Tim Robbins, Part 2
“Speaking Freely” show recorded May 20, 2003, in New York.
Ken Paulson: Welcome to “Speaking Freely,” a weekly conversation about free expression in America. I’m Ken Paulson. Today we continue our conversation with Tim Robbins. [Highlights from previous week.] You are — you have been consistent in your principles. I looked at an article in 1991, when you were less secure as an actor and director. And you’re talking about the first Gulf War. And you said, “I’m glad it’s over. I’m glad that there have not been the casualties on the American side that people were predicting. But the casualties that were incurred were too much. And, equally, the casualties on the side of the Iraqis were too much. We’re only now being able to hear about them.” And then you went on to talk about, “They did all this just to get one man, and they didn’t get him. They left that country in shambles.” And you went on to talk about, “They have no power. They have no electricity. They have poor health care facilities.” Sounds reminiscent of what we’re looking at right now in Iraq. You know, as somebody who, you know, depending on your point of view, is either a crusader day in and day out or tilts at windmills, do you ever get discouraged that you’re fighting the same battles over and over again?
Tim Robbins: That’s why they call it a struggle. I mean, it’s — that’s the way it is.
Robbins: And it’s not a matter — it’s not a football game, you know. I love sports, and that’s why — I encourage sports over war anytime. [Laughs] Because you do have a resolution at the end of the day. Someone wins, and someone loses. And no one dies. And, you know, in war, we seem to want to have a quick resolution, just like a game, and we want it to be over when it’s over. But we forget this is real life, this is war, and it doesn’t get resolved at the end, and the teams don’t walk off the field and go to the locker room and go home. There’s a lot of animosity left. There’s a lot of violence left. There’s a lot of bad guys still around. And how irresponsible is it to leave our guys in a situation like that, where everyone forgets, everyone goes home, everyone stops reporting, but there’s all this terrible hostility and violence — potential violence — right next to them where they are serving. And what are they serving and for what reason? It’s, it’s — you know, I always hope for the best, but, you know, today I was reading the paper, and this little column at page 25, New York Times, just that big. “People lost today in Iraq.” Four names. Four names, four soldiers that were killed. Hadn’t even heard about them. There’s no reporting on the front page about them. There they are, just these — they’ve become that big. And we’re supposed to just forget it.
Paulson: Meanwhile, you actually took it to the press at the National Press Club not long ago. You gave a speech — well, no, you made remarks about the Baseball Hall of Fame controversy, and you also talked about what you had hoped President Bush would say after September 11, which is about harnessing America’s resources in a positive way. Are you pretty candid with the press when you speak to them directly about your concerns about the job they’re doing?
Robbins: I try to be whenever I’m in that kind of situation. Sometimes I’m not invited to those parties. [Laughter]
Paulson: One of the ironies of people criticizing you as being this actor who wants to be an activist is that you were an activist long before you were an actor. And you grew up in what sounded like a fun family.
Paulson: And in the Village?
Robbins: In Greenwich Village, yeah. My dad was a folk singer and — we were also, you know, pretty heavy-duty Catholics, too. I mean, my dad was the choir director and organist at the church, you know, and so it wasn’t hippy dippy shake, you know. [Laughs] It was pretty conservative.
Paulson: Well, you were — your father was with the Highwaymen.
Paulson: And so you were exposed to some hippy dippy shake from the folksingers that spent some time with you, I’m sure.
Robbins: Well, yeah. I definitely saw that on the street, you know. It was a very interesting and vital kind of place to grow up. Definitely.
Paulson: Did you get drawn to anti-war demonstrations? Was it an activist family as you grew up?
Robbins: Well, my — I remember an incident that was a defining moment, which as when my sister was in college. My mother came in to the room and said — and woke me up in the morning and said, “I want you to be very proud of your sister, because last night, she was arrested for protesting against the Vietnam War.” And I think that’s a brilliant way to deal with something that’s a potentially scary thing for a kid, your sister getting arrested — to hold pride, you know, because what she was doing was morally correct. And I did grow up with that kind of awareness of the world around us and awareness of the civil rights movement. And my parents met at UCLA, which was a fairly progressive university as far as civil rights goes. Jackie Robinson went there.
Paulson: So the values you had when you were 13 or 14, are those fundamentally the same values you have today?
Robbins: Um — no. I, I would say that goes through a prism of adolescence, and mainly just interested in girls. [Laughs] And drinking. And — [Laughs] eventually, everything for me gets tested. I don’t like dogma. I don’t like stereotypical leftists. For me, I’m very interested in talking to people that do not agree with me. I hold as dear friends Republicans, conservatives, and also leftists and Democrats. I’ve met Democrats who I think are awful people. I’ve met Republicans that are genuinely — you can tell are really great human beings. So I don’t, I don’t judge. I think it’s a major thing. You mustn’t judge someone by their political leanings. It’s the death — it will be the death of all of us. If we are — I try to raise my children not to distrust people because of what the stereotypes of their beliefs are, you know, to meet every person and look every person in the eye and give them the opportunity to give you something morally. That’s really important because, ultimately, at the end of the day — my grandfather had this great expression. We’d be at dinner, and ultimately, an argument would break out. And he said, “Please, can there be no politics or religion at the table?” And, and I’ll never forget that, because there — you have to find your common ground with people. You have to.
