I met Phil Alden Robinson, writer/director of Field of Dreams and Sneakers, in a room in the Brown Palace hotel in Denver. He’s traveling the country to promote his latest effort, The Sum of All Fears, the new Tom Clancy thriller starring the young, new Jack Ryan (played by Ben Affleck).
Robinson is just finishing another interview on the phone as I wait by the untouched fruit bowl and dessert tray. I get my first question ready — the one about Ben Affleck, whose name seems to bring nothing but groans and eye-rolls, even from the Brown Palace valet who seems unfazed by the dented, aging economy cars of us film critics.
Back in the room, Robinson hangs up the phone and stands up from the desk where his laptop is open and clearly in use. He greets me cordially and enthusiastically. I ask if I can take a picture with my digital camera, which seems to excite him. He has the same model camera I do (Canon’s digital Elph) and agrees to a picture or two. Later, he explains his love for high-tech gadgets, including his laptop and Pocket PC. But first, he takes charge and starts the interview.
On Ben Affleck
MM: So, the girlfriend is talking and somebody says “How would you rate him (Ben Affleck as Jack Ryan) on a scale of one to ten in cuteness” and she says “twelve.” Whose idea was that?
PAR: That was actually mine; it was mine or [co-screenwriter] Dan Pyne’s. Let me think. It wasn’t Ben’s. Ben was actually sort of embarrassed about that. He said “do we have to have that?” I said “yes ,we do. Get used to it.”
MM: He’s a young Jack Ryan. He’s younger than the other Jack Ryans.
PAR: He’s younger than the others, and if we were trying to make it a prequel, the film would have to have been set in nineteen seventy-something. So I said let’s bite the bullet and say this is not number four of an existing series, it’s number one of a new series. We’re pretending the other ones don’t exist, because when we tried to make the math work we all got headaches and had to lie down.
MM: The other actor that I thought was interesting was Liev Schriber. He’s never been cool before in a movie. He’s always sort of the nerd. Was it a lot of fun for him?
PAR: It was a lot of fun for him. He’s a really first-rate actor, and he’s a great stage actor. That guy I think can do anything. Having had now the chance to work with him and watch his work up close, he is amazing.
It was his idea to make John Clark the reluctant spy. He and Ben and I went out for dinner and he said “you know, I’m so glad that you did that moment when I meet Cabot [Morgan Freeman’s character] and I say ‘I thought I wasn’t doin’ this anymore.’ From that point on I didn’t have to work too hard at trying to explain things about my character, I could just focus on what the character was doing.”
I bet he’ll be a really good writer. He’s writing something now actually. He’s adapting a book.
MM: He looks like he’s been buffed up.
PAR: He is, he’s a pretty thick guy. As is Ben. I was a real shnook around these guys.
MM: No arm-wrestling then?
PAR: No, no arm-wrestling on the set. Everybody on the set towered over me. Ben is 6’4”, Morgan is 6’3”, James Cromwell is like 6’7”, and my first A.D. is 6’8”. I have a crick in my neck from talking to people.
On Tom Clancy
MM: Tom Clancy is the executive producer. How hands-on was he?
PAR: He wasn’t hands-on in the sense of being there all the time. He was very generous with his time. We spoke on the phone. We e-mailed a bunch. Ben spent some time with him down in Baltimore. So he was always a source of advice. And you know, he’s not a man who’s shy to give his opinions, so if he didn’t like something, we heard about it. But I found him open-minded. I could tell him I disagreed with him and he respected that. We tried to accommodate as many of his thoughts as we could. And some we couldn’t.
MM: Was one of you on the picture first?
PAR: I came on late. I came on August of 2000. Ben was already on, which is one of the reasons I wanted to make the film; I wanted to work with him. The studio said you have to start shooting in February because there was a possibility of strikes in June — writers and actors — because we can’t take the chance of you still being in production when these strikes hit. And that meant we had very little preproduction. We were really scrambling.
MM: So it was Tom working with you. Did he have final say or did he get veto power over anything?
PAR: No. It was “let’s work it all out.” And he had been very positive about the movie. He was so happy with Ben playing the role and how Ben played the role, that the new book coming out this summer is a young Jack Ryan.
MM: And is it [the new book] also avoiding the question of whether it’s a prequel?
PAR: I don’t know. That’s a very good question. I don’t know. I do know that he said that he’d been working on this book called Red Rabbit for some time, and when he thought of Jack as younger he said it opened up, it gave him a key to opening a lot of things up and finishing the story.
On Filmed Books
MM: Was he okay with some of the changes from the book?
