The past is Redford’s territory. History is, colleagues suggest, one reason for his avid preservationism: he can’t bear to see the past erased.
BY TOBY THOMPSON
Editor’s note: This essay was written in 1991 during the filming of A River Runs Through It in Livingston, Montana. It appeared in Toby Thompson’s 2012 book, Riding the Rough String: Reflections on the American West. He has updated it for Mountain Outlaw magazine.
A 1920s motorcycle on high, thin wheels swims through gravel on Callender Street as a grizzled man in coveralls rides it past horse-drawn buggies, Model Ts, and a fat team of Percherons hauling a buckboard. The Panaflex swings as costumed extras cross an avenue dressed in fake balconies, gas lampposts and wooden sidewalks. This is the opening scene to A River Runs through It. Every trace of modern Livingston has been camouflaged. Director Robert Redford’s cinematographer, Phillipe Rousselot, gauges the exquisite afternoon light before panning sky and mountains, then gliding to the Maclean boys scouting town.
They’re supporting actors. Craig Sheffer and Brad Pitt play Norman MacLean, author of the novella upon which the film is based, and his brother Paul, respectively, with Tom Skerritt as their father and Emily Lloyd as Norman’s wife. River is strikingly cast, but for the moment it’s Redford’s set that intrigues. Livingston’s false-front buildings, wide 19th-century streets, and surrounding Absaroka Mountains have not required much doctoring. Livingstonians are happy to see the film here; some speak of leaving its scenery in place, to lure tourists. As much as $10 million will be pumped into a depressed economy by River’s crew. The civic center, rented for $2,000 per month, is now a sound stage. Merchants are being compensated for this shot’s disruption. Locals have been hired as extras, grips, tailors, seamstresses and carpenters. As Redford hopes to bring River in for $12 million, most are earning a bottom-drawer wage.
Redford slouches in a canvas chair on Callender’s sidewalk, his head tilted toward the sun. He’s conferring with staff when this reporter’s spotted. We shake hands then face off in the street like gunfighters. Redford initiates a diatribe against magazine, television and newspaper reporting, even the Washington Post‘s (whose Watergate coverage his portrayal of Bob Woodward, in All the President’s Men, eternalized) before conversation eases toward Montana and author Tom McGuane, a friend who introduced Redford to Norman Maclean’s book in 1980. Redford’s face brightens. He’s lunched at McGuane’s, promising that River will be dedicated to American Rivers, a foundation McGuane represents.
“Tom’s got a great life,” Redford says of that rugged sportsman. I mention McGuane’s passion for cutting horses and the Zen of showing them, and Redford says, “There’s a lot of Zen in directing.” He pushes back the sleeves of his black T-shirt. “There’s competition in this film, like Paul throwing rocks to spook Norman’s fish. But directing’s not about that.”
He might have suggested “grace.” His look is beatific. He’s won this slugfest for River, directing it for his own company on a shoestring budget in a historical West he adores. The past is Redford’s territory. History is, colleagues suggest, one reason for his avid preservationism: he can’t bear to see the past erased.
His boyhood was linked to Hollywood, if only its studio gates. He remembers the “painted sky” of backlots “standing out against the real sky,” and actors he considered unmanly, even “girlish.” He had talent for sketching, which his father, Charles Redford, decried as futureless (“I was more of a dreamer than he’d hoped.”), and talent for mimicry. Redford’s stepbrother, William Coomber, told Newsweek in 1974: “He used to have a game called ‘Guess who I’m walking like?’ Bob could walk like anybody you knew, and you could recognize the person instantly.”
The previous night he’d seemed to be imitating a teenager on a first date. He’d stepped through the door of Livingston’s Sport saloon in Levi’s and a pearl-buttoned work shirt. Then froze, scouting a table. His companion wore a silk blouse and linen skirt—upscale for Montana—and fingered her hair anxiously. She was not so tall as Redford, who scanned the room, his gaze never rising to eye level. He spotted a vacant corner and the couple settled. He’s been in Livingston since mid-June, 1991, when he began directing River.