Paulson: Is that the rule at your home now?
Robbins: No politics or religion? It makes for a smoother meal. [Laughs]
Paulson: Did you ever dream that you would be able to couple your love of art and filmmaking with, you know, sort of the ideas you held dear? I mean, you’ve come a long way since “Howard the Duck.” We’ll put it that way. It seems to me that, you know, you look at your work even early on with the Actors’ Gang. You always were pushing the envelope artistically. And now you have the clout to do that.
Robbins: Yeah, I still have my theater company too. You know, 22 years later, we’re still going. So for me, that’s something I’m really proud of, but it also gives me an opportunity to work my “artistic muscles,” you know, the — it’s, it’s really essential to be able to be in an environment where you feel safe to fail. If you’re not in an environment like that, it’s very hard to learn. We all learn through failure. We have to make mistakes in order to learn.
Paulson: What did the Actors’ Gang produce, develop that really wasn’t out there otherwise? I mean, (for) people who have not seen the work.
Robbins: Well, we started off in 1982, so what we were doing was trying to bring the energy and vitality of punk rock to the stage. We didn’t like that kind of livingroom theater stuff. We wanted to do big stories, epic stories, you know, that take place on battlefields and in kingdoms and that kind of stuff. So, we kind of jumped on the opportunity to tell stories and used our imaginations to be able to go anywhere. Kind of a rejection of American realism, embracing more European styles like surrealism and absurdism and expressionism. And for us, that was where we started, and then we started to develop in many different directions, trying all kinds of different theater and all kinds of different plays. And we’re now — we just finished doing the mystery plays, the old religious plays from the 12th century, you know. So for me, it’s a, it’s a great opportunity to be able to try things you wouldn’t get the opportunity to do in Hollywood, you know, with big budgets. You get to flex your muscles in the theater.
Paulson: Although you’ve really done some fascinating things in Hollywood that — well, let me just say on film. I’m not sure where the funding came from or where the production came from. “Bob Roberts” is an example of that. That’s not a classic model of a commercial film.
Robbins: No. And it was produced by British money. [Laughs]
Paulson: So there you go. Couldn’t have been done in Hollywood.
Robbins: We — you know, I tried for about five years to get the money for that thing from Hollywood, and eventually, Working Title, which was an English company, did it.
Paulson: So for those who haven’t seen it —
Robbins: The same with “Dead Man Walking,” by the way, which we — you know, it was funny, because after “Bob Roberts” came out, I got all the calls from the Hollywood guys, you know, and they said, “We know we said no to that movie, but this is — you’re a fabulous director, and next time you want to direct a movie, you call us first.” Blah, blah, blah, blah. So, of course, you know, “Dead Man Walking” comes along, and we were having a little trouble raising the money, and so we called those people, and they were like, “Oh, well, you know, movie about the death penalty? I don’t think …”
Paulson: Starting with “Bob Roberts,” were there political films you had seen and admired that in any way inspired “Bob Roberts”?
Robbins: “Z,” Costa-Gavras’ movie. “Battle of Algiers,” but that film was more influenced by “Spinal Tap” and the Pennebaker film “Don’t Look Back” than by any political film I’ve seen. For me, it was really important to get that humor in there, you know, to find — to mine that kind of environment for humor.
Paulson: And “Bob Roberts” was a candidate on the conservative side, who also was a folksinger. I guess that’s the “Spinal Tap” influence. Some of the funniest folk songs ever written —
Paulson: — with a conservative point of view.
Robbins: Yes, and it was also probably a way to work out something from my childhood that was deep in my psyche.
Paulson: Did your father react to the music?
Robbins: He liked it a lot, yeah. He actually helped with a few, couple of the pieces, and he’s in the film.
Paulson: And how do you think “Bob Roberts” holds up today as a statement?
Robbins: It’s funny; I saw it last night in front of a — with a live audience … the first time I’ve seen it since it came out. And, you know, it’s always dangerous, because, you know, you’re like, “If this doesn’t work, it’s going to be a long ride home,” you know? But it got all its laughs and even more than I remembered. So I was really excited. And then there were a couple moments where there were words or phrases where people — you could hear, like, an audible gasp like, “Oh, my God.” It was the same exact thing that’s happening now. One was … John Cusack at one point says — is talking about an arms manufacturer that also owns a network, but one of the reasons they make — the major way they make money is by developing weapons of mass destruction.
Robbins: It’s like, “Oh!” And then — and then there was another point that was really kind of cool, which was, at one point, there’s a news report that comes on and says, “Saddam Hussein” — and this is in ’91. “Saddam Hussein is one month away from developing a nuclear bomb,” which was a real, a real news — I didn’t make that up. That was a real news item. I remember hearing, before the first Gulf War, when they were trying to raise the votes in Congress, there were all these things being leaked, and one of the things was, he was a month away from developing a nuclear bomb. And he’s still a month away from developing a nuclear bomb, wherever he is.
