Robert Redford reflects on ‘PETE’S DRAGON’ and the diversity of his legacy

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IMG_3954Courtney Howard // Film Critic

I would stand outside the theater trying to get people in, like some guy outside of a strip joint.”

Actor. Director. Producer. Philanthropist. Festival founder. Icon. Whatever you call muti-hyphenate Robert Redford, one label springs first and foremost to our minds: “storyteller.” He’s had a career that has spanned decades, taking him across the globe, talking of the importance of storytelling. His resume is a ringing endorsement of his personal philosophy. With his role as a humble woodworker (who also happens to be a  masterful storyteller) Mr. Meacham in PETE’S DRAGON, Redford was able to explore a part that was refreshingly different than anything he’s done before.

It started with the diversity. It was very diverse from anything I had done. And there was the idea of going back to my own childhood, which was based on storytelling. I grew up very near here in a very lower working class neighborhood where there’s not much to do, so storytelling became something to keep you alive. Storytelling was a way to see the world bigger than the one you were looking at – and that had great appeal for me. I think since that was part of my upbringing, it became part of me, and I wanted to pass it along to my kids and my grandkids. I thought, ‘If you could ever do a project that really has magic in it, and justifiable magic, you should do it.’ This was it.

That threadline was where his love for the character bloomed. He also enjoyed playing someone who’s just as happy being alone as he is with an audience.

He’s a wood carver, and he seems to be a man who’s totally alone in his very small sphere of operating, in this dark room. He’s carving wood and suddenly he hears something outside, and it’s children, so he bursts out. I love that moment, being able to scare them, and then pull them together to tell them a story. He tells a story that no one really believes, but they like hearing it anyway. And then, they find out that it’s true. I love that angle on it. I thought it was fun. 

Director David Lowery had gotten the attention of Redford when AIN’T THEM BODIES SAINTS debuted at Redford’s Sundance Film Festival.

We loved that film. It was in the festival and I really liked it. I thought it was really well done and an intimate story. So, when [PETE’S DRAGON] came up, I thought it had a weird sense of intimacy, but not in a way that took on a whole other thing. I was curious about it. The part was narrower in the beginning and not totally flushed out. It didn’t need to be because it was about the dragon and about the boy.

Redford valued, respected and responded to Lowery’s collaborative spirit. So much so, he’s planning on reteaming with Lowery to shoot THE OLD MAN AND THE GUN, a true-life tale about a bank robber whose sole purpose for getting caught was because he loved to escape.

David was very welcoming, in terms of saying, ‘Here’s the character. Do you want to add something? Do you want to shift anything? I’d like your input.’ He allowed me to enter the character and have my own way with him. That drew me even further into it. I got to design my own character, a little bit, in addition to what was written. That allowed me to get to know him more and, as a result, we’re doing a film in the fall. 

Gay and lesbian acceptance and representation in cinema has changed greatly throughout the years – something Redford witnessed firsthand when he took a role in INSIDE DAISY CLOVER. People told him his career would be over.

They said, “You’re nuts!” I did it because it was different and it was a great role. I thought it was just a terrific acting role, and that it would be surprising to people who saw me a certain way. I didn’t play him as absolutely gay. I played him as bisexual. What he was, really, was a total narcissist. He could attract anything. That was his thing. I remember talking to the filmmakers about that because he had been written as gay. I said, “I’m not that interested in someone that one-dimensional, but I’m interested in playing somebody that’s more complicated.” And (producer) [Alan J.] Pakula and (director) Robert Mulligan, who were making it, liked that idea, so that’s the direction we went in. But, I loved the role. I thought it was a terrific role. And I got to work with Natalie [Wood].

His work founding The Sundance Institute is a cause that’s very near and dear to his heart.

The Sundance Institute is just an extension of something I believed in, which is creating a mechanism for new voices to have a place to develop and be heard. I wanted to just keep giving them more opportunities and hope that they reach broader audiences. It’s not like it’s going against the film industry or the Academy. It’s just about trying to enhance it. I think that was misconstrued, for a long time, when I started Sundance. First of all, it was in Utah, so I was treated like an insurgent in the hills that would come down and attack. It was simply because the land I had in Utah the only thing that I could afford. I couldn’t have afforded to do something like that in an urban environment. So, I thought, ‘What if we do it in nature? It might add something to it.’ It took a while for that to get through, but I had good intentions.

The pieces of the puzzle slowly began to fit together.

I had the idea of the Lab program, and that it would be non-profit. I depended on colleagues of mine, who were writers, directors, actors, cinematographers and editors, to come up and give two to three weeks of their time. We couldn’t pay them anything to help new artists come in and go through a process where they would have to go through a drill situation. I was dependent on the generosity of my colleagues. That’s how it started. And then, once we realized that we were helping them develop their skills so that they could get their films made, suddenly I realized that there was nowhere to go. The mainstream studios had a relationship with the theaters and they didn’t allow any space, so there was nowhere to go, which led to the idea of a festival. I said, ‘What if we had a festival where we could bring these people together, and they could, at least, show each other their work?’ That’s how it was intended.

I couldn’t do it at Sundance because, in those days, I didn’t have a theater there. The nearest town was Park City, and Park City just had one theater and maybe four restaurants. So, when we first started, we thought it would never work. No one cared about independent film, and we were doing it in Utah, in Mormon country. We had the one theater and maybe 30 films, with 12 or 14 documentaries. I would stand outside the theater trying to get people in, like some guy outside of a strip joint. That’s how it started. When globalization occurred in the ‘90s, suddenly we were able to bring films from other countries and bring the filmmakers, and the whole thing began to grow.

Now, Park City is in a manic development mode. The tension now, which is going to come down on us, is that we have more films and we have 70,000 people that come to see these films. The city is shrinking and we’re growing. You’ll see some real tension coming up in the next year. Park City is very much about development and profit, at any cost. Park City is developing itself, almost to death. There are very few spaces for us, and we can’t move around. 

That said, Redford assures the popular, prestigious fest would never leave Park City.
For whatever reason, people associate the festival with Park City. A lot of people think Sundance is Park City, but it’s not. It’s about 30 miles away. It’s going to be a problem. I don’t worry about Sundance because we have control of that land there. The Institute develops there, and it exhibits in Park City. I’m dependent on Park City, but I’m not dependent on anything at Sundance because I can control that. I think Park City realizes that we bring a lot to that city, in a short amount of time. We bring not only multitudes of people from all over, and it’s put it on the map, but they also make a lot of money. We bring 60 to 80 million dollars into the economy. That’s a lot. Money speaks in Utah. So, the question is, how are they going to accommodate us? They’re going to have to create some space for us. They’re going to have to do something that allows us to stay, and I think they realize that. The mayor certainly does. So, stay tuned.

While he’s been busy with the fest and acting, directing is something Redford plans on returning to soon.

There are a few things in the works that would be next spring. This is the period that I like to act.

At almost 80-years-old, he’s swears his seemingly new vitality is due to his personality.

I think you just keep going. I’ve been that way, my whole life. I’m always moving forward. I think that’s just passed through my life, in general. I’ve always wanted to try new things because it’s exciting and it keeps you active and alive. That’s just the way it is.

PETE’S DRAGON opens on Friday, August 12.

Photo header: Robert Redford in PETE’S DRAGON. Courtesy of Walt Disney Pictures.

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Courtney Howard

Courtney Howard is a LAFCA, OFCS and AWFJ member, as well as a Rotten Tomatometer-approved film critic. Her work has been published on Variety, She Knows and Awards Circuit.