Redford’s hair is a straw heap of reddish-blond, frosted with white; at the moment he had little to say. His date fidgeted. They sat close, like kids at a malt shop, sipping drinks and hardly speaking. She glanced at his face. It is craggy, lined and pitted with scars. The smile, when it flashes, is still brilliant. His chest and arms are powerful, but he’s sprouted a belly. He’s 54 years old, freshly divorced, a grandfather.
Few of the locals that night heeded Redford; Livingston is accustomed to celebrities. At least four previous movies have been shot here, including McGuane’s Rancho Deluxe, his Cold Feet (written with Jim Harrison) and his The Missouri Breaks, which brought Brando and Nicholson to town. A fifth McGuane film, Keep the Change, finished production in September of 1991.
The kidding of Redford has been primarily by business wags: “Welcome Wobert Wedford,” reads Main Street Car Wash’s sign, and “A River Runs through What?” demands Trower Drug.
“Sadness is inherent,” Redford has admitted. “If you look a certain way, you’re not supposed to be sad. You’re not supposed to have nightmares.”
The novella, A River Runs Through It, concerns family, specifically familial communication. It was nominated for a Pulitzer in 1977, sold 275,000 copies, and was called “an American classic” by Alfred Kazin, with passages “of physical rapture in the presence of unsullied primitive America that are as beautiful as anything in Thoreau or Emerson.” But River highlights two brothers, one gently meditative, the other violently self-destructive, who share a passion for angling. “In our family,” Maclean wrote in the autobiographical novella, “there was no clear line between religion and fly fishing.” And to Maclean’s father, a Presbyterian minister who alternated lessons in scripture with those in casting, “all good things—trout as well as eternal salvation—come by grace and grace comes by art and art does not come easy.”
The Maclean brothers were first-generation Scottish Americans who communed in sport. Redford is a Scotch-Irish actor who communicates best through physicality. He’s told River’s publicist, Beverly Walker, “Scots have enormous difficulty in expressing feelings and emotions, and are capable of intense judgementalness, of punishing others by silence.”
One patron who’s noticed Redford’s silence was William Hjortsberg, the Montanan whose quirky novel, Falling Angel, was optioned by Redford before it became Alan Parker’s film Angel Heart, starring Mickey Rourke. Hjortsberg worked with Maclean as a screenwriter for Paramount on the first adaptation of River.
“Norman was a salty old guy,” Hjortsberg remembered, “whom I liked enormously. When I met him in 1978, his wife had died a few years before. That’s why he started writing. He was about 75 when I met him. We fished the Blackfoot River and afterward he offered me a snort of whiskey from a Mason jar. He’d transferred whiskey from the bottle to this jar; I guess it reminded him of bootleg liquor during Prohibition, the era of his book.”
Maclean’s brother, Paul, was a newspaper reporter and gambler who was beaten to death in a Chicago alley, presumably over debts. The bones in his right hand—the casting hand—were smashed. Paul is the brother in River that Maclean cannot save. “The book is really about loving somebody,” Hjortsberg said, “being unable to help them, and seeing them slide toward destruction.”
When Paramount’s option lapsed, actors William Hurt and Sam Shepard tried to gain the author’s favor, but Missoula writers William Kittredge and Annick Smith (creators of Heartland) won River’s screen rights, forming a partnership with Maclean. They took a script to Redford’s Sundance Institute, and Redford, according to Kittredge, said, “‘But I was going to do this.’ And,” Kittredge added, “when the steamroller starts moving, you get out of the road.” Redford, in a Premiere article about Sundance unrest, denied impropriety. “I wasn’t aware of moving anybody out,” he said. But, he admitted, “I don’t have a lot of success working with a lot of people.” He was at the tail-end of a courtship of Maclean’s family that required three visits to Chicago, an authorial visit to Sundance, and Maclean’s approval of the final screenplay.
