Robert Redford’s ‘The Conspirator’ out for buzz in Toronto

The Toronto International Film Festival holds a special place for Robert Redford — Redford the filmmaker that is, not the actor, entrepreneur, man behind his own monster festival in Sundance. Each time, the invitation to bring a film to Toronto has come as an unexpected gift. In 1992, his poetic drama of brothers and fly fishing, “A River Runs Through It,” was embraced by the city’s film-loving crowd, which helped quell studio nerves about its languid pacing.

Far more is riding on this trip. His gripping new historical drama, “The Conspirator,” is still looking for a distributor so the festival’s very public stage will factor heavily as potential buyers watch and weigh audience reaction in Roy Thomson Hall on Saturday evening. A hopeful Redford will be in the audience as well.

“There’s some interesting irony that I’m going into Toronto with my own independent film,” the just turned 74-year-old says of the movie that he describes as “the story beneath the story you think you know about the Lincoln assassination.”

The irony is not just that Redford is crossing borders to premiere the film here rather than Sundance, though that was never a consideration — “no, never, too self-serving,” he laughs. It’s also that the movie business has drifted even further from the craft he loves. To make the films he wants, the way he wants, requires navigating tight budgets, short schedules and the goodwill of actors more passionate about the project than the payday.

But then, independence also means he doesn’t have to deal with the faster-is-better studio mentality. “In this day and age, not a lot of time is allowed for those critical moments, when scenes need to breathe. There were many here that needed time spent with them,” Redford says. Particularly as the film moves toward its wrenching end, with frustration and fear rising from all corners, “we need time to see the faces move through despair, hope, despair, resignation; we need time to get inside the way life actually works.”

The film is set in 1865 Washington as the fragile new post-Civil War union, just days old, threatens to unravel in the wake of President Abraham Lincoln’s murder at the hands of John Wilkes Booth. Since much unfolds in jails or in courtrooms, it hangs on the potent performances by its stars — Robin Wright as Mary Surratt, the only woman charged in the conspiracy, and James McAvoy as her reluctant young defense attorney — along with an ensemble knee-deep in talent and cutting across continents and generations. Tom Wilkinson, Kevin Kline, Stephen Root, Colm Meaney represent the elder statesmen, with Evan Rachel Wood, Alexis Bledel, Jonathan Groff and Justin Long leading the younger set.

When he was in Toronto for “A River Runs Through It,” Redford had a proven record both in front of and behind the camera. His 1980 directing debut, “Ordinary People,” earned the then 44-year-old a directing Oscar and three more for the film, including best picture. All that coming after, but not capping, a storied acting career, including the indelible “ Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” in 1969. His acting roster would go on to include films as diverse as they are iconic — “The Sting,” “All the President’s Men,” “The Natural,” “The Electric Horseman,” “The Candidate” and “Out of Africa,” to mention just a few. (Next up may be the years-in-the works adaption of Bill Bryson’s “A Walk in the Woods” with Redford in the title role as the travel writer hiking the Appalachian Trail with an old friend.)

For Redford, there is also, of course, the more painful coincidence that his quintessentially American story of a night of treason, terror and conspiracy will have its premiere on Sept. 11. The undercurrents that drive Mary Surratt’s story can be interpreted as eerily prescient. In the film, the government reaction to the attack places constitutional rights at risk.

Whatever parallels may be drawn, Redford chooses to leave to those who see the film. “You have to be careful how you render a story like this one,” he says. “If you just tell the story that exists, that alone, it relates very much to the present, but it’s up to the audience to decide for themselves how.”

In part, it was a line in James Solomon’s script plucked from history that sealed it when Redford was asked to direct: Kevin Kline as Secretary of War Edwin Stanton says of the conspirators, “I want these people buried and forgotten.”

“And that’s essentially what happened,” says Redford.

This is the first production of the American Film Company, launched in 2008 by billionaire Joe Ricketts, whose family owns the Chicago Cubs but whose fortune comes from his online brokerage Ameritrade. Ricketts wanted to make films that were rooted in American history, and in Redford — himself a history buff — he thought he had the perfect filmmaker.

Once Redford said yes in early 2009, the clock started ticking. “James (McAvoy) was my first choice,” to play Frederick Aiken, a decorated Union captain and attorney handling his first case. “Then Robin came on board. She’s pretty much in shackles for most of the film and not cooperating. I wanted to use that to make her more mysterious: Did she know about the conspiracy or not?” Surratt ran the Washington boarding house where the other conspirators, including her son John, met and often stayed. “I knew James and Robin were going to have to carry the freight of the film.”

Each casting decision became a critical one. “It’s not like it was with the studio system ... now the actors come and go, sometimes you only have them for a day,” Redford says. “You have to rely on actors who can come in with a sharply defined sense of their character, one that you’ve agreed on. Stephen Root, I had him for one day, Evan Rachel Wood, not much more. But then you see what they do.”

Redford began shooting last October in Savannah, Ga., which had much of the period architecture he wanted, wrapped in December and went right into editing. Cinematographer Newton Thomas Sigel (“The Usual Suspects,” “Confessions of a Dangerous Mind”) helped craft a look somewhere between faded sepia and Technicolor bright.

And now Redford awaits his own verdict on “The Conspirator.” Will Toronto be the catalyst the film needs to find a big studio backer, or generate that critical awards buzz that so many come to this festival looking for?

“I’m not uneasy, it feels good,” he says by phone from his Northern California home just days before the festival. “My hopes? My hopes are conventional ones. That there’s an audience out there for films like this one. You make a very personal story and you tell it in the way you want, but a film in the end, it takes on its own momentum, its own life. It will tell you what it’s become.”