. We know where that goes. We’ve seen evidence of it. Any time you see it in our own country start to move in that direction, it, it makes you uneasy. And you think — remember, one of the few things we have to, to keep us in check from something like that happening, that would have us end up like countries we are watching in destruction, who lose free speech — and we see what happens to these people. People are dying in pursuit of free speech in other parts of the world, and here we are, so lucky to have this, and what happens when we let it become endangered? So that’s what the film was about: to say, “These guys did something nobody else was willing to do ’cause they were so distracted by other things.” And they finally got to a truth that, that stopped a group of people just in the nick of time from overwhelming the country, and who knows what would have happened if they had put things into law? What interested me was: what did these two guys do that nobody else was doing at the time, and particularly when they as characters were totally against — one guy was a Jew; the other guy was a W.A.S.P. one guy was a liberal; the other guy was a republican. One guy was a good writer; the other guy wasn’t. They didn’t like each other. I thought, “That’s pretty great stuff. How did they work together, considering that?” So I went at it from that standpoint. And then, of course, Watergate happened. I mean, it was before Watergate. And I thought, “These guys were wrong,” because that’s the way it was left. And then suddenly, three months later, one of the prisoners from jail wrote a letter to Judge Sirica and said, “We were hired by the Committee to re-elect the president.” And all hell broke loose. And I was sitting there with the rights to this project. So that’s how it —
Paulson: A great irony to that is, is that the plot centers on reporters who are determined to get their source right.
Paulson: That they had to have — they had to — multiple sources, they had to prove what they were about to allege.
Paulson: And we’re now in an era where there are fewer sources, and in fact, people are repeating what they found on the Internet. That — has that given you concern, disillusioned you about a free press?
Redford: That was 1974, ’75. I went into it feeling like we came very close to losing our First Amendment rights, and I, I was grateful that it was in the hands of the press to save it. I felt the press carried a tremendous responsibility and the public trust to get at the truth. And the thing that it had was it — any good organization is going to work better if it has a check and balance connected to it. The check and balance that kept the ethic in place was the fact that a, a journalist, to, to counter their hunger or their desire for glory, had to have two sources that would go on record, verifiable, to the story. They had to research it carefully, check it out, go over it with their editor. I watched that process with the Washington Post. Now, if you jump now 25 years ahead, I think that’s pretty well gone, because when the newspaper — and this is what leaves me with mixed feelings, that — I’m sorry for what dangers I think are now showing up about our media’s ability to deliver the truth to the public because of the obsession with celebrity. You can see it in the newspapers. You can see that gradually, what used to be ba — what used to be a clear separation of hard news, documentary stuff, sports and comics and entertainment were, were clearly separated. You watch — ever since the newspaper business in the late ’80s — and there were several newspaper editors that resigned in protest of this. Two of them were friends. They resigned because, they said, “This business is changing. The papers have been told they’re going to move to a market share mentality, which means it’s going to be about business, which means it’s going to have some corporate control.” That was dangerous, and they tried to resign in protest, but nobody listened. It’s happening, I think, and it’s dangerous. And I think that — I mean, there’s awfully good sources for news. There are awfully good newspapers, and there’s some responsible ones. But the corporate control of news — ABC, Disney, CBS — is dangerous. The fact that you can look on a newspaper and see that entertainment has — it’s weird for me to say this, ’cause I’m in the entertainment business. But to see it march closer and closer to the front page — when you start seeing entertainment on the front page, sports on the front page, you know that’s what sells; therefore, that’s where it’s going. As great as it is — I mean, we all love sports and entertainment, but to see it move up in place of hard news, which is the stuff that people need to get, I just think is dangerous.
Paulson: From “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” on, you were able to call a lot of your shots and eventually got to direct your first film, “Ordinary People.” And you won the Academy Award the first time out. Did you, did you go, “Oh, this is a lot easier than I thought”?
Redford: Well, yeah. I did. I — it surprised me, obviously. I was not anticipating being ever — I don’t think about Academy Awards; never did, and, and probably never will. With all due respect to the Academy, it’s just not something that I put much attention on, and, and I never did. So therefore I wasn’t thinking about it at all; I was thinking about doing something I wanted to do as an artist, and I said, “It’s time that I do my own thing. I want to do this project.” So I did it; I went out to Lake Forest, Illinois, and very low-budget film and just made it and wasn’t — and I was left alone. I appreciate that. When it was over, I edited it in New York and brought it out. And when it came out, I was not prepared for the reaction. I just knew that that was what I wanted to do, that finally I was able to put things together and say, “This is the way I want to do it. This is my statement.” So I wasn’t prepared for the aftermath. I mean, it was exciting, thrilling, but I wasn’t, I wasn’t prepared for it.
Paulson: Well, the rule of thumb is, when you win an Academy Award, regardless of how you feel personally about it, you’re suddenly far more marketable. I have to believe there were more opportunities for you to direct. And instead of directing, you waited several years — instead, invested time, resources, and money in a couple of projects, one of which was the Sundance Institute. You also invested in a project that would bring both business and environmentalists together to address important issues. What kind of career move was that? That —
Paulson: That’s right. That wouldn’t be the typical Hollywood move, to go from, frankly, the peak of your career at that moment as a director to public policy work.