PAR: You know, if you ask him, he’ll say “I wish they didn’t change the book.” And I understand that. He spent a lot of time and thought and made a really, really interesting, difficult-to-put-together book. If I were the author of the book I’d say the same thing. He’s a grownup though. He understand that movies are different.
I and the writers made a lot of changes with the goal of having it feel like a Tom Clancy book. We had to make a lot of changes — not to condense 850 pages to a 2-hour movie because you can’t — It was “what’s the essence of this book? Now let’s make a movie about that. And let’s do it in a way that’s like a Clancy book: let’s start with all these seemingly unrelated threads, and take our time tying them together.” It’s a real untraditional structure for a movie.
MM: The bad guys were Arabs in the book, and in this one they’re neo-Nazis, and I understand how that would be important for a movie where people have been complaining about a bad rap for Arabs, although, it’s interesting, you know, the reality of September 11, he was kind of right on target there.
PAR: Well, here’s the thing. In the book, the bad guys are Palestinians, and German radicals, and the Native American escaped convict. And he did that because the bad guys had to do things that merely a bunch of Palestinians couldn’t do. But he had 850 pages to spread out and explain these people. We needed a shorthand villain. And it couldn’t have been just Arabs in the movie either because they didn’t have the capability of taking the old bomb and making it a new bomb. And they couldn’t open up a second front in Europe and make the Russians attack the Americans.
MM: So there are practical reasons.
PAR: Yeah. It wasn’t political correctness. Yeah. It was really about the needs of the plot.
MM: And the other change was that Denver was no longer the target.
PAR: Yes, you know, who wants to hit Denver? Not me. I tell you there’s an interesting story about that. In the book it was Denver. In the Harrison Ford draft it changed to New Orleans. And I haven’t asked those guys who worked on it then why, but I think it’s because the production manager or someone said “wait a second: Denver... Super Bowl... winter... we’re shooting in the cold... how about New Orleans, guys? Let’s go someplace warm.” I think it was merely that.
But again, in the Harrsion draft, New Orleans was okay because he, as deputy director of the CIA, if he’s gotta get back to the Pentagon, he says to someone “get me a Harrier jet,” they give him a jet and he flies back. Twenty-eight year old Jack Ryan as an analyst can’t do that. So I needed to find a city, with a football franchise, that’s near Washington.
On September 11
MM: The other question you’ve been asked all day long, you’re probably sick of answering is that after September 11, the movie was put on hold... (see us.imdb.com/WN?20010914#5 and us.imdb.com/WN?20011009#5 for my incorrect “information”.)
PAR: No. Absolutely not.
PAR: When I came on August of 2000, I was told this is a summer 2002 movie. And the internet had false information about that. Very false.
MM: What went through your head, though, did you not think that maybe there would be some effect? You know, Collateral Damage had to be delayed...
PAR: You know, I can honestly say, I didn’t think about the movie. Except when journalists called, journalists called me and asked me “how is this going to affect your movie” and I’d say to them “Who cares? It’s just a movie, and it doesn’t matter compared to what’s going on in the world right now.”
I was almost offended, but then I understood, okay, they gotta cover it. The studio, we never had a meeting. We never had a phone call or a fax or a memo, nothing.
MM: What was happening at the time, were you editing, were you in post-production?
PAR: I had just finished my first cut and I was doing a temporary sound mix so I could show it to the studio. We showed it to a studio the following week and they all said when the lights came up, this is so positive and life-affirming we could release it today. You know, the film’s not really about an act of terrorism, it’s about the response to an act of terrorism, so the act of terrorism is very brief.
MM: And you handle it and sort of move on, which I thought was very appropriate. You could easily see a bad movie sort of lingering on carnage...
PAR: And as a moviegoer and as a filmmaker I have no need for graphic violence. I thought that what we showed was impactful enough...
MM: It was quite effective. I was sort of expecting to be pulled in the direction of an action movie, but it was more sad than amazing.
PAR: And I think it’s because of the shot when Ben climbs out of the helicopter and we stay on his face far more than we show what he’s looking at. And his reaction is so honest, and that shot is like a side shot of him that really, it’s sort of an odd angle to get that, but it really worked. That’s what the moment’s about to me, it’s about “(sigh) oh, shit, it went off” — this sickening feeling.
I had a dream once. I think I was in Seattle, and I feel the room shaking, and I think I’m in an earthquake. I look out the window and I see a mushroom cloud from over Puget Sound. And I remember in the dream feeling just sick to my stomach that it had happened. That’s what I wanted to show.