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MOVIES : Fording ‘A River’ : How Robert Redford won over an author who hated Hollywood and then wrestled ‘A River Runs Through It’ into film

<i> Leonard Reed is a staff writer for The Times' Ventura County edition</i>

Robert Redford is picking halfheartedly at a piece of cold chicken, unhappy less with the food on his plate than the topic at hand: words.

“It’s something I’m haunted by,” he says. “This issue of films not being literary, about whether it’s possible to make a film because of the language in a work.”

Redford has found his test, finally. This week, his film “A River Runs Through It,” based on Norman Maclean’s novella, opens at theaters nationwide.

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It will be the viewer’s test, as well: Maclean’s work, published in 1976, is an idiosyncratic American classic that contains virtually no drama and paper-thin characters. It trades, instead, in words and their sounds and rhythms, and rising from them is much eloquence on, among other things, fly-fishing for trout.

Redford takes a sip of water, rinsing it audibly through his teeth, and looks out the trailer window.

“Norman’s story is something that I knew and I felt,” he says. “And so I’ve always seen the story as a vehicle to tell a history of the West, and also about how I was raised.”

Both Maclean and Redford are of Scottish descent and come from families in which love runs deep but is at risk for failure to communicate. Maclean’s novella depicts relationships subtextually, by fleeting reference. Still, the book’s main concern, despite all the fishing, is in probing how Norman Maclean may or may not have been able to help his younger brother, Paul, save himself from ruin and death. Redford tells even less about the facts of his life but has made it plain that he, like Maclean, comes from a tough “take-it-on-the-chin ethic” and that punishment in his boyhood home in Santa Monica sometimes meant being iced out into silent, wordless places.

He gets up and sits in a folding chair, alone, in the center aisle of the trailer, away from the table but trapped by words: vexing, slippery, on-the-point, off-the-point words.

“The book is a tone poem,” he says. “Norman’s language is a map of soul, of place, of time--where he was raised and when he was raised. And it contains universal themes--I like to think it deals with families, on how we connect and do not connect.”

Judith Guest’s novel “Ordinary People,” from which Redford made the Academy Awarding-winning 1980 film, also dealt with a grief-stricken family’s struggle to connect. But that book had characters who clearly and dramatically worked out their pain in words and actions. Not so with Maclean’s nuanced memoir.

Redford pauses.

“The Maclean ethic I knew I could show in a film, because I knew it myself, and I feel close to it,” he says. “But the language? I was unsure. That’s been the big challenge.”

*

All good things--trout as well as eternal salvation--come by grace and grace comes by art, and art does not come easy.

--Norman Maclean

*

Norman Maclean grew up in western Montana shortly after the turn of the century, the son of strict Scottish parents. The father, a Presbyterian minister versed in the classics as well as religion, withheld his sons from public school and taught them reading and writing at home, in the mornings. Severity would characterize the pedagogy: short essay assignments, only to be read and returned to be halved in length, and then thrown away when deemed sufficient for their clarity and economy.

Afternoons were spent fly-fishing. Again the Rev. Maclean taught--this time casting, on a four-count stroke, “between 10 o’clock and 2 o’clock.” The father’s approach to fly-fishing bore the same intensity and rigor of his approach to literary and ecclesiastical matters. Always, the deed was in service to a particular aesthetic. Norman would thus be inspired decades later to pen the now-famous first line in “A River Runs Through It”: “In our family, there was no clear line between religion and fly fishing.”

All this occurred in a rough-and-tumble Montana. The boys would become, when necessary, proficient fistfighters. And they held the belief that, “Outside we thought it was a real rough, rugged world, and full of bastards.”

*

Norman Maclean flourished. He picked up the rhythms of lyric poetry, picked up a sensibility about nature and art and beauty that would honor his father’s ethic, also recorded in the book: “If our father had had his say, nobody who did not know how to fish would be allowed to disgrace a fish by catching him.” Maclean would approach writing this way. It may be why he avoided it most of his life--he knew how hard it was to do well, with grace. But his literary predilections had led him to a teaching job at the University of Chicago.

His anecdotes were so spellbinding that he was persuaded by his children, in retirement at 70, to write them down. “A River Runs Through It,” his first attempt at fiction, was turned down by three New York publishers, one of them complaining that the manuscript “has trees in it.” But the University of Chicago Press decided to print “River"--its first and only fiction offering--and it has now sold more than 350,000 copies.

The book cared little about action and much about the way things got told. This applies especially to depictions of Paul. Where Norman was the budding but awkward intellectual, Paul was the strapping, handsome natural: with fish, with women, with his family. He was so good at things that from early on he had a sense of invincibility. But he did not know how to run his life. He drank and gambled, rang up debts. He would wind up dead, beaten with a gun butt. Norman would watch this happen, save the killing. But the tragedy in progress is only hinted at in the book. Notice of Paul’s death is in a virtual throwaway line, within words of the end. It’s not obvious movie material.

