“Once We Had Bob, It Became a Lot Easier to Get Everybody Else”

Sneakers’ screenwriter-director Phil Alden Robinson on how the movie’s amazing cast came together.

A smiling late-middle-aged white man in casual clothes.
Phil Alden Robinson in 2012. Bobby Bank/WireImage

On this week’s episode of Working, Isaac Butler spoke with screenwriter and director Phil Alden Robinson, whose movies include Field of Dreams, Sneakers, and The Sum of All Fears They focused on the nine years Robinson spent making Sneakers—a film whose 20th anniversary Slate celebrated in 2012. This partial transcript of their conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Isaac Butler: Sneakers has an incredible cast, which includes Robert Redford, Sidney Poitier, Dan Aykroyd, River Phoenix, Mary McDonnell, David Strathairn, Ben Kingsley, Stephen Tobolowsky, and James Earl Jones. How did you get that particular group together?

Phil Alden Robinson: [Co-writers Lawrence Lasker, Walter Parkes, and I] always thought that Bishop was our age, so we had a list of movie stars who were in their early 40s at that time. Robert Redford, being in his mid-50s, wasn’t on the list. I was at Kevin Costner’s Oscar party the night he won for Dances With Wolves, and one of the CAA agents came up to me and said, “Hey, I’m working really hard trying to get Bob in your movie.” I said, “Bob who?” He said, “Redford.” I said, “What movie?” He said, “Sneakers.” I said, “For what role?” He said, “The lead.” I said: “No, no, no, no. That character is my age. It’s a lot younger.” I said: “Do me a favor, please don’t send it to Bob, I don’t want to insult him, because he’s one of my idols. He’s an absolute icon, he’s a great actor. He’s an important man in the history of Hollywood. Please don’t send it to him.” He said: “He’s read it. He wants to do it.” I said, “Oh, shit.”

I went home that night and even though I’d had a bunch to drink, I sat up and reread the script, picturing Redford in the role. It was the best version of the movie I’d ever imagined. Everything got bigger, funnier, more serious, more poignant. I got up in the morning, and I thought, oh my God, what a great idea. I called Tom Pollock, who was chairman of Universal. I got him out of a meeting with Lew Wasserman and Sid Sheinberg. He was very unhappy to be pulled out of the meeting. I said, “Sneakers, Redford.” He said, “What, you want to send it to him?” I said, “He’s read it, he wants to do it.” He said, “Wow. All right, I’ll get into it.”

He called [Michael] Ovitz that day, and they started working on a deal. Once we had Bob, it became a lot easier to get everybody else. I knew Sidney a little bit, so I called him up and said, “Would you read something?” He read it that day and called me back and said, “I’m in.” I knew Danny [Aykroyd] a little bit, and we sent it to him. He said: “This is great, I love this. I would be a great Cosmo.” I said: “No, no, no. I want you to play Mother.” He said: “No, no, no. You’ve got to let me play Cosmo.” He said, “I’ve been hanging out with Jerry Garcia, and I’ve got this whole character down.” I said, “We’ve got someone else for Cosmo.” He said: “I don’t care who you have, I’ve got to play Cosmo.” I said, “We’re out to Ben Kingsley.” He said, “OK, I’ll play Mother.”

The cast represents a real mix of approaches to acting. Poitier famously studied the Method in New York City in the ’50s. Aykroyd comes out of the comedy world. David Strathairn trained as a clown. Ben Kingsley, the RSC. How do you mold that group together into an ensemble?

One of the tricky things that a director has to do is figure out, as quickly as possible, what each actor needs to do their best work, and you’ve got to adjust your technique to interlock with theirs. Everybody needs something different.

Because it was about a group ethic, I wanted everybody, including the crew, to feel that they were part of a family. Almost every day, we would pick someone to sing “Happy Birthday” to, even though it wasn’t their birthday. We did that almost every day. We’d surprise somebody.

How much rehearsal did you wind up having, and did you wish at the time that you had had more?

I think we had a week of half-days. We just divided it up among what I felt would be the most important groups to bring together. It wasn’t a lot of what theater people would call rehearsal. It was really get to know you, let’s talk about this, and hope for the best.

Lack of rehearsal time is one of the reasons screenplays are so important. Questions have to be answered in the screenplay. As a writer, I’m constantly saying to myself: “OK, you’re on the set, and it’s not working. The actor turns to you and says, ‘What am I doing here.’ ” I sometimes find I haven’t really answered that question. I don’t know, so I have to come up with an answer and make sure it’s somewhere in the text, so that when you’re on the set, you can say something simple like, all you want to do is convince him of this, or all you want to do is get out of the room. All you want to do is make them understand that you feel this way.

It’s shocking how often those things are not in the writing. When you’re inventing things on the set that should have been in the script, you run the risk of introducing something that does not help you with a payoff or that skews where a character is going. There are unintended consequences that can run you aground.

Do you have any idea how many drafts of the script you went through in the nine years you were working on Sneakers?

I have thirtysomething on my computer. There were more. There was one point, late in the process, when Walter and Larry said, “Let’s just do a draft as an experiment. Length be damned. Let’s put everything that we’ve ever written that’s any good into one draft.” We called that, “Sneakers Greatest Hits.” It was 180 pages long, but it was full of fantastic stuff, and it rekindled our excitement about certain things. Then Walter said: “Now let’s do the shortest possible draft. Take out everything that can possibly be taken out. What’s the bare minimum that we need to tell the story?” We called that “Sneakers Lite.” It was 93 pages, moved like a bat out of hell, and it showed us we don’t have to have A, B, C, and D, but, boy, we want to put F, G, and H back in. That was really the key to us whittling it down and getting it to that final draft.

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