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Interview: Robert Redford On ‘Pete’s Dragon,’ His Legacy, and Future Of The Sundance Film Festival
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Pete's Dragon #3

Walt Disney Studios’ Pete’s Dragon is not like any of the reboots of their classic films. Unlike most reboots that add tweaks to make the film more contemporary while paying respect to the original source material. David Lowery‘s vision sees the tale about a boy and his pet as an old small town folk legend whose tale differs from each storyteller. The film features an all-star supporting cast starring Bryce Dallas Howard, Wes Bentley, Karl Urban, and Robert Redford.

We were fortunate to sit down with a group of our fellow journalists to talk to Redford about his role in the film, the legacy he is laying out, and the future of the Sundance Film Festival. Check out the full interview below.

Geeks Of Doom: What was the appeal for you in this movie?

Robert Redford: It started with the diversity. I knew the fact that it was more diverse than anything I had done up to that point. Going back to my own childhood, which is based on storytelling. I grew up very near here, in a very working-class neighborhood where there’s not much to do. So story storytelling became something to keep you alive and also storytelling became a way to see that the world was bigger than the one you were living in. That had great appeal. Since that was a part of my upbringing, it became a part of me. I wanted to pass it on to my kids, and my grandkids. I thought “well if you could ever do a project, that really has magic in it, justifiable magic, you should do it.” This was it. I never saw the other iterations of it, so to me, it was brand new.

Geeks Of Doom: Were you going to be the narrator of this? Because you do a little narration in the beginning of the movie.

Robert Redford: I never saw myself that way. I know that when we did the film, David Lowery was very welcoming in terms of “look, if you want to add something, here’s the character. Do you want to embroider it? Do you want to add something?” So it allowed me to enter the character, and I sort of had my own way with him in how he tells the story. How he sees the world. So that for me went further into it. I sort of designed the character in addition to what was written.

Geeks Of Doom: So what are some of those additions?

Robert Redford: Small things like he’s a wood carver. So to illustrate, he seems to be a man, totally alone in a small sphere, in this room that is sort of dark, and he’s carving wood. Suddenly he hears something outside, and it’s children. So he decides to play a joke and bursts out. I love that one. To be able to explode out of it, scare them, and then pull them together with a story, and make up a story that no one really believed but they liked hearing it anyway. And then they find out, guess what, it’s true. I love that angle on it.

Geeks Of Doom: Oakes Fegley told us that he was aware that you had created the Sundance Film Festival, so how do you feel about the young generation knowing who you are, and your legacy in film and filmmaking? Is the Sundance Institute the most important thing you have accomplished in your career or is it this incredible body of work?

Robert Redford: To say the Sundance Institute at his age is a sophisticated thing to say. I don’t know how much that has gone out in the world. For me [The Sundance Institute] is something that I believed in, creating a mechanism for new voices to be heard, and keep giving them more opportunities and hope that it reaches broader audiences. It’s not like you are going against the film industry. You are not going against the Academy. You are just trying to enhance it, add more to it. I think that was misconstrued for a long time when I started Sundance. First of all, it was in Utah, not here. So I was treated like an insurgent. It was simply because it was the only thing I could afford, the land I had in Utah. I couldn’t afford to do something like that in an urban environment. I also thought what if we do it in nature, it might add something to it. It took a while for that to get through, but I had good intentions.

You know what was weird about it. I had this idea of the lab program, and that would be non-profit, and I depended on colleagues of mine who are writers, directors, actors, cinematographers, editors. They come up to give two, three weeks of their time. We couldn’t pay them anything to help new artists come in and go through a process where they wouldn’t have to go through a drill situation. Our institute was dependent on the generosity of my colleagues. That’s how it started. Once we realized that we were helping develop their skill to help them get their films made suddenly they realized there is nowhere to go because the mainstream studios had a relationship with the theaters, and they didn’t allow any space. So there is nowhere to go, and that led to the idea of a festival. I said “what if we have a festival where we can get these people together where they can show each other their work. That’s how it was intended. I couldn’t do it at Sundance at first because there is no theater, and the nearest town was Park City. Park City had one theater, the old Egyptian.

Geeks Of Doom: Could you imagine if it was still like that?