Without real action, the weight of the book is on the beauty of its words. The words form sentences at once supple and sweet, tough and pungent, simple though elliptical. Sometimes, the sound and the shape of the sentences telegraph their very meaning:

“I sat there and forgot and forgot, until what remained was the river that went by and I who watched. On the river the heat mirages danced with each other and then they danced through each other and then they danced around each other and then they joined hands and danced around each other. Eventually the watcher joined the river, and there was only one of us. I believe it was the river.”

*

The book’s reception was startling. At once odd in form, poetic and lyric in voice, the 104-page work was seen as a brilliant anomaly. It was considered for the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1977. James Frakes, in the New York Times Book Review, said Maclean’s voice “rings out of a rich American tradition that includes Mark Twain.” Roger Sales, in the New York Review of Books, became the first of many to employ the word perfect in describing it.

Hollywood came running, plot or no plot. Few, however, were prepared for Norman Maclean. He was as rustic and tough-minded as his book. No one but no one was going to wrest away creative control, put lenses on Paul’s death and otherwise juice up a story that is at best only hinted at.

“Not with my family, not with my stories,” Maclean said in 1981, duly referring to sweet-talking studio representatives as “bastards.” Still, Jean Maclean Snyder, Maclean’s daughter, now says of her late father: “Truth is, Dad was both intrigued and repelled by the idea of a movie.”

Richard Sylbert, then at Paramount, optioned the piece but got nowhere with Maclean; the option ran out. Actor William Hurt arranged to go fishing with Maclean but committed a sin: He showed up late, despite the book’s insistence that being late for fishing, church or work is graceless. Hurt also did not have a fishing license. John Maclean, Norman’s son, told Esquire magazine that one of Hurt’s aides announced: “He’s Bill Hurt; he doesn’t need a license.” Hurt, a proficient fly-caster, did drive off to obtain a license, and he and Maclean enjoyed a day on the river. But upon parting, Hurt asked Maclean: “Am I a good enough fly-fisherman to play your brother?” And Maclean replied: “Well, Bill, you’re a fine fisherman, but not good enough to be my brother.”

Others would approach Maclean and fail because of what he called their “yellow-dog contracts.” What Hollywood seemed to miss was that the highly accomplished Wordsworth and Shakespeare scholar, until his death in 1990, was a cowboy at heart. He lived by his own code.

Robert Redford got it. In 1984 he commenced what he calls “the elaborate dance”: three meetings with Maclean, each spaced two weeks apart, in Chicago, Maclean’s hometown. Maclean was free to walk away at any point without explanation or apology.

“My father respected Bob Redford for that,” says Jean Snyder, “and he respected what Bob had to say about the book.”

But Maclean held firm on control. And Redford would do what no one would do: offer Maclean first-draft script approval. The hitch? Once Maclean signed off on the script, his job was to “shut up and let me make the film,” says Redford. Maclean agreed.

“Norman was hard-nosed,” Redford says. “The Montana guy and the University of Chicago guy--they’re both very tough traditions, in their own ways. I respected him enormously. And we worked hard at building trust. I didn’t know him; he didn’t know me. Finally, the trust is what did it.”

Redford’s tenacity, however, cannot be understated. His sense of connection to “A River Runs Through It"--its depiction of an unspoiled West and the proud, emotionally loaded, often wordless ethos of the Scottish home--was huge, by all accounts.

Says Joel Snyder, Maclean’s son-in-law: “It is difficult to withstand Robert Redford when Robert Redford doesn’t wish to be withstood.”

*

Richard Friedenberg, who won an Emmy for his script depicting the relationship of two brothers in the television drama “Promise,” was summoned by Redford. He told Redford right out: “I can’t do it.” He feared a fishing movie, at one point even quipping to Redford: “Jews don’t fish.” Moreover, Friedenberg says, “nobody talks the way the book is written.” Not only did the book rely on its words, but they were problem words for characters. But neither would Friedenberg withstand Redford.

He went to Chicago in search of characters the book is missing. He met with Jean and Joel Snyder--maybe they’d be able to furnish information that would flesh out the characters. They did.

Jean’s mother and Norman’s wife, Jessie, was revealed to be “a wild spirit” who helped define Norman as a man as well as the book’s narrator. Jean unearthed love letters between Norman and Jessie, and Friedenberg flipped through old yearbooks for the things they said about and by Norman. “River,” it became clear to Friedenberg, could be as much Norman’s story as Paul’s. He could bring Norman into the scenes and show the brothers as they formed as people and grew apart. Friedenberg had his story.

Maclean, increasingly ill as the script took shape, would be read portions by Joel Snyder. He liked what he heard, Snyder says, but he died without ever having read it whole. Both Jean and Joel Snyder thus became central to Redford in assuming Maclean’s literary interests. They would, with Redford and Friedenberg, become keepers of the words.

