“Directing actors can be, if done really well, like shooting a documentary, right?”
Duvall was in Austin for the South by Southwest premiere of a film he directed, Wild Horses, starring James Franco, Josh Hartnett and his wife Luciana Duvall. Hartnett joined Duvall to tell us about their new film. Duvall's acting work is world-renowned, from The Godfather to last year's Oscar-nominated The Judge. His latest, Wild Horses, will get a wide-release after its SXSW premiere this week.
Guff: Why has it been so long since you've directed?
Robert Duvall: It's been a few years, yeah, since I did the tango movie. Somebody offered me one but I guess I could do an establishment film. I like something I cultivate from the ground up. I did a movie way back on real gypsies in America. Things like that, something I develop from the ground up, or Pentecostal preachers.
Guff: That was The Apostle.
RD: Yeah, The Apostle.
Guff: How long were you developing Wild Horses?
RD: About two years, a year and a half. I took it over from a guy who didn't know what a montage was. He just wrote it but he didn't know anything about directing. I was going to help him and then I just said, "Let me option this from you." I said I'd keep two things: this kid who fell through my hands and the lady Ranger. There's only two or three real lady Texas Rangers and I wanted to explore that. With the real Rangers I have in the movie, because of undercover work, they're very good natural actors. They're good guys, great guys. Can't be bought. They're crazy, they can be violent but they can't be bought.
Guff: What can viewers expect to see in Wild Horses?
RD: It's kind of like a dream, really. It's kind of an impressionistic film of a family, of a possible crime that was committed years ago that's never been solved. Years later, a cold case is never definitively closed with a Texas Ranger so it's always open a little. So they reopen it to try to solve a past mystery within the family that's something my character is hiding. I have three sons. One has been kicked off the ranch for certain reasons and he comes back for the reading of a will. It's a family oriented thing and a tale. I call it a tale that is told. It's a quote from the Bible, "A tale that is told."
Josh Hartnett: James plays the son who's kicked off the ranch. I play the son who takes over as the favorite after that. We do everything, or I do everything I can to protect my dad in the situation, but the Texas Ranger is hell bent on figuring out what happened for real. A lot of time has gone past, it's hard to investigate these things but she has a nose for it. She's sure that something's amiss here so it kind of has this insular quality of a play I think. It's the family unit and they're very powerful within the town. The town doesn't quite want to know what happened there so they just don't really get into it. I guess a play, or like Eliza Kazan would make a movie out of it back in the day.
RD: Or from a small theater in the round almost, rather than a big proscenium.
JH: Small but with great big vistas. That's what I love about westerns in general. It's man against himself, man against the elements, man against God.
RD: Elia Kazan came to see my gypsy movie. This was '80-something. He said, "You got something that I couldn't figure out how you got it." That made me feel good. Dealing with gypsies, there was a scene where they passed a book to the kid to read in the first grade, and gypsies can't read. He made up this crazy story and he tried to fool the teacher, so it was pretty intricate. That was the only time I met Kazan. I had respect for him and that was way back.
Guff: Are the sons the wild horses?
RD: No, it's just a thing we picked. Just horses, wild. The initial title was Falling Off Horses.
RD: Actually, Franco could ride a horse wonderfully well.
JH: Hey, I can ride a horse.
RD: I know, I know, but you know, he can vault.
JH: All right, fine, fine. He wins, he wins.
Guff: Is there nothing he can't do?
RD: Who knows? But he can box too though. Why the fight scenes are so good in there, I didn't realize it, they both know how to use their hands well, which was good for two brothers. That's great. It served us at that moment. Franco did a movie way back where he was secluded for eight months so he learned how to ride a horse.
JH: Wild Horses makes a lot of sense to me.
RD: Yeah, it does and it doesn't. I'm not quite sure, but it sounds good.
Guff: How does Mr. Duvall direct?
RD: I let them do it.
JH: Well, what's really nice is I've worked with some people who are really pedantic about their scripts and they want everything done exactly the way that they've written it because they've seen it in their head and they don't want anybody to bring anything to it that they haven't already figured out. But working with Bobby was the opposite. He wanted to know how we wanted to approach it before he even gave any direction, and the direction was only helpful. You've said this a few times, directing actors can be, if done really well, like shooting a documentary, right?
RD: Hopefully, at least in part. Parts of the thing should be shot like that, if a scene calls for that. Let's just see what you come up with. Forget the script. The points are covered but let it come from the subject. Let it come from them.
JH: It is a philosophical point of view that I really respect. I think if you're directing really well, you've hired well.
RD: I worked with a director, one of the old school guys, who said, "When I say action, tense up, God dammit." Can you imagine? There's a difference between intensity and tenseness.
Guff: Which film was that?
RD: I'm not going to say.
Guff: Congratulations on another Oscar nomination this year.
RD: Oh, thank you.
Guff: When you do a movie like The Judge, after all these years, do you know when a role is going to get that acclaim?
RD: Well, it was a good role. At first I turned it down because it had negative aspects and then once I said I'll just jump in and do it, even then there were certain things that were cut that I wish weren't cut. It turned out okay, but ironically, not that I audition for things now, but the film I did that I like so much, Get Low, they saw it. They showed it to the director and Downey. That's how I got the part in The Judge, off of that.
Guff: You were concerned about negative aspects? What's the line? Because you've played characters like The Great Santini who can be very aggressive.
RD: Well, an incontinent old man who craps his pants, I didn't like that but then once I said I've got to do it, I've got to do it.
Guff: Oh, so it wasn't that he was cantankerous.
RD: No, not that. It was beyond that but it was okay. I like small films too. They feed each other.
Guff: Josh, what can we look forward to on Penny Dreadful?
JH: Well, we're here for this one, but Penny Dreadful, we did 10 episodes this year. It starts May 3. It's a deeper, richer version of the first.
RD: Is she that dreadful, Penny?
JH: Yeah, yeah, Penny is.
Guff: Have you seen his show?
RD: Just the opening one. It was way back. It's kind of wild and dark.
JH: He called me and I was on vacation, and asked me if I wanted to be in this. He said, "My wife really likes your show." That's what he said to me. I was like, "Well, thanks." Do you remember that?
JH: It was really good.
Guff: Are you going to direct again sooner than 12 more years?
RD: No, I'm going to take it easy for a while. I have the rights to The Day the Cowboys Quit by Elmer Kelton, the great Texas playwright. He was voted the greatest Texas writer. He passed away. Tommy Lee Jones did The Good Old Boys. That's the only one that's been done but we have a thing with AMC for a two part miniseries. The guy that wrote Get Low, Charlie Mitchell, will write it. We have to inch ahead with AMC but that's a beautiful novel, The Day the Cowboys Quit. It's a western but beautiful. If done right, it could be one of the all time great westerns, if done correctly. I'd like to get Kathryn Bigelow. She's terrific. I'm trying to get some good director to help.