Phil Alden Robinson Interview

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Director Phil Alden Robinson created one of the most touching and well made baseball movies of all time in Field of Dreams. In honor of the film’s 15th anniversary, Robinson spoke with Chris Neumer about life, work and what makes Kevin Costner tick.

by Chris Neumer

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CHRIS NEUMER: Thanks for giving me part of your day today, I really appreciate it.

PHIL ALDEN ROBINSON: They’ve given us a whole 20 minutes.

CHRIS NEUMER: And I’m not wasting a second of it. Looking over some of the interviews you’ve done recently, I realized you just have to be happy that I’m not going to be questioning you about the age difference between Ben Affleck and Harrison Ford.

PHIL ALDEN ROBINSON: (laughs) I’ve forgotten, what’s the answer?

CHRIS NEUMER: You gave a lot of different ones. I spoke to Mace Neufeld back in the day. He had a pretty good one which was, “Yeah, we just didn’t care. We knew people were going to tear us apart, or they wouldn’t and we just pretended like we didn’t notice.” You can’t argue with that.

PHIL ALDEN ROBINSON: In truth, that is the case. That’s not a sequel to an old series, it’s a beginning to a new series. We were simply asking the audience to treat that film as a film unto itself.

CHRIS NEUMER: And so you did. I’m up in Chicago, which is interesting while we’re talking about Field of Dreams, because I’ve done a couple of stories on it, talked to the people who own the farms and it’s one of the few Hollywood films that stands out because it resonates with everybody! I thought, for you, how must it feel to know that you’re the cinematic creator of something like that?

PHIL ALDEN ROBINSON: Wonderful. I was a cog in a great machine. All hail the book I say. It’s really Bill Kinsella’s book people are responding to.

CHRIS NEUMER: I have to interrupt here. Yes, they respond to the plot material in Kinsella’s book, but you were the person who adapted this for the screen, created this for the screen and changed the structure of the story around so that everyone starts crying at the end when Ray gets back together with his dad and plays catch on the diamond, which wasn’t the case in the book. I understand you want to be humble, but it seems like you have a greater role to play in that than just that.

PHIL ALDEN ROBINSON: I think that what we did was try very hard to deliver on screen what Kinsella wrote in his book. Yes, we changed the structure around but that was necessary because the film was different than the book.  We had to make that change in order to do what the book wanted to do. Really, I’m proud of it, but it was as much luck as it was design on my part. It was luck that the book came to me and it was luck that I got to it. It was luck that we got Kevin [Costner]. I really lucked out. In my head, I had a much more expressive impressionistic piece of cinema. I realized on set though that I just didn’t have the skills to do that.

CHRIS NEUMER: Was there anything in particular you wanted that you couldn’t get?

PHIL ALDEN ROBINSON: Oh yes, lots of them. I’d re-shoot it tomorrow if I could. I’ll give you an example. When young Archie Graham crosses the foul line and turns into the doctor, I had in my mind a really dazzling light–originally that was going to be a night game and we were going to have a really low angle and he was going to pass through one of the lights, he’d be in the foreground one of the big stadium lights would be in the background and the change would happen. For various reasons, we changed that to a day sequence; we didn’t want to shoot at night. So it became, “What do we do now?” Do we use the sun? Do we try to line up the sun? Burt Lancaster, who was working that day, was not in great health–he had some health problems–and it was hot and he was wearing a woolen wardrobe.  I looked at this and said, “Let’s just do this as quickly as we can to get Burt out of the sun.” And so it’s done in the simplest and most convenient way possible and people always compliment me for the decision to do things simply. I have to tell them, “Thank you, but I was trying to do them much more complicatedly but just couldn’t pull it off.”

CHRIS NEUMER: So if you were a bad guy and morphed into an 800-pound gorilla on the set throwing things around, you would have shot it the way you wanted? Get Burt back out in the sun?

PHIL ALDEN ROBINSON: No. I didn’t know how to do it. In my head I was picturing what would a lot more experienced director do here? I was trying to keep the bar high. But I really didn’t know how to do that stuff. In retrospect, I think that failing of mine was very good for the movie. I think that had I succeeded in being fancier cinematically I don’t think the film would have been as good.

CHRIS NEUMER: It’s the directing equivalent of that old acting axiom that the more you try to hog the camera the worse your acting gets?

PHIL ALDEN ROBINSON: True. It’s true.

CHRIS NEUMER: Speaking about your style. I read a great quote of yours you gave to the BBC about, I’m assuming, a faux conversation you had with [head of Paramount] Sherry Lansing where you said, “Do you want a nice, gentle Tom Clancy film where nothing bad happens and everybody is nice to each other and the audience says ‘that was cute’ at the end?” 