Although Norman and Jessie could become real characters and help make a story, the larger problem persisted: how to show the words that form Maclean’s art, the words that no character would ever speak. Any film failing to deliver the language that makes the book special would betray its own title, not to mention Norman Maclean. And so it was decided: An unseen narrator would just plain say them.

Eventually, all things merge into one, and a river runs through it. The river was cut by the world’s great flood and runs over rocks from the basement of time. On some of the rocks are timeless raindrops. Under the rocks are the words, and some of the words are theirs.

I am haunted by waters.

--Norman Maclean

*

Redford shifts again in his seat. It’s words that haunt him. And making matters acute is the unseen voice chosen to deliver them: his.

Redford says he tested 26 actors in 70 hours of narration before deciding that his own voice, which he had “simply laid on the track so I could edit the film,” would suffice as a voice-over. “Clunk. Nobody came close.”

It does not make him happy, being Norman Maclean’s narrator surrogate. “I’m a target,” he says. “People may hear my voice and go: ‘Redford’s ego trip. Why couldn’t he stay the hell out of it?’

“Generally,” he says, “I’m against narration. But without the voice as a guide and a rhythm, the (film) just fell apart.”

That understates things. Friedenberg’s dialogue, in hewing to Maclean English, is spare. Few words must say so much. The Rev. Maclean’s high point of anger comes after his sons destroy a neighbor’s rowboat in a near-suicidal ride down the Blackfoot River’s plummeting shoots. The man clearly is in a rage, but his idea of pitching a fit is to say: “Boys, what have you done?”

To keep things so minimal, Friedenberg had to spend time on the set dissuading young actors Brad Pitt (Paul) and Craig Sheffer (Norman) from “explaining” their lines or seeking to add dialogue that would describe their characters’ feelings.

“You’re not a Maclean if you do that,” Friedenberg says. “We talk about anything but what is happening in the scene. The guys were struggling with it, and so I had to say: ‘This is not postmodern Freud. This is not post-Freud. This family didn’t know from Freud.’ ”

*

Much of the feeling and tone that come from Maclean’s original text, then, are guided by the film’s narrator and musical score. The tone poem as movie. With Redford doing the talking.

Jean Snyder allows that she would have preferred a less recognizable voice than Redford’s, which she fears might be distracting. Joel Snyder, who teaches a film course at Chicago, had suggested Jason Robards--to no avail.

Redford, like Norman a cowboy at heart, took things to the extreme. He sought out the real thing, a onetime Montanan fully credentialed in the field of words as art: “Angle of Repose” author Wallace Stegner.

Stegner would clearly understand the contour and feel of Maclean’s prose, something necessary for unsentimental, wry, tough readings. He calls the book “a muted confession of guilt by Maclean, and describes the story in fishing terms that would delight Maclean: '(The book) is like shadow-casting. So much of it never touches the water.’ ” Alas, Stegner’s voice came up flat.

The music is its own form of narration, and there was trouble here, as well. In too many places the original score did not suit what happened on the screen or in the words spoken by Redford. Ruminative, poignant moments were announced with bright passages; tough, blunt scenes were announced with Hallmark-card themes. One pivotal scene, in which Paul reveals himself to Norman by suggesting that Jessie’s hapless brother might enjoy the feeling of being helped, was nearly lost entirely for lack of musical underlining.

So Redford hired composer and jazz artist Mark Isham to redo the score. Isham, in three hurried weeks, found symphonic themes that speak to the emotional pitch of things in a way that is spare and spacious, like Maclean’s Montana and like Maclean’s words.

*

The words, thrifty Scottish clusters of them, got shown.

Redford is happy, if cautious on the point. “I feel I’ve honored Norman,” he says. “The words do hold it together.”

Joel Snyder is impressed: “I had consistently told Norman to avoid Hollywood. To tell the truth, I am amazed that Redford was able to pull this off, that a film was made that could possibly be true to Norman’s concerns.”

And Jean Maclean Snyder, who recently signed with Warner’s to make a film from Maclean’s last book, “Young Men and Fire,” is especially happy not only that her father’s words got properly shown but that the fishing came out right.

“You know, there are some people out there who take (“A River Runs Through It”) as a fishing book,” she says. “Well, that’s fine. Dad wanted it to be a ‘little’ book, and he prided himself at being able to write at many levels so that people could approach it lightly and come away gratified. The sadness of (the book) is profound--when Dad read it to me upon completing it, he cried, and that was the first time he’d allowed himself to cry for Paul. But I’ve actually met some people who’ve read the book and didn’t know Paul was killed, amazing as that is.”

It’s much clearer in the film, though still quite out of the picture: Redford’s spoken words show it fine. With haunting beauty and, even, grace.


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