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Robert Redford: A Retrospective
October 20, 1991
Redford Turns West Again

A new project taps a beloved novel about Montana.

By now it is impossible to separate ideas of the West from the images Hollywood has created. Jeremiah Johnson, the mountain man and Indian fighter immortalized by Robert Redford in a 1972 movie, actually died in Los Angeles, in 1900. After the movie became a hit, Johnson's remains were moved to Cody, Wyo., to be buried in Old Trail Town, a reconstructed frontier town and popular tourist attraction. Two thousand people attended the ceremony, including Mr. Redford. Today, visitors to Cody see photographs of the 20th-century movie star right next to 19th-century daguerreotypes of the real Jeremiah Johnson.

A couple of hundred miles away, in this little town on the edge of Yellowstone National Park, Mr. Redford, dressed in jeans, T-shirt and cowboy boots, is filming another movie about the West, an adaptation of Norman Maclean's acclaimed 1976 novella, "A River Runs Through It." This time Mr. Redford is directing but not starring; the cast of the production, which is scheduled for release in the spring, includes Brad Pitt, Craig Sheffer, Tom Skerritt and Emily Lloyd.

The book is a slightly fictionalized memoir of the author's family in Montana from 1910 to 1935, when the state was one of the last bastions of the vanishing frontier. The West has changed, but in the Yellowstone River outside Livingston, fishermen still wade knee-deep into the water, surrounded by the landscape that Maclean described: "The banks are fringed by large ponderosa pines. In the slanting sun of late afternoon the shadows of great branches reached from across the river, and the trees took the river in their arms."

Many celebrities have been drawn recently to Montana by just such sylvan settings; Ted Turner and Jane Fonda, Jeff Bridges, Dennis Quaid and Meg Ryan own ranches near Livingston. But Mr. Redford's attraction to the West is something more than Hollywood trendiness. It was 20 years ago that he fought to bring "Jeremiah Johnson" to the screen, and the last movie he directed, "The Milagro Beanfield War," in 1988, was a fable set in the contemporary Southwest. He produced a documentary about the commercialization of Yosemite National Park, where he worked summers when he was a teen-ager. He also has a home in the Utah mountains, where he launched the Sundance Institute in 1981 to encourage independent film making.

"My heart is in the West," Mr. Redford says. "I've spent a good deal of my life here."

A dozen years ago, Mr. .Redford picked up a copy of "A River Runs Through It." I was immediately captivated," he says. "It combined a lot of things that interest me - the West, nature and religion, which dominates our heritage."

Norman Maclean was a professor of English at the University of Chicago for 40 years. When he retired at the age of 70, he resolved to write about his family. "A River Runs Through It," his first novel, was published four years later. It tells of a stern Presbyterian minister and his two sons, Norman, who becomes a teacher, and the rebellious Paul, who is something of a ne'er-do-well and is killed in a fight when still a young man.

The book hints at unspoken tensions within the family but also captures moments of harmony, particularly when the minister and his sons are fly-fishing in the peaceful rivers of Montana. As Maclean said in an interview a few years before his death, the book is about "a family with serious problems but a family that loves itself infinitely. The love spreads over everything. We stood by each other. We tried to support each other... ultimately it's a tragic story. Ultimately we couldn't understand each other."

Reviewing "A River Runs Through It" in The New York Times, James R. Frakes said: "Maclean's voice - acerbic, laconic, deadpan - rings out of a rich American tradition." Alfred Kazin, in The Chicago Tribune, called it "an American classic." The Pulitzer Prize jury of 1977 selected the book as the year's preeminent work of fiction, but the Pulitzer advisory board rejected the choice. The book caught on slowly and gradually developed a cult following. It also has attracted the attention of a number of film makers, who tried to wrest the rights from the author. "Dad was in part fascinated," his daughter says, "but he wanted some control over the film, and people kept sending him what he called a yellow dog contract."

After meeting with Maclean, in the early 1980's, Mr. Redford agreed to consult with the author or his family at every stage of filming. "I think the reason Norman resisted for so long," Mr. Redford says, "was that he was fearful the book would be turned into pornography - a story of a brother going bad, gambling and whoring and then getting killed. He also was afraid that his deeply loving family would be portrayed as disturbed. I assured him that was not my intention."

Perhaps Maclean recognized that Mr. Redford felt a stronger kinship with the material than other film makers who had tried to woo him. Mr. Redford comes from Scottish-Irish ancestry, and Maclean's parents were Scottish immigrants to Montana. "The Scots ethic says you suffer stoically," Mr. Redford says. "This was the way a large part of the country behaved. Toughness was a virtue then. The settling of this country depended on strong discipline, but we didn't have the tools for helping each other. I don't know how to ask my brother if he needs help, and he doesn't know how to ask for it, but we love each other."

In his first directorial effort, "Ordinary People," the 1980 film that won him an Academy Award, Mr. Redford also dealt with family members unable to reach out to one another in times of stress. That was a suburban family in contemporary Chicago, but it might have been descended from the pioneer family depicted in "A River Runs Through It." "Communication within families is a theme of both films," Mr. Redford says. "The difference is that in 'Ordinary People' therapy saved the situation, whereas here the family did not have therapy. I'm not sure if that would have made a difference."

