Here's What Robert Duvall Can Tell You About Being a Director
Who would know more about getting performances from actors than someone whose career encompasses studying under Sanford Meisner, breaking out in Robert Altman's Mash, and creating legendary roles in Francis Ford Coppola's The Godfather and Apocalypse Now?
The acclaimed Robert Duvall, whose fourth narrative film as director, Wild Horses, just premiered at the 2015 SXSW Film Festival, sat down with No Film School to talk about anything from his influences, not rehearsing with actors, not watching playback on takes, and the future of independent film.
NFS: What would you say is the core artistic difference when you come into a film as an actor versus as a director?
Robert Duvall: They're very much connected. Anything I try to direct, I try to consider is a continuation of the acting process. I try to hold a mirror up to nature and make it as lifelike as possible, hopefully, so they're very much connected. The few times that I direct, it's supposed to be more tiring, but I find it more fun when you can do everything. Like a continuation of me, and really sometimes not as tiring as if you just acted. It's more complete in a way.
NFS: Why is it more complete?
Duvall: Maybe have a little more control, which is okay, but by having control you kind of let that control go out, and let the actors do what they do. Like the way I like to be directed by an actor, or another director. You talk with them, but they give you your freedom. In my directing other actors, I try to direct the way I like to be directed, and just see what they bring. Let the camera roll sometimes in excess, to see what they bring.
NFS: During Wild Horses, for example, how did you have the actors and yourself prepare?
Duvall: They're very talented people and they came in with their own history and their own sense of things. We didn't rehearse that much. The first take was a rehearsal, then you can do it again. Usually, when you have actors, the spontaneity can come quickly without having to worry about it or predetermine. You just do it. You just do it without talking about it, without intellectualizing it too much, or philosophizing. I call it “from ink to behavior.” To go from ink to behavior, see where that goes and let the process take you to the result rather than trying to ram the result home.
NFS: Is that philosophy something you developed from working under any particular director?
Duvall: Going back, way back, I saw a movie by Kenneth Loach, the English director of Kes, a film about the little boy with a falcon. When it came out, I knew it wasn't a documentary. I knew it was fiction, but I said, "Wow. That's a fine line. How does he get that?" That was always an influence and an inspiration for me to try to get it as real as possible, which isn't always easy. Others do it obviously, many good directors, but Kenneth Loach was the one initially way back.
NFS: What would you say was your relationship with your DP on the set of Wild Horses, where you were both acting and directing?
Duvall: My DP I've known a while. DP's got to cover the directors back, especially when you are acting/directing. We had to really force each other to surge ahead because we had to get 8 or 9 pages a day. We only had 22 days to do this. That's a lot of page to get in a day, to get the coverage and everything. Sometimes we were better organized than other times. I've known the cinematographer, so he knows the way I work. I like to hang back and see what happens and then set the camera accordingly, which we did. We had a lot of help from everybody because of the limited time.
NFS: In your hang back style, do you feel the need to go and watch the playback of each take?
Duvall: Well I never came from the playback way back. I do it sometimes, but once I feel it was good, I didn't need to go to the playback. Some people go to the playback. It takes a lot of time. It's good to have that. Certain things you need for composition, but sometimes with the performance you could see it, right with your eye, really, when it's right. You can always go to the playback, too, if you want to. It's there. But I wasn't brought up in that school, necessarily.
NFS: I supposed technology has changed so much in the past fifty years; it's easier to playback now than it might have been before.
Duvall: Yeah, exactly. It's still action and cut, and once the camera rolls you're living within an imaginary set of circumstances -- which is imaginary -- but you try to make it as lifelike, and as real as possible even though it's imaginary. It's been that way from the beginning. I just think that things have become more sophisticated with more gadgets. But also, I think, young actors now are better than ever. Actors from different races and backgrounds get a chance. It's an open medium worldwide, I think, and there's room for all -- more than before.
NFS: What would you say was the impetus for making Wild Horses?
Duvall: I got a bare skeleton of a script that a guy had two years ago. It just didn't work. It was nowhere. It didn't work and we tried to work with it. Finally, I just optioned it. Let me take it. We all began to work, writing and helping with input, more from an experienced nucleus. We worked on it and worked on it until we got it. Then we got, not a lot of money, but we jumped in and did it once we had a shooting script that we made that had a beginning, middle, and an end.
NFS: What would you say was the biggest challenge you had while making Wild Horses?
Duvall: Just getting it done in 23 days, that was a big, big challenge. Meeting each day's demand of 9 pages, when it's usually 2 or 3 or 4. When you get 9 pages a day, that’s a lot, getting the proper coverage and the thoroughness needed to complete a scene. It was like a stagecoach rider or a crazy train rider, it was just -- whoa -- and then suddenly it's over. You just have to hang on and do it. It's a big sense of a thrust.
NFS: You have such a robust career that everyone can admire. What would be your advice to someone starting out at the very beginning?
Duvall: When I meet young people, I always say, get with a group, some semblance of a group. You have to. You can't just be an individual out here. You have to get with a group at least for a while to help you in the legitimate stepping-stones to something concrete.
NFS: What do you see is the future of independent filmmaking or filmmaking in general?
Duvall: It will always be there. I think the 1970’s was a golden age; I was fortunate to be there. But there were good films made, and also some that weren't so good made then. I think it's easy with a big star to raise a hundred million or three million, even though the hundred million may fail anyway. There's so many bigger films made, they lose billions of dollars in a year. The filmmaking within the system of the 70s, to me, is not lost -- now it's in the independent filmmaking, smaller films. It's still there, but it shifted. It's just as difficult, but more so today, to raise money to do films. You have to scratch and search. I went to Cuba a couple of years ago. I said, "Anybody in any country can pick up a camera and make a movie." The big films can be good, doesn't mean a big film doesn't have to be good, but not necessarily any better than the small film where someone just picks up a camera. They could be related. The independent filmmaking system now has what we had in the 70s, for me. It’ll be there. People will always love films, I guess.
Thank you, Mr. Duvall!