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The Sundance Kid Grows Up

By Richard Rayner

Robert Redford convinced Disney to buy the film rights to an unfinished book which some say he had never even read. What was it about The Horse Whisperer which so inspired him, and has he found the Western hero he was born to play?

ROBERT Redford was in Santa Monica when I first met him, in the mixing booth of a soundstage. He was sincere and, although impeccably polite, a little testy. His first words, after he'd shaken my hand and sat me down, were, "What do you know? What have you been told?" For a moment, inches away from that iconic face, I felt not like a journalist but like a Watergate conspirator being interrogated by Bob Woodward of the Washington Post - Woodward as played by Redford in All the President's Men. "I have no interest in doing this," Redford said, meaning no interest in co-operating with the author of any piece about him. "I see what's in this for you, but what's in it for me?" He sighed, and, answering his own question - Redford managing Redford - said, "I'd be doing it for the film, and the studio." He wasn't angry, or depressed; he just seemed weary. He said that often when he read what was written about him it felt wrong: not hostile, just wide of the mark. "There's been a lot of not getting it," he said. "I don't think I'm very charismatic. I don't even think I'm that interesting. So why do you want to write about me?"

We met again after Redford invited me to spend much of the next week with him working at the Skywalker Ranch film facility. Spectacularly located on several thousand acres of rolling northern California countryside, it's a natural place for Redford, who has no great fondness for Los Angeles - "I can trash it because I grew up there," he said. The final stages of work on The Horse Whisperer (which opens in Britain on 28 August) were carried out in a building which from the outside resembles a California winery - but is in fact the Skywalker Ranch Technical Building.

The building houses eight studios, or mixing stages; Redford's was Mixing Stage A, a pastel-lit room, with an art deco roof, a theatre-size movie screen and a 20ft, 96-track mixing-board, supported by a sound-mixing crew of 85, some of whom had recently collected Oscars for Titanic. At any given time a portion of The Horse Whisperer would be playing on the screen - over and over, backward and forward, with bits of dialogue being added, bits subtracted, and sound effects and music layered on. There are directors who stand over the sound crew, controlling every detail; Redford arrives only when a specific instruction has been completed. He would view the results and discuss nuances. Less music, more music? Do we need the thunder? Wasn't there a line of dialogue here we could put in from the production footage? It was work of tormenting detail. Redford would write out a new instruction, leave, and return later. Sometimes, in the interim, we'd sit and talk in his office, just outside the soundstage, where the walls were decorated with movie posters. His desk was tidy, and the coffee table was stacked high with books. Other times, he'd go upstairs to the cutting room, or vanish, and no one would know where he was. A member of the sound-mixing crew would eventually come off the stage and ask, with a hopeful expression, "Did Bob happen to say when he'd be back?"

I had the sense that once Redford left the room he could be anywhere. It's one of the traditional ways that movie stars exercise power - making others wait - but in Redford's case he's apparently always been that way, and just as he leaves you with the teasing notion that he might never come back he returns as if he'd never been away, stealing into rooms almost wraith-like, startling you with his presence. Throughout our talks, I knew that he would let me see only so much before he disappeared again, and that if I asked too much, if suddenly I said, "So, Bob, tell me about your new girlfriend" - because I'd heard that he has one - he would vanish for ever. His manner didn't permit the question.

For the record, Redford has three children - two girls and a boy, all adults now and all by his ex-wife Lola, to whom he was married for more than 20 years - and four grandchildren. When he's not working, he divides most of his time between a mountain-top eyrie in Utah and a flat in New York: he says that the contrast between the extremes of urban America and the American wilderness has always been a source of inspiration.

I kept going back to his original question, "Why do you want to write about me?" I'd told him that his life was a great American story; and during the time I spent with him at Skywalker I tried to figure out why I thought that. As a director, Redford possesses nothing like the sheer wealth of George Lucas, or the worldwide box-office clout of Steven Spielberg, or the pyrotechnical narrative brilliance of Martin Scorsese. And as a movie star - well, he is now an ageing one. And yet there's no actor most people are happier to watch, and we all remember those huge hits, some of them leaky narrative boats that somehow came triumphantly home to port: Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, The Way We Were, The Sting, Out of Africa. Perhaps it makes more sense to think of him in terms of Cary Grant than of Brad Pitt. "Cary Grant would look at his own dailies and be able to tell the director in which takes he was working best. He was good," Redford told me. Redford has stage-managed the creation of himself as an elusive enigma in a distinctly unmodern way, and his inaccessibility is a part of his success and his allure. Redford is probably the only living actor who conforms to an old idea of what a movie star should be.