PHIL ALDEN ROBINSON: That’s not a faux conversation. That actually happened.

CHRIS NEUMER: Really?  Wow.  I just assumed it had to be made up! (laughs) How did that come to be your style?

PHIL ALDEN ROBINSON: I try to be true to myself and part of it is (laughs) lack of skill. Part of it is that I don’t make that many films. I only work on the films that I really care about that reflect my personality or my concerns or my outlook on life. At a certain point you have to trust that. In the end, what you have inside is all you’ve got. The material that I work on has to be material that supports that approach. What was fun for me for doing The Sum of All Fears was the chance to take my sensibilities and take them into a different genre. It was different for me and it was definitely different for the series.

CHRIS NEUMER: I’m assuming the same would hold true for directing the first episode of Band of Brothers.

PHIL ALDEN ROBINSON: A little less so. Not only didn’t I write that, but I was there serving another vision. I was happy to do it, but I had no time to really shape that. Steven [Spielberg] and Tom [Hanks] said, “Can you do this?” I said, “Yeah,” and they said, “You start shooting in two weeks.” So the next day I was on a plane. The enormous machine was already in progress. They’d taken over an airplane factory for the series. It was very impressive. I didn’t feel however, especially on that episode, what I call a thankless episode, establishing the characters; I didn’t feel like I had a chance to make things mine until the end of the episode, when the guys are getting on the plane.

CHRIS NEUMER: You’ll have to forgive me, it’s been a while since I saw that series.

PHIL ALDEN ROBINSON: I ended up doing a montage of not just the guys with their gear marching to the plane, but shots of the guys looking right at the camera. Because from doing all the research, the thing that effected me the most was when the guys looked into the camera.  There’s a self awareness of a young man going off, perhaps to die, looking in the camera because that’s what he’s thinking. In the middle of all this objective scene, people marching off to the planes, there are these subjective scenes of the men looking into the lens. Then Captain Winters gives this pep talk to the guys, they’re all sitting on the ground wearing this tremendous weight of gear and he helps them up by a handshake. He reaches out to each one of them, shakes their hand. We spent a lot of time on that because I thought it was a great expression of men about to die and their respect they have for each another and the unspoken awareness they have of that.

CHRIS NEUMER: You also get credit in my book for working with David Schwimmer in a role where he didn’t play a variety of Ross.

PHIL ALDEN ROBINSON: It was a complete joy working with him. I am so in awe of this guy. His persona and his stardom is based upon being this lovable sweet guy and the person he is. He was willing to work completely without a net on this character. He really didn’t want to show his nice side. He didn’t want to soften this guy. It was important for the men in Easy Company to show what a bastard this guy was. The men of Easy Company today say one of the reasons that they became the incredible fighting unit that they were was because they hated this man so much. David was willing to portray this man as unsympathetically as possible. I thought it was a wonderful performance. And he’s a very loyal Chicagoan.

CHRIS NEUMER: He did another smaller–well, not smaller, I guess just less people saw it–project called Kissing a Fool where he played a cocky, arrogant WGN sports guy.

PHIL ALDEN ROBINSON: He’s a really good actor.

CHRIS NEUMER: There’s another Chicago actor, Michael Gross, whom I spoke to years ago who played Steven Keaton on Family Ties.  He looked at the role from the George Reeves perspective. He saw it as sort of an anchor in his career.  Everything he’s done since then has been done trying to get away from the role of the best father in the world, whether that be an off-the-wall gun nut Tremors 1-12 or any of the murdering rapists he’s played in made-for-TV movies. Do you ever feel as though Field of Dreams is an anchor around your neck?

PHIL ALDEN ROBINSON: I sure did at first. That was one of the reasons it took me three years to go to work again. It wasn’t so much that I was afraid of being typecast, but it was the pressure of: how do you follow that? I finally realized that the answer is: you don’t. You don’t follow that. You do something different. Field of Dreams wasn’t an attempt to follow somebody else, it was just something I was interested in. It took me a while to get over the preciousness of the decision. It’s like I better make a perfect decision because I want to be as good as I can be every time out, but you can’t be looking over your shoulder.  It’s one of the reasons I’ve not done another baseball film and God knows I’ve been offered every one of them. It’s also one of the reasons I’ve not done another supernatural story like that. I don’t want to follow that. It was what it was and I’m not interested in doing the sequel.

CHRIS NEUMER: It’s always interesting the concept of people regretting this huge hit that means they will be remembered forever and ever.

