Director Phil Alden Robinson on the Making of His Cult Classic Sneakers

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S1: This ad free podcast is part of your Slate plus membership.

S2: One of the tricky things that a director has to do, and I don’t think they teach this in film school, is you have to figure out as quickly as possible what each actor needs for them to do their best work. And you’ve got to adjust your technique to interlock with theirs and everybody needs something different.

S3: Welcome back to Working. I’m your host, June Thomas, and I’m your other host, Isaac Butler.

S1: The voice we just heard belongs to Phil Alden Robinson, writer director who has made some extraordinary movies, Field of Dreams Sneakers, which I think is the coolest of all cult movies that are actually good. And he’s also one of the creators of The Good Fight, one of my favorite TV shows. But for someone who has had that level of success, his is not a household name. So tell me more about him.

S4: Yeah, absolutely. So Phil has had a career that I find really fascinating. He is best known for two films he made within a couple of years of each other, Field of Dreams, which, of course, is the movie that gave us if you build it, they will come and Sneakers, the movie that we’re going to be talking about today. He’s written many projects before that, including a serial killer mystery that was a hit called Relentless and the Carl Reiner film All of Me, which starred Steve Martin and Lily Tomlin, and he’d written and directed In the Mood, which started young Patrick Dempsey. But Field of Dreams is really the movie that put him on the map. It was a sort of surprise hit. It was nominated for a bunch of Oscars. It helped make Kevin Costner a huge star. It’s probably why he then had the clout to make Dances with Wolves and then Sneakers was also a big hit, although I would say its long tail. I think we think of it as a cult favorite now. And since then, he’s directed documentaries and a couple of other feature films, but he has worked mainly as a writer.

S1: Isaac, I know you’re a sneakers head yourself, which is, I should note, different from being a sneaker head. And you devoted a lot of the interview to that movie for those of us. Yes. Including me, who haven’t yet seen it. What do we need to know about sneakers?

S5: Well, the thing you should know by now, June, is that as a Slate employee, I thought you had to watch sneakers. I thought it was compulsory. You know, back when Julia Turner was the editor in chief, you know, she was a big fan of that film. And Slate even did a whole anniversary package on it. But, you know, sneakers, you can rent it. You can stream it. Right now, our conversation about the film is filled with spoilers. So if you want to please feel free to put this podcast on pause and go rent it.

S4: But if you don’t feel like doing that, Sneakers is a caper heist comedy starring Robert Redford as a former counterculture hacker from the 60s. And he, now in the early 90s, is leading this ragtag group of security consultants. And their job is to break into things like banks to test their security systems. And this team winds up getting in over their head when they take a gig with the NSA to steal a piece of technology. The cast is absurdly stacked. It’s Robert Redford, Ben Kingsley, Sidney Poitier, Dan Ackroyd, River Phoenix and one of his final films, David Strathern, James Earl Jones, Donal Logue, Mary McDonnell. I mean, the list goes on and on. It’s a really fun film.

S5: The reason why I wanted to talk to him about it is that it is absurdly well crafted and it’s also prescient about some privacy issues that we confront today.

S1: Fantastic. Can’t wait to listen to your conversation with Phil Alden Robinson. We should also mention that Slate plus members will get to hear a little something extra. He talked about his favorite heist movies and shared some thoughts on the genre, if you want yet a member of Slate plus, you can get two weeks free right now. Just go to Slate dotcom slash working plus.

S6: All right, I’m with the show.

S4: Phil Alden Robinson, thank you so much for joining us on working today.

S7: You’re very welcome. I’m happy to be here.

S4: As you did not come up through film schools, you actually have your B.A. in political science, if I remember correctly. So just to start out, I’d love to know, like, how did you actually enter the profession and learn to be a screenwriter and director?

S7: I was a journalist starting in college. I was working first at the college radio station and then at a local radio and TV station as a newsman. And I made a documentary and it got me really turned on to production and journalism. And I thought that’s what I was going to do. I thought I was going to stay in broadcast journalism. We had a draft lottery, this was 1970, and I had what I thought was a no low enough to get me drafted. And I really didn’t want to go into the Army and go to Vietnam because I didn’t believe in the war, so I went into the Air Force. There was a local congressman who was very high up in the Armed Services Committee that I knew through my news contacts. And he got me an appointment as a motion picture television production officer at the headquarters of the Aerospace Audiovisual Service. Thirteen sixty fifth photo squadron in San Bernardino, California. And I made training films for two years, nine months, 14 days, six hours and 23 minutes, when I got out of the service, I had two thousand dollars in my pocket. I was stylin.

S4: That goes a lot farther. In 1974, I suppose it went great.

S7: And when I ran out of money, I had to find work. And I started working in educational films and corporate films and industrial films and an educational TV. I had an agent by that point who got me in to see the producers of Trapper John M.D. under false pretenses. And I, I got to writing assignments from them and then I got a feature assignment and pretty much every job begat the next one.

S4: And so starting in 1980, I was working in TV and features obviously were fast forwarding a considerable amount to get to our main subject for today, which is your film Sneakers, which is one of my favorite films. That’s why, of course, I looked you up. And so I’m very interested in kind of the origins of your involvement in the project, because originally it was written by the screenwriting team that did war games. Right. And then you came in at some point in it or.