The Horse Whisperer begins in dreamlike black, with close-ups of a stallion, and moves quickly to a white, snow-covered New England countryside, where two teenage girls greet each other in the morning and go riding. The girls, laughing, leave a dirt road and go into the woods and up an icy hill, where the footing is tricky. One of the animals slips, slides back down the hill, and collides with the other, knocking it down. The two horses tumble, one girl still on her mount, the other hanging from a stirrup, bumping along, until they spill on to the icy road at the bottom of the slope, where a trailer truck, Klaxons blaring, thunders toward them. The truck brakes, slews, jackknifes, and runs over one of the girls and her horse, killing them. The second horse, with its rider, Grace, still atop, is right in front of the truck as it continues its slide. The horse rears and smashes into the windshield, throwing Grace to the ground. By the time help arrives, Grace is close to death. She's flown to a hospital, and survives, but her leg is amputated.

The sequence of scenes is tightly orchestrated, loud, and very violent. Redford told me that it was the most difficult stuff he's ever filmed. The action was complex, the weather unco-operative. He and his crew moved around the country, chasing snow, and the final scenes use footage from different locations. Redford was distressed, moreover, by the content of a scene that portrayed the killing of a horse, the maiming of another horse, the killing of a child, and the crippling of another. "You can't help but take it on, if you have any tenderness in you at all," he said. Redford and his wife lost a child, their first, when Redford was in his early twenties, and the loss was evoked in the making of the movie. When I asked him about it, he became defensive - I was obviously asking one of the questions you don't ask. "It happened, so I'll tell you, but I don't want to talk about it. It was sudden-infant-death syndrome. It never gets quite explained, so even that was taken away from us. The scar doesn't go away."

The Horse Whisperer is a film of emotional intensity and exaggeration with heartfelt, ostensibly corny notions, such as redemption and healing. "It's about the issue of love," Redford said when I asked him to explain the picture. "How it's expressed, how it can enlighten and damage at the same time. How love works. How the varieties of love work. New love. Impossible love. Love that can't be had."

Grace's mother, Annie (Kristin Scott Thomas), is a New York magazine editor - driven, self-obsessed, and English. She now has on her hands an uncommunicative, depressed daughter who believes that she, and her horse, should be put down. When Annie reads an article about Tom Booker (Redford), a Montana rancher who has a special way of working with and healing horses, she packs up their own ruined animal in a trailer and drives across the country with her daughter to track him down. Thus the three essential storylines are set up: horse and daughter must both be made well; the self-absorbed mother must reawaken her sense of family; and Tom Booker, a man who has given up expecting anything from life except his work, must learn to love again.

I was sitting in the middle row of the soundstage waiting for Redford when he slipped into the theatre, grabbed a cookie, and sat down in his chair at the centre of the mixing board before anyone there realised he had arrived. He picked up a phone and spoke to someone at Disney, the studio financing the picture. "The TV spots all seem to lean toward the love story. I want to make sure we don't promise something we don't deliver. Listen, I know your research is telling you to go with the love story; but I wondered why the horse wasn't shown. Can we talk tomorrow?" Redford's manner was easy and unchallenging. He listened hard to what the man on the other end had to say, and when he finished the lights went down and we watched the scenes that the sound-mixing crew had been working on all afternoon - reels 15 and 16, when Annie's husband, Robert, arrives unexpectedly from New York just as Booker and Annie have fallen in love. The lights came back up. Redford was worried about a moment when Booker is alone in his room at the ranch: he goes to put on a record, but instead slips it back into its sleeve, and sits down in a rocking chair. The question was the music cue: should it run over from the previous scene? Redford turned to me: "I'm an advocate of silence in film. Some people think music should always lead the moment. There's a pressure now to fill every frame with a barrage of music and image. It's the culture that's changing. I can see that, but I don't go along with it."

Redford viewed the scene, first with the music cue and then without, and the difference between the two was startling. The version without music was film operating as pure film, and I was struck by the loneliness, the weariness even, of the Tom Booker character. With the music, the scene said something different. Yes, it said, Tom Booker is lonely and sad, but he is romantic, too. It was more Hollywood. Redford thought for a while, said he preferred the version without music, with its exaggerated sound effects - the thud of the album sleeve, the creak of the rocking chair, but wondered whether it was too spare. He was unsure. For the moment, he decided to go with the music. It seemed like the safe call, and certainly the more sentimental.

Charles Robert Redford Jr, born in a Spanish-speaking neighbourhood of Santa Monica on 18 August 1937, was the only child of a Scots-Irish milkman who later became an accountant and who, in the early Fifties, moved his small family into a house in the San Fernando Valley, in search of a better life. "It didn't seem like a better life to me," Redford said. "It seemed like a step down. Back then, the Valley was a big oven with nothing in it, a great sea of nothing, an ocean with no ships on it, and at night if you went out there were very few lights. I spent my time wanting to leave. So it was sports and getting into trouble. And cruising and getting into trouble. Drag racing on Van Nuys Boulevard."

