He is haunted by silences.
It's a WASP thing, so don't ask: the reticence, the sense of shyness, the careful control, the unwillingness ever to put things into words or ever to confront those messy hormonal squalls called emotions and instead the channeling of every last rogue mote of emotional energy into either work or play but never life its own self.
The silence of the WASPs.
"I know," says Robert Redford. "I was raised in silence. I'm comfortable with silence. My screenwriter was a Jew and he kept saying, 'Why don't you guys just talk about things?' But we don't."
And so it is that Redford, who as a movie star stands for WASP beauty, as a director has become the poet laureate of WASP silence. And so it is that the man himself is an icon of his own most favorite subject: He's pleasant, slightly aloof, very much in control, yearning to be taken seriously, yet somehow ensnared in silence, even when he speaks. One senses his bone-deep reluctance to open up the can.
A little shorter than the American average, but not so you'd notice if you weren't looking for flaws, the 55-year-old movie star is trim and rumpled in a Washington hotel room, his blue eyes as direct and unevasive as rifle scope lenses. He's in pleated chinos and a black T-shirt and some kind ofdepressingly chic mahogany Italian loafers, though happily a battered pair of cowboy boots has been spotted in an anteroom. His blond hair, thicker than amber waves of wheat, sprawls across his skull, crowning that very square-jawed face, now ever-so-gently creased with age.
An unlikely subject
The subject at hand isn't, however, his leathery face but "A River Runs Through It," which opens at the Senator Friday and is the third film Redford has directed. It is possibly the least likely project ever taken by a major Hollywood player -- an epiphany of WASP silences as a proud family watches its brightest star simply destroy himself, derived from a novella by a 77-year-old man.
The book is by Norman Maclean, a University of Chicago professor. It recalls his youth in a Montana of sparkling rivers and dysfunctional families, primarily his own. Barely 100 pages long, the story recounts the adventures of the Maclean men from 1910 through 1935, men who were only really fluent and relaxed and centered when they were thigh-deep in the cold rush of the Blackfoot, flicking a concoction of knot and feather called a "fly". The trick is to snap this ersatz-insect at the end of 50 yards of nylon line just above the surface, hoping that its trompe l'oeil flight will swindle a trout into believing it's the real McCoy. The Maclean men were exquisite at this art; otherwise, they were disintegrating.
"Tom McGuane sent me the book in 1980," says Redford. "I read the first sentence and I knew I was lost."
First sentence: "In our family, there was no clear line between religion and fly-fishing."
"I knew two things right away," Redford recalls 12 years later. "First, how tough, how impossible it would be to make, because it was so 'literary.' It was a story that existed entirely in words, and its power was the power of the lyricism in the words. And second, I knew I had to try, because it reached into what was important as history, but also personal history. So I had to try to make it happen."
Redford also knew such a movie could not be made within the American studio system -- thus he endeavored to make it independently.
The first obstacle
But his first obstacle was Maclean himself, probably one of no more than three or four grown-up American males who had . . . never heard of Robert Redford.
"I visited him three times in Chicago. He was not impressed with me, not a bit of it. He thought I just exemplified Hollywood, which he called the place of the grease and weasel. Grease for how your hands felt when you shook hands with someone from Hollywood, and weasel for the way they tried to weasel out of their financial obligations."
It's kind of an amusing image: one of the most handsome, most famous, most vigorous men in the world at the apex of his career pitching woo to a crusty octogenarian who only wants to go fly-fishing and hasn't the faintest idea who this guy is.
Finally, Redford made an offer. He said he'd show Maclean the first draft of a screenplay.
"If you don't like it, pull the plug. If not, let me make the damned movie."
Maclean ultimately said yes but died in 1990 at age 87, before the film was complete enough to see.
"I'm not quite prepared to say that's a tragedy," says Redford, brutally candid. "You have to know it was basically a no-win deal. There was no way he could let it go. On top of that, he was basically an unsophisticated man, for an intellectual. He cared about three things -- baseball, fly-fishing and Shakespeare. . . . I'm not sure he would have been satisfied with my version of his story."
He recalls that when he showed a rough cut of his first film, "Ordinary People" to Judith Guest, author of the novel on which the movie was based, he warned her to "be prepared."
"But she was devastated anyway," he reports.
On to happier topics: fishing.
The why of fishing
He is asked the most basic question of all: Why? What's in this fishing thing? Why do guys love it so?
He loves the question. Eyes light up, voice grows warm.
"It's great," he says. "Very few things are as exciting as that, and it's also one of the hardest things to master. You have to learn to read the river, and ultimately you have to figure out how the fish thinks. You have to cast in such a way, with such delicacy, that the fly never splashes, because the fish knows then it's phony. If you tie your own fly, you return completely to the predator-prey thing and something fundamental begins to happen. You have to do it well, but if you do, it creates an incredible peace of mind."
Redford can say that now. However, trying to get his movie made created anything but peace of mind.
"It was known in Hollywood for too long as 'Redford's fishing movie.' I'd try and explain it to people out there, and their eyes would blank over. You just can't explain trout fishing in a meeting. And there's no way to market it at all."
With the word "marketing" evoked, Redford briefly yields to bitterness over the battles he's lost through the years.
"God, 'marketing.' Talk about bogus jobs. Marketing means that the studios look at all projects completely in terms of its ability to perform on the first weekend."
But he quickly backs off from a much-quoted comment on the inanity of the current Hollywood product, with a happy little line so insufferably banal it could be clipped out of a campaign commercial: "I grew up being taken by all kinds of movies, World War II adventures, westerns, mysteries, comedies, and so I say it's a good industry to the extent it makes room for all kinds of movies. I worry that over-centralized filmmaking -- going for the big hits -- will take place at the expense of other, smaller films. We forget that we are in the storytelling business."
Having happily offended nobody but not exactly offering a penetrating analysis, he moves on to his own favorite pastime, which happens to be the directing of motion pictures.
"It's not that I'm obsessed by dysfunctional WASP families," he says, when it's pointed out that "A River Runs Through It" has eerie parallels to "Ordinary People," in that both are about suicidal young people in prosperous but rigid families. "But it's a rich ground -- the whole issue of how you express feelings, or rather, how you don't, how you're asked to shut down. And I think that somehow American history is paralleled in that kind of family group. Ethnic groups don't get it, because if they feel something, they let it out; it's something we're not permitted to do."
And for his next film, Redford is again venturing into troubled waters: a comedy-drama about the quiz show scandal of the '50s, a subject that right now is very big in exactly nobody's mind except his own.
"I guess you could say I'm perversely attracted to challenges," he says, with a dry little WASP laugh. But no emotion. Not a bit of it.