PHIL ALDEN ROBINSON: That movie made my career, I’m forever grateful to it and I don’t look at it in any poor light.  The first couple of years, it felt like an enormous weight, because I didn’t know how to follow it. Once I decided not to follow it, it became a real pleasure.

CHRIS NEUMER: With this in mind, you’ve got to have an enormous amount of respect, or just look at Kevin Costner as being insane for continually signing on to do more baseball movies.

PHIL ALDEN ROBINSON: Both. I think he’s nuts and I respect the insanity of it. Kevin marches to the beat of a different Walkman. If you want Kevin to do something, tell him, “Kevin, the conventional wisdom is not to do it.”  He does Bull Durham and people told him, “You can’t do another baseball movie.” And that’s the best way to get him into one.

CHRIS NEUMER: Maybe that explains The Postman.

PHIL ALDEN ROBINSON: Well, you know what? Everything he does he does because he cares deeply about it. I haven’t cared for everything he’s done, but I so respect every choice he’s made because I know it’s come from a good place. The same instincts that got him to do Dances with Wolves lead him to do everything else he’s done. The same instincts. It’s trusting his instincts. We’d all be better off doing that I’d much rather see an interesting failure than a boring commercial success. I’d much rather see what an artist does when he trusts his instincts–whether he succeeds or fails–I find that stuff interesting. That’s why it was all so fascinating looking at the minor works of Orson Welles career.

CHRIS NEUMER: Are there any specific examples you want to give?

PHIL ALDEN ROBINSON: Well, there’s F for Fake, it’s very flawed but a fascinating film. I’d much rather see what an artist of his stature does just because he feels like doing it than to see another wine commercial.

CHRIS NEUMER: You’re right. The possibility of reward in the movie where there is passion and love is far greater than in your run-of-the-mill studio project. You mentioned that it took you three years to get back to work before Sneakers. Looking at your biography on imdb, I noticed that there was 10-year gap between features, before The Sum of All Fears was released. Now I realize that you were shooting in 2000 for that and that you also went to Somalia and did some work in Bosnia, but what else were you doing during that time period?

PHIL ALDEN ROBINSON: Being really, really busy. It wasn’t a decision I made not to make feature films. Right after Sneakers, I went to Somalia and Bosnia and got really hooked on Bosnia and I wound up doing a series of documentaries on Bosnia for Nightline and wound up spending a lot of time on a personal effort, getting some people out. It was a very busy time and very emotional and I wound up writing a screenplay about Sarajevo and actually spent a year prepping the film before it fell apart. Then I had another film I’d written called Freedom Song and then I tried to put The Age of Aquarius [the film about Sarajevo] together again. It turned out it was a really busy time for me, just it wasn’t a really busy time for feature films.

CHRIS NEUMER: I had a conversation with a Debra Winger and she said every reporter was asking her what she’d been up to since she ‘quit’ Hollywood in ’96. They’d say, “You fell off the face of the earth,” and she’d say, “No I didn’t, I’ve been right here. I’ve been as busy as I’ve ever been, you just haven’t noticed what I’ve been doin.”

PHIL ALDEN ROBINSON: That’s exactly right.

CHRIS NEUMER; For myself, with half an eye on what the readers want and half an eye on what I know to be true, it’s always fun to ask that question. You can’t help but look bad. I know you’ve been doing something… but I don’t know what that is.

PHIL ALDEN ROBINSON: It’s interesting. I’ve gotten that question a lot. People ask me why I got interested in television and I tell them, I didn’t. What I happened to be interested in was just played on television.

CHRIS NEUMER: That’s just where life went.

PHIL ALDEN ROBINSON: Life took me there. The trip to Bosnia that was seven years of my life. I still go back and end up loving Sarajevo. Tried to set up the civil rights story over there as a feature, but it just didn’t work out. It turned out better for television anyway, we got a much bigger audience.

CHRIS NEUMER: Let me ask you this, changing subjects slightly. A couple of years back I was at a Marc Cohn concert here in Chicago. He was the guy who did “Walking in Memphis”.

PHIL ALDEN ROBINSON: Okay.

CHRIS NEUMER: Well, he does this song, “Silver Thunderbird” about the relationship he had with his dad. While he was talking about the song before performing it, some guy in the audience, a big, tall burly guy yells up to him, “You fuckin’ made me cry, man.” Marc’s response was, “Well, fuckin’ thank you.” It was this wonderful combination of machismo and genuine emotion. For some reason, I equate the feel of Field of Dreams with that story. Have guys ever come up to you and said anything similar?