Redford was a gifted athlete but bone idle. He also hated school, and often skipped it - a rebellion against his family, many of whom were teachers. His father was obsessed with not having enough money. "When I was born, my father earned $35 a week. I remember hearing that figure most of my life. It was jammed down my throat, or up my ass. Somebody who'd worked so hard for so little didn't take kindly to his kid lying in the grass staring at clouds. He'd say it over and over again, 'Thirty-five dollars a week, $35 a week.' I obviously wasn't going to amount to much. It gave me an edge. I went out looking for it, the wildest possible edge, and I went after it with a vengeance."

His mother died when Redford was 18, and soon after he left the Valley to attend the University of Colorado (he started as a pre-law student and then changed to art). "I wasn't happy. I was drinking, and talking all the time about going to Europe, dreaming about Utrillo and Matisse and Braque," Redford recalls. "I wanted to be in that place, where they'd been. I'd wanted out of LA, but Colorado wasn't far enough. I had a teacher, who said, 'Don't talk - just go do it.'"

So in 1956, Redford dropped out and left. "Around the time I went to Europe, I got interested in who I was. I felt as though a film had been ripped from my eyes. I'd done sports, I'd done trouble, and suddenly something clicked into place. I went everywhere with a pad, sketching, drawing pictures, making notes. A consciousness is what happened to me."

He had, in effect, a crash course in European politics. He met French Communists who attacked his naive certainty in the virtue of the American system. In Paris he lived in a derelict house, with a bunch of students and artists. He went to Vienna, where he helped refugees from the Hungarian rising. On New Year's Eve, in Rome, he was spotted by Ava Gardner as she swept into a restaurant, and she kissed him on the lips. In his telling of his own story, in his self-mythology, I suspect, this period has assumed more and more importance. He told me that he went to Europe feeling embarrassed and stupid, less experienced than many of his generation, and much more ignorant, and came back, feeling ten years older, as if he knew secrets they didn't. He did not return to the West Coast but became a student at the Pratt Institute, in Brooklyn, and met and married Lola Van Wagenen, a 17-year-old Mormon from Provo, Utah. His acting career began in 1959, with a walk-on. He played a basketball player in a comedy, and wasn't required to speak a line. He was 22.

"There was an arrogance when I started to act," Redford said, recalling those first unlikely parts he played - a sociopath, a criminal, bad guys. "I felt I could do it. I hadn't had much experience, but when I got into it, when I shifted from art to acting, something happened very naturally, and then I took it seriously and worked hard at it, and then I developed a curious confidence about it. I knew I could do it better than a lot of people. And I don't know why."

Soon he was a jobbing actor, shuttling between New York and LA, working on the stage and in television. Between April 1960 and October 1963, he appeared in more than 20 programmes, including Perry Mason (an episode titled "The Case of the Treacherous Toupee"), Alfred Hitchcock Presents, and The Twilight Zone.

Alan J Pakula, who later directed Redford in All the President's Men, said of him at that time, "He had the Cagney stuff, all the rage. When I first saw him as a young man, he obviously had to fight for stability." Redford moved quickly but inauspiciously into films. Inside Daisy Clover and Situation Hopeless - But Not Serious (both made in 1965) were disasters. Even The Chase, which had an extraordinary pedigree - book and play by Horton Foote, script by Lillian Hellman, direction by Arthur Penn, and a cast that included Marlon Brando, Jane Fonda, and Angie Dickinson - was a flop. Redford spent much of 1966 in Spain and Greece with his wife and their two young children, wondering whether he should abandon acting and try his hand at art again. He owed Paramount work, however, and in 1967 he returned to star alongside Jane Fonda in Barefoot in the Park. He also tried out for The Graduate, which Mike Nichols was about to direct. "I tested Bob with Candice Bergen and was heartbroken when I saw it," Nichols told me. "It was because of this thing that Redford had with women. He couldn't play a loser, because of the way he looked. I told him so, and he was. . . dispirited. I said, 'Look at it this way. Have you ever been turned down by a woman?' He said, 'What do you mean?' I said, 'My point precisely.'"

Redford was cast in another Paramount film - Blue, a Western about a white boy raised by the Mexican bandits who had slaughtered his family. Initially he had found the picture appealing, but en route to the location, in Texas, he decided he didn't trust a new director who had come on board and the campy tone the script seemed to be taking, so he turned around and headed back home. "I believed I was being jerked around. I wasn't getting the pages. They kept saying, 'Oh, these are green pages, we're trying to turn them into gold'" - "gold" being Hollywood's hopeful nomenclature for a script page that's ready to shoot. He walked out of the picture, Paramount sued, Paramount won, and he didn't work for a year.

