Robert Redford: Telling the truth on the small screen

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    Redford on CNN's Death Row Stories

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Story highlights

  • Robert Redford, film star, produces series on Chicago and death penalty for CNN
  • He sees Chicago as the heartland city, the bellwether for America's past and future
  • In a partisan era, documentaries can provide a window into the truth, he says
  • Redford: Television has in some ways replaced film; it's hypnotic, omnipresent

Robert Redford, who achieved stardom in feature films starting with "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid" in 1969 and won an Academy Award for directing "Ordinary People" in 1980, has moved into the world of television production.

Redford and his Sundance Productions, which he started with Laura Michalchyshyn in 2012, have two series premiering on CNN in March. "Chicagoland," produced in partnership with Marc Levin and Mark Benjamin of BCTV, debuts on March 6. "Death Row Stories," in partnership with Alex Gibney and Jigsaw Productions, begins March 9.

At 77, Redford has lived through tumultuous changes in American media, experiencing the rise of television, the decline of radio and the flowering of independent films featured at his Sundance Institute's yearly film festival.

Redford recently answered questions about the two CNN series for which he served as executive producer -- and about changes in America's media landscape. Here is an edited transcript:

Robert Redford

CNN: From your work in Chicago, where do you think the city stands, and where is it headed?

REDFORD: It stands first as a hallmark of American cities. It's the Heartland City. Where is it going? You could imagine it, but you can't predict it, 'cause you don't know what's going to happen. I can only hope for the best.

CNN: Why is the fate of Chicago important to people throughout the United States?

    REDFORD: I think it is important for people to understand the value of American cities, and particularly their history, because they are so much the foundation of how this country developed and grew and sometimes history gets lost in the current event scene. I just love American history and I'm fond of this country. I'm interested in the stories about how things came about. How things grew from nothing to something. Chicago is a great example of that. Starting out as a small dot on the map, it grew to be this enormous kind of bellwether of what was to happen in America. I'm very attracted to that idea -- that piece of history.

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    CNN: Can children learn (and be taught effectively) in the midst of the struggles facing Chicago?

    REDFORD: Well, I think children can learn anything. Sometimes they can learn by being taught something, and sometimes they learn from experience. On a personal note, I always learned the most by experience. But that doesn't mean they can't learn in a school or a classroom, or on television. But there's an awful lot to learn. Because I believe the future is going to belong to today's generation of young people.

    I'm pretty invested in wanting to make sure they get as much information as possible, to begin their lives and to take the reins, and run the country. We've kind of made a mess of it, in many respects. There's not much left to work with. I think we want to see them take the reins and make something out of it, because I think there's still time. And I would have them looking at the history; you look at the history to understand how things came about, good and bad, and you look at the history to find out what you want to keep in place, and move forward with it, but that's going to belong in the hands of young people today, not me anymore.

    What do you love about Chicago?

    CNN: What was the most encouraging thing you learned about life in Chicago today?

    REDFORD: I think the most encouraging thing I've learned about Chicago going back to my personal involvement with Mayor Daley and with Rahm Emanuel, is the heart. The heart and soul of that city. I mean, as Carl Sandburg said, it's the "City of the Big Shoulders." It's an openhearted city. It's a city that likes itself.

    It's painful to see the disparate parts of a city where there's poverty, and there's crime, but that's not exclusive to Chicago. It's in every city. So I think it's important, rather than just dwelling on the negative parts. ... But let's see the other side of it. Let's see the more positive side, because it does exist. And put the two together, and then you get a complete picture of what a city is like.

    CNN: What is the role of the mayor of Chicago?

    REDFORD: To survive (laughs). Look, I have a high regard for Rahm Emanuel. It is not an easy job. To manage a city like Chicago with so many disparate parts to it is not an enviable task. I think that he is as qualified as anybody, but boy, it's like being the president of the United States.

    Can one man possibly do what needs to be done with a whole country that is so polarized as this one? It's a difficult job. But it takes a person who understands that and is willing to fight for it, is willing to be obstinate when they need to be obstinate, and certainly compassionate and understanding when they need to be. But in a way it's not an enviable job. It takes quite a personality to do it.

    CNN: You're also working on a series for CNN about death row inmates and the criminal justice system. What is the most important lesson learned?

    REDFORD: The important lesson to be learned is going to be up to the viewer, to what their takeaway is going to be. It's not up to me to lead them in that direction. "Death Row Stories" is not just about innocent people who are being treated as guilty. It's about people who are guilty, who are in prison, who will admit their guilt, but also see some unjust part of it. And hear their stories about the injustice, from their point of view as guilty people.

