Raised by consciousness-raising parents, actor-auteur Robbins a humanist at heart

“The gamblers are gone!” growls director Samuel Fuller, sitting in a car in Paris talking to Tim Robbins during the filming of “The Typewriter, the Rifle and the Movie Camera,” the Robbins-produced documentary on Fuller.

Fuller may have been referring to the risk-taking moguls of Hollywood yore, but if he was extending that to the new generation of moviemakers, Fuller for once was wrong.

That’s because he was growling to a gambler.

The child of a family with rebellious agitprop in its veins, his father was Highwayman folk singer Gil Robbins, and raised with a sense of balancing social consciousness and art, Tim Robbins was ideally groomed to stand up as a significant force in American independent film. Though he is only 38, his body of work as a writer-director and actor in the independent world lends a certain inevitability to his being named the recipient of the Sundance Film Festival’s 1997 Piper Heidsieck Tribute to Independent Vision.

Yet it isn’t movies that really form the artistic spine of Robbins’ work. “The humanism you see in Tim’s movies doesn’t come from him seeing a lot of movies,” says longtime friend Adam Simon, who directed the Fuller documentary. “His primary reference point isn’t film, but life. I can’t tell you how unusual that is in our generation. Most of us make movies referencing other movies. But when you see something like ‘Dead Man Walking,’ the humanism in that comes from him being raised by a close, loving family, involved with social movements, making music.

“I think that’s what he saw in Fuller. Here was the ultimate independent guy, a God for movie geeks, and Tim didn’t really know him like I did, or like the other Fuller fans we include in the film, like Quentin Tarantino, Mar-tin Scorsese and Jim Jarmusch. Tim responded to Sam making movies based on his life experiences, his convic-tions, not what other movies he had seen.”

Robbins learned early about another American indie experience, street theater, as found in both Vietnam era peace demonstrations he went to as a kid, and in that produced by Theatre for the New City, with whom he performed when he was 12. He says now that this early introduction to radical American theater colored his whole attitude while attending UCLA as a drama student in the late ’70s and early ’80s.

Dissatisfied with what he and his theater pals perceived as a hidebound, conservative approach by teachers, they formed what they called the Actors’ Gang, tried out a wild version of Alfred Jarry’s surrealist classic “Ubu the King,” then took it off-campus to the now-defunct Pilot Theatre in Hollywood in 1981. He followed with his first original play, “Out of Sight, Out of Mind,” directed by Richard Olivier, son of Laurence.

“We were really stirred by the idea that you can do something with content and be fun,” says Robbins. “Try not to get too bombastic, try not to preach, even though that’s a real temptation, but entertain and don’t ignore pop culture. We did the classics, but we never considered ourselves intellectuals.”

Watershed moment

Like others in the Gang, Robbins was slowly building a film career, with spots on “St. Elsewhere,” and movies like “Toy Soldiers.” But the real learning was happening on stage, and a watershed moment happened in 1984, during an L.A. visit by France’s Theatre du Soleil, and a workshop led by Soleil actor Georges Bigot.

Robbins found two lessons transformative. The first was Bigot’s exercise on entering the stage: “He told us that we couldn’t enter without a full emotional state. So he’d ask me what my state was. And I’d say, ‘Kinda depressed.’ And he’d say that ‘kinda depressed’ doesn’t make a great play. ‘Immensely sad’ makes a great play. I realized that as a writer and actor, I had to amplify whatever I chose to express.”

The Gang adopted this approach, dubbing it “the Style,” and introduced a brand of theater never quite seen before on the American stage. Kitchen-sink naturalism was out; rowdy expressionism was in, blending both commedia dell’arte and vaudeville.

Robbins’ other lesson went even further: “Bigot talked about how we had to imagine that our audience traveled on foot for 15 miles, spent $8 out of their last $10 to see the show. So we had to enter the stage respecting that audience, giving them the fullest representation of our character.

“This became invaluable to me when I would be on a movie set at 2 in the morning, when there’s no audience at all. You remember that audience, to honor them.”

When working with Robbins the actor on “The Shawshank Redemption,” writer-director Frank Darabont observes, “There are various sides to Tim, and I saw them all, the clown, the sincere, serious young man, the reserved and even shy person, the guy fascinated with the mechanics of making a movie. Sometimes, you feel like you don’t know Tim at all, he keeps inside himself so much, and other days he’s like the class clown. He isn’t what passes for movie stars these days, but an actor’s actor. He processes a lot through the back of his brain.”

Simon recalls his first sight of an Actors’ Gang performance, “like a Warner Bros. cartoon come to life”, and he soon was collaborating as co-writer with Robbins on plays whose titles say everything: “Slick Slack Griff Graff,” “Violence” (which coincidentally opened the same weekend as one of Robbins’ first starring roles, “Howard the Duck”) and the outrageously farcical “Carnage,” which traveled from a sellout run at the Sunset Strip’s Tiffany Theatre to New York’s Public Theatre to the Edinburgh Festival.

Moment’s notice creativity

“I can’t believe how fast we made some of these shows,” Robbins recalls. “The most valuable thing of all I gained from the work with the Gang was gaining the ability to write at a moment’s notice, and rewrite with no romanticism about what I had written. Adam and I would go home at 3 a.m. and constantly rewrite what we had just rehearsed. But we made sure that it could play, which translates to the film set; if you’re stuck with a scene that can’t be played and the attitude is, ‘Oh, we’ll fix it in the editing room,’ then you’re making compromises you shouldn’t be making.”

