The last Hollywood film completed in the 20th century begins just as the first one did-in silence, this time by directorial degree. There's no fanfare from 20th Century Fox, no spiraling theme from DreamWorks at the outset of their co-production, The Legend of Bagger Vance-only the music of crickets at play on a golf course at the crack of dawn.
"It's just my preference," shrugs Robert Redford. In his sixth time out as a director, he talked both companies into throwing a sound-blanket over their logos so he can gently ease his way into the legend at hand, a film fable based on Steven Pressfield's novel.
"It's asking the audience to pause a little bit. Rather that slam into the film, you're taking your time-and you're making a point about the importance of the environment."
Specifically, the story centers around one Rannulph Junuh (Matt Damon), once a state amateur golf champion who returns home to Savannah from World War I broken and besotted. Bagger Vance (Will Smith) is the mysterious-maybe even mythic-caddy who helps Junuh get his "authentic swing" back and hold his own in competition with two of the era's greatest golfers, Bobby Jones (Joel Gretsch) and Walter Hagen (Bruce McGill).
American sports in the first part of the previous century qualify as something of a specialty for Redford, who played baseball to mystical extreme (The Natural) and directed fly-fishing for spiritual effect (A River Runs Through It) during that period.
"I see sports as good dramatic material, particularly metaphorically," he's quick to admit, "but what interests me is getting underneath that. What is it about the sport that makes people behave the way they do about it? A lot of people get hooked on fly-fishing, a lot of people get hooked on golf-what is it about that sport? You have to go inside the sport to illustrate what it is about it that is challenging and attractive. Then, by moving it back in time, you're doing something else. You're asking the audience to look at how the country was born, asking, 'What's missing here? Do you miss something about Savannah? The way it was then? The way neighborhoods were? The way people were with each other?'"
Golf isn't really his game, he concedes. "I started playing when I was 11. Fact is, there's a scene in the movie that's like how I learned to play golf." When Redford was 11, he and a buddy used to bike up Stone Canyon Road in West Los Angeles, hide in the hedge brushes at the Bel Air Country Club and watch the foursomes play in order to learn their swings. Then, when there was a gap between foursomes, they threw their shag balls onto the green and hacked their way down to the par-five hole. And when they saw the next foursome appear on the horizon, the boys beat a retreat to the bushes and hid again. In the movie, this "business" is given to a character named Hardy Greaves (played as a pre-teen by J. Michael Moncrief and as an old-timer by an unbilled Jack Lemmon).
"I played till my early 20s, when I moved to New York to be in the theatre. Then, when I started a family there, I just didn't play anymore and lost interest in it-complete interest because too many people were doing it and there was too much on TV." His son grew up, became an avid golfer and, after a break of 32 years, rekindled Redford's interest in golf.
Redford's professional interests are harder to sustain than his pastimes, it would seem from the number of different hats he has worn during his 40 years as an actor. Thirty of those years have been spent, off and on, as a producer, and 20 of them directing his half-dozen films. Only once has he tried to direct himself (in The Horse Whisperer). Usually, he overthinks the project until he's too old to play it; then he assigns his role to a younger surrogate (Damon in Bagger Vance, or Brad Pitt in A River Runs Through It).
There is, of course, no question where Redford's heart is. As much as he is a reluctant superstar, he is a caring, inventive, resourceful director. His first attempt at directing won the Oscar for Best Picture of 1980 (Ordinary People), and when he got the accompanying prize as Best Director, he had the great good grace to thank the directors who had helped him along the way as an actor. His Quiz Show put him in the running for those same awards. He has coaxed Oscar-winning work from Ordinary People's Timothy Hutton (Best Supporting Actor), The Milagro Beanfield War's Dave Grusin (Best Original Score of 1988) and A River Runs Through It's Philippe Rousselot (Best Cinematography of 1992).
Redford readily allows that he didn't quite know what he was getting into when his career started changing directions and dimensions. At the time, he was mostly responding to the pressures of stardom, retreating from them or trying to channel them properly. "I was thinking what I'd really like to do was design my own films-at least control the vision of the film-and you can't do that as an actor for hire. That led me into producing. In 1969, in order to make the movies I wanted to make, I started to produce with Downhill Racer.
"What was in my mind was to do a trilogy. The theme would be that of winning, done in a semi-documentary style. I was going to try to tell the same theme with three topics-sports, politics and business. I did two of them-The Candidate, which followed Downhill Racer, covered politics-but I never got to the third. By then, I went into Jeremiah Johnson and wanted to tell what it was like to live in the wilderness.
"By the time I got to the end of the '70s, I was starting to put body English on things with every director I worked with. Even with a director I liked, I found myself saying, 'Why not do it this way?' Then I thought, 'You know what? This isn't going to work. Just do your own. Just make your own movie entirely, if you have very strong feelings about it.'"
Redford confesses that he was wonderfully unintimidated when he took the giant step to directing. "I wasn't scared at all," he says. "I had such a clear notion of what I wanted to do, I was excited about doing it. I was more excited about getting it on the screen.
"I did my own storyboards because I'd never learned the language of the camera as a lot of kids do in film schools-there were no film schools when I started, but I knew what I wanted, with the lighting and all. I just didn't know how to explain it in the language of the camera so, in frustration, when the cameraman asked what lens would I like, I took paper and started sketching it. Pretty soon, our dialogue became a series of sketches. I realized, 'Wow! The thing I thought I'd missed in my life was painting,' and here it was. I was combining performing and painting. That's when I got really excited about directing.
"I had worked so hard as an actor in so many films, I was just tired. I thought, 'Well, I've come to a juncture,' when I had directed my first film. 'Now's the time to stop and rethink it and do something different for a while just to rejuvenate yourself.' When you get numb from moviemaking, your work begins to look like it. You could phone it in. I didn't want that, so I decided to start Sundance to put something back. I put all my energies into that."
The Sundance Institute, named after the role that ushered Redford into superstardom and built on his own land in Utah, conveniently crisscrosses his favorite causes-the outdoors and non-studio artists. It encourages the independent film movement that has powerfully counterpointed mainstream Hollywood output, elevating him to guru status.
"I think we are in a very volatile time and there's going to be chaos for a while," he says of the movies' future, "but I'm completely optimistic about film, because it will always be here."