“Dead Man Walking” premiered 20 years ago at the Berlin Film Festival, and went on to win four awards there, including the Silver Bear for Sean Penn’s performance as a murderer on Death Row. This month the film’s writer-director, Tim Robbins, returns to Berlin, where he will receive the Berlinale Camera Award, as the festival hosts a 20th anniversary screening of the film.
We intercepted Robbins on the way to the airport to discuss what he learned from the process of making “Dead Man Walking,” what it takes for him to get excited about a project these days and why he feels more creative fulfilled than ever before, as part of a collaboration between the Autograph Collection’s “The Individualists“ series and Variety.
What do you remember about making “Dead Man Walking”?
It was difficult at times. We were dealing with New Orleans and all the distractions that it has, and then we had a flood while we were shooting. And the editing process was illuminating. In editing, the film reveals itself. I wound up realizing that any time you were away from Susan (Sarandon) and Sean, the movie started to lag. So there was a lot about the politics of the death penalty that just didn’t have a place in the movie.
What did you learn about yourself while making the film?
Not much (Laughs.). I would screen it every week or so when I was editing, and there was a lot of advocacy to eliminate the reminder of the murder during the execution. People would say, “You have the audience where you want them. They’re sympathetic at this point. Why are you reminding them of the murder?” I felt that the movie wouldn’t be doing any good if it gave a temporary, manipulated empathy for the murderer.
What does it take for you to be excited about a project these days?
Well, a lot at this point. I’ve reached this stage in my life where the script has to be really interesting and innovative and exciting for me to commit. I’m artistic director of the Actors’ Gang and I feel like I’m more free now in my creative process than I have ever been. I feel very blessed to be able to have an incredible troupe of great actors that are ready to jump on a boat with me and go anywhere. So I’m busier than I’ve ever been and more fulfilled than I’ve ever been. If something’s going to take me away from that life, it has to be very special. I’m not going to act in a movie simply to be on a set. That thrill is gone.
It’s been said that when you started Actors’ Gang, you were inspired by punk music and their commitment to the art form. Do you still feel like you apply that to theater?
Yes, the sensibility, absolutely. But we’re a lot more disciplined and professional than we were when we started out… A bunch of punks out of college.
What’s been the biggest take away for you from the Actors’ Gang Prison Project?
Well, I was just there yesterday at Norco prison and saw 30 inmates who had been trained by an inmate that we had trained. That made me very hopeful. We’re doing the same training (with the inmates) that we do with our actors in the Actors’ Gang. For some reason, the combination of demand for emotional honesty, and the demand for a real physical commitment to the work, was transformative for these guys. We realized, “Oh my God. It’s working,” and came to understand that we had to expand it. We’re now in six prisons in the state of California, hoping to expand to more. We’ve just gotten studies back that showed a significant reduction in recidivism for the people that went through our program.
It takes a lot of courage (for these inmates) to do it. You’ve got people putting makeup on for the first time in their lives, and we’re encouraging them to explore all their emotions and all the child-like impulses that they might have behind these hard exteriors. It’s something that just fills my heart and gives me great hope and great inspiration to continue.
How does travel inspire you?
It’s great to be in different cultures and meet artists from different cultures. We’re very myopic here in the United States. The average American doesn’t tend to see a lot of foreign films or foreign theater, so I’m always excited to travel because of the discoveries that are there waiting. And always inspired by the art that I see. Berlin has great theater as well. And I know a couple in the Berliner Ensemble, so it will be nice to go over there and see them. It opens up your eyes. It challenges perceptions.
If 10 years ago, I would have said, “Tim, this is where you end up,” would it have lined up with what you thought?
I had a revelation a couple summers ago in Spoleto Theatre Festival. We had just finished the first performance of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” and there was a standing ovation, and the head of the festival was yelling, “Bravo!” And we had a party afterwards, and a couple people came up and compared my production to Peter Brook’s production they had seen many years ago. I had this revelation of, “Well, this is it. This is what I was after when I started.” And how fortunate and blessed I was to be able to act and direct and write films that I’m still proud of.
But when I started, I wanted to be a theater director on the world stage. And I feel like that’s finally being realized. We’ve been all over the world now with this particular production from Shanghai to Beijing to Brazil to France to Italy to Spain. It’s been a real great ride, and when you’re able to create an experience for a live audience that resonates with them, that may change their perception of what theater can be, that’s a supremely exciting place to be.
What would you still like to do?
Well, I want to do a lot more writing. I’ve been writing a lot more. Plays, screenplays, poems, reflections. I find that I’m at peace when I’m writing. It’s a tough process that involves a lot of procrastination, but when I’m actually writing, I feel like I’m in a really good place.