So goes The Legend of Bagger Vance (opening Nov. 3), Redford's sixth directorial effort. Based on a novel by Steven Pressfield, it's a sweeping allegory about golf and life, set in Savannah and spanning from World War I through the Roaring '20s and into the Great Depression (with present-day bookends, to boot). Matt Damon stars as an all-American kid whose dreams of a golfing career are dashed after he returns from the war in Europe a hometown "hero" who's really just a battle-scarred shell of himself (and a drunk). The love of a vivacious flapper (Charlize Theron) and the motivational platitudes of a mystical caddy (Will Smith in the title role) compel him to search his own soul, before he inevitably redeems himself -- no doubt living happily ever after.
Is it any wonder to hear Redford say he responded immediately to Pressfield's book? "I was really attracted by the possibilities of telling one of those once-upon-a-time tales. This was essentially an old-fashioned mythological story about a classic sort of journey, where the hero loses touch with an important part of himself, falling into darkness before redeeming himself and struggling his way back into the light," the 63-year-old director says during a recent interview.
The sports motif was like icing on the cake for Redford, who previously directed the metaphorical fly-fishing drama A River Runs Through It and who cites among his favorite acting accomplishments the sports movies Downhill Racer and The Natural. "Yeah, I'm interested by that idea of sports as a metaphor for life, and golf seemed like a particularly perfect device for this story," he says. "Damon's loss of what they call his 'authentic swing' indicates his detachment from his own soul. He struggles against himself to find it again, and it's symbolized in the lesson he learns from the golf tournament in the movie, that it's not about winning but it's about the joy of playing."
On that score, The Legend of Bagger Vance shares certain thematic similarities with Redford's other movies: "I suppose they're all about internal character struggle," Redford concedes with a shrug. For the most part, though, he was more enthusiastic about the opportunity to branch out in some new directions. There's a whimsical undertone to Bagger Vance heretofore untapped in the director's earlier work, which began with the anguished family drama Ordinary People (for which he won an Oscar) and most recently included another anguished family drama, The Horse Whisperer.
"I'm attracted by that kind of diversity, and each time out I get more enthusiastic about trying different things. That makes it possible to keep growing, because it's hard to avoid settling down and starting to repeat yourself, especially if you have a success early on as I did," he says. "My last film was a pretty heavy trip, all about the pain and healing of a damaged girl, a damaged animal, a damaged family. I enjoyed a lot about making it, but it was pretty gut-wrenching.
"I wanted to go in a totally opposite direction with Bagger Vance, to try something lighter and more eccentric. The film is meant to be quizzical, almost fable-esque. It's quirky and high-spirited and energetic. I wanted it to have a great affection for its specific time and place, to capture a sort of Flannery O'Connor quality."
While Damon may be ideally cast as the stalwart hero of the piece, Bagger Vance marks a similarly startling departure for the director's other star, Smith, who supplants his jive-talking antics from Independence Day and Men in Black with a lot of meaningful philosophical musings (e.g., "A man's grip on his club is like a man's grip on life"). "I knew there'd be some surprise about that, because Will's such a charismatic, outgoing person in real life, but it wasn't a matter of restraining him or holding him back as much as it was just taking him someplace new, adding a dimension of silence or stillness to his bag of tricks," Redford says.
Ironically, like all of his other films, The Legend of Bagger Vance is the sort of lush studio production that would seem sorely out-of-place at Redford's Sundance Film Festival. As he puts it, "Just because I have an appreciation for independent films doesn't mean I'm qualified to make one myself, you know? I've been around too long, and part of what makes independent movies so special is they're made by people who are young, who have a fresh or unique perspective on things."
And what about the current state of independent filmmaking? Does Redford share the concern of some people who think it's becoming more mainstream? "It has, in a way, because the mainstream studios are co-opting it, trying to own it and control it, so they can't be threatened by it," he says. "But there are other factors, too. Filmmakers today are more accomplished and more sophisticated at an earlier age. Their obsession about film, coupled with all the technological advances and just the general purveyance of movies in our culture, that all contributes to more products that look like the mainstream.
"I'm still optimistic about it, though. I mean, you have filmmakers who come along and add something new and different to the mix, and then they move on and open up a spot for the next group, sort of like a graduating class," he says. "That's what's so great about the film festival. It's a real barometer. You never know what to expect, and then suddenly there it is. You think, 'Oh, so that's what's going to happen this year,' and then it does."
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