The Independent Film Channel interview with Robert Duvall

Playing Lieutenant Colonel Bill ("I love the smell of napalm in the morning") Kilgore, Robert Duvall catapulted into cult status in 1979 with Francis Ford Coppola's Vietnam War epic, "Apocalypse Now." Almost twenty years later, Duvall has become legendary. His film credits in the last three and half decades read like a greatest hits of American cinema: "To Kill A Mockingbird," " The Godfather," " M*A*S*H," " The Great Santini," and "Tender Mercies," for which Duvall was awarded the Oscar for Best Actor.

Craving more control of his projects, Duvall wrote, directed, and starred in "The Apostle," the story of a Texas preacher named Sonny Dewey who pummels his wife's lover with a baseball bat, then hits the road searching for redemption. Financed entirely by Duvall, "The Apostle" took 13 years to complete, but now is being honored with six Independent Spirit Awards, including Best Male Lead, Best Screenplay, and Best Director. This interview was brought to The Independent Film Channel courtesy of American Movie Classics.

You just completed a film, "The Apostle," which you wrote, directed, starred in and financed. What was it about this project that created such passion in you?

Robert Duvall:
The passion has been with me for twenty-five years or more, ever since I saw one of these preachers in a small church down in Arkansas. But it took a number of years before I could play this character. There was a movie called "The Kingdom" that (I wanted to do) but it fell through, and I was so disappointed that I started doing some research on preachers. I didn't know where to go with it, so I talked to some writers, but they didn't seem to know what I wanted. So I just sat down one day and began to write the script myself, with the character I wanted to play. It took me six weeks to do that. That was 13 years ago. Since then the project has been on the back burner because I couldn't raise money, couldn't get any movement anywhere as far as financing was concerned -- not in New York, LA, or any other place -- so about a year and a half ago, I decided to finance the film myself.

Why do you think it was so difficult getting the film financed through the normal Hollywood channels?

One of the reasons is that actors can't get independent projects done unless youre big, big names -- Hanks, Travolta, Redford. Plus, "The Apostle" is a religious subject. And agencies aren't going to help you because they don't see the obvious commercial value, even when it's finished. So the overall big door was shut on us.

Were you able to recruit any backers or did you take on the financial burden all by yourself?

We couldn't recruit any backers. I was totally financed myself. The bank put up the money, but it was my collateral. I bankrolled the film entirely. My CPA said we had enough, otherwise I never would have stepped forth.

In the 1940s, Bing Crosby starred in "Going My Way," a story about a preacher --

I think it was a story about a priest, wasnt it?

Yes, I stand corrected, a story about a priest, a clergyman. After that movie we had "Elmer Gantry" in the 1960s, and "The Apostle" in the 90s. I think the worst thing that Bing Crosby did in "Going My Way" was throw a baseball through a window, and then we got to Gantry who was involved with prostitutes, and now we have "The Apostle" (about the preacher, Sonny Dewey, who murdered a man). Do you think, in terms of Hollywood and the moviegoer, that people are more prepared to see these characters with clay feet than they were in the past?

I do. Audiences today expect more. They're more hip. They're more educated. They know more and they want to see more. They want more well rounded characters, with contradictions, with weaknesses, and with positive qualities. Not only the New York and Hollywood communities want this, but also hopefully the Christian community. I certainly would not want to do it any other way than to show a complete human being as much as possible. If I had to do "The Apostle" like Hollywood movies in the past, I wouldn't have done the picture.

It is obviously a very accurate depiction of a Pentecostal preacher and Pentecostal people in the South -- how did you achieve that authenticity?

Through casting, through mixing non-actors from the churches and locales down in the South with professional actors. I tried to turn the whole process around and let the material come from them. When we rehearsed I said, "Let's treat this like a line rehearsal. We don't have to get anywhere in this scene. Nothing's precious. We can throw it away. Let's be as offhand as possible." This way it took the burden of acting off the non-actor and professional actor both and let everybody be themselves. I wanted it as lifelike as possible.

You said making this film was harmonious --


What did you mean by that?

Well, I would have liked to have had 12 weeks (to shoot the film), but we had only seven. I was a little nervous about that. But once we got started, once we got past pre-production and the cameras started to roll, everything went the right way, we even finished shooting a day early. So it really was harmonious. It was meant to be. And I knew that.

You've obviously achieved a high level of satisfaction seeing this film through from beginning to end -- is this something you want to do again?

Yes, it was very satisfying. Many people said that directing was very taxing and to be in a film and direct at the same time would be nearly impossible. And so I feared that. But now that it's over and done with, I definitely want to do more of this. I really, really want to direct more, and be in things that I direct. I have a wonderful career as a hired hand, but I want to put a little of the hired-handedness aside and do more of my personal projects.

One last question: do you have any particular films that stand out as inspirational to you?

Well, it's hard to say, but I'd have to say working with Francis Coppola in the two "Godfathers" was quite a wonderful experience. It dealt with an urban subject so thoroughly and so beautifully. And with regard to television my favorite character of all time was playing Augustus McCrae in "Lonesome Dove." That was a great thing to do culturally, as a part of the history of the United States of America.