Welcome to Filmmaking Tips, a long-running column in which we gather up the shared knowledge of a particular filmmaker and assemble it all into the internet’s favorite thing: a list. This one is on the filmmaking advice of Robert Redford.
For a longtime filmmaker like Robert Redford, there is no one defining film of his career. There are many. Since making his big-screen acting debut in War Hunt in 1962, he’s managed to remain successful in Hollywood for decades. He’s starred in well-known classics like Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and All the President’s Men, which he also produced, and directed such acclaimed hits as Ordinary People and Quiz Show. Trying his hand in a variety of roles, Redford has always carried his own life experiences and fascination with politics and nature into his endeavors.
In 1986, after buying two acres of land in Park City, Utah, he started the Sundance Film Festival to help promote the work of up and coming filmmakers who were shut out by the mainstream. Many years later, even he couldn’t have guessed how large the festival would become, and how vital a role it would play in leading the year’s films every January. It’s no wonder that, throughout his career, Redford has been looked to for his expertise on filmmaking and acting. We’ve collected some of the advice he’s given in over the years below.
The filmmaking lessons we can learn from Robert Redford
1. Want it more than anything
In a 2011 interview for MovieMaker magazine, Redford puts it to us straight:
MM: Do you have any advice for aspiring directors?
RR: No, I don’t like to give it.
But when the interviewer presses Redford for something, maybe the importance of having a sense of humor, he budges with agreement on that and something more:
“Always have a sense of humor. Even if it’s a subtle one. The only thing I’d ever say is that you’d better want it more than anything.”
Not that it should have been like pulling teeth to get a tip, as Redford had actually given this same advice in slightly more detail in his Day One opening statement at the 2009 Sundance Film Festival (as quoted by The Daily Star):
“If you want to come into this business, you need to want it more than anything else in life because it’s going to be a hard road. It’s going to take things like love, and hard work, and diligence, and tenacity, and bravery, and courage. And really to go through that, you’re going to have to want it more than anything.”
2. Educate while you entertain
“Storytellers broaden our minds: engage, provoke, inspire, and ultimately, connect us.” — Redford (source unknown).
A lover of documentary films, Redford clearly places a level of importance on filmmakers teaching their audiences something. However, he recognizes that even fictional films have the power to educate. While the primary purpose of a movie is to entertain, combining that with some kind of lesson makes for a more interesting work. In an interview for Cinéaste [Vol. 16, No. 1/2 (1987-88), pp. 8-12] (via JSTOR), he explains:
“At the risk of sounding pretentious, if I have the opportunity, film for me is always the chance to educate and to entertain at the same time, in equal balance. I don’t believe many people respond to being hammered over the head. You know, there are many films out there that have a quality to them that says, “You must see this because it’s good for you.” It’s like taking medicine, or going to church. But the film may be bad — boring and uninteresting. People go to it because they’re made to feel it’s their responsibility. It’s about a situation involving a minority, or a family being relocated, or something. And yet, it’s not a very good film, so it’s not entertaining. It’s just straight education.
“Other films are just straight entertainment and have no educational benefits at all. I’ve always believed that you could entertain people while at the same time educating them as to how things work. ‘Jeremiah Johnson’ was an education as to what mountain men were really like. They were a part of our pioneering history; our earliest pioneers were mountain men. ‘The Candidate’ was a real education about how the political system works behind the scenes. And yet, hopefully, it was also entertaining. ‘Downhill Racer’ was about how athletics works, about the emphasis and priorities in athletics in this country. ‘Ordinary People’ was about feelings, if you want to put one word to it. This country has very complicated notions about feelings. At the same time that film told you about a part of our country sort of isolated from other areas, other realities, a slightly privileged, upper middle class section north of Chicago. Hopefully it told you how people live in that part of the country. Hopefully ‘Milagro’ will do the same thing. So, yes I believe it’s possible to combine entertainment and education in film, and in fact, I prefer that.”
3. Hit the road
Even though Redford doesn’t exactly get excited about giving advice, in his many years of living, one thing he’s taken away is the importance of paying attention to the natural world around us, as he told Esquire in 2017:
“I try to avoid giving advice. The only advice I will give is to pay attention. I don’t mean to the screen in your hand. I’m talking about the natural world. I spent a lot of time educating my children about nature by putting them in nature. I said, ‘I want you to listen; I want you to look.’ There’s so much technology coming into our lives that takes us away from the natural stuff, so I’m pushing the other way.”
In the below video interview for the “Time 100″ feature in 2014, Redford explains further with how “paying attention” applies to filmmaking.
One of the ways Redford has suggested encountering nature is by hitting the road and going on an adventure, in order to cultivate experiences that could be drawn upon when making a film. During the Day One Press Conference at Sundance in 2016, Redford was asked by an audience member for his advice for aspiring filmmakers, to which he expressed the importance of getting out in the world:
“I guess film schools have become important; they didn’t exist when I was starting out. Maybe [USC], but now they’ve become more prominent, there are film schools all over the place. I’m not sure that that’s the answer as much as experience. As much as getting out in the world and seeing what’s going on by firsthand experience. Make an adventure for yourself. Hit the road.
