May 17, 2002|With a background in broadcast journalism and corporate and educational films segueing into a short stint writing teleplays for "Trapper John M.D.", Phil Alden Robinson broke into feature films in 1984 with the screenplays for All Of Me and Rhinestone. The two experiences (the former with Carl Reiner, the latter with Sylvester Stallone) represented disparate filmmaking philosophies, one collaborative, the other in which an egotistical star decides everything. Wisely taking a page from Reiner's book, Robinson has endeavoured in each of his films as director (beginning with the little-seen In the Mood and continuing through Field of Dreams, Sneakers, Freedom Song, and now The Sum of All Fears) to recreate that feeling of conviviality and bonhomie with his extended ensembles.
At the pinnacle of his profession, just after working with screen legends Sidney Poitier and Robert Redford, Robinson took time after Sneakers premiered in 1992 to travel to Bosnia and Somalia in the role of observer and photojournalist. Described as a "haunting and appalling" experience, Robinson has already committed his observations to a series of award-winning documentaries for TV's "Nightline" and hopes to one day oversee a feature film about Sarajevo, the screenplay for which he's already written. That renewed political interest (Robinson's educational background is in political science) reflects in Robinson's recent films: the civil rights drama Freedom Song, a portion of Spielberg/Hanks's WWII epic mini-series "Band of Brothers", and, finally, his filming of the fourth "Jack Ryan" film: an adaptation of Tom Clancy's The Sum of All Fears.
No matter their subject matter, however, Robinson's films are indicated by a certain heart, a kindness that most-often reveals itself in that indelible baby-boomer obsession of reconciling with the father that found what is perhaps modern cinema's defining example in the director's beloved Field of Dreams. Meeting Robinson is very much like taking tea with an idealized father figure; soft-spoken and laid-back, he is an intelligent and polite guest. You believe him when he says he is committed to a level of morality and discretion in his subject choice and narrative decisions--as a mainstream filmmaker, in other words, Robinson is a welcome anachronism, one who surprised me with his warmth and his observation that the problem with American movies nowadays is that American audiences just don't read anymore. Amen, brother.
CENTRAL: Talk to me about Steve Martin and the experience of
working on All of Me.
PHIL ALDEN ROBINSON: Steve's just amazing, isn't he? A brilliant man and a brilliant comedian. Working on All of Me was just the best. All the more so because simultaneously to that, my script for Rhinestone was being rewritten [by Stallone -Ed.] and I was not welcome on that set. With All of Me, we had a director in Carl Reiner, who said to me, "I want you standing next to me from the beginning of pre-production to the end of post-production." I was in every meeting and every location scout, every casting session, on the set, in the editing room... It was glorious.
And way too unusual a one. Carl is a lovely guy, very non-competitive--he knew how important a screenwriter could be on the set. Carl is a master at creating an atmosphere on a set in which people can do their best work. He's calm and confident, he knows what he wants to do and he keeps things light. He's very funny and he has this boyish enthusiasm that's infectious. [The Sum of All Fears producer] Mace Neufeld is like that a little and on the set of Sum I was really just furious about something and Mace comes over and tells me, "Y'know, Phil, I've made a career out of not turning things into federal cases." It really reminded me of the kind of ethic I tried to emulate from Carl--calmed me right down.
prefer to work with ensembles?
What I most enjoy about it is the extent to which the actors enjoy it. I remember on Sneakers one day realizing Redford was having a good time, and Poitier was having a good time--and I think that normally both of them are the stars of the movie and they have the weight of the whole movie on their shoulders. In an ensemble that weight is distributed and they could just go back to some of that joy of just acting: having fun with other actors.
about Field of Dreams
and W.P. Kinsella's Shoeless Joe.
Well a good friend of mine had given me the book and I said, "Great, what's it about?" She says, "It's about a farmer," and I say, "Eh...I don't wanna read it." And then she says, "It's a farmer who hears voices," and I said, "I really don't wanna read it." (laughs) But I took it home, grumbling, and I started it and literally couldn't put it down until I finished it.
the title change?