He'd challenged the system and lost. "You come to a sign in the road that says, 'Go left,' and you think to yourself I'd rather go right," Redford said. "Do that often enough and you find yourself in a bad place."

Meanwhile, Twentieth Century Fox was sitting on a property that people thought could turn Redford into a major star, but the studio didn't want to give it to him. Fox was said to have paid William Goldman $350,000 - an unprecedented sum for an original script - for a comedy Western called Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Paul Newman had signed for one of the lead roles, but Richard Zanuck, the head of Fox, balked at the director George Roy Hill's insistence that Redford play the other. Zanuck wanted Brando, Steve McQueen, Warren Beatty - anyone but Redford, who he said had been given too many chances and never made it. "I'll pay you off and shelve the picture rather than cast him," Zanuck told Hill. At last, when Brando couldn't be reached and Beatty had turned down the role, Newman stepped in on Redford's behalf, saying that as far as he was concerned Redford "just had the stuff", and Goldman sent a six-page telegram saying that if the entire creative team agreed on Redford then why the hell couldn't management go along with it?

Finally, Zanuck capitulated, Redford was cast, and in 1969 Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid was a tremendous commercial success, even if its critical reception was mixed. Redford's role redefined a certain kind of Western hero - the laconic dude, the Camus cowboy, a loner holding everything in reserve until the moment of danger. What made the part especially contemporary was that Redford was so unreadable. He was elusive, motiveless, disengaged. The film itself was fresh and it worked.

The burst of films that Redford made then - Jeremiah Johnson (he played a mountain man), The Candidate (a young politician), The Way We Were (a goy god pursued by Barbra Streisand), The Sting (a con man, starring again with Paul Newman), The Great Gatsby (the title role), The Great Waldo Pepper (a daredevil flyer), and Three Days of the Condor (a CIA guy who comes back from lunch to find that the staff of his entire office has been slaughtered, and whose impeccable survival instinct prompts him to kidnap Faye Dunaway) - took him beyond mere stardom: you couldn't touch him. Redford was a different man. He was an entertainer, a winner, suddenly with a lot of power, and the question had become, "What sort of entertainer and winner should I now be?"

Some critics have regretted that Redford hasn't subsequently taken bigger chances in his choice of parts. Richard Schickel said, "Late at night, Bob once told me, 'Acting is about letting the bear loose.' But I wonder if Bob has ever let the bear loose. His performances have been, on the whole, cool, very effective. I'd love to see him romp and stomp sometime."

In the early Seventies, Redford worked non-stop, making films back to back - as if having been raised with the notion that hard work gets results, and having been constantly told that he never did any, he was determined to surprise even himself with his diligence. For three years - 1974, 1975, 1976 - he was America's number one box-office draw. His ex-wife, Lola, told a story to a friend about walking with him down Fifth Avenue. All around them, people were saying, "That's Robert Redford." "Hey, there's Robert Redford with some woman." "Hey Bob!" "The strange thing," she recalled, "was that Redford himself didn't notice. He had trained himself to be oblivious." The bear had gone into hibernation.

Through the window that looked on to Stage A at Skywalker Ranch, I could see the huge image of Redford's face on screen. He and I were in his office and, sitting across from me, he was excited and animated, talking about the genesis of All the President's Men. In order to explain that movie, he said, he had to loop back to another one, The Candidate, a political satire made in late 1971. As he talked, he moved about the office with an athlete's bouncy springiness, arranging some papers on his desk. He was wearing glasses, as he usually does, except when appearing in public or in a film. He was saying, "In the Seventies there was a feeling that you could make a difference. There was something of the Sixties idealism, and I found that I wanted to play a part that addressed bigger issues. And maybe The Candidate was the start of that for me."

The Candidate, which Redford produced, is one of his best screen performances. The movie is an astringent study of a Kennedyesque campaigning attorney named Bill McKay; his entry into a Senate race, and the moral compromises he has to make to get elected in the new, cosmetic, media-oriented world of politics. Redford the man - a charismatic and apparently unreflecting success - was perfectly suited the role that he took on.

The film was scheduled for release at the time of the Democratic National Convention in Miami Beach, and so, to promote it, he mounted his own whistle-stop campaign, planning to ride a train from Jacksonville to Miami Beach, making four stops - "I'd get on the back, quiet them down, go, 'Hey, everybody, thank you, thank you, I have a piece of paper saying how many people came to see each candidate on their stops. I'm told that Ed Muskie when he came through here drew 250 people. George McGovern came through and it was 1,200. By all accounts today, there are at least 4,000 of you out there, and this means a great deal to my heart. I can't tell you what this does for my ego. And just keep in mind as we pull out of here today that I have nothing to say, I have absolutely nothing to say.' And I still remember the look on their faces as the train was pulling out, like that could really be the truth."

