TELLURIDE, Colo. – It’s interesting seeing Robert Redford receive a tribute at the Telluride Film Festival. With Sundance so ingrained in his blood and his being the face of an entire institution, his presence here — albeit in a completely warranted capacity — feels like a touch of infidelity. But it’s too good an opportunity to pass up for a fixture of Hollywood history who this year delivers an absolutely amazing, sure-fire Oscar-contending performance in J.C. Chandor’s “All is Lost.”
A pair of tribute presentations were held yesterday and today at the fest with a clip reel and Silver Medallion presentation (introduced last night by Redford’s “Quiz Show” star Ralph Fiennes, who is here with his own film, “The Invisible Woman”). Audiences were treated to 60 minutes of Redford’s work across a wide spectrum, from Sidney Lumet’s “The Iceman Cometh” (1960) to multiple Sydney Pollack collaborations (1972’s “Jeremiah Johnson,” 1985’s “Out of Africa,” etc.) to Redford’s own “A River Runs Through It” (1992, starring Brad Pitt, who’s also here this year with a sneak of “12 Years a Slave”).
When this morning’s event got around to the conversation portion, moderated by the LA Times’ John Horn, the theme was clear: Redford’s perspective on an ever-evolving industry over the course of five decades. He has worked through a changing of status quo in Hollywood, watching as the industry “became more centralized and ‘followed the money,'” to steal a phrase from 1976’s “All the President’s Men.” Redford could “see changes taking place in the product, and it was jettisoning the kinds of movies I was interested in,” he said.
That is of course a well-worn talking point by now as it’s the perfect segue to his reasoning for founding the Sundance Institute and later the Sundance Film Festival. But it’s part and parcel of Redford’s perch and perspective. He’s seen the rise of film schools and a new breed of filmmaker in people like Brian De Palma, Martin Scorsese and Francis Ford Coppola, and later, the effects-driven world of consumer product in film. But within all of that, gradually what was missing for him were the three things he holds most dear: character, story and emotion.
One of his earliest collaborations was with Sidney Lumet in “The Iceman Cometh,” and that was a filmmaker Redford was quick to praise in the discussion. “Sidney really understood the value of pulling out the emotions in something,” Redford said. “He liked close-ups so much that he would get in the way of your performance; he’d stand next to the camera and you’d be working with Jason Robards or Myron McCormick and suddenly there’s this face in there. But that was Sidney.”
There was also talk of his numerous collaborations with the late Sydney Pollack, who Redford called “a wonderful manager.” He was happy to be used to Pollack’s advantage, Redford said, because he trusted him to shape the work properly. It gave him a certain freedom. But that brought him to another unsettling trend he’s seen develop as some filmmakers have begun to reveal a lack of discipline over the years.
“I don’t like doing a lot of takes because I think it devalues your work over time,” he said. “I’ve seen as time has gone on some directors of late seem to want to shape their films in the editing, and they know that, so they just do a lot of takes. At a certain point you wonder, ‘Why is this director just doing take after take after take?’ You realize they want to get a lot of footage so they can shape it in the editing room. They don’t do so well with you on the set because they’re either afraid of you or they just want to shape it their own way and they don’t want to stop the show. That’s different than the way it was when we started.”
Redford went to school for set design largely to get his family off his back, constantly asking him what he was going to do, what he was going to amount to. But he discovered a love of art early on and he confided in the audience that as his acting career took hold, he carried a “shadow of guilt” with him that he had not been what he thought he was supposed to be, a painter. He fretted that he had lost something. But eventually he found a profound convergence.
When Redford set out to make his directorial debut, 1980’s “Ordinary People,” he didn’t know the language of the camera. He always believed as an actor trying to forge a character on screen, he should shut out the technical side of filmmaking, to stay present as a performer. So when it came time to explain what he wanted to his DP on the film, he didn’t quite know how to do that. So he grabbed a piece of paper and drew his own crude storyboard, explaining the composition he was after, how the light was used in the frame, etc. It was then that the epiphany struck. “I haven’t lost something,” he recalled thinking to himself. “I’ve brought it forward to join something else.”
The clip reel was full of great examples of his trajectory, perhaps the best displays of his work coming in bits from Lumet’s “The Iceman Cometh,” Michael Ritchie’s “The Candidate” and Alan J. Pakula’s “All the President’s Men.” And now, “All is Lost.”
Redford offers up a brilliant portrayal in the film, one of grit and conviction, nuance and tenderness. He’s as enigmatic as he’s ever been in a nearly silent performance mingled with all the valuable behavioral minutiae writer/director J.C. Chandor has given him to work with. And he will absolutely be in the hunt for an Oscar win by season’s end.
The film itself I will get into at a later date, but again, it was the perfect occasion for a Redford toast. The 40th annual Telluride Film Festival was smart to program it, despite the friendly festival competition just a few mountain ranges over.
“All is Lost” will play throughout the Telluride Film Festival. It will also screen at the New York Film Festival before hitting theaters on Oct. 18.