PHIL ALDEN ROBINSON: (laughs) I just today was doing another interview and the journalist told me that shortly after the film came out his father died and one of the last things they’d done together was to see this film. So he went to see the film again and he bought a ticket and put the ticket in his dad’s pocket when his dad was buried. That is powerful. We heard a lot of stories like that when the film first came out. And then over the years, when somebody finds out [who I am] they feel compelled to tell me their Field of Dreams story. At the time though, I remember a lot of guys told me that they hadn’t talked to their dad in years and after I saw the film and called him.

CHRIS NEUMER: Does that ever weigh on you? After you’ve heard the two hundredth story of the week do you ever have to put on your fake eyes and say, “Uh huh. That’s great. Woohoo. Wow. Look at the time. Gotta run.”

PHIL ALDEN ROBINSON: No, honestly, it’s such a genuine sense of–every time you hear a story like that, it’s like you’re hearing it for the first time. And it is the first time for that person. I have to sometimes to keep from rolling my eyes when people say, “Oh, God!  I loved the film and everything you’ve done.” But when people tell you how something you created really touched their lives, that’s what matters the most.

CHRIS NEUMER: It also has to appeal to you that, as a filmmaker, you were able to create something in a contained environment that affected people so thoroughly and emotionally.

PHIL ALDEN ROBINSON: Yes, it’s amazing because the whole time we were shooting it, I didn’t think it was going to work at all. It was only when we cut the thing together and started showing it to audiences that we realized how people were moved by this. And then I remember, “Oh yeah, that’s what the book did for me.” At the time, I was thinking, “God I wish I could re-shoot every scene of this”. There wasn’t a scene in the movie that was the way I wanted it, but it delivered exactly what I hoped for I wanted. One of the revelations I had of the experience was that, as a filmmaker that was the best that I could hope for.

CHRIS NEUMER: I’ve got one last question for you. I’m not sure exactly how to phrase this so I’ll just put it simply. I’ve heard different stories about “The Voice”. I’ve heard one story where you’re protecting the identity of the voice, it’s your own personal deep throat. Then I’ve heard others where people scoff at the former idea and say, “It’s just a sound guy.” I’ve got you now, what’s the deal with The Voice.

PHIL ALDEN ROBINSON: The Voice is our little secret. I’ve told him I’m not going to tell.

CHRIS NEUMER: I’m sure you’re not going to reveal anything new to me after fifteen years of being asked the question, but is it a pertinent matter to the movie that it’s a secret?

PHIL ALDEN ROBINSON: I suppose it is, but I don’t want to give clues. Someone asked me, “Is it someone you’ve worked with before?” And once I start answering that, then you go down a list of people and start asking, “Is it him?”.

CHRIS NEUMER: Then we know it’s the key grip.

PHIL ALDEN ROBINSON: There’s an Easter egg on the DVD that focuses on that.

CHRIS NEUMER: I missed that last night. I was too engaged in the stadium trivia.

PHIL ALDEN ROBINSON: I haven’t even seen it yet. They sent me a rough cut sometime ago and I got the actual DVD yesterday.

CHRIS NEUMER: So, if I understand correctly, I’m ahead of you?

PHIL ALDEN ROBINSON: Way ahead of me. I spent a lot of time doing a brand new high-def digital transfer that I’ve very proud of. It’s looks spectacular.

CHRIS NEUMER: And five Americans are going to notice.

PHIL ALDEN ROBINSON: (laughs) But those five will be very happy. And it has a whole new sound transfer. It’s the best it’s every looked and sounded.

CHRIS NEUMER: It looked good to me, but then, I have to admit, it looked good to me before. Sometimes my eyes just glaze over.

PHIL ALDEN ROBINSON: You’re right in the sense that in the end it’s about the content. It’s about the movie, not the technical aspects.

CHRIS NEUMER: Sometimes the technical aspects do weigh in subconsciously.

PHIL ALDEN ROBINSON: The technology was there and that’s why I did it. I wanted to also do a quick shout out to one of my favorite Chicago actors, Mike Nussbaum.

CHRIS NEUMER: Who does he play?

PHIL ALDEN ROBINSON: He plays the high school principal. He’s done a lot of David Mamet, great guy. I cast a whole bunch of those roles out of Chicago.

CHRIS NEUMER: Even though I’d seen it a number of times and been there, I was still surprised to see that you shot Galena for Chisholm.

PHIL ALDEN ROBINSON: Is that right? Great.

CHRIS NEUMER: Apparently, even in the most famous of movies, I can find something to overlook.

PHIL ALDEN ROBINSON: That’s the beauty of movie magic.

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