He recalls that at one stop he stepped back into the train, joining the journalists inside. "What a no-brainer job they've got," he thought. But the journalists weren't talking about Redford and his publicity stunt; there had been a break-in at the Watergate Hotel. "They said, 'Well, it's clear what's going on. It's Nixon.' I said, 'You mean they broke into, the President's people broke into. . .' I was acting like this naive Boy Scout, and they came back to me with, 'Let me tell you, son, about some things you don't understand.'"

The journalists' lesson in Realpolitik included their conviction that in the weeks before the election no paper would properly report the story - no editor would want to get on the wrong side of Nixon, who was a mean and hateful sob and could make covering Washington impossible. When Redford quit the junket, he continued to follow the story. By the autumn, people were starting to ask, "Well, who are these guys from the Washington Post?" "One guy was a Jew, the other guy a Wasp, one guy was a Republican, the other guy wasn't, one guy was a good writer, the other guy couldn't write his way out of a paper bag. And they had to work together?" Redford said. "Forget that they seemed to be wrong; I thought that was great stuff."

He imagined a small-budget, behind-the-scenes black-and-white film about investigative journalism, about what it takes, the diligence, the digging. "I was interested in the Americanness of that - the Calvinist work ethic." When Redford finally got Woodward on the phone, "I introduced myself, and Woodward was cool - very guarded: 'We'll get back to you,' he said."

Redford found himself in the unusual situation of waiting for someone else - waiting for some months, in fact, until he was in Chicago, making The Sting. It was then that James McCord, one of the Watergate burglars, spilled the beans and confirmed that much of what Woodward and Bernstein had been writing was true. Suddenly, after having been vilified, the two were redeemed - "I called Woodward and got him on the phone again and said, 'I'm sorry. I'm coming to see you, OK? This is really getting interesting.'"

As Redford was telling me the story, his eyes brightened, and he began stringing together longer, faster, and more energetic sentences. He laughed, clapping his hands, ignoring calls from the sound crew that another reel was ready. He jumped up, answered a phone call and sat down again, suddenly boyish and filled with an enormously likeable enthusiasm. "Woodward told me where to meet him. I said, 'Your office?' He said, 'No.' I said, 'How about your house?' He said, 'No.' I said, 'A hotel room, then?' He said, 'Absolutely not.'"

They arranged to meet at a political fund-raiser in Washington. Redford was becoming so animated that his speech slipped into the present tense. "Suddenly, people are giving me a hard time about The Candidate. Ethel Kennedy comes up and says, 'I really don't know about that film.' I say, 'Why?' She says, 'Well, it's a pretty bleak, dark look at what's the highest calling in the land.' I was getting some heat, and suddenly out of nowhere there's this guy in my face, says, 'Hi. Bob Woodward.' I go, 'Oh.' He says, 'Just keep talking.'"

Soon afterwards Woodward and Bernstein came to see Redford at his apartment in New York and told him where the story was going. Redford was now privy to an amazing inside deal. They told him that they were planning to write a book, which would focus on the burglaries, and tell the story from their point of view, like a novel. According to Redford, he said no, that was the wrong approach - they should tell their own story - as journalists, including all their mistakes and false leads. Woodward and Bernstein went to their editor, who agreed that Redford's idea was better and added that, besides, it would lead to a better book, and a more lucrative movie sale. Woodward and Bernstein were then advised to make Redford wait, and he waited for nearly a year, watching the news while he made The Great Gatsby.

Another of the sound guys appeared, and Redford stood, wrapping up the tale, shaking his head as if he still couldn't believe he'd been a part of it. Redford had been talking about himself as if he were the bemused, questing hero of a thriller that is his own life, in which Bob Redford steers himself through the labyrinthine shallows of stardom, away from the fatal temptations of the mass marketplace, and vaults the fence of high seriousness. The next morning, when I went, as was routine, to sit alongside him while he directed the sound-mixing crew, he was still eager to talk about All the President's Men. He told me that he'd made the movie to celebrate the First Amendment, and to show how close America came to losing it.

"Journalism - whatever you think of it - saved it in that particular instance. I was grateful for the journalistic standard we had. And now I see it go - wilfully, and for the cheapest, short-term reason, which is money. Am I going to complain about money in America, what money has done to our systems of justice and education and politics? Forget it. That's like baying at the moon. On the other hand, it does piss you off.

"The real impact of the movie was in journalism schools, which swelled, because suddenly they promised romance and glamour. But the people now being drawn to journalism were there not for reasons of the craft or its ethical mandate but to become celebrities themselves - to find a way of taking someone's clothes off publicly, and getting money and attention for doing it. Maybe that film did a disservice to history. I dunno."

