Before and after his Oscar win for his role in Mystic River, actor-director Tim Robbins has appeared in some of Hollywood's biggest films: Top Gun, War of the Worlds, Bull Durham, Twister, and The Shawshank Redemption. He's also beloved for appearing in riskier films—like Spike Lee's Jungle Fever and Robert Altman's The Player, Short Cuts, and Prêt-à-Porter—and starring in cult and independent titles, like Tapeheads, Five Corners, Erik the Viking, Jacob's Ladder, The Hudsucker Proxy, and, yes, even Howard the Duck (not to mention his memorable cameos in comedy films like Anchorman, Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me, and the upcoming Tenacious D in "The Pick of Destiny"). As a director, Robbins helmed three memorable films: Bob Roberts, Dead Man Walking, and Cradle Will Rock. Now, he's starring in Catch a Fire for director Phillip Noyce (Dead Calm, Patriot Games, Clear and Present Danger, Rabbit-Proof Fence, and The Quiet American, among others). Sisters Shawn and Robyn Slovo (A World Apart) wrote and produced, respectively, the new film. I spoke with all four talents during the film's press tour stop at San Francisco's Ritz Carlton Hotel.
Groucho: The research for the film obviously was scrupulous for all of you. What element of your research really broke open the project for each of you?
Tim Robbins: Well, I'll go first. Discovering what the white South African culture was. Understanding it as a culture, as a heritage. Coming to understand that they had gone through their own struggle, their own journey to get where they got—300 years of settlement there. As an outsider, you know, I think you can—I mean, I certainly had no idea what the complexity of Afrikaaner culture and the effect that they had fled religious persecution, had settled Cape Town, and then been forced out of Cape Town—could not worship as they pleased there, so they had to move in covered wagons to the middle of South Africa, and settled eventually what would become Johannesburg. And just being on the ground in Africa and talking to them and understanding what their journey was and how they wound up where they wound up—and the sense of fear that was in that culture, the idea that fear can lead to bad policy—I simply couldn't judge the way I'd judged before. I had to understand the people in all their complexities—And I had had my opinions from afar. I had opposed apartheid. I had joined the economic boycotts against it. I had rallied to free Mandela. But I had no idea of either side's complexities, for that matter. When you stand in the apartheid museum in Johannesburg, and you understand the amount of laws that were passed and the degree of repression that was involved—multi-layered, much more so than the blacks in America were dealing with—it was an eye-opening experience...
Shawn Slovo: I'm lazy as a writer. I don't like traveling around and researching particularly. So I actually concocted this fiction based on those three days of interviews with Patrick. And, you know, when Philip came on board, we did a whole new level of research to get much more to the truth of the story, which had to be expanded and built on on the screen. It was Philip's insistence, you know, on his voyage of discovery, to make it as authentic and real as possible. That actually strengthened the story. So that was a lesson to me about being lazy.
Phillip Noyce: Well, only because the real story was more fantastic than anything you could make up. The way in which he broke into the plant, for example: ingeniously going underneath in the mindshaft he had worked in and catching this conveyer belt right over the army and the police who had surrounded the plant expecting him—you know, straight out of a spy movie. Or the way in which the ANC was so penetrated by the security branch, which we only found out when we were researching and speaking to both sides. Patrick, first of all, revealed his anguish at the fact that someone had betrayed him. When he got to the border he realized that they already had his photograph. The very photograph that had been taken for his passport was there already. And then speaking to the other side, one of the advisors that worked with Tim, we found that he went to Swaziland every two weeks and paid off someone in the ANC who would also give him all the documents, and they were just waiting on the other side for guys like Patrick to cross over—all of which then became a part of the movie.
Robyn Slovo: And the plot became much richer, even though it was the same stories—
Shawn Slovo: And not only on a plot level, but also on a psychological level as well, through Philip spending so much time with Patrick.
Phillip Noyce: Well, Patrick took us. I mean we were traveling along in the car and he said, "Well, let's go into there. That's the place where I met the Nic Vos character," who is a combination of two men—two policemen, who were in Patrick's life. And he took us over to that dam where the final scene takes place, and showed us where he stood where Nic was fishing, and so on...
Groucho: The ANC had a policy to take no life in their actions, but obviously, it's a very risky business. And one man's terrorist is another man's revolutionary. Was the process of doing the film cause for reflection on those fine lines?
Phillip Noyce: Well, it wasn't for us, but I'm sure it is for you—the audience. There's a lot of issues that, inevitably, a film like this brings up, but only in as much as an examination of all history will be illuminating, because the mistakes of the past are repeated in the present and the future—we know that. But if you're asking me if there was any, in our own minds, any parallels to be drawn between wars that are fought today and the events of yesterday, the answer is absolutely not. Because if anyone tries to compare the struggle for emancipation in South Africa with some of the acts of terror that are being committed today, you're crazy. There's no comparison whatsoever. On the other hand, there [are] certain cautionary tales that you can draw from this, for example, our need to be careful that our solutions don't make the problem worse, particularly in the way that we incarcerate or treat our enemies. That's a real issue that I think you can reflect back then on these events and draw some conclusions or at least food for thought about today. But mainly we made the film simply because it was a wonderful story—and an uplifting one, finally.
Groucho: You mentioned that the final scene actually occurred. I wonder for you, Tim, sitting there, filming that scene—what was your interior monologue like? Looking at South Africa with the benefit of time from what he's done, what is he thinking?
Tim Robbins: It was based on some of the people I met. There's a bitterness—an anger still there. A sense of betrayal. These guys were doing their jobs. You know? They were made out to be the bad guys even though, as I was talking about before, they had to take that moral weight on their shoulders of participating in this. I asked some of them, "Why didn't you leave?", and they said, "We couldn't leave—we were at war. It would be like going AWOL—it would be like abandoning your unit. It would bring shame upon your family. You would never be able to go back to South Africa if you left." That guy sitting by that dam—by that lake—I think reflects that Afrikaaner policeman, ex-Special Branch officer who was made out to be the bad guy when in fact the people that set the policy wound up in mansions with very large pensions—not shouldering the blame, not having to go before the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, not being blamed by history as being the bad guy. And yeah, again, not to justify or rationalize, but I had to find the humanity in this.
Phillip Noyce: There seems to be a lot of self-hatred in that man there too when he's sitting there.
Tim Robbins: Oh yeah.
Phillip Noyce: He loathes himself.
Tim Robbins: Completely. A tragedy. And most of these guys—
Shawn Slovo: And loneliness. Loneliness.
Tim Robbins: ...wound up alone: wives leaving them when they found out what they had done, because they had to keep it secret all these years. One of the guys I talked to, his daughter is now in university learning about what he did during apartheid—and him having to deal with that whole other level of the relationship with his daughter.
[For Groucho's review of Catch a Fire, click here.]