S7: Partially written by this, they have the idea, Walter Poxon, Larry Lascher wrote war games and in the process of. Research researching war games, they came across the existence of these subterranean people called sneakers, who are hired to break into places to test their security. They set up an overall deal at Fox where they were going to write another film, and they hired me to write this. We got together, I think, almost every day for almost a year, and we spent a lot of time at the library researching. We interviewed lots of people and didn’t write a word for nine months, but we had a lot of fun and we learned a lot, at which point a film I had written called All of Me was about to go into production and I was going to be on the set. Which was unusual for a writer, so Walter and Larry said, well, why don’t you go do that? We’ll take a crack at a first draft and when you come back, you can rewrite it. And I came back after all of me, and they had written a partial draft. And when I read what they had written, which had a lot of great stuff in it, I said, the reason you can’t find a third act is that your second act is a third act. They had the play trying to sneak in the middle of the movie. So I restructured a lot of stuff and came up with lots more new things. And then we continued this meeting constantly and interviewing people. It was a wonderful experience, but it took nine years.

S4: Yeah, I was about to say all of me is it well predates speakers or Field of Dreams. So that’s a very, very drawn out process. What was the research part of it like? I mean, you must have been, I’m guessing, interviewing real sneakers and security professionals and and whatever.

S7: Absolutely. We came across a newsletter from a group called TAP, the Technological Assistance Party, which was an offshoot of the Yippies. They were the early thone freaks and computer hackers. And I got in touch with someone on the masthead who just had a fake name. And he said, I’ll be in San Francisco at the Apple Fest and such and such a date. If you want to talk, come talk to me. So I flew up to San Francisco and arranged a few other meetings with computer security people, including someone who was a real sneaker and who didn’t want to talk. And when I said to him, look, this will be off the record. It’s just background. He said, OK. And they very cloak and dagger, Lee said, where are you staying? I said, I’m at the St. Francis Hotel. He said, there’s a carriage entrance on Polk Street. Be outside at seven 15. I drive a 10 Mercedes and I’m black. And I thought, wow, this is cool, and it’s seven 15, I’m standing out of the carriage entrance is 10, Mercedes pulls up. Mm hmm. There are two guys in the car. We went out to dinner. They regaled me with stories about breaking into remarkable places with incredibly intricate schemes of how they did it. Very ingenious. I also met Captain Crunch on that trip, the infamous computer hacker and phone freak, I met a few other people who are just brilliant in the stories that they told about how they would break into places. And we use some of this in the movie. And when I came back, Walter and Larry had found a blind sneaker that we based Whisler on. We met a guy that they said could look at a printout of just ones and zeros and just flip through it and go up there. That’s that’s the flaw right there. That’s how we can get in. And these were great characters, and we started to pull together characters, situations, set pieces, we still were lacking an overall. What’s it about, what happens?

S4: So how did you happen upon the idea for, I guess, what it’s called in the film Genex Little Black Box, right to the box for our listeners who haven’t seen the movie that can allow you to encrypt anything that can break into sort of any computer system hooked up to the web. Right.

S7: That came from an idea that we had talked about at our very first meeting and then put aside and didn’t look out for a couple of years in that very first meeting, I said, guys, I have this idea that somebody could get into the power grid and shut, you know, blackout the Northeast. Someone could get into the air traffic control system and crash passenger jets. Somebody could get into well, turn all the traffic lights in a city green and start car accidents. And this person demonstrates it and then says to the authorities, open up this node, the Federal Reserve, for a second. And I’ll take my billion dollars. And we love that idea because in most ransom movies, the collecting the ransom is the part where the criminal is the most vulnerable. Mm hmm. Here’s a case where the criminal would not be vulnerable. All you just open up that note. He gets the money, the money’s gone and you can’t find him. Well, we immediately realized we have no idea how to find that person. So we just put that aside. And a couple of years later, we came back to that, and that scene is now at the at the party scene when Whisler is testing the box and we see what he can do. Among our interviews were some mathematicians who we were learning about cryptography and everybody who studied cryptography is the basis of securing information in computer systems. And one day someone said, what if what if there was a we called it the universal solvent. And that was the working title for that box for a long time. Didn’t make it in the movie. But what if there was a universal solvent that could just break any code and you could get into any system?

S4: And I think that’s the moment when we all went that there’s something really rich there that we can play with and then sort of layered within that is, of course, this drama of the friendship between Marty and Cosmo, who are sort of idealistic young yuppies. I mean, they really are in the early sequence. One of them goes to jail, the other becomes a security contractor in this kind of ragtag team and the ways that their life experiences changes or their political idealism and sort of what happens to their idealism. How early was that arc part of the screenplay?

S7: That was very early and the scene was going to be based on something that happened, I think it was at University of Michigan. Where the CDs or some radical group to protest the war. Planted a bomb to go off late at night and no one would be in the same campus building, but there was a janitor in the building that night and he was killed. And the original idea was that’s what these two guys did. They did something that was going to be a prank. Someone was killed. Kozmo got caught and Marty ran. Pretty early on, we realized there’s something unforgivable about killing an innocent person, so we didn’t want to use that, even if it’s Robert Redford who did it absolutely right. And he’d be the first to admit it. So we then started thinking about other things that these guys could do and we thought it ought to mirror what the box can do. Later on, they break into a computer and start transferring money. And at one point in one of the early drafts they take money from. The Republican Party and send it to the Smothers Brothers, we had all kinds of crazy things that they did, we eventually winnowed it down. And what’s lovely to me, just as a writer, is we were able to pay that off again at the end of the film. Yes. Which was something written in post-production.

S4: Oh, really? Yeah. The clip of the TV where he says the Republican Party is bankrupt. Right. And then there’s multiple left wing organizations that have had large anonymous donations write.

