Like many family patriarchs, Dylan Redford’s grandfather, now 80, is a wealth of stories. He speaks of growing up in a diverse, working-class LA neighborhood, heading off to college in Colorado, time “on the bum” as an itinerant art student in Europe in the 1950s, and facing an array of work and family triumphs and challenges. But, unlike many of our grandparents’ tales, in this case, such stories told and retold among family are supplemented by far more public ones: those shared with millions on movie screens worldwide.
In an intimate conversation, Redford discusses the power of storytelling with his grandfather, actor, director, and Sundance founder Robert Redford. Narrative is a theme near and dear to the Redford family: Dylan—an artist, gallerist, and the Walker’s Bentson Research Associate—follows in the steps of his grandfather and his father, documentary filmmaker James Redford (whose film Rethinking Dyslexia takes Dylan as its subject). In advance of Redford’s November 12 Walker Dialogue with critic Amy Taubin, he and Dylan discuss celebrity, the role of painting in the film star’s life, and his announcement that he’ll soon be retiring from acting.
Dylan Redford: I’ve been thinking lately about just how important storytelling is in our family—how one of the things you really instilled is the sense that storytelling could make a difference, could change the world. Where did that come from?
Robert Redford: That all started when I was a little teeny kid. When I was growing up in a working-class neighborhood in Los Angeles, nobody had much, and so therefore it was really about how you heard—and told—stories. I was a very rambunctious kid and I was always up late, and so to calm me down, my dad would tell me a story before bed. Most of the time, he would make one up, and it had a huge impact on me, storytelling. Then there was a radio program in the 1940s on Saturday morning called, Let’s Pretend, which was all about storytelling and really had an impact on me. As I grew up and moved into the business myself, that obviously was going to be a huge component.
It became such a big part of my life that when I had a family, I felt the need to carry that tradition forward, so I would tell my kids—Shauna and Jamie and then Amy—stories. I would try to impress on them how important storytelling was, so we’d be having dinner and I’d say, “Okay, what’s your story today? What happened today that is a story for you?”
Dylan: But you didn’t always tell stories through film. There’s this whole part early in your career when you were a painter. I’m wondering how you think about those years in relation to storytelling and to the impact on your subsequent filmmaking.
Robert: I started out as an artist when I was 18 or 19 years old. I wanted to get out of this country and experience different ways of seeing the world. So I went to Europe, but I went as an artist. I was increasing my skill set and exploring storytelling through painting. Doing that, I realized how much I loved it. Later, when I became an actor, I suffered for four or five years not being sure I wanted to be in that business because I so wanted to be an artist. I just wanted to paint and sketch and tell stories by drawing.
Then I realized: why can’t I combine the two?—which led me to be a director. Ordinary People was my first venture into directing. I didn’t know the technical language of filmmaking, so I said, “Okay, I’m going to do my own storyboard,” because I had to explain to the crew and the technical people what I wanted. I knew what I wanted it to look like, so I would sit down and draw it for the cameraman or the production designer. Once I did that I realized: I’m not losing the artist side of me. I’m pulling it together with the performing side.
Dylan: Do you ever think about returning to painting?
Robert: Yeah, a lot—and a lot lately because I’m getting tired of acting. I’m an impatient person, so it’s hard for me to sit around and do take after take after take. At this point in my life, age 80, it’d give me more satisfaction because I’m not dependent on anybody. It’s just me, just the way it used to be, and so going back to sketching—that’s sort of where my head is right now.
So, I’m thinking of moving in that direction and not acting so much. I’ve got two acting projects in the works: Our Souls at Night, with Jane Fonda, a love story for older people who get a second chance in life, and Old Man with a Gun, a lighter piece with Casey Affleck and Sissy Spacek. Once they’re done then I’m going to say, “Okay, that’s goodbye to all that,” and then just focus on directing.
Dylan: That’s big news! It reminds me of a story you’ve told, and I would love to hear it again—the story about you sleeping on the beach outside the Cannes Film Festival.
Robert: Of course. I was 18 or 19, and I was in Europe, living hand to mouth, staying in youth hostels, and hitchhiking from here to there. I was leaving Paris. I was on my way to Florence, Italy, to go to a different art school. It was wintertime and it was really a tough hitchhiking trip, but I finally got out of Switzerland, and as I ascended into France and arrived in Cannes, it suddenly was a little warmer.
I still had no money. I had no place to stay and it was a very wealthy area. They had these piers right along the shoreline, and I decided I would park myself in the sand there. The pier was a shelter and I decided to undo my bag and make my own little bed there with my clothes and my sleeping bag and so forth.
While I was lying there, I could see behind me the Hotel Carlton, which was this really swank hotel in Cannes. I would look up there and see the lights and hear the voices. I’d hear the gaiety and the music and people laughing. I was thinking to myself, “Jesus, what is it like? What must that be like to be in that building, wearing a tuxedo and dancing and having a high old time?”