Paulson: Minor setback. Was there a point in your career where you began to have the confidence that you could make those kinds of films, that you could make a movie about the death penalty? “I’m now big enough to say what I want to say in film”?
Robbins: I don’t — no. No, no because anytime you start a sentence with “I’m now big enough,” you’re bound to fail.
Paulson: I see. [Laughs]
Robbins: I think it’s really healthy to enter into any project with terror, with humility, with the idea that you really have to be very disciplined in order to make this material work. For me, that’s always the case, especially when I direct. Because otherwise, it’ll kick your butt. It’ll — arrogance is not a good thing to have when you’re a director.
Paulson: The — one of the most moving films you’ve made, of course, was “Dead Man Walking.” And you’ve already acknowledged that people weren’t hovering over you, trying to finance this film. What inspired that book — that movie? Was it the book?
Robbins: Yeah, yeah. Susan (Sarandon) found the book with Sister Helen and asked me to read the book. And I was working on “Cradle Will Rock” at the time, and I just — I was wrestling with that, and I didn’t want to read the book, and then I finally read the book, and then she — well, at some point, she just got angry with me and said, you know, “Are you going to do this or not, ’cause I got to move on to somebody else.” And I finally said, “Yes, I’ll do it.” And I went away for the summer, and the computer failed, and I couldn’t write it. And so it was cooking all summer, and I got back in September, and I wrote it in about three weeks. It was really fast, which is weird, because “Bob Roberts” took me five years, and “Cradle” took me seven. So “Dead Man Walking” took me three weeks, you know? Then I rewrote it, and we were filming it within four months.
Paulson: Did you begin that process with a set view of the death penalty?
Robbins: An opinion?
Robbins: Yeah, I was against the death penalty. But I also — what the book does very effectively is, it shows her journey, and it shows where she makes mistakes and where she fails. And that mainly had to do with her not thinking and feeling about the victims’ families. And for me, the book opened that avenue to me where it was very important, if the movie was going to work, to give dignity and honor to the people that have lost loved ones and not to judge them and not to make them the bad guys, because they so clearly are not.
Paulson: And that may well have been your most successful film of your own creation. There’s another film that I personally love that probably was not anywhere near as big a commercial hit, “The Cradle Will Rock,” which is — tells about a remarkable episode in American history, set about 1937? Is that —
Robbins: Yes. There’s events in it that happened between 1934 and 1937, so I kind of set it in ’37. That all started with a story that was told me, a true story about an evening in the theater. A pro-labor musical was being performed, and the actors came to do the show one day, and the theater had been locked and closed, and armed guards had surrounded the theater. And this play was written by Marc Blitzstein and directed by Orson Welles and produced by John Houseman. And what happened was, they wound up sneaking into the back of the theater and trying to find a way to do the show, wound up finding a theater uptown and marching 1,000 people up through the streets to go to this other theater. And they get in the theater, but meanwhile, the — their unions have told them that they cannot perform this pro-union play, because it will be a different producer if they take it away from the federal government, which was producing it at the time through the federal works project. So, the deep irony of that: You can’t perform this show. Blitzstein says, “You know what? I’m not in any union, and I’ll do it by myself, and I’ll do all the roles myself.” So he starts into it, and as he starts into it, he hears a voice, and this woman stands up in the audience, and it’s the actress, and she’s shown up, and she’s standing up to say, basically, “This is my role. I’m going to perform it; I don’t care.” And so she starts, and risking her job, risking her life, because there’s cops with guns, and it’s a big deal. So another person stands up and another, and before you know it, they’re all performing this play. And for me, that was really amazing, because for me it was a story about the individual, the one. All it takes is one. All it takes is one person that says, “You know what? I have the right to do this.” Because they were forbidden. And for me, it was such an inspiring story about a person without much at all who is risking everything for something so simple: to sing a song. And that started me on the path to writing “Cradle Will Rock.” And there were so many other stories that came as I did more and more research: the story of Rockefeller and Diego Rivera and the mural that was torn down at Rockefeller Center and the story of the rich and the poor. And I wanted to kind of do it all in the style of a screwball comedy: really quick dialogue, really fantastic Capra movies that were done. And one of my favorite movies, “My Man Godfrey,” which is just very, very funny, very fast, but also one of these things that no one talks about, about screwball comedies: they all had some kind of realization of the world around them and the despair, the depression that was going on there and somehow took that content and made it into something that’s hysterically funny. And that was my ambition, at least.
Paulson: You succeeded, and for those of us who work in the area of free expression, it’s such a joy to have a funny movie about the First Amendment. It happens so rarely. [Laughter] It’s been great to have you with us. Thank you so much.
Robbins: It’s been my pleasure. Thank you.
Paulson: Thank you. Our guest today has been Tim Robbins. Please join us again next week for “Speaking Freely.”
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