S7: Originally, the ending was simply. They get the box and play chronics, they’re driving away the NSA dark vans and guys with guns stop them on a bridge. And say, give us the box, and Bishop says, I’ll give you the box, but you’ve got to clean up my record. And they say, OK, deal, and he gives them the box they drive away. Liz says, can’t they just use that box now? Bishop says, no. And he shows that he has the chip and he turns to. How good is your aim? And Chris is still pretty good. And Bishop tosses the chip in the air over the water and Chris pulls his gun and shoots it and blows it into little pieces and they all fall into the water. That was the end of the movie. And a very, very, very brilliant friend of ours named Lindsey Duran is a great producer and studio executive, said at the end of the movie, They save the world, but it’s not enough. She said, you got to give these guys some personal victory, so I went back and wrote the scene at the party where they said, what are you gonna do with the money? I want to go to Tahiti, I want to go tobaco, et cetera.

S8: So I think I’m going to buy me a Winnebago, the big kitchen waterbed, big kitchen.

S4: And you wrapped at this point or was this.

S7: Oh, no. At this point, we’re still we’re writing at this point. OK, got I got OK. And then we wrote the scene at the end with each guy says to the NSA, this is what I want.

S9: I want peace on earth, goodwill toward men. Oh, this is ridiculous. He’s serious. I want peace on earth and goodwill toward. Now we are the United States government. We don’t do that sort of thing. Just going to have to try. All right, I’ll see what I can do. Thank you very much.

S7: And then the final scene which we shot was the sneakers at the end of the dock, end of a pier in San Francisco at dawn. Beautiful light. And they walk up to the railing. Bishop takes out the chip, tosses it into the water and in slow motion, we see it go end over, end in the air and it hits the surface of the water. Glove Glug club disappears beneath the water and the sneakers turn and walk off, sadder but wiser into the predawn light of San Francisco. And Bishop puts his arm around Mary and then River puts his arm around Sydney and Sydney brushes the arm away and they walk off. And the music I used was this great bluesy record called I’m Always Drunk. In San Francisco, I’m Carmen McRae. It’s a great record and it’s a beautiful ending. We showed the movie to the studio and we got to the ending. And I could just feel all of the air let out of the room during that scene. And I just knew, God, this is a boring ending, we don’t care, we don’t care that they throw it away and the studios notes the first, they say we love this movie, but, boy, that you got to listen with that, ending it because something’s wrong with this ending. And I went back to the editing room that a great editor named Todd Ralph, Oscar winning editor. And we were doing little paczki and things, we’re moving a close up and shaving a few frames off the shot in that shot, and I said, God, I just wish we had an ending we cared about. I don’t care that they throw the thing away. The audience doesn’t care. They throw it away. And Tom said, I wish we could just see them use it for something cool. And we went back to working and about ten minutes. And I just as a joke, I said, Oh, the Republican Party announced it’s bankrupt. The United Negro College Fund got record donations and we laughed and went back to work. Ten minutes later, we looked each other one. That’s not bad. So I called Ernie Tatro, the anchorman from Channel six in Schenectady, where I had worked when I was in college, and I said, Ernie, after the 11 o’clock news tonight, would you put yourself on tape? Just a medium shot reading some copy that affects you.

S10: He said you’re in a surprise announcement. The Republican National Committee has revealed it is bankrupt. A spokesman for the party said they had plenty of money in their accounts last week, but today they just don’t know where the money has gone. But not everybody is going begging. Amnesty International, Greenpeace and the United Negro College Fund announced record earnings this week due mostly to large anonymous donations.

S7: And I said, I’ll give you my FedEx number and you can just FedEx a three quarter inch tape to me. So for about twenty seven dollars, we reshot the ending. And that it made a lot of difference, I think.

S1: We’ll be back with more of Isaac Butler’s conversation with Phil Alden Robinson after this. One of the things we’d love to do with the show is help solve your creative problems, whether it’s a specific challenge about your work or a big question about inspiration and discipline, send them to us at working at Slocomb. And even when we can, we’ll put those questions to our guests. Welcome back to working. Now let’s return to Isaac’s conversation with Phil Alden Robinson.

S4: You know, part of what really makes the movie work for me is just how clear the characterisations are. It’s not that they’re one joke characters, but each character has kind of one big thing and we keep returning to it. Whether it’s Marty Bishop’s record or why did Chris leave the CIA? Mother, played by Dan Aykroyd, is always needling Chris with various conspiracy theories so that by the end of the movie, when he just says cattle mutilations are up, don’t you know it stands in for a whole world of things? How did you develop that? Can you talk a little bit about how you approach character as a writer?

S7: I think all three of us are very plot oriented, but we all know that character is at the heart of everything and that the best plot in the world is meaningless if the characters aren’t rich and complex and compelling. The original pitch that Walter Larry had had made to Fox was it’s a high tech Dirty Dozen and Dirty Dozen was this wonderful World War two movie in the 60s that started with a trope that is just. Great, and that we love it in every film that it’s in, which is recruiting the team or recruiting the teams the best. That’s exactly so pleasurable, so pleasurable. And so our original idea was we’re going to have a movie that starts with recruiting the team and that focused us on character. We came up with all these different characters and a certain point in the writing we realized we’ve got so much story to tell. Let’s do away with recruiting the team and have the team already be in place. And so we actually had to give up something that was one of the key things that made us fall in love with the promise of this project.

S4: Well, so you really had to kill your darlings on constructing.

S7: It is a graveyard full of darlings from this movie you mentioned there.