I called Bob Woodward, who is now the assistant managing editor of the Washington Post. He said, as if he were Bob Woodward still being played by Robert Redford, "Are you tape-recording this conversation?" I said I wasn't. I was taking notes. Of working with Redford, Woodward said, "I knew that he was serious. But not that serious. He's a total package of seriousness. He immersed himself in the subject to a degree that was astonishing. He really brought off that movie himself. It never would have happened if he hadn't said, 'I'm going to do this,' and pushed it through. He's learnt how to compensate for his own intellectual insecurity to the point that he reads and studies a subject until he gets through to its innards. He's one of a kind."

I remembered something that Redford's longtime assistant, Donna Kail, had said to me. Before Redford, she worked for one of his business managers, who once told her how smart Redford was. "It was the way he said it: 'Redford's smart.' That stuck. And when I came to work for him I realised that he's tough, too. He doesn't realise how tough he can be." No one in Hollywood has stories about tantrums Redford has thrown, or binges he's been on, or outrageous things he has demanded. The bad things that are said about him revolve around his self-centredness. He's left behind him a string of broken hearts. James Salter (Downhill Racer), William Goldman (Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, The Great Waldo Pepper and All the President's Men), Steven Soderbergh (sex, lies & videotape) - who all have stories of abandonment, stories that they've told, in print, with differing degrees of ruefulness or bitterness. This, of course, is the traditional lot of the writer in Hollywood, to be betrayed by the director or the producer or the star, but Redford's own highly driven self-centredness has a curious, otherworldly quality; his narcissism is almost godly.

The quality was illustrated for me during my stay at Skywalker. I was in Redford's office, chatting with Karen Tenkhoff, his associate producer. Redford came in and appeared to be shocked, just for a blink, that these two minor planets in his system - Tenkhoff and me - had collided and were talking to each other. He looked quizzically at Tenkhoff, as if noticing her for the first time. Then he said he really knew nothing about her, even though they spent such a lot of time working together. After the movie was over, Redford continued, he and she must sit down and talk. "I know about Rick," he said to her, and I wondered whether he was doing this for my benefit, letting me know that he related to his co-workers in such an intimate and jolly way, or whether he was doing something more blunt and seemingly un-Redford-like: taking control of the conversation. "Yes," Redford continued. "There's a Rick. Who's this Rick?" "Rick?" she asked. "Yes, Rick. Who's this Rick in your life?" "Rick," said Tenkhoff flatly, "is the man who does my hair." "Oh," said Redford. And then he laughed, hard, as if he'd been caught out pretending he could be anybody but Robert Redford.

The first 200 pages of the yet-to-be-completed manuscript of The Horse Whisperer, by Nicholas Evans, were already on offer to British publishers when they surfaced in New York in the autumn of 1994, were clandestinely photocopied by movie scouts, and were distributed among Los Angeles producers in a matter of days. Uninvited, the producer Scott Rudin made a bid of $500,000. Then others joined the unofficial frenzy. Jon Peters; Wendy Finerman (the producer of Forrest Gump) and Peter Guber; and Redford's company, Wildwood Enterprises. By the middle of the week, bidding had pushed the price to a $1,750,000, and the next morning it reached three million. At this point, Creative Artists Agency, which was now brokering the deal, called a halt, worried that an insane precedent was about to be set for what was, after all, only half a book. It was arranged that Nicholas Evans would speak to each of the bidders and choose among them.

I remember hearing the story at the time and guessing at the likely outcome; now, having met Redford, I understand that it really wasn't much of a contest. The first time he turns the full pressure of his attention on you, it's disconcerting. He knows how best to use his stardom. With Evans, he didn't use it at all. He talked to him about horses, and about Zen. According to one Hollywood story, Redford hadn't even read the pages; but he would have recognised the appeal of the main character, Tom Booker.

"He was silent, apart, a modern cowboy. A character so centred, so simple," Redford told me. Here was a man, Tom Booker, whom he could put on like a comfy old coat. Booker was the Sundance Kid, older, carrying a lasso rather than a six-gun, a sad perfectionist aware that history was bearing down on his way of life. In Redford's eyes, he wasn't Booker so much as Booker was someone he would like to be. "He has a stronger, more centred self than I do," Redford said. "I envy him that. Maybe I, too, am aiming for the security of a simple life."

Although the legendary Hollywood director John Huston once flattered Redford by saying that he picked his roles "with a rare canniness", the actor has often been more cautious than canny, more ambivalent than sure. He's generally ended up making good choices - good commercial ones, at least - though he's sometimes driven people crazy with his angst and indecisiveness while protecting his hand. Playing a part is no simple issue for him. For a long time he thought the script for The Way We Were was tripe until his character, a Wasp athlete with a talent but no genius for writing, was made less sympathetic, the change helped make the film. He didn't "want to do" Indecent Proposal, but his agent persuaded him (and also traded a portion of Redford's salary for a share in the gross profit, earning the star a fortune when the movie made $266 million). He withdrew from both An American President and from Ridley Scott's The Hot Zone. He read Air Force One and dismissed it as too violent.

