I recently had a chance to see an exclusive screening of “The Conspirator,” a new historical drama by Robert Redford. The following day he held a press conference to talk about the project and answer questions.
The film stars James McAvoy as a Union solider who becomes a lawyer after the Civil War. His first case is to defend a women accused of conspiring to assassinate President Lincoln (Robin Wright). The movie also stars Kevin Kline, Justin Long, and Danny Huston. Release day is set for April 15.
At the press conference, Redford answered questions about the film, the movie-making process, and his long career in Hollywood. Here’s what he said:
What attracted you to this project?
Robert Redford: What intrigued me is that it was a story that was unknown, attached to a story that was well known. There’s little left about Lincoln that people don’t know.
I wouldn’t have done it if it were just a straight historical drama. To me the attraction was to get inside the story that was already inside another story and go deep into that where the emotions would be.
What research went into the movie?
RR: The challenge was to make the courtroom active. It had to be as accurate as possible and try to create the excitement around the trial that was so chaotic it had almost a barbarian nature to it because of the attitude of the country at that time. The peace that was struck was so tenuous that anything could happen which made it combustible and you wanted that feeling that anything could happen in the courtroom.
How might you respond to those who say the film is one-sided and that it heavily highlights the aspect of the accused and not that of the government?
RR: I work pretty hard to prevent that impression. What would spare that, unless you’re just predisposed to feeling that way, is the fact that you have a young union solider as the defense lawyer that did not want the case.
Slowly the arc of his character moves from not wanting to handle the case, to realizing he probably should handle the case, to realizing it’s not really about her, it’s about something bigger. It’s about the U.S. Constitution.
What kinds of liberties, if any, were taken for the sake of weaving together a compelling narrative from historical elements?
RR: That’s a good questions because that’s exactly what had to happen. You only have so much evidence in archives.
What you don’t have in archives is every living, breathing moment of dialog between two characters. You have sketches; you might have a line here, a line there. Court records were not what they are today; you didn’t have stenographers so very little was recorded, just sort of the facts, so that leaves you dramatic license.
That’s actually very enjoyable cause then you can bring more emotion, more colors to it, and so forth, as long as your dialog is tied to the facts. You want to stay true to the facts. Dramatic license comes in where you have to add or fill in.
How important is casting to you?
RR: I’m an actor myself and I started as an actor so it’s very important. I get really heavy into casting. It’s hard, but it’s something I enjoy. I wanted McAvoy and Robin right off the bat. There were other people who wanted the part, and some good actors, but I had them very much in my mind and so they were cast.
For other parts you had to see some of their work. I look to see what their diversity is, how many different parts they play, because I figure that’s better to work with cause you get more colors and you have more flexibility in the actor.
And I’m a big proponent of craft. Some actors became actors because of their personalities, but they didn’t come from craft. Sometimes they’re harder to work with because you can’t give them different things to try. I tend to want to go with actors who can act.
Justin Long is known for more comedies. What was your decision in casting him? Was he supposed to be comedic relief of the movie?
RR: I didn’t want it to be too much, I didn’t want it to be modern comedy relief. I felt that, the fellow was just a fun-loving, easy-going guy who saw the humor in things. That’s why Justin was in it, but you had to keep reminding Justin that this was 1865.
Did you see your life, your career turning out the way it has?
RR: I was kicked out of college … or I was asked to leave, let’s put it that way. My education happened really when I hit the road. I went out and I think that’s what I always wanted. You live pretty much in the moment. If you’re doing something, for example with Sundance and that part of my life, you just do it because you have some passion, you think you can make a difference. Once it goes and it starts to happen then there’s a tendency, for me, to think ahead and say, well, what’s the world doing. Keep your mission statement. If you keep your core principles, then you can keep the rest of yourself fluid, because change is inevitable. In terms of my career, I don’t look back, I’m always moving forward. But I never thought about it while it was happening.
What do you think Lincoln would have thought of Mary Suratt’s case?
RR: Well considering the facts that we know about Lincoln. He was a deeply principled man and this [case against Suratt] violated moral principle.
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