Sixteen years later, I’m an actor and I’ve made a movie, Jeremiah Johnson, and Sydney Pollack and I are invited to the Cannes Film Festival. So I go and suddenly I’m put up in the same hotel. I’m in the room and waiters are coming in bringing champagne and bringing hors d’oeuvres in their white coats and so forth. I’m putting on my tuxedo, ready to go down for the premiere, and I step out on the balcony to watch the crowds down below, the cameras flashing, and the noise. And then I look beyond that to the piers. I said, “Jesus.” I suddenly remembered myself lying underneath that pier, wondering what it would be like to be in this building that I was now in.
I remember saying to myself, “Hey, guess what? I’m in this building, and you know what? It’s not so good. It’s not anything like what I thought it was. It’s a pain in the ass.”
Clearly, it would be too one-note to say just the whole thing is a pain in the ass. It’s got some pretty attractive parts to it, but when you add it all up, it became a real labor. It became real labor to struggle in the marketplace against the odds, against all the elements that go against you. Let’s put it this way: it isn’t what I thought it would be.
Dylan: What did you think it would be? Can you remember what you thought it what be, versus where you ended up?
Robert: Yeah, very shallow. It was a very shallow, immature thought because I hadn’t been there. I hadn’t been on that side of the equation. I had not been in a luxurious place. I had not been in a place where there was a lot of money, so I just imagined it was a pretty terrific place and that life must be really great. Then when I got there, I realized it wasn’t as great as I thought.
Dylan: I’ve always wondered how you feel about your celebrity status. I remember the time when I was in fourth grade and you came to my school for Grandparents’ Day. That was a real moment for me, where I was like, “What is going on? This is my grandpa. Why is everyone so interested?” Just total confusion.
I remember this one girl came up to me and handed me a note. She was like, “This is a note from my grandmother that she gave to me to give to you to give to your dad to give to your grandfather.” It was like, “What is going on here? Is this like all grandparents? Is there some sort of communication between grandparents that’s going on that I don’t know about?” It’s remained a pretty wild thing to me.
Robert: I’ll bet it did. I remember that Grandparents’ Day and realizing, “Jesus, Dylan and Lena, they don’t know. They’re probably wondering what the hell is going on here, because I’m going to Grandparents’ Day but I’m suddenly not a grandparent. I’m a celebrity.” People would come up to me and they wanted autographs and I’m thinking, “Wow, this feels very uncomfortable.” It was very disturbing.
Dylan: Well, I’ve talked with Lena [Dylan’s sister] and the cousins about how lucky we all feel to have you as our grandfather and as someone in our lives who is so open and honest and willing to give advice and to tell stories. It’s always felt to us that you are first and foremost our grandfather. Maybe that’s not the case for other celebrity families. It’s always felt like there’s the outside world that has its own thing and then there’s our family, which feels really special. I think it’s something that you’ve clearly put a lot of thought and effort into making.
Robert: That’s correct, I did. I put a lot of thought into: “How can I raise a family and not let outside stuff intrude?”
Dylan: How did you deal with celebrity personally, aside from concerns about family?
Robert: I had to devise my own way to not have celebrity affect me—to not have it distort my own perspective on things or distort my own personality, or where I would start to take myself too seriously. I had to learn that humility was going to be a major component that I wanted to keep in my life.
I could see it coming when I first started to get recognized. Around the time of Butch Cassidy  I was suddenly catapulted into a higher category of being recognized on the street. I was seeing my name in print, and it really got to me in the beginning. I started to take myself seriously, and I remember thinking, “I’d better be careful here. I’d better be careful not to lose myself with this because now all this attention is being paid to me.”
I created three categories for myself around the idea of success. The first stage is that you become an object. Slowly, you’re not being just you anymore. You’re becoming an object to other people who don’t really know you, and if you’re not careful, you go to the next stage and move from being treated like an object to beginning to see yourself as an object. If you’re not careful there, the third and final category is you will become an object and you’ll completely lose yourself.
I put those three categories up and said, “I’m going to be really careful.” If I started getting too much attention, I’d have to pull back and say, “Hold it. Don’t go further down this road. Just remember, don’t take yourself too seriously. Other people may be taking you seriously, but don’t you take yourself seriously.” That kept me in balance.
Dylan: Let’s talk about Sundance. It’s interesting to me that you were having all this success in Hollywood, in the mainstream, but that you also felt like it was important to really incubate independent filmmakers and, in some ways, to create an alternative route to the mainstream. I’m wondering about that instinct, because that’s not often the way most celebrities have dealt with their position or power: “Well, how can I channel this into helping other people?” Was that a cognizant thing for you? Did you feel like you had this position of power and you wanted to somehow use it for the better good or to help these other filmmakers?