"Redford's always had a great quality of incorruptible masculinity; and his whole quality is American," his friend Paul Newman said. "It's about a rugged individualism, which is something I'm not always in favour of."

Redford has always been attracted to characters whose survival depends on figuring out the Chinese box that is the system, and to films that celebrate outsiders and independence, entrepreneurial concepts as well as abidingly American and romantic ones. It was only after listening to him talk about All the President's Men that I realised that this was the type of story he most wants to tell, and that while he hasn't been able to find another film that bucks the system so powerfully he's continued to be interested in those that both rub abrasively against the ideological grain and stand determinedly off to the side of Hollywood's current fascination with big events (Independence Day, for example, or Titanic). The films he's directed tend to express the depressive, Irish side of his nature. Ordinary People and Quiz Show are not happy films, and neither is A River Runs Through It, his sombre film about fly-fishing. The autobiographical theme of familial loss runs through all three.

The Horse Whisperer's first screenwriter was Eric Roth, who had won an Oscar for Forrest Gump. Roth told me that when he met Redford he felt he was seeing an icon, an icon about to play an icon, "That is, the great Western loner plays the Western loner," Roth said. And, fittingly, in their first meetings, the talk was about Westerns they liked. Eventually, Roth left the project, and was replaced by Richard LaGravenese (The Fisher King and The Bridges of Madison County). Redford brought LaGravenese to his place in Utah and was so keen for him to see Shane that he forgot to offer him anything to eat.

Redford said, "What I remembered from seeing that movie as a kid was that the main character didn't talk a lot. He carried his history around with him. Silence is in the very grain of American ranch life. Understatement is part of the deal."

As LaGravenese's drafts got closer to final version, the instructions from Redford were all variations on the same thing: "Strip it back"; "Pare it down"; "Have Tom talk as concisely as possible." What he and Redford ended up with was a no-sex version, with as little dialogue and as clear an emotional line as the many story arches of The Horse Whisperer would allow; "Shane was useful because of its simplicity; and because most of the film's work is done with images," LaGravenese told me. "Redford described the Western man as someone who is deeply feeling, who embraces life as something he doesn't try to control, a larger order that he's a part of. Urban man, on the other hand, he saw as someone who believes he can control things. Redford himself is an intriguing mixture of the two."

By the time I met Redford at Skywalker, three years had passed since the film rights to The Horse Whisperer had been bought. In the interim, the book had become a phenomenon, thanks in part to Redford's intervention; the book deal, which paid more the $3 million for the American rights, was done only a few days after the movie deal. There were now more than ten million copies in print. The project had become so big that it was starting to make Redford uncomfortable; failure might affect his independence and his ability to carry through on other projects. Sitting in front of the mixing board on Stage A, pencil and pad in his hand, he made notes on the two final reels of The Horse Whisperer, including the climactic scene, in which Grace gets back on her horse, and the ensuing one, in which the threads of the story are gathered and wrapped up - "hopefully in not too neat a bow," Redford said.

Then, suddenly, Redford was on his feet. He had an idea; he was bothered by something. He started talking to Karen Tenkhoff about putting back a highly charged scene between Grace and Tom Booker that had been taken out more than three months earlier, when the movie was more than three and a half hours long.

A silence fell throughout the theatre. "When I brood about something past a certain point, it's worth bringing it up," Redford said. Tenkhoff replied that she wished that they'd talked about this before. "We did," Redford said.

Tenkhoff said that she'd thought the idea was to underscore the goodbye in what they referred to as the hobbling scene; when Booker, having brought the wild, seemingly untamable horse to its knees, cajoles the one-legged Grace into mounting it again. "We can even have a good battle about it," Redford said with an easy smile. "I know it's a pain in the ass, but I wouldn't be true to myself if I didn't put it out there."

This confrontation resolved itself with the perfectionist Redford disappearing upstairs to the cutting room with the film editor, and emerging two hours later with two different endings, one with the Grace-goodbye scene and the other without. These were then viewed, and Redford asked everybody what they thought.

Gary Rydstrom, the sound designer, said, "There's no right or wrong answer." "Yes, there is. But you don't have to take responsibility for it," Redford said, with no suggestion of edge. Even though the reinserted scene had been edited down (it lasted about two minutes), the proposed change was radical. Less than a month before The Horse Whisperer was to be released in America, Redford was tinkering with the most significant part of the movie - its ending. LaGravenese told me that he'd always seen The Horse Whisperer as Annie's story, a love story between two adults, but Redford's gut was now telling him that the story might be Grace's, that it might be a girl's story. After all, she rides the horse,she falls from it, she has to be healed.