Oh boy, I fought hard for "Shoeless Joe." The objections were that--as they were described to me by the studio--nobody knew who Shoeless Joe Jackson was and that not knowing who he was they would think that Kevin [Costner] was playing some dirty homeless guy or something. They solicited titles from people who hadn't seen the picture--my favourite was "Dad's Second Chance," which of course gave away the ending--but they settled on "Field of Dreams," and I hated that. What the hell is that? It's a room deodorizer--"Now, Field of Dreams with lemon!" But I was vetoed and had to call Bill [Kinsella] and had to tell him that the good news was that the film was testing great but the bad news was that we couldn't call it "Shoeless Joe." And he says, "Oh, I don't care about that, that wasn't my title, that was the publisher's title." And I say, "Oh yeah? What was your title?" He says: "Dream Field." And I thought, well, that works.
not telling who did the voice?
of Dreams and Sneakers,
you went to Bosnia and Somalia. What made you hop on the plane?
Somebody called me and told me that they were putting together a small group of writers to go to Somalia as observers of the relief mission. Sneakers had just come out and I wasn't ready to go back to work, I'd just broken up with my girlfriend, and I really wanted to shake my life up and do something different. So without thinking about it too much I said, "Sure, I'd love to go." So she calls back the next day and says, "Y'know, after Somalia we might go on to Bosnia," and I say, "Yeah, yeah, yeah, fine." Then she must have talked to someone I know because she calls right back and says, "Um, you understand that we'll be sleeping on the ground..." And that's when I started thinking, Somalia, Bosnia, those are war areas aren't they?
(laughs) Right, right. So I go and buy a video camera, again without thinking too much, but I must have realized that if I had that distance and had a task to do, then I'd be able to emotionally handle whatever I was about to see. I was glad I had it. One of the first things we did in Somalia was walk into a place with people dying on the floor making this terrible sound in their throat. I was shooting, my eye to the eyepiece, and my mind was telling every fibre of my being to flee but I stayed because that was my task.
have given you some insight into the people who do that everyday.
Absolutely, and just in terms of what's going on in the world, you begin to gain a vital perspective. I've been back to Bosnia a few times because I came to love the people. I got very hooked on Sarajevo in particular--the common perception was that this was a place of death that people had to flee but the opposite was true. Sarajevo was a place of great life. The people refused to stay even though they were sniped at from the surrounding hills. They danced, they held poetry readings, they fought back by trying to live a normal life and that was the most stirring thing I'd ever seen.
heartened by the recent cinematic interest in both Somalia (with
Scott's Black Hawk Down)
and Bosnia (Danis Tanovic's No Man's Land)?
Absolutely. The more that movies reflect the real world, the better the balance and I think audiences will be ready for it. I have a film that I've been trying to make for years about Sarajevo--I hope this signals a better climate for it.
"My first meeting with Ben I said, 'I can't be looking in the rear-view at McTiernan and Noyce and you can't be looking in the rear-view at Harrison and Alec.'"
involvement with "Band of Brothers" was somewhat unexpected, wasn't it?
Steven [Spielberg] and I had been talking about doing something together for a long time and I got a call one day saying, "Would you be interested in directing the first episode?" Well, of course I would so I was in New York at the time and I was instructed that as soon as I got off the plane in L.A. to go see Steve and Tom [Hanks] at Tom's office. It's funny, when I first got there this fat homeless guy came walking in and I was thinking, "Geesh, they'll just let anyone in here," but of course it was Tom--he was shooting Cast Away at the time, and we talked and they said, "Great, get on the plane tomorrow."
Spielberg going to do the first episode himself?
Right, he had a few health problems at the time and couldn't do it--and so I was on a plane. Pack your bags, grab your passport; go to England. I showed up at this abandoned aerospace factory in Hatfield about an hour north of London that they'd converted into a studio. Huge backlot, all of the people and props, vehicles and wardrobe for the whole ten hours were just sitting there waiting for a director.
read Ambrose's book?