S4: You know how delicious that trope is. And, of course, heist films, of which I think Sneakers is in the canon heist films have a lot of them. Do you think about that when you’re writing when you’re constructing a plot, or are you thinking about like, oh, this is a trope that’s really useful for these reasons, let’s put it here? Or is it more intuitive? And that’s kind of something that happens in revision?

S7: I think it’s more intuitive and I think that some at some point you realize, oh, I’m doing something that’s been done before and let’s go look and see how it’s worked well and how it’s not worked well. We started by screening a lot of heist films. We watched Topkapi and Rififi and The Hot Rock and the Anderson Tapes. We had a lot of fun as part of how we spent that first year was was watching this great heist movies. And what they all have in common is they’re really smart. They’re full of twists and turns and surprises and the characters are great. You know, it’s the reason you watch these movies ultimately is because they have great characters. It’s a rare movie. You know, Space Odyssey 2000, 2001 is an exception where you fall in love with it for reasons other than the characters.

S4: Right, right. And it’s particularly true in heist films because they have to ground all the kind of other stuff that’s that’s going on. Otherwise, they’re just stealing from someone and kind of who cares about that.

S7: Exactly. And the mechanism by which they designed and performed the heist and the mistakes they make and the ways they correct those mistakes are all grounded in character. They all have to be because this character can do this, but he cannot do that.

S4: And, of course, in sneakers, you have this incredible cast playing those characters. Yeah, I will try to list them really quickly. You have Robert Redford, Sidney Poitier, Dan Ackroyd, River Phoenix, Mary McDonnell, David Strathern, Ben Kingsley, Stephen Tobolowsky, James Earl Jones. I mean, I imagine coming off Field of Dreams helped in terms of getting this cast together. But like, how did you cast this movie and get that particular group?

S7: We were always thinking Bishop was our age and we had a list of all the movie stars that were early 40s at that time, Robert Redford being in his probably mid 50s and 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 CIA agents came up to me and said, hey, I’m working really hard trying to get Bob in your movie. And I said, Abbu, he said, Redford. I said, what movie is it, sneakers? I said, for what role? He said, the lead. I said, No, no, no, no. That guy, that character is my age is a lot younger. And I said, do me a favor, please don’t send it to Bob. I don’t want to insult him because he’s he’s one of my idols. He’s an absolute icons, a great actor. He’s an important man in the history of Hollywood. Please don’t, Senator. And he said, oh, he’s read it. He wants to do it. I said, oh, shit. And I went home that night, and even though I had had a bunch to drink, I sat up with probably three thirty in the morning. 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. And I got up in the morning and I said, oh, my God, what a great idea. And I called Tom Pollack, who is chairman of Universal. And I got him out of a meeting. With with Lou Osserman and Sid Sheinberg, he was very unhappy to be pulled out of the meeting and I said. Sneakers Redford, and he said, what you want to send to him? I said, he’s ready. He wants to do it. And he said, wow. He said, all right, I’ll get into it. And he called Ovid’s that day and they started working on a deal. Now, once we had Bob. It became a lot easier to get everybody else, and I knew, yeah, I knew Sydney a little bit, so I sent I called him up and said, would you read something? And he read it that day. And coming back the next day, he said, I’m in. And I knew Danny a little bit. And we said it to him. And Danny read it and said, I actually met with him in New York. He said, this is great. I love this. I will be a great Cosmo. And I said, No, no, no, I want you to play. Mother is no, no, no, you got to let me play. Cos we said I’ve been hanging out with Jerry Garcia and I’ve got this whole character down and I said, we’ve got someone else for Cosmo. I don’t care who you have. I got to play Cosmo. I said we’re out to Ben Kingsley. He said, OK, I’ll play mother.

S4: Amazing. Amazing. You know, one thing with that cast as well is that it’s a real mix of approaches to acting. You know, Poitier famously studied the method in New York City in the 50s. Redford comes from from a different background. Akroyd comes out of the comedy world. David Strathern trained as a clown. Ben Kingsley, the RSG. You know, how do you how do you mould that group together into an ensemble?

S7: That’s a great question. And one of the one of the tricky things that a director has to do and then I don’t think they teach this in film school, is you have to figure out as quickly as possible what each actor needs for them to do their best work. And you’ve got to adjust your technique to interlock with theirs. And everybody needs something different. And you you just in rehearsal period helps because it gives you a chance to try stuff and see how they react to it and see what works for them, what doesn’t work. We didn’t have much rehearsal on this. One thing that I did do in rehearsal, I was really glad we did. I got the two young actors who played the young bishop and the young Cosmo. And brought them in for, I think maybe a half a day, and I asked Bob and Ben if they would come to. So the four of them sat at a table and Bob and Ben started talking about acting, and I thought, this is better than rehearsal. I’m just going to let everybody talk. And for a half a day, we just sat around the table and told stories. And these two guys got such a sense of Bob Redford and Ben Kingsley that they were able to just absorb that and put it into their characters. And it was far more helpful than actually saying, let’s read the lines with other people. I remember with Tobolowsky, we rehearsed the scene where he’s at dinner with with Mary McDonnell, and I encourage them both to ad lib in the rehearsal. We want to do a lot of ad libbing in the movie, but in rehearsal you want to explore stuff and they’re both such creative people.

S1: And at one point, Mary said, you know what, I really love the sound of your voice. And Steven said.

S8: Really, I always thought it was kind of nasal and pinched, and I wrote that down quickly.

S7: I thought that was just beautiful for that character. And so things come out of all of that. And then you spend time with them and you just try to learn them as best you can. They all enjoyed each other. I think it would have been a different movie if there had been personality conflicts, but there weren’t.