The author died in 1990 at 87, cantankerous to the end. “Norman obviously didn’t much want to have a movie made,” Hjortsberg said. “When he read my script, his reaction was, ‘These are my family and you can’t treat them like this.’ I tried scrupulously to be faithful to the book, more faithful than the script Redford’s shooting.”
Maclean’s sensitivity was not lost on Redford, whose own father was distant and uncommunicative, and who died in April of 1991 at age 76. He was a Chevron accountant who’d been a milkman in Santa Monica while Redford was growing up. “Bob had to go down last month and clean out his father’s things,” Beverly Walker told me. “When he said that, tears filled his eyes.”
At the Sport, Redford finished supper and guided his date toward the door. He looked distracted. The couple was outside when a waitress, waving her unpaid check, followed. Redford reappeared sheepishly, laying plastic on the bar. His date squinted from the entryway. Time to settle up.
Brad Pitt has not been seen at The Sport. He dines each night at Mark’s In and Out, a ’50s vintage drive-in at the south end of town. “He orders two chicken sandwiches and a Coke,” servers tell me. Tom Skerritt brunches, on Sundays, at Martin’s railroad café, now the Northern Pacific Beanery. Pitt has dated locals, one of whom says he sleeps in a tent pitched in the apartment’s living room—for verisimilitude. Redford appears to be doing little but work.
Nevertheless, rumors hatch about the set like caddisflies: Redford’s drinking and philandering—“I hear he’s worked his way through Bozeman”—producers are punching extras; male crew are fist-fighting cowboys and bedding cowgirls; Redford’s quarreling with Forest Service rangers and not paying carpenters overtime; his complexion’s poor and he’s shorter than expected.
Off Callender Street, Redford’s moved to a shadowy alley, just below painter Russell Chatham’s studio. There he’s coaching actresses in a whorehouse sequence. Chatham is a world-renowned landscape artist and record-holding angler. He’s so protective of Maclean’s novella that he warned Craig Sheffer at a gallery opening, “I’ll get you guys if you fuck up the fly-fishing scenes.” Redford owns several Chatham canvasses, and the grace with which Russell captures Montana’s light in oil is, one presumes, how Redford dreams of rendering it in celluloid. The director stalks alley cobblestones, moving from camera to brick wall to pose a prostitute. For a second he becomes the girl, placing one arm against a roughened balcony, the opposite hand on his hip. He’s posturing there when Chatham appears amid the garbage cans. Redford’s startled. But smiling, he throws his arms around the burly painter and squeezes hard.
The legend behind Redeemer Lutheran’s pulpit reads “GOD IS LOVE.” Redford sits in the front pew, a grayish skivvy tugged from his jeans, boots splayed out and his face corrugated with fatigue. It’s 10 p.m. He’s been directing since 9 a.m. The church is darkened, ghostly. A comely masseuse kneads Redford’s neck and shoulders as Tom Skerritt stands before a walnut lectern delivering Reverend Maclean’s eulogy for his son:
“ … and so it is those we live with and love and should know who elude us. However, it is also true that you can love completely without complete understanding … ”
This is River’s penultimate scene and Redford’s determined to make it right. “Action,” he calls, as the white-haired Skerritt removes spectacles, pulls at his vestment, and begins. Redford quietly says, “Cut.” He stares from his pew. He repeats this drill, suggesting minor variations and rising to check results on videotape. “Action … ”
After a moment the director leaves his pew and stalks the church’s nave like a puma. He yanks at his shirt and chews gum madly. He stops, frames the shot, then disappears outside, seeking isolation. Or is it trees, flowers, nature?
