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Redford's 'Conspirator': Telling an unknown Civil War story

Published April 11, 2011 1:03 pm

Interview • The director on how history repeats itself.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2011, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Robert Redford says the movies he has made as an actor, producer and director are "stories about America."

There are few American stories more wrenching than the events surrounding the Civil War, from the secession of the Southern states through the bloody battles, all culminating in Robert E. Lee's surrender and the assassination of Abraham Lincoln.

Redford's latest effort as a director, "The Conspirator" (opening across America on Friday, April 15 — the 146th anniversary of Lincoln's death), looks at the immediate aftermath of America's first presidential assassination. The story explores the military tribunal that tried and convicted four people accused of conspiring with John Wilkes Booth to murder Lincoln and attempt to murder Vice President Andrew Johnson and other members of Lincoln's Cabinet.



At the heart of "The Conspirator," Redford says, is the relationship between one of the accused — Mary Surratt (played by Robin Wright), a Southerner who ran the boarding house where Booth and other conspirators plotted — and her attorney, a Union officer and war hero, Frederick Aiken (played by James McAvoy). Aiken took the case reluctantly but came to believe that Surratt's rights were being trampled by a biased military court that tried to use her to draw out her son, John, who then was still in hiding.

The movie also shows the manipulations of War Secretary Edwin M. Stanton (played by Kevin Kline), who capitalizes on the public frenzy after Lincoln's assassination to take draconian measures to punish the South — often subverting the U.S. Constitition to do so.

In a Tribune interview, Redford, 74, talked about "The Conspirator," the political parallels between the 1860s and today, and "what story sits underneath the story we think we know." But first, he talked about something he did to promote the movie: throwing out the ceremonial first pitch at the Chicago Cubs' season opener.

How's the arm?

I threw the first pitch out at Wrigley Field, and it scared the hell out of me. I thought, "If I blow this, I'm cooked. I can't go anywhere." Particularly when they're playing over the loudspeakers the song from "The Natural." The announcer said, "Here he is, folks, Roy Hobbs from 'The Natural' — let's see how he does." If I throw this in the dirt, I'm done. … I did [get it to the plate]. I started aiming at his head. I'm glad that's over.

What attracted you to Mary Surratt's story?

What I encountered, and the reason I did the movie, was that it was a story that no one knew about tied to an event that everyone knew about. … Whether she was guilty, we'll never know. That's what appealed to me: the fact that she was unjustly dealt with, and as a result, we will never [know] the full truth.

Did the producers approach you to make this?

The American Film Company — the guy that started AmeriTrade [Joseph Ricketts, whose family also owns the Chicago Cubs], he made a lot of money, he decided he wanted to peel out some money and start a [film] company that would just deal with American history. And this was the first one out.

The script had been there for like 14, 15 years. Part of the problem was that the guy who wrote it … was fascinated by the information he was getting. So he began to dig into the archives, and the more he dug in, the more he found out, the more it began to evolve into a screenplay. He worked on it for all these years, and it kept evolving as he would get more information. Until he pulled out enough information that there was a story there. But Hollywood didn't go for it. They had trepidations about it.

When it came to me, about a year and a half ago, I was preparing two other projects — the Branch Rickey/Jackie Robinson piece, and also A Walk in the Woods, Bill Bryson's book. When I got it, my initial reaction was, "Oh, this is about Lincoln, and this is territory well-covered, so that probably wouldn't interest me." When I realized it wasn't about Lincoln, it was about a trial that no one really knew about, that got my attention. Then I realized that it was worth telling a story that [was] tied to a great event in American history that nobody knew about.

We went into it fast. It was very low budget, between $15 million and $18 million we had to work with. Duplicating D.C. in 1865, the only city we could shoot in was Savannah, Ga. We had very little time and very little money, but somehow that produced a kind of energy. I got a good cast, and a good crew, and we just dug in. There were 16-hour days. It was a tough, tough shoot. But I did enjoy it, I must say.

In some ways, it seems the point of the movie isn't Mary Surratt's guilt or innocence, but the battle of due process and civil rights.

I saw three frames. The larger frame was an event that history has well covered: John Wilkes Booth, Ford's Theatre, the assassination of Lincoln. That was the large frame everybody was aware of — it's a big historical event. Inside of that is another frame, which was a trial that took place that very few people knew about, involving a woman who ran a boarding house.

The frame inside of that was what I worked on and created, which was the relationship between a lawyer from the Union Army — who did not want to defend her, thought she was guilty, assumed she was guilty, and that she was from the South — and her, having been reduced by the way she was treated, so that the only thing she had was to preserve whatever dignity she had. That stoicism provided a kind of wonderful tension between the two characters, and that's the frame that I focused on: the story within the story. For me, it's always about story, and the characters that are going to drive that story.