Robert Redford: That was the dream. When I first started, I was told the idea is that it would never work. Who cares about the independent film? Doing it up in Utah? In Mormon country. You’re really asking for it. And so we had the one theater. I would stand outside and maybe we would have 30 films and 12 or 13 documentaries, and I would stand outside the theater trying to get people in, like some guy outside of a strip joint. That’s how it started. And suddenly, it took about four to five years before it survived, and globalization occurred, and suddenly we were able to bring other films from other countries, and bring the filmmakers, and the whole thing began to grow. Now the combination of Park City, they are in a manic development mode, so the tension now and it is about to come down on us, we have more films. We have 70,000 people coming to see these films. The city is shrinking and we’re growing. You’ll see some real tension coming up in the next year. Park City is developing itself to death, and there is very few spaces for us.

Geeks Of Doom: Do you think you’ll move?

Robert Redford: That’s the problem. I think people think Sundance is Park City.

Geeks Of Doom: Does this make you think like a developer because you want to see your institute grow and believe in conservation, how do you balance that?

Robert Redford: We’ll see what happens. I don’t worry about Sundance because we have control of that. The Institute exhibits Park City, so I am dependent on Park City, I’m not dependent on anything at Sundance, because I can control that. I think Park City realizes we bring a lot to that city in a short amount of time and we not only bring a multitude of people from all over, it’s kind of put it on the map, but also it makes a lot of money, $60 to $80 million. That’s a lot, and money speaks in Utah. So the question is, how are they going to accommodate us? They’re going to have to create some space for us. They are going to have to do something for us that allows us to stay. I think the mayor certainly knows. So stay tuned.

Pete's Dragon #2

Geeks Of Doom: Speaking of Sundance, is David Lowery’s Ain’t Them Body Saints how he got on your radar?

Robert Redford: We love that film, and I really liked it. I thought it was a really intimate story. So when this came up, I thought, well this is interesting. I was kind of curious about it. The part was narrower, in the beginning, not totally fleshed out, it didn’t need to be because it was about the boy and his dragon. So he allowed me to have a say in the character, help develop the character further. He was very collaborative, and that allowed me to get to know him more. And because of that, we are doing a film in the fall.

Geeks Of Doom: There has been a huge progressive change in Hollywood where it has been more acceptable to have gay, lesbian, and transgender roles. When you appeared in Inside Daisy Clover, you played as a closeted gay Hollywood actor, and what did people have to say about that at that time?

Robert Redford: I did it because it was different. I thought this was a terrific acting role, and that it would be surprising if they saw me a certain way. I didn’t play him as absolutely gay, I played him as bi. What he was really was a total narcissist. If he could attract anything, that was it. I remember talking to the filmmakers about that, because he was written as gay, I said “what advantage is there, that’s just one-dimensional. I am not interested in that. What I am interested in playing something more complicated.” So [Alan J.] Pakula and [Robert] Mulligan who were making that, liked that idea. I loved the role.

Geeks Of Doom: Was there any fallout?

Robert Redford: What happened was I wasn’t sure if I was going to continue my career. I went to Hollywood from Broadway to do Inside Daisy Clover, and the next film is The Chase with Jane Fonda, and that was a totally different character. He was a convict, rough-edged. And then it was This Property Is Condemned. So it was three different characters, and they were all jammed together. One. Two. Three. I then decided that I wasn’t sure if I wasn’t going to be in this business so I went to Spain for a year, and rented a small home in a tiny town in the south of Spain. I thought I might want to go back to being an artist. But those films came boom, boom, boom. So there was not any time after Inside Daisy Clover for me to be seen as that character.

Geeks Of Doom: Which film is that?

Robert Redford: It’s called Old Man With A Gun. It’s a true story that was in the New Yorker Magazine about a guy that kept robbing banks, and he kept getting caught, and the reason he did that was really because he really loved escaping. It was in Texas and Florida. It’s just a terrific story, and it’s true.

Geeks Of Doom: You seem to be a busy guy, do you feel a new vitality?

Robert Redford: I think you keep going. I’ve been that way, always moving forward, trying new things. It helped because I was in athletics, I could do new sports, I’m keeping very physically active. I think passed onto my life in general that I wanted to always try new things because it was exciting and kept you excited and alive.

Pete’s Dragon opens in theaters on August 12, 2016.

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