At one point, I checked the time code on Netflix and saw that the movie had over forty minutes to go. I visibly winced.
"There are actually a lot of similarities between how I was raised and how Maclean was raised - especially involving the idea of reaching a state of grace through doing something perfectly." -- Robert Redford
"Redford's fishing film." That's what they called "A River Runs Through It" in Hollywood, where they like movies that are easy to describe. But Robert Redford's fishing film is the very definition of a film that can't be summarized in one snappy sentence for the movie ads. It's a memory of growing up in Montana. It's about a kid brother, and a stern father, and deciding what vocation you should follow, and at the center of everything, it's about fly-fishing.
The movie is based on one of the few perfect books of the 20th century - perfect in the way Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby or Willa Cather's Death Comes for the Archbishop is perfect, a book that says everything it intends to say without one ungraceful line or unnecessary word.
The book was written by Norman Maclean, a professor of English at the University of Chicago for many years before he retired in 1973. When I was a graduate student in the English Department there, in the '60s, Maclean was a campus legend, a man who possessed the rare gift of being stern and humanistic at the same time. After he retired, he wrote this book, a book his own father told him he would someday have to write. It was published by the University of Chicago Press, not known for its best-sellers, and went through 20 printings.
Robert Redford read the book and saw something of himself, he said the morning after "River" had its world premiere at the Toronto Film Festival (it will open nationwide on Friday). "Tom McGuane gave me a copy. This was in 1980. He said he was sending me an example of really fine Western writing. I read it, and the arrow went in right away. I thought, I really want to do something about this." Many obstacles That was the year that Redford's "Ordinary People" won the Academy Award as the year's best film, a year Redford himself was one of the top box-office draws in the country. You'd imagine it would have been easy for him to get "River" made. But there were two problems. Nobody in Hollywood wanted to finance it. And Norman Maclean didn't want his book to be filmed in the first place.
"If you wanted to make their knuckles white," Redford said, smiling, "You'd ask, 'How's Redford's fishing film coming along?' Everybody in town passed on it. And had it not been for the low budget - $12 million, not much these days - I still couldn't have done it. There was no way to explain why this could be a film that a number of people would go see."
True, Maclean's book contained elements that also had appeared in successful films. It was about two brothers, one serious, one more cocksure, growing up under the eye of a stern but loving father who was a Presbyterian minister. It was about meeting girls and getting in fights and drinking and working for newspapers and going off to Chicago to seek one's fortune. A subject of memory
And yet, really, it wasn't about any of those things at all. Those were only the events in the book. Its real subject was memory. What the author remembered was a code that his father taught through the medium of fly-fishing, in which the boys learned that there was a right way to do something, a way consisting of elegance, grace and honesty, in accord with nature. A River Runs Through It isn't about what happens to the narrator, Norman, and his brother, Paul. It's about an old man recalling the way they grew up, the values they had, and the way things turned out. Take away the narrator and the sense of memory, and all you have left are some meaningless movie scenes.
The problem was, the events in the book weren't "commercial" in the first place, and when Redford pitched it by saying that the real subject was the act of storytelling, the eyes of the executives glazed over. Then there was the problem of Norman Maclean himself. He could see no reason to sell his precious book, only to see it made into a trashy movie. There is a scene in the finished film that shows Norman's father teaching him to write. The boy presents an essay in his father's study. The father reads it, nods, and says, 'Now make it half as long.' The boy comes back. The father reads, nods, and says, 'Again, half as long.' A River Runs Through It reads as if it had been edited by that Montana minister. Maclean had good reason to consider the book finished. Why let some screenwriter get his hands on it and play up the sensational elements and maybe manufacture some more, and profane his legacy?
Redford, sipping tea in his Toronto hotel room, recalled how hard it had been to convince the old professor to let him film the book.
"I knew I had to meet Maclean. Through some mutual friends, I finally got hooked up with him in 1985. And we talked, and he was dubious. He was interested in me, but he was very ambivalent. I said, 'Look, trust is clearly a factor here. I don't know you, and you don't know me. I'll tell you quite frankly that I don't know if this can be made into a film or not, but I want to try. I have a lot of affinity for the material. I think I'm the best one to do it. I'll be arrogant about that fact, but beyond that, I can only tell you that we can try.
" 'You don't trust me, and I don't know whether you're gonna be a pain in the a- - or not, so let's start talking. I'll come to Chicago to see you three times, and we'll talk for a day or so. We'll let two weeks go by between each session, and if you feel weird about it, you can pull out. And the same for me. On the other hand, if we get to the end after six weeks and we're still talking, we'll move to the next step, and I'll try to put it into draft form, the screenplay.' "
Maclean agreed to the arrangement, Redford said. "We talked and did a lot of walking around the campus at the University of Chicago and I loved meeting him, I loved the time I spent with him. I think the thing that made it so hard was that he was frightened of something going wrong with this book that it had taken him 40 years to write. "They can murder it,' he said."