“Don’t go from school to school to film school and then make a movie. You can, but you’re going to be relying on what you saw. You’re going to be relying on the effects that that filmmaker did, whoever it is…they did this thing, ‘So I want to do that.’
“To me, what’s more important if you want to tell a story, and you want to own the story you’re telling, get out in the world, hit the road, and have some real life experience that’s going to feed your mind. And then you’ll come back and say, ‘I just went through this thing, I want to talk about that.'”
Watch more from the press conference below.
4. Let your work go
When dealing with a profession as emotionally charged as filmmaking, it can be difficult not to take criticism, or praise for that matter, to heart. And it can be tempting to get bogged down in all of the discourse around your film. But as Redford suggests in an interview with DP/30 from 2016, letting your work be your reward, rather than the response to it, is necessary:
“Once you finish the work, for me, that’s it, because then it goes into somebody else’s hands. It goes into the promoters, the distributors, and then into the hands of the audience where it’s supposed to go. So my feeling has always been once you’ve done the work, let it go. Don’t follow it all the way down the line. You’ll waste a lot of your time. Do the work. Do the work you want to do, the way you want to do it, and then let it go, and wherever it goes, okay. Sometimes it goes down a hole, sometimes it will rise up. You don’t know, but don’t spend time worrying or thinking about it. It’s got its own life one way or another.”
Watch the full interview here:
He also shared this sentiment in an interview with Maureen Dowd for the JFK Library in 2014. She asked whether or not he was upset about not getting a nomination for his role in All is Lost, to which Redford answered:
“I’ve just never been an awards person. My whole life, I’ve never really — to me that’s not the issue. It’s really the work that’s fun, and when you do the work and you feel good about it, let it go. And then what comes afterwards, all the celebration and stuff, I’ve never been.. I mean I would certainly be honored. I’d be flattered. But it’s just never meant that much. So no, I wasn’t disappointed. I really wasn’t.”
Watch the whole interview:
5. Understand: filmmaking is a business
While Redford considers himself an artist, and film an art form, at the end of the day he knows that one of the only ways to last in the business is to understand the business. When asked by Rolling Stone in 1994 about the lessons he has learned from his career, he answered:
“Just two, really: follow your instincts and recognize that this is a business. What do you mean by that? Don’t expect art to have much currency. It’s a business, and that’s foremost what it’s all about. Don’t delude yourself into thinking that art plays that major a role. Art only plays a role insofar as it helps the business. A small film that might be perceived as an art film really only matters if it makes money. That’s the business world. I don’t think anything profit oriented is easy to change because that’s the kind of society we are. It just helps you personally to understand it and not delude yourself.”
Then in 2002, in an interview for Harvard Business Review, he shared, with an anecdote about Downhill Racer, more wisdom about making it in the business by understanding the business:
“I learned that the corporate powers that be aren’t going to be interested in the fruits of your labor and passion unless you are adept at understanding their agenda and speaking their language. You must always present yourself more conservatively than you privately feel you are. You can’t be forceful, loud, confrontational, or declarative. You have to sell what you have on THEIR terms…Hollywood isn’t about art; I knew that. But I wasn’t aware that if you really want a studio to make and distribute your film, you have to answer the only question that matters to the executives in the industry: How will your project make money?”
6. Failure is important
Failing is not something we strive for or look forward to, but there are some benefits to it. In the below video interview for the “Time 100″ feature in 2014, Redford talks about almost quitting acting but how he wound up pushing through with relentless determination. And he says some failures can be “exciting” and “fun” lessons to learn from.
Later in the year, in an interview for Inc. magazine, Kimberly Wiseul asked Redford about calling failure “fun.” He clarified:
“I think it’s important to fail. Failure’s not fun. I’m not that perverse. I grew up in a world that said failure is the end of the road. It’s not. It’s a step along the road.”
But even though accepting failure is an important part of filmmaking, success undoubtedly feels better. Still, Redford never felt comfortable with it. In a 2007 interview for Playboy (collected in the book “50 Years of the Playboy Interview: Robert Redford“), he says:
“I never trusted success. I come from a long line of people who thought if something good happens to you, there must be something wrong. Early on, when movies like ‘Butch Cassidy’ put a huge spotlight on me, I ran from it. I never fell into the traps of having an entourage and being surrounded by yes-people. It never interested me to do Leno or go to parties, and I think that served me.”
He even warns against letting success get the best of you in an interview with AARP in 2011. Asked how he handles his fame, he says:
“I felt that if you were fortunate enough to have success, you should shadow box with it but never embrace it, because it has a demon side.”
What we’ve learned about filmmaking
For a guy who doesn’t like to give advice, Redford’s definitely had a plethora of valuable tips to share over the years. Since his beginning in the ’60s, the world of filmmaking has changed pretty significantly in terms of styles and technology, but one thing will always remain the same, no matter the generation: you’ve got to be prepared to accept your failures and stay grounded in your success if you want to spend your life as a filmmaker.
And being able to appreciate the art of filmmaking, while having a good grip on the business side of it at the same time, is essential to making it in the industry. Don’t necessarily let box office figures and ticket sales be a priority when creating a story, but understand that those things exist and often dictate the life cycle of a film. In a world so digitally connected, it’s also important to step away from technology every now and then to gain some necessary perspective on the world and your work.