When you get down to the characters, that for me is where the emotional core was going to be for the film. The arc of the two characters takes us to the point where it really is a mother's love for her son, and the lawyer realizing that it's more than about her, it's about the Constitution and the abuse of the Constitution in terms of justice and the law.

That's something the audience will have to find. It would be dangerous for me to talk about that, because I'm sure I'm going to be hit by the right, to say, "Oh, it's a Redford thing. He's going to be about propaganda." It isn't. It's evenly divided. No one side of the aisle is treated over the other. It's really inside of all that.

How did you handle the details of the assassination?

Since I wanted the assassination to be the preface to the real story, I treated that more impressionistically. It was like a sweep that you didn't spend a lot of time on the details of the assassination. It was a sweep to get you to where the story really existed.

Also, the other conspirators, and that's something else that a lot of people don't know about — and that this was originally an attempt to take out the secretary of state, the vice president and Lincoln. And they would have gotten Ulysses Grant if he was available, but he was on a train to Baltimore. … One guy almost killed the secretary of state, but he survived it. And they never got to Vice President Johnson, because the guy chickened out. … I figured a lot of people didn't know about the other attempted assassinations, because Lincoln got all the attention. …

You never see [Lincoln's] face. I made a point of not showing his face except little pieces here and there. You can't duplicate that face. When a face is that well-known, you're better off suggesting than showing it.

Were you feeling any need to play up or play down the parallels between the public panic after Lincoln's assassination and the public panic after 9/11?

I felt a very strong need to not hit that. I felt a very strong need because of other films I've made. My career, pretty much, has just been about my country, stories about America — and what story sits underneath the story we think we know. Whether it's "All the President's Men" or "Three Days of the Condor," there's always a story underneath it that's closer to the truth. It's all about a fascination for my own country.

For me, because I think I've been sometimes too miscategorized as too left-wing, that's going to come no matter what. I felt that the parallels are so strong, that all you needed to do was tell the story as it was. Tell that story and be focused on the two characters, not the parallels. The parallels would emerge on their own, and it's up to the audience or the critics to find those parallels, not for me to push them. Otherwise, it pushes the film into a political category. I made a big point of not talking about that, because it's just there. It's just a part of history. If you want to argue about it, then argue with history.

For whatever reason, whoever is in charge of the War Department or Defense Department — in whatever era — seems to be the gravitational point for threatening the Constitution. There are some clear parallels between Edwin Stanton and Donald Rumsfeld.

And [Dick] Cheney. It's where the power was. And you can see the formation of that power really began with the reaction to Lincoln's assassination by Stanton.

If the character is villainous, you want to give that character a point of view. We composed a scene that was not in the original script, where Stanton goes to meet Reverty Johnson, [Surratt's] original defender [played by Tom Wilkinson]. And he explains his point of view, and Johnson explains his.

Stanton said, "Look, I had to hold this country together. There were 600,000 people who died. This whole thing could have exploded in our face. My job is to keep this country together, at a very critical point where everything could fall apart. The South could resurge again. There's still people out on the battlefield. My job is to keep the unity of this country intact." And the other guy says, "What about the law?" It's an argument they have that's treated lightly [in the film], but it clearly states Stanton's point of view that could be understood. …

[The assassination] was the first threat to the Constitution and the solidarity of the country. There was a lot of pressure he was under, so you could understand some of what he did. But, finally, he broke the law.

The refrain in the movie, that the nation needs to "put this behind us," is repeated throughout American history — even now, with President Obama deciding not to prosecute crimes committed during the Bush administration.

I don't think you can put it behind you without tagging why it went wrong. If you don't deal with what caused this thing to go off the rails and to threaten our own Constitution, then how can you put it behind you? It will just repeat itself. Other people will say, "Well, they never got brought to trial, so we'll be able to do the same thing." Personally, I think that was a mistake.

There's a title card at the end of the movie that tells us that Frederick Aiken went to work for The Washington Post. You can't get away from the Post, can you? [Redford famously played Post reporter Bob Woodward in "All the President's Men."]

I did that as fun. There were a lot of cards that could have gone on the screen. What happened to Stanton was that he was fired, and Johnson was impeached. John Surratt went on to have many, many children, two of which he named Mary. I thought, no, I've got to have some fun with this. When I came across that factoid, that Aiken left the law because he was so shattered by the experience, and that he became the first [city] editor of The Washington Post, that's just too good.

movies@sltrib.com

 

 

 

 

 

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