During a 90-minute onstage conversation at the Marrakech Film Festival, where he received an honorary tribute, Robert Redford spoke about his life-long quest for truth and freedom, and his political engagement through films, as well as a long-gestating project he’s considering producing, despite having announced his retirement.
When he has spoken about the project, “109 East Palace,” in the past, he said he would direct it, but now he is thinking of only producing. The story revolves around the rise and fall of the physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer, who was hailed as an American hero when he created the atomic bomb in 1940, and was disgraced during the McCarthy era.
“109 East Palace” is an address in New Mexico where the atomic bomb was created, said Redford, who developed the script. “Oppenheimer was a hero, he invented the atomic bomb around 1940 and by 1945 they discovered that his background as a young person was communist, and because it was in the 1950s during the McCarthy period of our history everything was so extreme, right wing, so suddenly this guy who was a hero, (became) a villain and the congressmen went after him.”
“It’s a story about how things can change because of the political climate,” said Redford. “It’s a really, really interesting topic… and such as a great story but as I got closer to it, I thought maybe I shouldn’t direct it and just produce it,” he said.
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Redford explained he felt conflicted about the idea of directing another film because he’s already said he would retire. “Some part of me would like to direct it to control things… the other part says ‘No, you said you didn’t want to do that anymore so don’t!”
He also once again expressed regrets over announcing his retirement a couple years ago. “The only trouble with retiring is that you should never announce it… because then you have people running around and saying ‘Oh, before you go could you just do this and do that.”
Now that he has retired from film, Redford said he longed for “something fresh” in life. “Sketching and drawing felt fresh.” He reminisced about his time as an artist in Paris before he became an actor.
He said his experience as an artist had made it “easier” for him to become a director. It all started when he came to France as a teenager to study art and struggled to make friends, which led him to use his “sketchbook as a companion.” “I would sit in the bars and cafes and I would sketch people on the right side of the page and on the left side I would imagine what they were saying. And then I put the two together. That turned out to be very valuable for me later on when I became a director because I had that same point of view: Being on the outside looking in but also being able to go in to complete the picture,” said Redford.
Redford also shared a few words of wisdom with the audience, which included film students, filmmakers and actors. “I believe in risk. I believe not taking a risk is a risk, it’s the only way to move forward…. If you don’t take a risk, you will get stagnant and get stuck, but it’s also important to study and look hard at why you are taking a risk,” said Redford. The other advice Redford gave to everyone, actors included, was “to pay attention to the world and life around you” and “to the powers above you.”
A dedicated activist involved in many issues, including the environment, Redford said that “art crititizes society, that’s its role, it draws attention to what the truth is. It keeps us honest. Art is a critic of society. If society is moving this way or that way like during the Nixon years and the way things are now you need another point of view to create a balance.”
“We are now living in dark times. I think it’s obvious reading the news day to day. It feels that there is dark wind blowing through all the countries, and certainly in America it feels for me an especially dark time because I see some of our freedom that I cherish so much growing up threatened by over-powering ego people, one dimensional thinking, inexperienced people running things, people assuming power.”
“I probably won’t be able to get back into my country now,” quipped Redford.
Looking back at his childhood in the 40s and 50s, Redford expressed nostalgia about the energy of people who were gathered together in America, who raised money, who sacrificed for the greater good which was to fight fascism in other parts of the world, and at that time it was Nazi Germany. We all came together and bonded in unison to contribute to an effort that would preserve our liberty” at the end of World War II. “It felt good to be together.”
He said he also felt nostalgic about the “communal experience of time when you would walk into a theater, sit in the dark with other people and look at this big screen, feel the energy of the people around you” and now that’s “pretty much gone.”
Although the conversion didn’t touch upon his collaboration with some of his best-known female co-stars such as Jane Fonda, Meryl Streep or Barbra Streisand, Redford was asked to name the directors who had the most impact on him: Sydney Pollack because of their “deep and lasting friendship,” and George Roy Hill, who directed him and Paul Newman in “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” in 1969 and deserved to get more recognition than he did. The movie became an instant classic and established Redford as a star.