If Mr. Redford responded to the theme of repressed emotion within a family, he also identified with the characters. "I grew up in a poor neighborhood in Los Angeles," he says, "but my parents liked reading. That was my one outlet, along with sports. So I could understand the character of Norman, who became a teacher and writer. But the other side of me was athletic and out of control. I was in a lot of trouble, went toward the edge, just like Paul. I had a bead on both characters."

Because of his attachment to the material, Mr. Redford persisted in his determination to make the film. A number of studies found it too literary, he says. He finally persuaded Carolco to back it, partly because he promised to keep the budget to $10 million. To write the screenplay, Mr. Redford hired Richard Friedenberg, who won an Emmy for his script for the television movie "Promise," which also dealt with the troubled relationship between two brothers. Mr. Friedenberg more recently wrote the Julia Roberts tear-jerker, "Dying Young," which languished at the box office.

Because of his attachment to the material, Mr. Redford persisted in his determination to make the film. A number of studies found it too literary, he says. He finally persuaded Carolco to back it, partly because he promised to keep the budget to $10 million. To write the screenplay, Mr. Redford hired Richard Friedenberg, who won an Emmy for his script for the television movie "Promise," which also dealt with the troubled relationship between two brothers. Mr. Friedenberg more recently wrote the Julia Roberts tear-jerker, "Dying Young," which languished at the box office.

In adapting the book, Mr. Friedenberg made some structural changes. To heighten the drama, he set some of the crucial events 10 years earlier, when the brothers were just starting out in life. "That was the summer when Norman met Jessie, the woman he would marry," Mr. Friedenberg notes. "It was the summer when one boy was taking off to become an adult while the other boy could not make that transition." He also built up the character of Jessie, whom he envisioned as a quintessential 20's flapper. All these changes were made in consultation with the family. "Friedenberg worked very hard to get real events into the film," says Maclean's daughter, Jean Snyder. "He drew on other writings of my father and on research into my mother's family as well."

The principals have a lot riding on the movie. For the two young actors - Mr. Pitt, who played the hitchhiker in "Thelma and Louise," and Mr. Sheffer, the inarticulate teen-age hunk in "Fire With Fire" and "Some Kind of Wonderful" - this film will be a test of their drawing power. Mr. Friedenberg is coming off a highly publicized flop, as is Mr. Redford. His last film as an actor, the $40 million "Havana," was a commercial disaster. Yet commerce does not appear to loom large in his decision to make "A River Runs Through It." "There is no big sensational moment or scene," Mr. Redford declares. He has also included much of Maclean's eloquent prose in extensive voice-over narration. "This book is extremely appealing to me," Mr. Redford says, "because it's an opportunity to put words on the screen when they're going out of fashion, and the words are beautiful."

Perhaps the people with the most at stake are Norman Maclean's family. The author died in 1990, but his daughter, son and grandchildren are fiercely protective of his vision. Several members of the Maclean family visited the locations in Montana, near the bucolic streams and mountains where Norman Maclean spent his childhood. What they observed left them feeling cautiously confident.

"So many people who cared about Dad worked on this film," says Jean Snyder, "that I can't believe it's going to disgrace us."

Stephen Farber is the film critic for Moveline magazine.

His Latest Project
The Clearing
Robert Redford, Helen Mirren, Willem Dafoe, Matt Craven, Alessandro Nivola
Directed by:
Pieter Jan Brugge
(R, 91 minutes)
In Select Cities:
July 2, 2004

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About the Film
Wayne and Eileen Hayes (Robert Redford, Helen Mirren) appear to be living the American dream. But all illusions are shattered when Wayne is kidnapped in broad daylight from the Hayes' peaceful Pittsburgh estate.

THE CLEARING is a psychological thriller starring multiple award-winning actors Robert Redford, Helen Mirren and Willem Dafoe. It marks the directorial debut for Academy Award®-nominated producer Pieter Jan Brugge (THE INSIDER).

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Robert Redford & Helen Mirren
About The Director
Pieter Jan Brugge
Pieter Jan Brugge received an Academy Award nomination as the producer of THE INSIDER, starring Al Pacino and Russell Crowe. Previously he produced Warren Beatty's political satire, BULWORTH.

He was the executive producer of the thriller HEAT starring Pacino and Robert DeNiro. Additionally Brugge produced (with Alan J. Pakula) THE PELICAN BRIEF, starring Julia Roberts and Denzel Washington; co-produced GLORY, starring Matthew Broderick, Denzel Washington and Morgan Freeman, which won three Academy Awards; and co-produced CLIFFORD, starring Martin Short and Charles Grodin. He executive produced the Carl Reiner comedy FATAL INSTINCT as well as the thriller THE VANISHING and Alan J. Pakula's CONSENTING ADULTS.

Brugge received his degree from the Netherlands Film and Television Academy. He was then awarded a scholarship by the Dutch Ministry of Cultural Affairs to study in the United States at the American Film Institute, where he earned his Master of Fine Arts degree.