S4: That’s amazing. You know, I come from a theater background, so the lack of rehearsal one has when making a movie gives me unbelievable anxiety when I think about it. I mean, how much rehearsal did you wind up having for that film? And did did you wish at the time that you had had more?

S7: I mean, it all worked out, obviously, but I think we had a week of half days the last week before we started shooting. I think we had half days. And then we just divided it up among what I thought would be the most important groups to bring together. It wasn’t a lot of what would any theater person would call rehearsal. It was really about get to know you and and let’s talk about this and and hope for the best. That’s one of the reasons screenplays are so important. Answers have to be answered in the screenplay. And one of the tricks I do as a writer is I’m constantly saying to myself, when I finish a scene, I think it’s good. I say to myself, OK, you’re on the set and it’s not working. And the actor turns to you and says, What am I doing here? And I find oh, yeah, I haven’t really answered that question. I don’t know, so I have to come up with an answer as a writer, 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, something clear. And it’s shocking how often those things are not in the writing and that you have to come up with something. And 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 as a payoff or that skews where a character is going. It’s there’s unintended consequences that can really run you aground.

S4: And in sneakers in particular, it seems to me the set ups and the payoffs are really tight. I mean, almost every bit of dialogue is setting up or paying off something somewhere else in the in the movie, you know, that was the goal.

S7: And, you know, over nine years, if you haven’t done that, you’ve been wasting your time.

S4: Just do you have any idea how many drafts you went through in that amount of time?

S7: I have something like 30 some odd on my computer. Wow. Yeah. And there were more. And there was actually one point. This was an idea of Walter Laris. It was a great idea. Late in the process, they said, you know, let’s just do a draft as an experiment length be damned. Let’s put everything that we’ve ever written on this that’s any good into one draft. And we called that Sneakers Greatest Hits, and it was one hundred eighty pages long. But it was full of fantastic stuff and it and it rekindled our excitement about certain things, and then Walter said, now let’s do the shortest possible jet, take out everything that can possibly be taken out. What’s the bare minimum that we need to tell the story? We call that sneakers light. And it was ninety three pages moved like a bat out of hell. And it showed us, yeah, we don’t have to have A, B, C and D, but boy, we want to put Afghans back in here. And that was really the key to us winnowing it down and getting to that final draft.

S4: You know, you were mentioning your work with the actors earlier, and it strikes me that so much of the director’s job, this is again, the part they don’t teach is just creating the right vibe to get the work they need out of everyone, not just the actors. On the on the film set, I was reading about how you did that on The Sum of All Fears by not allowing the camera crew to watch rehearsals and moving camera positions. There was a certain like chaos and happy accident thing happening. What were you doing on sneakers to kind of engineer the right vibe once you were on set?

S7: Well, first, me stand on some of the fears that was only in one or two sequences where I wanted that chaos that I just on sneakers, we would do things like because it was about a group ethic. I wanted everybody, including the crew, to feel that you’re part of this family. And so we were constantly doing things like almost every day we would pick someone to sing Happy Birthday to even though it wasn’t their birthday, we just picked somebody, make it their birthday. And we did that almost every day. We just surprise somebody. And the Grip’s, we were shooting on this giant stage at Universal and they had found a little area behind one of the sets that was like a little alcove. And they turned it into a little room and they filled it up with Elvis memorabilia. They had a black velvet painting. They had Christmas lights, Elvis pictures. It was a tiny little room, like a closet that three people could stand in. And it was an Elvis shrine. And every so often you just go into the Elvis shrine to just kind of get yourself man with the king to commune with the king. Exactly. When Silver is a wonderful guy who was head of production for the studio would come to the set. I would tell the crew guys in five minutes, he’s coming in, let’s boom. And that poor Casey, who was my friend, would come on the set and eighty five people would boo and we would do a lot of things like that just to kind of keep the camaraderie going in a spirit of fun. And we discovered one day was Sydney’s birthday and we planned we we got a cake and we were going to sing to Sydney because we’d sung to everybody else. Why not sing to him on his real birthday? And what we sang was we sang to Sir with Love, not happy birthday. And when we finished, he said, outside of my family, I can’t think of anybody I would rather spend this day with than you all. Oh, that’s wonderful. Yeah, it’s a wonderful man.

S4: Sneakers also reunited you with John Lindley, who was the director of photography on Field of Dreams. What do you like about working with him? What was your creative collaboration like, sneakers?

S7: Actually, our third film together, John and I have a shorthand. We obviously we share a taste in how things ought to look. We like each other. We don’t bullshit each other. We tell each other the truth. There have been times when I have made stupid mistakes where he’ll just take me aside and say that was wrong. There was a day on Field of Dreams when I was so depressed, I really thought I was just blowing it. And someone said, you know, cheer up, and I said, you know, I only have enough energy to either do my job or pretend I’m enjoying it, I just can’t do both. And John said to me, you know what, Phil? Nobody wants to hear that from you. And that was the splash of cold water in my face that I needed at that moment and I thought that’s what friends do, is they tell each other the truth. He’s incredibly creative. He loves challenges. He loves actors. And in this film, we had a on sneakers. We had a mantra between the two of us, no bad shots. And I think he mentioned it first and I laughed because on every film at some point, no matter how good your intentions, you shoot yourself into a corner and you realize the only way to shoot our way out of this is we’ve got to put somebody against the wall. And there’s no light. It’s just you’re stuck. You shoot it and you move on. We were determined. No bad shots.