    CNN: You've talked about your frustration with predictable political commentary from the right and left on television. What role can documentaries play in this partisan atmosphere?

    REDFORD: When the dialogue about the news is so extreme on one side or the other -- extremely on the right, which I think started with the tea party, and that prompted the left to be extreme on their side. So once those two extremes started battling with each other, it's hard to know where the truth really is. So you want to say, "Well, where am I going to find out about the truth -- this side is barking loud, this side is barking louder to be heard, and pretty soon it becomes a lot of noise."

    So where is a consumer going to get the truth? I lean toward documentaries because the documentarian will take an hour to tell his or her story. And those stories are usually about the issues that come up on the news, but sometimes get knocked around with a lot of noise. And so you don't know what the story really is. But if you look at a documentary and you have an hour or more to dive into an issue, and you go right down to the heart of it, then you can come out of it and say, "Gee, I get the picture."

    Join us Wednesday: Live Google Plus Hangout on Redford's "Death Row Stories"

    CNN: What makes producing for television attractive to someone whose career has been largely connected to feature films?

    REDFORD: Television, I think, is currently where the bright light is. It's gone through different rhythms ... when television first came on, it revolutionized viewing. Before that it was just films in theaters. And suddenly people were able to look at something on a nightly basis. And that changed everything. And then the Internet came, and that changed everything.

    I'll never forget growing up in Los Angeles when television first came on -- when I was a little kid it was just radio -- and suddenly there's this thing called TV. There was this channel in Los Angeles, KTLA, and there was a guy named Bill Welsh who would talk on KTLA. And suddenly, you were going to see the guy. You're going to see him talking! I was just like, "Wow."

    Except we didn't have a television set. Hardly anybody had an actual television set. So, I remember the family would walk several blocks to a hardware store, and inside the store was a television set that showed a picture of Bill Welsh on KTLA talking. And we would stand outside the glass windows, looking inside. You couldn't hear what he was saying, but we saw his mouth move, and we'd think, "God, he's actually talking, he's actually doing it right here, right now." That's my memory of television, when it first came on.

    And then it grew to the point where suddenly you had Kinescope; you had shows in New York being shown out in Los Angeles ... it was great. And then it progressed into drama, which was missing in other areas. "Playhouse 90." And then it went to film.

    So it's gone through all these different transitions. I think in many ways it's replaced film; it's replaced a lot of other viewing possibilities. And it's something now you can't turn off. You know, it's just there with us, whether you like it or not. You get on an airplane, you know, and you say you want to read -- this is a great chance to read a book -- and you're sitting there, and they've got some movie going on -- it's hard not to look at the images flashing. And then you get really pissed off, you see. "I really wanted to read a book!" Why is it? Because it's hypnotic. Television has a hypnotic part to it, which has a good side and a bad side.

    CNN: Do you think the multiplexes will eventually be replaced by video on demand, mobile devices and home theater systems?

    REDFORD: I think that mobile devices are the current event, I think ... de rigueur at the moment, you might say. But I don't think it will last, because I don't think you could ever replace the power of looking at a projected image on a big screen, which envelops you.

    This is like a trend that is happening now that makes it easy -- you can get on your iPhone, you can get it quick -- but that's not the same as losing yourself inside a theater or big screen, so, I don't think it will replace that. I think it's only temporary. I actually hope it's only temporary.

    It's kind of sad to see people texting when they should be paying attention to the life around them. It's all small, it's tiny ... it's almost like an abbreviation of life, and I don't really know how valuable that is. But I'm a Luddite you know, so. ...

    CNN: You starred in "All is Lost," an extraordinary film last year about surviving a shipwreck. What are the broader themes that you think apply to American society today?

    REDFORD: I think the only way you could relate what's happening in the country to "All is Lost" is, I think we're in survival mode. We're not moving forward like we could or should. We're not moving forward in a progressive way.

    We're stymied by ideology on one side so extreme it doesn't want to see change at all, and it's holding things back. And yet I think this is a country that should always be moving forward. And so I guess I'd say that things are so stymied in our culture today, on many, many fronts.

    Climate, water, resources -- look at what's happening on a daily basis, you find somewhere in the United States you find some horrible thing that's happened, where people have not paid attention, or people have not regulated something that should be regulated, like in West Virginia, And yet, it doesn't seem to get attention.

    I guess, this is sort of a negative thing to say, but I feel like we're in a bit of a survival mode as a country. And I hope we do survive.

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