How 'Sneakers' Became a Cult Heist Hit

'Sneakers'
'Sneakers'Credit: Universal Studios
Sneakers is a remarkable movie that almost never happened. 

Thanks to streaming and a healthy dose of chatter on social media, Sneakers is coming back to the forefront of the heist and hacker movie lexicon. This film is almost 30 years old, but it has a great ensemble cast and some incredibly inventive set pieces. 

The movie's 1992 box office was $105,232,691 and has been a cult favorite ever since its release. 

I first saw the movie one rainy New Year's Eve when I was growing up and loved it. Since then, I've come to appreciate the all-star cast and dynamic writing and directing. I mean, can you believe Robert Redford, Sidney Poitier, Dan Aykroyd, River Phoenix, Mary McDonnell, David Strathairn, Ben Kingsley, Stephen Tobolowsky, and James Earl Jones were all in this together? 

Check out the trailer below. 

While this seems like an obvious blockbuster, the movie was actually a nine-year passion project from screenwriter and director Phil Alden Robinson, whose movies include Field of DreamsSneakers, and The Sum of All Fears. 

He was recently on an episode of the podcast Working, where Isaac Butler spoke with him about making the movie. 

Let's dig in. 

One of the more incredible stories is how Robert Redford got into the movie. The original script had the lead character written much younger. Redford was in his 50s at the time and was not even on the original cast list. 

in Robinson's words: "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.'"

Sometimes that kind of surprise is great. 

We all know ages in screenplays are there for the reader to get an image of someone in their head, but a lot of times, stars want to play younger, and once you have a star, the other cast follows. 

Robinson was able to leverage that, and his relationship with the chairman of Universal, into finding other people.

With Redford engaging, they were able to get other huge actors they had relationships with to attach.

Robinson elaborated, "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, 'Okay, I’ll play Mother.'"

Once you have this cast, you don't get shooting right away. You have to prep, especially to get the kind of chemistry needed on-screen to create the vibe of this old group of friends uniting for one more job. 

Robinson said rehearsals are something he's found to be so important.

"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, okay, 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 roomAll you want to do is make them understand that you feel this way."

This is not just to support the writing but also to just loosen everyone up. 

You want people to develop a rapport together. And that's not only for the actors. Sometimes it's for the producers too. Robinson talked about how for the nine years he was working on Sneakers, he had accumulated a ton of drafts of the script. 

Those drafts became a place where they would pull out scenes to add to the movie or tweak peoples' motivations.

Robinson elaborated on the number of drafts, saying, "I have thirty-something 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." 

I can tell you from personal experience that saving all your drafts is really smart. You just have so many changes in the story as you go, you always want to be able to go back and pull out what you think will be your best work. 

It's so hard to recreate something and much easier to find how it worked in another draft. 

This is all inspiring, and thinking about the 9-year journey to get this project made shows how slow Hollywood really is. You have to remember that this is a marathon and not a sprint. 

Do you have projects you've been working on for over a decade? 

Are you a huge Sneakers fan? 

We would love to hear your thoughts in the comments.      

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