S4: And how did you do that? Through storyboarding really carefully or we storyboarded somebody in.

S7: What we did is in the scouting. We were always thinking very carefully about where practical lights would be and what are we going to do to the zits. This up a little bit, you know, and we came up with some really cool ways of shooting things in one take and and interesting backgrounds. We got to one set. It was Mary’s apartment where we had done this very intricate camera move from outside the apartment on a crane so that you saw what’s happening inside and you saw Dan Aykroyd outside on the ladder. And then we had to go inside the apartment, it was a rented apartment somewhere in the valley to shoot Werner, showing her the mechanical dog that he had designed. And as soon as we’re in there, we looked around and realized there was no good shot. And he said to me, what are we going to do? And it’s a small set and everybody can hear what we can do. I said, I don’t know, let’s just think for a second. And he said, you know, we could try this. I said, yeah. And I said, you know what? It’d be great if the table and this is something I learned from Kubrick, which is when in doubt find practical lights. I said, be great if the table the coffee table was a light table, if there was light coming up from. And John, without even saying good idea, just turned to his crew and said, guys build a light table and the grip department said, we’ve got wood, we’ve got the things. And the electric department said, we’ve got these kind of tubes that we can go in there. And 40 minutes later, we had built a piece of furniture that had light coming up from from below. And it just cast this wonderful glow and we felt like it’s such a win. Does the audience care? Know, but we cared. Right, right.

S4: And they noticed it. I mean, audiences, I think somewhere in the in the limbic system or something, they recognize when something is made with care.

S7: And you know, what I think they recognize probably subconsciously is there’s thought behind this. There’s intention. The people holding the wheel, steering this ocean liner have have some thoughts in their head and that they care.

S4: I was very interested in the latest time I was watching it, you know, you have this heist, this very complicated heist that you’ve been moving pieces around for quite a bit of time. We finally get there and it’s a beautiful middle aged man. I mean, Robert Redford is gorgeous, but it’s also just a middle aged guy walking through an office very slowly. And part of me was like, I bet this was like a dare. Or there’s part of them that was like, what can I get away with here to sort of take the heist and upended. So it’s just a middle aged guy walking through a room very slowly. How did you land on that?

S7: The original version of that scene was it was mother. Who was wrapped in a like a Goodyear Tire Iron Man suit, because we had said that, you know, this this motion detector wouldn’t detect if he was wrapped in neoprene or something. So it was originally mother in this big suit. And at some point we thought, you know, this is a this is a good scene for Bishop to do. I don’t want to put Robert Redford in a in a Michelin Man suit, so the other alternative was, oh, well, we’ve said if you move really slowly so and we all instantly understood how cool that is, that the combination of this exciting tension filled thing is, is moving slowly. And the key moment is when Chris says to him over his earpiece, Martin, I think you better hurry.

S4: One thing, I can’t do it right, it’s like an RIFIFI when they can’t make any noise while breaking the safe.

S7: Exactly, exactly. And I must say, I shot that scene very badly. Every time I look at the movie, I think I just blew it. What makes you say that? I kept moving the camera with him, which accentuates motion, I should have gotten up close with a wide angle lens and not moved it at all and not had a background like we love that shark tank in the background. The problem is it makes it look like he’s moving faster than two inches. The second, I should have put him against a absolute neutral background wide angle lens, minimize the movement, and then you would have felt like he’s not really moving fast. I look at that scene now and I think he’s moving too fast. Even the shot of the feet, which is my feet in his shoes. And I was trying to go as slowly as I could. It’s really hard to do. So you were his walking stunt double? I was Bob Redford’s foot double.

S4: You know, you have worked in a variety of different jobs, you’ve been a you’ve been a journalist, you’ve been both a writer and a director in film and TV. You’ve directed documentaries for Nightline. You know, all of these different positions. Are there parts of the process, the kind of stay the same no matter what? Are there certain things that you cling to as you move from job to job, certain values or ideas about approaching creativity?

S7: It’s all storytelling. It’s storytelling in different media with different tools, but it’s all storytelling. And to me, the key to storytelling is tell the truth and don’t bore people. It’s not that complicated. And when in doubt and often swimming in doubt, I just try to. Bring my focus back to that, what’s the essence of what I’m trying to say? Is there a more interesting way of saying it? What can I cut away so that I don’t bore people with too much details? I’m sure I’m doing on this show. When I was in college working at the local TV station at a news director named Don Decker, who was a great man and a great journalist, and he would always look at copy I’d written and he would say, who cares? And I would answer the question. He would say, don’t tell me. Put it in the copy. And I’ve never forgotten that it’s like you always have to remind yourself someday someone’s going to be watching this or listening to it, and it has to be clear to them why they should care. And I think that’s at the heart of good storytelling.

S11: Well, Phil Alden Robinson, thank you so much for coming on the show and talking with us about your process. It’s a great pleasure. Thank you very much.

S1: First of all, excuse me while I pop off and watch sneakers, I have really have been meaning to watch it forever, but no, I absolutely, really am going to do so as soon as possible. But there’s something really charming and slightly inscrutable about Robinson. He’s clearly, incredibly well connected. It was like being on the set of one of those old fashioned talk shows when he was talking about his Oscar party and Bob Redford and Wasserman’s Sheinberg Ovitz, all of those people, people he clearly knew or knows in a non superficial way. But the way he works seems really different from my understanding of how the movie business is structured, like taking nine years to write a movie or directing so few movies when he’s clearly really, really good at it. Do you know the backstory of why he’s had such an unusual career?