(laughs) I did on the plane ride over. It's a really good piece. I was touched that I got a copy of it later signed by Dick Winters.
prefer to work from books?
Oh I do, I don't have original ideas. (laughs) I have very few original ideas and I so admire people who come up with ideas for movies. Someone else does the heavy lifting--you obviously have to do a lot of work to make something work for the screen, but it's wonderful to have that as a grounding.
you work from your own screenplay, how free are you in changing
something on the fly and, conversely, when you work on another's
screenplay, do you honour your role as "just" director?
If it doesn't work, I hope I'm the first to admit it. I think that it's so hard to know what's going to work before you get on the floor. Sometimes you get something that's just perfect on the page, but you start shooting and it's just dead. Sometimes you change a few lines, sometimes you change the blocking, and sometimes you just start from scratch. When I shoot off someone else's screenplay as with Sum of All Fears, I definitely try to keep my hands off, but I had such a nice relationship with Dan [The Sum of All Fears was scripted by Paul Attanasio and Daniel Pyne -Ed.] and we were really forced to start production before we were really ready--so we were doing some writing during the shoot.
how you see The Sum of All Fears as first an
adaptive challenge, and then as it fits into the Jack Ryan series.
My first meeting with Ben [Affleck] I said, "I can't be looking in the rear-view at McTiernan and Noyce and you can't be looking in the rear-view at Harrison [Ford] and Alec [Baldwin]." I think that my film is less--and don't take this as a criticism of the other films--linear than the others. In that sense, the weaving of all the disparate plots and characters in the first half, I think it's a little more like a Clancy novel in that sense--we take some time to let all the threads fall together.
point in the film's production did 9/11 fall?
I had just finished my first cut and was doing a temporary soundmix to show the studio. Nothing really went to mind about the fate of my film until the first journalists started calling and asking about it. I showed the film a week later and that was a point in time where the FBI had called to warn the studios that we might be next so they were not in the mood--but after the screening there was a sense of relief. Sum of All Fears is very leadership-affirming, I think, and it's very anti-violence. It's really about the response to terrorism rather than terrorism, and the message is, "Do not rush headlong into response," and that's a very topical and responsible reaction.
appreciated your restraint in the Liev Schreiber character sparing the
two Russian guards.
There was a lot of discussion about that. In an early draft they were killed and then that evolved into them being shot with tranquilizer darts, but in speaking with the CIA advisor we had on the film, we discovered that even that was unrealistic. You have to weigh a man to be sure you don't overdose him and kill him anyway, or under-dose him and just make him really mad. So we took that out and, again, it's not unintentional that Jack Ryan never fires a gun. The fight he gets into in the film is an empty one, too--he doesn't get any benefit from that violence.
honest, with that moral backing to your films, I was very surprised to
see your name attached to this project.
I asked myself that when I started working on this film and I wonder if that sentimentality isn't a weakness of mine. That's part of the reason I've been wanting to try to expand a little into other genres with more of an edge because I know that I'll inevitably bring a softness to it. Besides, it sounded fun and challenging, but I knew that I needed something to get me through the day--not the paycheck which is temporary, but what I put in front of people. I imagine on my deathbed looking around the room at all the posters of my films and just thinking (nodding), "Yep, that's me."
empty frame for Rhinestone.
(laughs) Yeah--I don't even have a poster for Rhinestone.
suspect you join the rest of the United States in that distinction.
about your father/son theme.
It's funny, I didn't set out to do it but even the films I didn't write are about young guys who need to grow up--I'll leave you to decide what that says about me. (laughs) I actually think what it is, is the issue of my generation. The baby boomers, when we turned twenty-one we didn't give up those things that defined us as teenagers. We're still wearing blue jeans and listening to rock and roll and wearing our hair the way we want to and for as healthy as that is, it also raises a whole set of problems. We've had two coming of ages in a way.
The Sum of All Fears opens across North America on Friday, May 31st, 2002.