Robert: Yeah. The mainstream did control the marketplace at that time. Its criteria was pretty well set. They would tell stories, but they wanted to feel that those stories were going to be commercial, and as a result, the mainstream began to tell stories that were pretty much all the same. American culture was so much red, white, and blue from the 1940s on, and the studios were following that lead so that things were just very red, white, and blue—meaning commercial. They would make films that they were pretty sure would sell tickets.
That was fine. I was very much a part of that. I was very much a part of the studio system. But I felt that there were other stories to be told that were more in the gray zone, where life was more complicated, so I started Sundance. To be able to do it myself, I would make a deal. I’d say to the studio, “Look, if I make this film, it’s a high-budget film, would you let me make a smaller film that’s more offbeat and at a lower cost?” They’d say, “Yeah, as long as it’s under a million, five. Go ahead.” That led me to make films like The Candidate, Downhill Racer, and Jeremiah Johnson.
While I was doing large studio films, I was also able to make these smaller films that I thought would give me more satisfaction because they were different stories to be told. But it was just me doing it. It needed to be expanded and so I thought, “What about other people like myself?” That’s what led to the idea of Sundance.
Dylan: How did it feel to exist in these sort of in-betweens, not wanting to fully exist within the Hollywood zone but also remain independent? Was that a difficult position to hold?
Robert: It was. There was misunderstanding in the beginning that by starting Sundance and having it be in Utah, not Hollywood or New York, that I was like an insurgent. I was like some guy aiming to take down Hollywood by starting something different and new. It wasn’t that at all. I really just wanted to broaden the landscape. Because I was part of the mainstream. I made some films I’m very proud of in the mainstream, and I liked it, but I thought, “There are other ways to tell stories, so why don’t we just create this category and then add it to the main one?”
At a certain point some of the independent films crossed over into success, and once that happened then the studios said, “We’re missing something here.” They then created their own little sub-studios within their own trademark.
Dylan: One last topic: how did you come to have such a firm grip on your own story? I mean, throughout your career—as an actor and director and with Sundance—you’ve seemed so confident and sure of your own vision. But, if I remember correctly, it wasn’t always that way. In closing, can you tell me the mirror story, about your meltdown as an art student in Paris?
Robert: Well, as I mentioned earlier, I decided I was going to be an artist and I said, “Okay I’m done with the University of Colorado. I don’t want to be here anymore. I don’t belong in a classroom.” I had the encouragement of an art teacher who said, “You should go out and explore and just do your own thing.”
I went to Europe and signed up for an art class in Paris. The teacher was a guy named Henri Goetz, and he said, “Look, I will speak English and French for two weeks, but then after two weeks I’ll only speak French, so it’s up to you to learn enough French so you’ll be able to follow.” I was so impacted by him. He so impressed me that I began to paint in his class. After awhile I wanted to move out of Paris and continue my artwork in Florence.
I did, and I ended up living in this little room—just a room with a little bed and a bassinet and a mirror and a table. I really went into hermit mode and just painted and painted. Now when he came through on his way to Rome, he paid me a visit. I was all excited to show him what I’d been working on, and I did—and he was very disappointed. He said, “I don’t see you in this. I see me. You’re just copying my stuff.” It devastated me, just absolutely devastated me.
He went on his way, and then I was left alone. I sat in front of the mirror and I thought, “What do I really look like? I wonder what I really look like. The only way I’ve ever understood myself is by looking in a mirror, and when I look in a mirror I see me and I say, ‘Okay, I guess that’s who I am.'” I suddenly realized, “No. We look in a mirror and immediately we put on the face we think we should put on. We don’t really know what we look like.” So I decided: to find out what I really look I’m going to sit here in front of this mirror and look at me and just keep looking at me and see what happens.”
I did and then I started to really realize how ridiculous it was and I started to laugh. When I saw myself laughing, I suddenly realized, “That’s what I look like laughing.” That made me laugh even more, and the more I laughed the less I recognized myself. The more I laughed, the more I thought, “Wait, that’s what I look like when I’m laughing? That’s not at all what I thought.”
Then I really started to laugh at how ridiculous it all was. My laughter turned to tears, and I watched myself in the mirror going from laughter to crying until it became a complete meltdown. That was valuable for me because when I got through it, I realized, “Okay, stuff’s going on. Stop running around Europe trying to be a painter. Get back to America and restructure your life.”
Dylan: Just like we’ve been talking about of how can you figure out how to tell your own stories, how to find your own language that isn’t somebody else’s. It’s really trying to find how you relate to a larger conversation. What are your strengths? What are your weaknesses?
Robert: Yeah, who are you, really? In other words, you think you know who you are until you put yourself in a situation where you have to look at yourself beyond the point where you did before and you see another person there. Then you say, “Wow,” and then you get scared. It gets frightening.