S4: We did not talk a lot about that when I interviewed him, in part because, you know, you have limited time. And I really wanted to focus as an experiment, see what it was like to just really focus on one work and the process that created that work. But I did read a lot of interviews with him in preparation for this. And what he said many times is that he’s just really selective about what he works on because he works on them so hard. And I think you can hear that in the interview, he wasn’t only working on sneakers for nine years. Several other movies got made during that period. But there is still a quiet relentlessness to his work, a real drive to get things right. It’s the kind of drive that makes you turn to your director of photography and say, hey, let’s just agree there will be no bad shots on this movie.

S5: And, you know, we typically associate that with harsh taskmasters with kind of on set abuse or, you know, people doing 200 takes of someone opening a door. But it is clearly possible to be that kind of relentless about your work and also be a kind person. And I think there’s a real lesson in that.

S1: Yeah, I know I’m obsessed, but nine years, nine years, it’s it’s just hard to take that information in and just move on. Like, there are so many ways in which that’s not good. Like filmmakers that I like, I want them to be making a lot of things for my constant entertainment. You hear people losing their way and losing their confidence when projects kind of take too long and they they lose control of them in a sense. And just the finances of it seem really challenging. But I’m wondering if you have a different response to that piece of information.

S4: This is a really funny question to hear when I am a little over a month away from delivering the first draft of my book to the editor.

S5: And part of me is like, get this thing the fuck out of me and away from me. I just want a week off. I don’t want to think about it for a while. And then the other part of me is like, I wish I had nine years to work on this book. So, you know, I think that actually one of the really difficult parts of the creative process is knowing when something is done and done can mean knowing something’s never really going to come to fruition and you need to abandon it done. I mean, this is in good enough shape to move on to the next stage. You know, done can mean a lot of different things. But I do think it’s a difficult part of the artist’s life to know when you’ve reached that point and it takes a certain amount of confidence to be willing to work at something for that long because you just haven’t gotten it yet. And so I admire that. I mean, another movie that that’s like that is back to the future, which I think they spent eight years writing, if I remember correctly. So, you know, sometimes it’s worth it to take the care to really, you know, tighten something up as much as possible.

S1: Yeah. And obviously, as you’ve said, no, multiple times, like it wasn’t like they were making this movie and not doing anything else, but just that feeling of we’re watching heist movies for a year like we’ve all been in that kind of situation where you really are working on something. But the way you need to work on it and that point in its cycle is to really just kind of luxuriate in research. You don’t always have the luxury of doing that, but when you do, you know, you really get it into your bones. And, yeah, it’s wonderful when you have the opportunity, I think.

S4: Yeah.

S5: I mean, one thing I’ve definitely learned writing this book or relearned again and again because I feel like I knew it already, is that a lot of writing does not look like writing. A lot of writing is not, you know, you at the typewriter and then you ball it up and then you throw it at the trash can. And then there’s a montage of the balls of paper around the trash can. And then suddenly you get very little of it is actually like that. A lot of it is like I watched a movie, I took a walk, I did a bunch of research. I paced back and forth driving like crazy. You know, a lot of it is that stuff. And sometimes I can just take a really long time. Sometimes that takes 40 drafts and a decade to get right.

S1: This observation may seem bananas, but I’m going to go ahead and do it anyway, as he was talking like in really excruciating but absolutely fascinating detail about creative decisions that he made more than 28 years ago. I was reminded of how I’m often boggled by the brains of great athletes. For example, I’ve heard interviews with NBA superstars who can talk through the play by play of points from games that they played decades ago. And they’re not looking at film or having any, you know, visual aids. It’s just in their heads. Now, I’ve got a really good memory. I can remember all kinds of things, but I can’t even imagine having that level of recall. And it strikes me as a mark of people of extraordinary talent. What do you make of that comparison?

S4: I love that comparison. I never thought of it before, but I’ve totally experienced that as well. You know, I’m a big tennis nut. And often, you know, Roger Federer has been around long enough that often he’s called on to kind of narrate his five hardest points throughout his career or whatever, and he’s always able to do it. It’ll be like, oh, yes, it was this temperature outside and the ball was bouncing like this.

S5: And it’s really unbelievable. I don’t think that I am a person of extraordinary talent, but I do think that most writers I know, like among their more innate skills like yourself, is a pretty well developed memory that just seems across the board. Most people I know are professional writers have a really good memory. And on top of that, though, I think there’s that other echelon of artists and craftspeople who are just incredibly gifted. And it feels like over the course of their careers, whether on purpose or not, they’ve kind of trained their memory in such a way that they can really trap these moments of creativity and amber and then reexamine them and figure out what went right and what went wrong in the same way that an athlete does. And certainly when Dan and I were writing The World Only Spins Forward, I encounter that again and again and again when we interviewed people, you know, something is meaningful to you is going to stick with you, right?

S1: Not every day is is one of those days.

S3: Well, that’s our show for this week. Thank you, Isaac, for providing one more reminder that I really need to wear sneakers. I’m off to do it right now.

S12: You should really watch sneakers and people who have not signed up for Slate. Plus you should really sign up for Slate. Plus, not only will you get bonus stuff in this episode and in episodes of working going forward, but you also will get ad free Slate podcast bonus episodes of shows like Slow Burn and Dear Prudence. And you’ll be supporting the work we do right here on working. It’s only thirty five dollars for the first year and as you’ve probably heard many times by now, you can get a free two week trial at Slate Dotcom working.

