Round Table interviews are welcomed but rare during the Sundance Film Festival. Simply because the featured filmmakers keep a very busy schedule for the amount of time they reside at the festival. It's an important time for filmmakers to meet with as many people possible to pitch their film--from journalist to photographers to audiences to studio bosses. Sundance is all about the independent artists showing their wares. And, hoping their film will land distribution rights.
The Round Table interviews are special, relatively intimate, and involve a small number of press and industry representatives. When the opportunity arises to participate in such an interview, it is a privilege beyond measure.
Fourteen journalists were invited to participate in the Round Table for the film A Walk in the Woods staring Robert Redford and Nick Nolte under the direction of Ken Kwapis. The location was in an event hall that was modern in decor with a country-like flair. The journalists were divided into two groups of seven, each seated at a "round" table. The tables situated in two separate rooms were nice for private conversation.
The journalists did not know who they would be interviewing ahead of time, so it was a surprise to see there were five people from the film present: Director, Ken Kwapis, Screenwriter Bill Holderman, Bill Bryson, author of the book "A Walk in the Woods", and the principle cast Robert Redford and Nick Nolte.
The guidelines for the interviews were clarified to the journalists by the film's publicist. The interview would last thirty minutes. Redford and Nolte would be interviewed at one table and at the same time Kwapis, Holderman and Bryson would be interviewed at the other table. The journalist would get fifteen minutes with each group. Each journalists was allowed to ask only one question. Taking turns in order of their seating around the table.
Nolte and Redford headed for my table first. The two simply approached us, sat down and began to make small talk. As if we were continuing a previous conversation. It was so cool! However, once the publicist said, "Ok! We will start the session now," everyone put on their professional hats. The chit-chat stopped and the first question was blurted out. Funny! We were all a little nervous and it felt like we were being dictated by a stop-watch. The first question was a good one to open up our intimate interview.
What inspired you to be a part of this film?
Redford (R): I was touched by the book when I read it. I laughed out loud so many times. I was touched by the... Pathos. It had a depth to it. I didn't see comedy around that had that deeper dimension. It wasn't straight out comedy. It was something different. I hadn't seen much comedy presented in this way. So, twelve years ago I asked Bill Bryson for the rights to the film. He agreed and has been very generous. It has been a twelve-year journey to get the film made. I am happy about it.
Nolte (N): Bob (Robert Redford) called me and mentioned the book but I hadn't read it so I read the book, then the script. The interest for me was that Bryson was talking about the seriousness of a "last walk,” incorporating the humor surrounding his idea. His two main characters (Bryson and Katz) the older they get the more compliant they become to take time to live life as it comes. It's a wisdom that comes with age. The screenplay has so much of Bryson's idea of talking, walking, and taking life in stride. I liked it.
R: Nick has a certain line in the film...that really hits me hard...regarding vulnerability...the relationship is a tough one between these two men. They are both humorous, intelligent guys who had fun when they were younger with a variety of wild escapades and adventures. Thirty years later these guys come back together. Over the years, each man has gone through a toughening-up from life experiences...and now, both, trying to hide behind this fact...Katz (Nick's character) touches me and says, "I came out here so I could have one last adventure with you ...one last adventure..", which means someone sees the end of the road. What chance does he have to do something like this at this point in his life? This may be his one and only chance....and this trip is his one last chance...there is something kind of desperate and touching about that scene and his line...This idea inspired me.
I was next in line and asked if they needed to ad-lib with the script.
R: No...It is a good script and we didn't need to much but the openness was definitely there...The script set on its own shoulders...Nick and I had a relationship that was loose enough when we were in character but if it came up we could ad-lib.
N: The script was well written and the better the script is, the more openness one has to the circumstances. Sometimes the circumstances allows for something more natural to be said. And one can take advantage of it.
I followed up with congratulations to their performances and added, "After reading the book, listening to the audio book and now seeing the film, I felt you were both excellent in your character development. The voice-over actor for the book was excellent as well...
R: Oh, there is an audio book? I didn't know that. Do you remember who did the voice over-acting?
K: Ooo, I am sorry... I do not recall his name at the moment. But, he is very good. His voice was right.
