"Sneakers," which was the No. 1 film at the box office this past weekend, stars Robert Redford, Sidney Poitier, Dan Aykroyd, Ben Kingsley and River Phoenix. It's a dream cast, no doubt about it.
So, how did co-writer/director Phil Alden Robinson gather them together for this high-tech ensemble comedy-thriller?"It was great luck," Robinson said in a telephone interview from Los Angeles last week. "That may sound flip, and it's lovely that they were all interested in the screenplay, but the truth is, these are people who get busy for very long periods of time. We were lucky they were all free when we needed them, especially when you think how easily none of them might have been free."
Robinson began his career with industrial films and television (he directed two episodes of "Trapper John, M.D.") and made his way into features with the screenplay for Carl Reiner's "All of Me," which starred Steve Martin and Lily Tomlin. He then wrote and directed "In the Mood," the true story of "The Woo-Woo Kid," a teenager who caused a scandal in the 1940s when he ran off with an "older" woman. Then came "Field of Dreams," for which Robinson adapted W.P. Kinsella's book "Shoeless Joe" and hit a home run.
Meanwhile, Robinson had been shaping the "Sneakers" screenplay with co-writers Walter F. Parkes and Lawrence Lasker ("WarGames," "Awakenings") for the past decade - but he didn't really want to direct the film. In fact, it was the casting that led him into directing "Sneakers."
"This is the kind of film other people do much better than I do, people who've made a career of it and really understand the genre," Robinson said. "A year and a half ago we did another rewrite and the studio and producers said, `We want you to direct.' And I said, `Maybe if the perfect casting happens,' knowing that these things never happen. And when I was about to go into the studio and say, `I'm not going to do it,' we heard that Bob was interested."
Yet, when Robinson made up his initial wish list of stars for the film, Redford wasn't on it. "He was not on our list because we never thought of anyone who was not 41 in 1991 (the age of Robinson and his collaborators).
"But on the night of the Oscars, in '91, we were at Kevin Costner's celebration after he won for `Dances With Wolves.' It was a wonderful evening, everybody was very happy and one of Kevin and Bob's agents came up to me and said, `Hey, I'm working really hard to get Bob in your movie.' I said, `Bob who?' He said, `Redford.' I said, `In what movie?' He said, `Sneakers.' And I said, `Redford? Really?' That's how one-track-minded we were. I said, `Hold on, I'm not sure, let me think about that.' But we made the character a couple of years older and Bob added a sadness as well as a lightness. People forget he started as a light comedian and he's very skilled at it.
"But now I was locked in. I painted myself into a corner when we got Redford. Now I had to direct it."
Getting Sidney Poitier, however, was easier than Robinson expected. "I called Sidney after wegot Bob. I knew Sidney a little bit. I called him and said, `I have something I'd like you to read.' And he called me the next day and said he liked it. He's a charming, wonderful, truly lovely man. Here's someone who works only when he absolutely, passionately wants to. And he has very strong ideas about what he should be in and has great taste - and he wanted to do it. It's true of Bob also."
Aykroyd's role evolved more than the others, once he came on board. "Aykroyd's role, as written, was very different. He was more of a Silicon Valley deadhead hippie. Danny and I, very late in the process - literally the last few weeks before shooting - started talking about the character. Dan is a conspiracy buff and he can regale you for hours, so he worked up a lot of the character stuff, playing against the button-down, straight-arrow Sidney. He would feed me wacky ideas and I'd find a place for them."
As for Kingsley, Robinson felt no one else would do. "Kingsley was our first choice for the role of Cosmo (the intellectual villain of the piece). He was the character that I felt should be scary, not because he is physically powerful or because he's surrounded by weaponry but because he's so smart. He's scary because he's brilliant. I don't think anybody can play that quite like Ben Kingsley.
"When you think about it, four or five of the actors in this cast star in movies of their own and here they are playing in an ensemble film. But this is a chance for them to get back to why they fell in love with acting in the first place. None of them has to carry the movie, they don't have the weight of the world on their shoulders. They all got to relax and throw themselves into roles they found fun to play.
"And quite by accident, this group of people just fell in love with each other, they really liked each other. And they're all very generous. I never saw somebody trying to steal a scene from someone else. They're like musicians - they know they'll only be good if they sound right for each other."
Ultimately it's about the characters. If you don't want to hang out with this group of guys, then there isn't any technology in the world that will make the audience want to stick with this movie. That's another reason why we wanted this cast of people."
So, why doesn't Robinson make more movies? "I don't enjoy the process of filmmaking much. But, frankly, I can't do anything else. If I thought I'd be a good producer I might do that. It's a very hard, very frustrating process. It takes a year and a half of very long days, and you work extremely hard and never quite get what you want.
"I just think I don't want to be the richest guy in the world or the most prolific. I do want to be the happiest. And taking my time works best for me."