Combustible Celluloid

Interview with Robert Benton

Twilight Time

by Jeffrey M. Anderson

I think I expected this former military man and Texan to be huge, loud, and overwhelming. But when Robert Benton walked in the room and flashed a smile, I was immediately in his clutches. He is an average sized-man, with a white beard, thoughtful eyes, and deeply intelligent. He's comfortable and charming, a little old fashioned (he calls movies "pictures"), and relaxed. This was his seventh interview of the day, but he hadn't lost any of his enthusiasm for his new movie Twilight, which is the first great movie of 1998. He picked up a bottle of mineral water from the well-stocked bar in his hotel room, and sat down.

Robert Benton got his start in movies with a bang, co-writing the screenplay for Bonnie and Clyde (1967), now regarded as one of the greatest American films ever made. He followed that with There Was a Crooked Man... (1970) for legendary director Joseph L. Mankiewicz, What's Up Doc? (1972) for Peter Bogdanovich, and Superman (1978) for Richard Donner. He made his debut as a director with Bad Company (1972) and followed that with The Late Show (1977), both movies which wowed the critics of the day. He then went on to win a collection of Oscars with Kramer vs. Kramer (1979) and Places in the Heart (1984). He was also nominated in 1994 for Nobody's Fool, which he adapted from the novel by Richard Russo.

But none of that mattered today. Benton was here to talk about his newest baby. And from the sound of it, it's his new favorite. "You know, I really enjoy doing this. It's as good for me as it is for the picture. I learn an enormous amount on these trips, and it lets me know something about the picture."

I asked Benton about The Late Show, his 1977 film about an aging retired detective played by Art Carney, and Twilight, which has very similar themes. "This picture, you're right, has much in common with [The Late Show]. But, remembering that I co-wrote [Twilight] with Richard Russo, I think you can also find things in common with the character of Sully (Paul Newman) in Nobody's Fool. Sully limped, and [In Twilight] Harry Ross (also Paul Newman) was shot in the leg. Sully is in love with his best friend's wife. Harry is in love with his best friend's wife. There are things in both pictures that interested us. Also, I think this picture reflects an older person doing it."

"When I did The Late Show, my father had just died. He was a very brave man -- a man of enormous charisma. He died because he was unwilling to have a rather simple operation. And I had to tell this story to get rid of it, or to try to understand it, or to try to make sense out of it."

"[Twilight] is a private eye movie only in its skin. Underneath, it's really a story about affection, and love, and the fact that you can't avoid love in some way. And I think, one of the things about the movie that I hope exists, is that it's an adult movie, about adults who can talk. It's about people who's affections are complex. What goes unsaid is as important as what's said. As [Richard and I have] gotten older, complicated relationships that are essentially forms of love stories are what interest us the most."

Benton began his writing career with a partner, David Newman, but soon went solo, and has been writing alone since 1977. In 1994, he found his new partner almost by accident. "As we got into Nobody's Fool, I began to feel in some of the scenes I had written, I lost the tone of Richard's novel. And I called Richard one day and said, 'Richard, look, this is the problem. Would you take these scenes and re-write what I've done, knowing that they have to begin and end where I've begun and ended them. There must be scenes that lead you into the next piece. Would you do that?' and he said 'sure.' And so, I would come back from shooting, and I'd go into my office, and there would be these pages from Richard that he had faxed me. And I would look at them, and I would re-write what he wrote, and send it back to him, and he would look at it, re-write what I wrote and send it back to me. And in two or three days, we had solved the scene. We did that for three or four major scenes in the picture, and it was an enormous help. I loved working with him so much that I'm the one who suggested at the end of the movie that we try to work together on something."

The pair decided to tackle a new kind of private eye movie with Twilight. "It was really always meant as a character piece. From the moment we sat and started talking about it, Richard said, 'do you mind if we don't do the customary thing and outline the story, and go back and fill in the blank spaces?' and I said, 'well let me see what happens if we do it that way?' I normally am very careful about how I structure a film before I start writing. I will write bits and pieces of it, and then I will use anchors, and then I will outline inbetween what I'm going to do before I go back and really write the whole script. [But Richard's idea] allowed us a lot of time to figure out these very eccentric characters, which is the most enjoyable part of doing a project. You will see [that] Richard will turn out to be the best screenwriter there is functioning now, as far as I'm concerned. The best of the writing in this picture is Richard's writing; that kind of rowdiness that Richard has, which I wish I had. He can write a wonderful thing like a series of dick jokes, [and] I'm just amazed that he wrote them, and that they're really funny, and that the studio let us do it. I've enjoyed that part in collaboration where something new gets delivered."

Relentless as a screenwriter, Benton is more relaxed in his direction of a movie. "There's a part of me that thinks, I don't really control the film, I sort of chase after it. There's a terrific thing that happens as the film starts to take on its own life. And either you let it breathe, and you let it live, or you control it. And part of me has always loved seeing what happens in a film."

Benton continued, like a proud father, on the characters of Twilight, even reciting a key passage of dialogue that illustrates the characters. "Harry holds to a kind of moral center. And that's not simple in this movie. Because at the end, in the last card game between Harry and Jack (Gene Hackman), when Harry says to Jack, "right and wrong, the truth, don't mean anything to you." Jack's argument is a very telling argument. Jack says, "today, my daughter said she loves me, is that true?" And Harry says "yes". "My wife says she loves me. Is that true?" And Harry nods. And Jack says, "are you sure?" and Harry says "I'm sure." And Jack says, "me too." And he says, "and you say you're my friend. Is that true?" And Harry says, "that's the truth." And Jack says, "enough truth." One is a man whose life is guided by a kind of true moral compass. One is a man whose life is guided by affection. There's a great argument for either of those things and you pay a price for either one."

What's next? "My next film is always shaped by the last one... by the things I feel I didn't get right, or the things I like and want to try to develop further, but it always comes out of the last picture." I'll be looking forward to it.

February 11, 1998

Movies Unlimtied