R: Was he better than Nick and I?
K: (Smiling with a little chuckle) Wh..a...t? No way....Of course not! Are you kidding...?
It's moments like this that endear journalists to artists. There was another question that brought out part of a personal back story with Redford and Nolte during their professional journey. Not too many would ever have the chance to hear. I remember thinking, "Wow! Along with their extended successful careers and the joys that accompany those rewards, they also understand grave disappointments." They were open and honest about it too. One definitely got the impression that their self-identity help build integrity from their experiences thus far.
There were a couple of questions regarding the impact of full immersion into nature. Both Redford and Nolte felt right at home with trekking part of the Appalachian Trail. Both felt nature was and is a part of their lives by choice. The area surrounding the Sundance organization is a perfect example of being in the mountains. Redford grew up in Los Angeles area when it was pristine but later wanted to get away from the batting life of the city. He was often in the Sierras as a kid. Redford worked in Yosemite National Park. He wanted to raise a family with a choice of semi-wilderness and nature. Loved it himself. Nolte moved around a lot growing up and sometimes on the run as a child. His immersion with nature was the safest place for him. He lived many years in Mexico. Had a house in the desert in the U.S. Lived in a communal life for awhile and currently has a house on farm land.
Q: Was your acting style complimentary with this role and to your passion with being an artist?
Both felt it was complimentary and Redford told us his first experience with television.
R: I was at the American Academy of the Dramatic Arts in New York but I was originally going to go to a private institute in Brooklyn to study Art. My sights were set on being an artist. Through a series of serendipitous terms I ended up at the American Academy. I was very self-conscious. I couldn't imagine me being an actor. While I was at the school, I was broke and I had a wife that was pregnant. Someone came to the school and announced that they are casting for a show called "Play your Hunch"--a quiz show downtown. Encouraged to go down there, so I asked what the deal was? They'll pay $75! I went down and met Merv Griffen who was the host. This was in 1959. For black and white TV. I just wanted desperately to get the job. I needed the money! I stood in line with others and the guy would say to each one of us either you stay or no you go! I got to stay...They asked me some questions and I thought I gave them good answers....but they were not really interested in my answers ... they just wanted to know how old I was, what I did...I told them I was an actor and they said not to say that and continued to ask me what else I did. I told them I was an artist. They asked what kind of art I did so I start to explain but was interrupted and mentioned that they didn't need to know. In my head I'm questioning what is really going on here? I asked them if I was going to get the job...they said yes...I was so excited...I went home told my wife and made the mistake of calling a bunch of people to tell them I was going to be on TV.
I get on the show and I find out my role. It is all staged with these contestants that would argue about a certain topic. Staged were three screens and I was going to be behind one of the screens named X, Y or Z. Myself and two other guys were silhouetted...then there was a guy in front...The questions to him were to find out which person behind the screen was this guy’s brother...and, I thought...well, I'm not...so my screen goes up and I get booed...the first time I am booed on TV...for just being me. I didn't like this very much. After the show Merv came over to me and asked me who I was...and saw I was really down...asked me what I do...I told him I was an artist and asked where I was from (...small talk...) I was only concerned about my $75 and then he hands me a fishing pole...I said what's this? He said your concession for the show, it's worth about $75....So that was my first introduction to the world of television.
There were a few more questions asked but before they were answered the groups were asked to switch. We thanked Redford and Nolte for their time. Shortly heard greetings and salutations from the films' director Ken Kwapis, author Bill Bryson of the travel book A Walk in the Woods and screenwriter Bill Holderman. Round two of questioning began:
Q: What were the funniest dynamics between Bob and Nick while filming? Funniest thing the actors did?
Kwapis (K): When Bob and Nick are in the scene on the ledge and the script calls for them to do this ridiculous physical comedy....I wasn't sure they would do it...and they did it so well...
Q: for Bryson. Where you on set for this?
Bryson (B): No I was not. I could not justify spending the money to come from England for a couple of days but I was highly interested because I know nothing about creating a movie. One of things that overwhelmed me I experienced last night at the screening while sitting through the whole line of credits...I was surprised at how many people it takes to make a movie. It was amazing! I would love to have seen how it was done. It takes only one person to write a book and hundreds to make a movie. Mind boggling.