S3: Plus, we would also ask that you please subscribe to working. That way you won’t miss a single episode. Thank you to Phil Alden Robinson for being our guest this week. And huge thanks as always to our magnificent producer, Cameron Jones.

S12: We’ll be back next week for a conversation between two people you may be familiar with. June Thomas will be talking to Roman alarm about the writing of his extraordinary new novel, Leave the World Behind. And then June and I will be talking behind Ramen’s back, but recording it so that you can hear it. We hope you enjoy it. And until then, get back to work.

S4: Hey, they’re sleepless listeners, Isaac Butler here, thank you so much for subscribing to Slate Plus and helping to support everything we do here at working. We have a special treat for you today. It’s a little bit more from our conversation with Phil Alden Robinson.

S5: He’ll be talking about his favorite heist movies. And then we get into how David Strathern mastered the physicality of playing the blind hacker Whisler. We hope you enjoy. Thanks.

S4: So you mentioned earlier, of course, that you spent a year watching heist films while writing sneakers. Can we I just love to know what some of your favorites were from that experience. And maybe also as a follow up, do you still watch them? Do you get a lot of pleasure out of them? Are now that you’ve made them, do you see? Is it like knowing a magician’s tricks?

S7: Oh, I don’t know their tricks and a good heist film keeps its secrets from you as long as it can. This is not a heist film, but I recently watched the Swedish TV series called Before We Die that’s on the PBS passport as a great sir. It’s a cop series. It’s a procedural. And we got to the last episode of the first season. Halfway through the last episode of the first season, and I I was saying there is no way that the good guys can solve this problem, it’s impossible. And they did. I was so just exhilarated by by being fooled, by not knowing where it’s going, I think there’s no greater pleasure as a as a moviegoer than not knowing where it’s going and not being able to figure it out. I know there are some people who say that in the sixth sense, they knew early on what the gimmick was. I feel bad for them because I didn’t. And when I saw that film, I was just over the moon with how happy I was to have been fooled. Right. Because it was it weren’t, you know, absolutely that great integrity among the heist films. I just keep going back to The Sting. I think it’s perfect, imperfect. And this also it fools the audience. You think halfway through that Redford is being subverted and he’s going he’s betraying Paul Newman’s character. And everything that happens from that point on makes you believe that, and when you discover that that was the ruse and you play back in your head all those moments, you go, oh, no, that was just him being nervous that they were pulling off something really dangerous at one point. You know, Newman says to them, Are you OK? He goes, Yeah, I’m just I’m just nervous. And we’re thinking, not ised. He’s guilty for betraying. You know, he was just nervous, right? It right. It’s done with real integrity and great skill. Great director, great script, great actors.

S4: Yeah. It seems to me that one of the wonderful things about a great twist is if you go back and it just makes you re-examine the film or book or whatever again. But it and it still makes sense. Like sometimes you get to a twist at the end, you’re like, well, that surprised me because it’s nonsensical and you’ve actually broken the thing you’ve made. But when it goes really well, you’re like, oh, I’ve now seen this thing. And when I go back in my head, I have this new understanding that makes as much, if not more sense than what came before.

S7: Exactly. Which is also the fun of writing it. You know, anybody any fool can write something linear that starts here, goes from A to B to C. It doesn’t take talent to do that. It takes a little craft. Maybe the talent is when you can figure out how to make you think you’re going to see, but you really going a D and then it circles back and it is C, you know, or some combination thereof. That’s really fun to write. It’s hard.

S4: Yeah. Yeah, I imagine. I mean for me, I mean obviously there’s the twist, the cosmos still alive in my sneakers after you’ve heard that he’s died several times. But it also seems to me like all of that comes together in the sequence where they’re recreating Marty’s trunk ride using sound that, you know, you’ve planted early on. Whistler is really, you know, he remembers sound. It’s the thing that he’s he’s gifted at. But then that it pays off in that way is a delightful little surprise.

S7: It really is, especially since you feel on some level you feel that you’ve already had that itch scratched by the don’t look listen scene where he points out that the answering machine is on the desk and that that’s hiding in plain sight, fellas trying to steal a black box on his desk between the pencil jar and the lamp.

S8: Whistler, I hate to tell you this, but you’re blind. Play the tape back again. You can’t even see anything. Don’t look. Listen, played back a message here on service, but you need an answering machine for.

S7: There’s a little black box, you think, OK, you’ve paid off Whisler, but no, we’ve got another payoff for him and then when he drives the truck. That’s right. That’s right. And I have to say, part of that was all written before David came in, but David did something in his audition that no one else did. All the actors he read for that part came in and acted blind with their eyes. He did it with his ears. He came in and do a lot of stuff with his eyes, but when you were talking to him, he would just tilt his head a little bit. So his ear was facing you and then he would talk to your face because that’s what blind people do. They hear you. They know where you are. They don’t look off to the side. Right. And he was he was the only actor who who did that. And it was it was stunning how what a difference that made. And he really worked with that on the set in the sneakers layer. Any time he wasn’t shooting, he was walking the set with his eyes closed to learn how to get from this point to that point, from this point to that point, even things he didn’t have to do in the movie, he learned that set brilliantly and then did not do that in Mary McDonnell’s apartment where his character never been. So in the scene where he walks to the keyboard, he’s bumping into stuff and he’s he’s feeling things. He never did that in the lair.

S4: Oh, that’s amazing. Well, thank you very much for joining us in the special Slate plus segment.

S7: You’re very welcome.

S12: All right, that’s it for this week. Thank you so much for your support, slate, sleepless listeners, and we hope you’ve enjoyed.