The Horse Whisperer is a contemporary Western romance - and that, more than anything else, accounts for its appeal to Redford. Redford's own romance with the West - characteristically obsessive, conscientious, and serious - has, in the view of many, gone some way to changing the way we think about it. The romance was first expressed nearly forty years ago, when Redford and his wife bought two acres in what was then a deserted bit of canyon.

A few years later, they built an A-frame cabin, rolling boulders up the mountain themselves for the foundation. In the late sixties, when Redford saw corporations start to move in, he concluded that to preserve his canyon he had to buy his canyon; then the canyon, once purchased, had to be paid for and used. He expanded an existing small resort and started up the non-profit-making Sundance Film Labs, where experienced film-makers took time out to come and teach younger ones the craft. Quentin Tarantino's Reservoir Dogs was developed there, as was Hard Eight, the first film by Paul Thomas Anderson, who went on to write and direct Boogie Nights.

More followed. Redford appropriated the United States Film Festival, moved it to Park City in 1985, and eventually renamed it the Sundance Film Festival. The objective was to encourage diversity in American cinema; the result was a sucess that no one foresaw - a sucess that, especially in the past few years, Hollywood has been frenziedly attempting to co-opt. The current media cliché about Sundance depicts frantic movie executives on skis, barking commands into their cell phones and bragging that they've found the next Tarantino. Atom Egoyan, the director of The Sweet Hereafter, told me, "I do think the spirit with which Redford has started the festival is completely genuine, and inspiring. He's probably as concerned as I am that it's become such a free-for-all. It's become every independent film-maker's fantasy :you go, you hit the jackpot, you get the big Hollywood deal."

Redford has more plans. While I was at Skywalker, he met with architects who had flown in from New York to discuss a proposal for a Sundance cinema chain, starting up within the next year or so. Each one will have a bookshop, a cafe and a film library for research. Redford's model, curiously, is the City Lights bookshop in San Francisco. "I stumbled in once, years ago, looking for jazz, and thought 'Wait a minute, this is a bummer.' There were these weird guys sitting on a stage babbling in a way that made no sense - and suddenly something happened. It was Alan Ginsberg and Gary Snyder. The space was nothing - minimal. It didn't matter. Something was happening."

Redford is not a Beat poet, he owns a cable television channel and a mail-order Sundance business. (The current catalogue opens with a letter from Redford about The Horse Whisperer: "It's about many things - about family, loss survival, and the power of the Western landscape. . .I'm proud of the film and hope you enjoy it.") He has - no exaggeration to say - an empire. "Nobody has to be Vincent Van Gogh any more; Bob gets that," Harvey Weinstein, the head of Miramax Films, told me, and it's true that Redford's entire career in the Eighties and Nineties has been a balance between art and commerce, preservation and development, independent films and the Hollywood system. The tension has produced its ironies and unexpected side effects. A River Runs Through It dangerously swelled the banks of American rivers with novice fishermen. It seems likely that Redford's loving rendition of ranch life in The Horse Whisperer (the rural family here is as functional and perfect as the suburban one in Ordinary People was tortured and repressed) will have a similar effect on western Montana, filling it with even more people in a nostalgic search for American rapture and simplicity. The Horse Whisperer is Redford's Montana, beautiful but tamer than any place could ever be. After all, the movie has been paid for and marketed by Disney.

What is Redford's achievement? He is not radical or original but clear-sighted, coherent and resourceful - Western qualities, rather than urban ones. He doesn't have the frenzy or abandon of the genuinely creative artist he once dreamt of being. He's not wild on screen. He baffled his demons, beat them, and hasn't let them out again. You rarely come away from a Redford performance exhilarated. You might, however, come away charmed or impressed; you might come away moved; you will often have been made to think. He makes unusually intelligent films for the mass market. His subject might be the family, or politics, or the system, or love, but he always assumes a belief in what one man can do, which is at the heart of the American dream as much as it is at the heart of what Redford has created for himself.

In the past twenty years, he's acted in only ten films, including The Horse Whisperer. He's not tabloid fodder; on the contrary, he's a privacy freak, very careful about himself and his life and what he does. Once I had thought for a while about Redford, I realised that he lived in my mind as much more than a celebrity or a superior combination of of actor and director. He is there more on the level of metaphor than of fact. He has been instrumental in fashioning some of America's most defining contmeporary images: the investigative reporter, the loner, the defender of the unregulated outdoors, the opponent of mindless corporate culture, the independent film-maker, the fly-fisherman, the athlete. Like the hero of The Natural, he's the man with the magic bat, and he's contrived to make us pull for him.