Redford: Well, I’ll tell you what that was about. It was about: I was tired. I was 40 years old. I had a decade of hard work that took me very often away from my family, who mean a great deal to me. And I thought, “If you’re not wise —“ It, it’s important sometimes to stop at the height of things and to re-, re-stock. Go back to zero. Take yourself back to zero. Sometimes you have to do that yourself and constantly — to be able to rejuvenate and keep going, you have to sometimes start all over again. And I felt it was the time for that. I’d been very rewarded in the business, done a lot of films, had just directed my first film, had had a tremendous reaction. I said, “You know, this is probably a good time to stop and step away for a while and, and reevaluate my life.” And I thought, “Well, I’d been fortunate; I wanted to put something back,” ’cause I believe in that. I believe that’s healthy to put something back; if you had the good fortune to receive, you put it back. I was trying to decide how to do that, what I could do that would be of benefit. And I thought: “Well, the land that I had in Utah that was beautiful land,” and I was trying to preserve it for the environment — not easy. And I thought, “Maybe I could use that space for artists to come and work.” And I had been to a festival — festivals didn’t interest me very much. I didn’t — unless there was something to them that would have action on the back end of it. And I went to a festival in Salt Lake; they asked me to come. And when I went there, I saw there was this little division called Independent Film. And it was, like, thrown away. It was in back theaters, and nobody — I went to see it: a little black-and-white film some guy from Texas made on weekends and sacrificed practically his whole life to make it. Sold his car, sold his — you know. And I looked at the film, and there were about five people in the audience, including the filmmaker. And I thought, “This is really tragic, because no one’s gonna see this film. He’s never going to be able to distribute it. He’s probably taken two years of his life to make it, put his soul on the line to do it. Somethin’s not right here.” The festival at that time was celebrating the big mainstream films, you know — which are fine; I’m part of that business too. But the films that I’ve made since I’ve had the ability have been independent films. I — that means a great deal, particularly to the artist, the artist not to destroy their vision. So anyway, I thought that would be a good thing to do, that that guy is talented, but he’s never gonna get a chance. First of all, Sundance is about freedom of expression and creating a mechanism for the artists to have that, the artists to know that they can have a place to develop their skills. What they do with them, what the topics are, we don’t concern ourselves. We don’t censor the film festival, for example. We say we know there are going to be a lot of films there that people aren’t gonna like. But that’s part of the democratic system in America that should be stronger than it is. I think we have some problems there, too, but in terms of art, and because I think art is one of the great — one of the most important pulses of our society, it has to be kept alive. So people should be able to look at things, say, “I, I hate that; I don’t like it,” or, “I love it, and I’m glad it’s there,” “I’m glad I had the chance to see it,” “I’m glad I have the chance to speak freely about it.” So that’s what it’s about. The theater — we don’t occupy ourselves: “We’ll select this because we like it or not.” We select it because of the voice of the artist: how strong, how original, and we support that, knowing full well that some people won’t like it. But that’s okay; that’s part of what should make America strong. When you run into problems of censorship, I think that’s dangerous stuff, because that suggests a small-mindedness or a narrow-mindedness or someone not willing — afraid to hear the other side.
Paulson: I want to ask you about a documentary you did, telling the story of Leonard Peltier, an activist, a Native American accused in the murder of two FBI agents. And this was in 1992. You were the narrator, and you produced the documentary.
Redford: I came out of that whole thing, after I researched it carefully, met with him, that it would be a dangerous thing to take a position that this man is absolutely innocent. I just didn’t know. I felt he was, but I didn’t know, so therefore it would be a mistake for me to go on a crusade about, “This man is innocent; he shouldn’t be there,” rather than, “What is verifiably wrong here?” And what was verifiably wrong to me was that he did not get a fair trial. And it raised the issue of how minorities are treated by our system of justice. So I thought, “What can I do about that?” Well, I was going to make a film about it. Then I decided that probably a better way to go about it would be to make a documentary, ’cause you could, you could have more factual, that a film always could be a little bit too much fiction and that the public or people needed to know — ’cause the man clearly was not going to get a fair trial. The, the decision had been made; it was an eye for an eye because of the FBI, and he was gonna rot there or die there. And I thought, “Until that man gets a fair trial, there will be an injustice in place, and one man —” I mean, what does he feel? He has no voice. And so it, it was made for that reason: to hope that it could draw attention, not to his guilt or innocence, but as to whether or not this man had a fair trial, and how would we feel, any one of us, if we went into a situation and we felt impotent because we had no voice and we had no chance for a fair trial? That’s what that was about.
Paulson: You gave a particularly eloquent speech in 1995 at the Claremont Graduate School. And, at that time, you were talking about the attack on the arts, specifically the National Endowment for the Arts. And you said this: “Citizens have the free will, the freedom of choice, to experience art or not. The freedom is basic to our culture and our Constitution. To erode or alter that freedom, to try to take it away, is unacceptable. We simply can’t allow it to happen.” My question, then, is, if it, if it is a personal choice of Americans — it is their right to embrace art or not to embrace art — then why are politicians, why is government so inclined to step into that relationship, to try to control art, to limit it, to cut off funding?
Redford: I think it’s two things: well, fear. I think it’s usually fear. When, when someone tries to prevent someone else from speaking up, it’s about fear. It’s about ignorance and fear and a very narrow point of view. If you’re really standing on your own feet and are willing to hear other points of view and still not — you, you can still feel what you need to feel. You can be concerned about the art you see. What your inability to allow an open forum or an open debate suggests that you yourself have a problem. And I would be very worried about leadership that had that kind of mindset, that wasn’t strong enough to say, “Look, one of the most valuable things this country has, that, that shapes our very souls is — and others don’t have, many others don’t have — we have this thing of freedom: freedom of expression, freedom of free speech.” Other countries, we see death every day, people striving for that freedom that we, we have born in us. How we can’t preserve it is, to me, insane. And so when you see politicians try to squelch it by saying, “You can’t. This should be cen(sored) —” Once you hear the word censorship, you’re taking away the people’s right to reason and to think on their own. That’s just the beginning of a long road that would put us in a place that I don’t think anybody would want to be.
Paulson: Thank you so much for being here. Ladies and gentlemen, Robert Redford. (Applause)
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