Q: How did you get all of the equipment on the trail? If indeed the film was shot on the actual trail...
K: Yes, the film was shot on location. We employed camels to carry the gear to several shoots on the trail...in the Georgia woods...we needed Camels and mule to carry our gear. Camels proved to carry more.
Q: Do they behave? Are they easy to work with?
K: I think Nick and one of them got into it a little bit. When we got to the cusps part of the trail in Virginia...way off the main trail out toward the lookout scene over the mountain range...This was a hard place to get to and as we just got there to shoot we saw a storm coming. We had to get the shots in a hurry. And franticly hand carry out all the equipment before the lightning storm was about to appear. The camels were not help with this one.
Q: How did you shoot the sequences?
K: We were not able to shoot film in continuity. But what was nice is that Bob and Nick had only done a little bit of work together before this film. Their experience helped the two to grow into the emotional journey each experienced. By the time we got to the end of the schedule and shooting the night scene on the ledge where the two of them are stranded it was fabulous to watch Redford and Nolte work. It's not about acting styles...it's about the fact they were in each other’s lives...and came together in a very natural way....Also, both men had a deep understanding of their character. It was their fundamentals of acting and knowing who the characters were that made their style so rich and deep. To bring all of that background into the film was ideal.
Q: How did the third element like bringing actress Kristen Shaw into the mix, can you expound on the how dynamic of the characters? Did it throw a curve ball?
K: What is wonderful is how everyone feeds off of each other in terms of their acting. Kristen brought such a different energy that I don't think Bob nor Nick knew what to make of her. It brought into play how the greatness in their work developed. The same with Emma Thompson. Nick and Emma come from completely different approaches to their style of acting. Both are thoughtful and plan their work but Emma really plans her work moment to moment. Nick goes more initially for the emotional planning. As the director, my job is to make sure we are all telling the same story as the different acting styles mesh.
K: I think Bob was eager to sculpture the comedic moment and get into a lighter side of life experience...but...it's a smart director to know when to shut-up and let guys know what they are doing do their thing...there were plenty of times when I needed to step back.
Q: Was there much improv?
K: Not really...it’s a good script and we stuck to it pretty closely. Some scenes were literally from the book and others not to introduce more aspects.
Q; Did they do all their own stunts?
K: Yes...they did all the walking...and it's not an easy trek.
I wanted to know what type of physical training each character needed to do prior to filming.
Q: What type of preparation did Redford and Nolte have to do for the trek?
K: Several months before the shoot...Nick walked in big heavy knee-high boots all around his property while saying his lines and Bob as an incredible athlete prepared in his own way. They'd show up every day ready to work...Nick was driven by Bob to just keep up with him.
Q: Bob talked about the underlying Pathos in the script...can you comment?
K: I think the tricky thing is that the script has a light surface and the key as the director is how to let that pathos just sneak up on you as opposed to announcing it like, "you are going to feel a certain way or think a certain thing". Even on the page of the script it's all there spelled out but you don't sense it until you are on the journey because you don't want to really think about the deep stuff: the loss of time, having fallen out of touch, will we be able to reconnect, etc. What was great about Bob and Nick was that they knew where they were on the emotional part of the story. In the book the underlying heart of the characters was so rich and the actors knew that that heat was going to serve the day. The film and the book are very optimistic and these two guys though older will not go gentle into the night. They will survive this adventure...somehow.
Bill Bryson adds that in the beginning Paul Newman was selected for the role of Katz but in reality he would not have been suited to portray the Katz in the book and thus Nick really captured the essence of the real Katz.
The Round Table discussion was over in a flash, it seemed. Again our group thanked the featured guests for their time and candid interview. I gathered my belongings while chatting with my colleagues. Once bundled up to face the brisk fresh air, I headed off to my next scheduled appointment. Smiling, I reflected on stories just heard about the making of A Walk in the Woods, the movie. I could hardly wait to get to my computer to recount the information and thoughts I held in my brain from such an inspiring session.