Norman Maclean died two years ago at age 87, not long before Redford started shooting the film. His son, John, an editor and writer at the Chicago Tribune, represented the family's determination that the book not be cheapened.
"He had real ambivalent feelings," Redford said. "John called up Kurt Luedtke (a Detroit editor who wrote `Absence of Malice') and said, 'Look, you're sort of in this business now. I don't know, this guy Redford wants to make this film. I don't know about him and my father.' "His ambivalence was almost as great as his Dad's, and his own relationship with his father came into play. He came to visit us in Montana while we were making it. And he said he was having a real hard time, watching the conversion process - book into movie. I told him we were gonna make a good film. `I hope you do,' he said."
Has he seen it yet?
"Not yet. We're having a benefit in Chicago, on Oct. 4, to raise money for a Norman Maclean chair at the university. I imagine he'll see it then. I hope he likes it."
It was personal with him.
"It was personal with me. Unless you're a totally calculating person who relies on technical skills to achieve an effect, which I'm not, then it takes too much out of you to make a film that isn't personal. There are actually a lot of similarities between how I was raised and how Maclean was raised - especially involving the idea of reaching a state of grace through doing something perfectly. In my case, it was mostly sports. When I went after a sport, I went after it until I knew I could excel in that sport. For Norman, it was fly-fishing. You went after it with the idea that you would perfect it." Restraint as an issue
The movie is a sermon, in a way.
"Yes. About how to live. It's a film that's dealing with restraint as an issue and it's dealing with the unspoken word as an issue. It requires a certain rhythm, and that rhythm is pretty counter to what's out there right now."
One of Redford's choices in the movie is to use a spoken narration, read by himself, based on Maclean's words. The viewer understands from the beginning that all of these events happened a lifetime ago, and that the story is about how the storyteller remembers them. Because the movie never baldly states its message, much of the weight of the film falls on the performances, Craig Sheffer as Norman, Brad Pitt as the younger brother Paul, Tom Skerritt as their father, Brenda Blethyn as their mother, and Emily Lloyd as the young woman who becomes Norman's wife.
Norman always seems headed for someplace other than Montana. He dreams of success in the great world. That doesn't occur to Paul; he would be happy never to leave Montana, to work at his job on a newspaper, and drink and carouse and stay out late and hang around with his cronies. Yet Paul is the better fisherman, and one day in a trout stream, achieves a kind of perfection beyond anything either Norman or his father has ever known. One of the purposes of the story is to do honor to how well Paul learned his father's lessons.
"One of the strongest things in this book is the storyteller's voice," Redford said. "It's a unique language. It came out of the tough background that he came from, the ethic that governed people's lives in Montana 70 years ago. People were dependent mostly on physical skills. They lived close to nature and without much help.
"Norman was shaped by that, but he was also shaped by his father's love of words and literature. So in one ear, he's hearing this lyrical language, and he's getting the s- - - beat out of him in the other ear. He balanced that pretty well, and that's in his style. "He could afford to lapse into tremendously poetic stuff because he had earned it by being tough and understated. And he was anecdotal, and kind of wry and sardonic; he did this great balancing act.
"But when you take the book and just map out the events, it evaporates. As soon as you took his voice out, the story wasn't there. It was just events, some only hinted at. It was that voice. These days, we try to stay clear of old conventions like narration, voiceover, flashbacks and that kind of thing. But I asked, why be afraid of it? Why not go for it? And make that language work as a character in the film, rather than try to work around it. "We took the narration, and wrote it down one side of a page, and then we asked, how can we show what the narration is talking about? And sometimes there wasn't much. Maclean's mother hardly exists as a character in the book. The brother is held over to one side. We felt the father should be in a few more scenes. Some of the most vivid characters were peripheral, like the brother-in-law who gets his a- - sunburned, or that extraordinary Indian woman - I could have made a whole movie about her.
"But we had to invent a lot of Jessie, who became Norman's wife. In the film, she drives a car down some railroad tracks. It's not in the book. I said to Norm, 'You gotta tell me something about your wife. I know you loved her. You refer to her in such an incredibly deep, passionate way - but you don't tell us anything about her. What happened?' He told me, 'What you've got is what you're going to get. I have it just where I want it.' And so I had to flesh some things out. We had to do some invention."
One problem is conveying the feelings he has about his brother.
"Exactly. I suspect that if we met that guy without Norman's lens, we might feel differently about him; there might be some impatience with him, he might be less attractive. But Maclean made him appear a certain way, and I felt it was important to honor him."
He might have deserved to get his head beaten in that night, but that didn't mean that he wasn't beautiful.
"Exactly; because he was. And at the film's key moment, on that river, he was perfection. He was a combination of grace and skill and power and strength and intelligence and all the things that a father wanted, on that river as a fly-fisherman. And Norman achieved the same thing at the University of Chicago in letters."
And in his perfect book.
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