“People, especially in the film business, don’t realize about Tim that he was a director from the beginning,” says Simon. “At the same time he was making theater by the seat of his pants, he was working with really strong directors like Tony Bill (“Five Corners”), Ron Shelton (“Bull Durham”) and Robert Altman (“The Player”). No one could have been more prepared for making his own movies.”

The roots of “Bob Roberts,” Robbins’ first feature in 1992, can be found in both the Actors’ Gang’s political satire and a short film, “The Times They Are a-Changin’ Back,” that Robbins made for “Saturday Night Live” in 1986, introducing the crypto-fascist, guitar-strumming Roberts, the political flipside of his own father.

“Five years might seem like a long time to get the movie made,” says Robbins, “but I would be rewriting in be-tween work, and fleshing out what began as an 80-page story. It was good that I didn’t get the money right away. If I had been a hot actor who had total freedom at the time, I wouldn’t have made a good film. With waiting came self-discipline, and by the time I did get the money, I was hungry and wanted to make it as good as possible.”

The Altman influence

Longtime pals on the “Bob” set noticed the influence of Robert Altman, with whom Robbins has recently worked on “The Player.” Actors Gang friends noted the strong family feeling on the set, with nary an angry voice raised, a typical Altman characteristic. Simon also observed, “Tim would stage his scenes for the camera, kinda like Altman, but in his own personal way, by creating a reality in front of the camera, setting it in motion and then having the camera follow it, responding to whatever happened. This was his first movie, and he wasn’t utilizing traditional camera coverage at all.”

Remarkably, as Robbins’ profile as a movie star rose with movies like “Bull Durham,” “Jacob’s Ladder, “The Player” and “The Shawshank Redemption,” his stance as an independent film artist solidified. He may say about himself that “I’m a Libra, so I can’t make up my mind about anything” to explain his deliberative and long gestation time between film projects (“Dead Man Walking” loped along over three years after “Bob Roberts,” and cur-rent projects are still on paper), but Robbins has proved to be no Libra about staking out his own indie vision.

Catching a preview of this was Simon, whom Robbins invited to an early screening of the first edited assembly of “Dead Man Walking.” Usually, first assemblies are a semi-organized mess, but Simon was startled at what he saw: “I never cry at the movies, and this thing made me cry. The vision in the final film was already there. But what really amazed me was that there seemed to have been some quiet, quantum leap in maturity for Tim. He felt so strongly opposed to capital punishment, but he knew the story would be best served by not being one-sided, but detailing the victims.

“In our work with the Gang and in ‘Bob Roberts,’ there was a tendency to push the truth at the audience while entertaining them. Here, he allowed the audience to find the truth on its own.”

Receiving the Heidsieck honor at Sundance has made Robbins think long and hard about what being “independent” really means in the American movie world, and for him it goes beyond refusing to use computerized systems like the Avid to edit his movies (“I’m no Luddite, I write on a computer, but I don’t think it’s a good tool that gives the editor and director 20 choices rather than, say, three on a hands-on machine”).

Definition of an indie

“A truly independent film,” notes Robbins, who has his own production shingle, Havoc, Inc., “has to be made by someone with material that’s innovative and fresh, and will define style and themes that won’t be ac-ceptable in society for at least five years. It can be subversive in style, it doesn’t have to be subversive in just con-tent. And there must be a no-compromise quality so you’re getting it on the artist’s own terms and no one else’s.

“But at what point does an independent drift into becoming part of a mini-major? I don’t see people (insisting on) definitions at all anymore. I mean, if you look at a whole lot of so-called ‘independent movies,’ and you look at their content, you’ve got to wonder.”

Robbins says he wants to raise questions at Sundance about the “pitfalls out there for independent artists, and how to maybe avoid some of the traps which are set out there for creative people.”

Ironically, he sees one of the most lethal traps as “the idealizing of indie film. You may think you’re really independent, but if your budget goes beyond a certain level, are you having to give up control, and how much, and to whom?

“There’s a lot of crap coming at directors in the indie world, companies and producers taking control, unwanted changes in the script or the cut, and it’s crucial to know why it’s coming. Part of the problem stems from the filmmakers themselves, who have to be able to go into an office and convey their belief and confidence in the film so that producers will fund them.

“But if the filmmaker’s vision is going askew during shooting, and I’m the producer putting up $5 million for this, then I have the option of stepping in and taking the filmmaker aside to get things on track. And if producers have to be responsible, then writers also have to be sure that their scripts are ready to be shot. The impetus to rush happens more in studio projects than with independents, but it happens with them too. And it can kill the movie.”

As if taking some of the both-sides-now spirit of “Dead Man Walking” into his professional life, the independent Mr. Robbins insists that he’s “not ready to throw in the towel on the studio system, because good work really can still come out of it. What it takes are studio people with power who can see that (independent movies) can gross $100 million and are willing to bankroll the next project. I’m not sure how many are in that kind of power right now, but they may be coming.”

And if indie artists need companies to prop them, Robbins says, then let them follow the example of Polygram: “I was with the Coen brothers on ‘The Hudsucker Proxy,’ which didn’t exactly make Polygram any richer. But Poly-gram has stuck by the Coens, and stayed with them for ‘Fargo.”‘

Gamblers are fine, but the steady, reliable support of patronage may be, says Robbins, the best bet for true indies.

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