Walker sighs. “I’m convinced one reason Bob speaks so much about the environment is to avoid speaking about himself and his family. You know, the principals in A River Runs through It physically resemble Bob: Brad Pitt, the young rebellious Bob, Tom Skerritt, the older Bob. I think middle-age is a tremendous relief to him. He’s no longer handsome. We suggested airbrushing his publicity stills and he said, “Forget it.’”
Bob Woodward, a friend of Redford’s since the 1970s, has said, “What interests him is that there’s a surface and there’s a reality. What you see on the surface doesn’t always reflect the reality. He’s really interested in secrets … what’s hidden in an individual, a family, an institution, a culture … and what’s hidden within himself.”
“Sadness is inherent,” Redford has admitted. “If you look a certain way, you’re not supposed to be sad. You’re not supposed to have nightmares.”
The director has returned and Tom Skerritt’s eulogy as Reverend Maclean, at last, seems spun. In a dozen takes Redford has muttered little more than “cut,” his back bent and the masseuse kneading his shoulders. His fatigue is overwhelming. It’s as if he were filming his eulogy, or that of his dad. Skerritt makes some tiny adjustment in delivery and Redford stiffens. The girl’s hands fall away. Redford straightens in his pew, and with a voice barely audible, whispers, “Nice.”
My endurance didn’t just come from myself. It came from the people I surrounded myself with. Society helped me get to where I am.
It’s lunchtime in Sacajawea Park: white cavalry tents shield crew and company from the mountain sun, as Redford sits alone beside his aluminum teapot of a trailer, a classic Airstream. Like River‘s props, it might as well be vintage. He’s so immersed himself in the Macleans’ era, hanging photos of their family, reading Paul’s newspaper columns, playing Norman’s taped lectures, and studying his letters, that he’s lived in their “world and life and time for several months now,” he’s said. “I’ve not read a paper or watched television, and I have only vague knowledge of what’s happening in the world.”
Redford may be ignoring it, but it hasn’t forgotten him. Esquire, Vanity Fair, Outside and USA Today are present, and sheriffs have been called to roust tabloid reporters from the shrubbery near Redford’s rented house. His daughter and granddaughter have visited, as have Maclean’s children and grandchildren. The National Enquirer, according to Livingston Enterprise Publisher John Sullivan, has entreated local reporters to do legwork on the romantic front, hustling photographs and misrepresenting itself in hornswoggling gossip from locals.
Now Redford sits on a metal folding chair, hands clasped behind his head, staring at the Absarokas. Off to his right, Tom Skerritt—in black trousers and suspenders—practices fly casting in a small lagoon. River‘s angling sequences have gone well, its actors coached by John Bailey, of Dan Bailey’s Fly Shop, or George Croonenberghs, the Macleans’ boyhood friend. Montana’s native trout have been spared by hatchery and mechanical substitutes. Here behind Redford, on the Civic Center’s steps, grips strum hillbilly tunes on battered guitars. Nearby, chefs distribute 120 desserts from a Winnebago as, due east, Brad Pitt squats on the riverbank petting his hound dog, Deacon, and smoking while he surveys the Yellowstone.
“Eventually, all things merge into one, and a river runs through it,” Maclean wrote. “On some of the rocks are timeless raindrops. Under the rocks are the words, and some of the words are theirs. I am haunted by waters.”
“It’s that last line in the book that just rips me up,” Pitt tells a reporter. “I identify with Paul in a lot of ways … people who have so much, yet somehow just can’t get it together are very mysterious and compelling to me.”
The town genuinely likes this film crew, an affection cemented when Redford offered River’s vehicles to evacuate a Mill Creek ranch threatened by forest fire. On Wednesday, he pedaled his mountain bike to the post office, where a crowd waited to assist Mayor Bill Dennis in presenting him with the key to the city. “You’ve been a great host,” Redford called. “It was terrific.” He looks thoughtful. “But get ready. This film is going change everything.”
Toby Thompson has written for Vanity Fair, Esquire, and American Film Magazine. He is the author of six books of nonfiction and teaches nonfiction writing at Penn State.