Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Robert Benton

Illustration for article titled Robert Benton

"The light on the faces is so beautiful, that kind of golden light, and what it does to the landscape is so extraordinary."


Director Robert Benton has made movies as well-received as Bad Company, Places In The Heart, Nobody's Fool, and 1979's Oscar-winning Kramer Vs. Kramer, and as a screenwriter, he's given the world both Bonnie And Clyde and Superman. In his new film Twilight, Benton matches his considerable directorial talents with numerous respected actors: All the principal stars have either won or been nominated for Academy Awards, making the ensemble cast of Twilight—which includes Paul Newman, Susan Sarandon, Gene Hackman, James Garner, and Stockard Channing—one of the best in recent years. Benton recently talked to The Onion about the magic hour, his creative partnership with author Richard Russo, and his remarkable ensemble cast.

The Onion: Taking into account Elmer Bernstein's old-fashioned score, the weary voice-over, and the use of older movie stars, is Twilight meant to address the process of aging?

Robert Benton: It was originally called Magic Hour, and "magic hour" is a film term for those last couple of hours of daylight, when the light, coming through a polluted atmosphere, is the most golden and most beautiful. Cinematographers always wait; they always want to start shooting about two hours before sunset. They have to shoot all day long, but they try to save the big shots, the shots that mean something, until those moments. The light on the faces is so beautiful, that kind of golden light, and what it does to the landscape is so extraordinary. You're always working like a son of a bitch to get your work done before dark, and inevitably the cinematographer says you've lost the light. And it seemed to me a wonderful metaphor for these people: One is dying, while another's life is unraveling. We couldn't use Magic Hour, because Magic Johnson had a show on television this fall called The Magic Hour. We backed away from that, and we used the title Twilight, which tried to replicate the same sense. That's a roundabout way of saying that what you said is right; that it's about "that time" in these people's lives.

O: How did you amass this cast?

RB: When I'm writing, it makes it easier to write a character if I put a picture of the actor next to my word processor. [Co-screenwriter] Richard [Russo] and I write both together and individually: I start with a character that comes from people I've known in my past, or he's known in his past, and we begin to find a collection of idiosyncratic behavior, a kind of moral center, that we are comfortable with. It's very important to find an actor who will represent that. Early on, we agreed that this was Paul Newman, that it was Sully [the character Newman played in Nobody's Fool] with a gun. The next characters we began to deal with were Jack and Catherine Ames: We wanted them to be, as Raymond Hope [played by James Garner] says, "the beautiful people." I didn't mean physically beautiful; I didn't mean Peter O'Toole and Catherine Deneuve, though I think they're wonderful actors. I meant people whose appeal was their wit, intelligence, class, and weight. We kept talking and talking until it became clear that we were talking about really fine actors, though it was clear that these [characters] would never win Academy Awards. But they are people who would bring to the film a presence, a heft. This brought us to Susan and Gene, and the moment we began writing Raymond Hope, it was clear we were writing James Garner. We both knew that right away. And Stockard [Channing] was a perfect choice. So all that was laid out. Generally, when I do this for a picture, I get maybe 40 percent of the people I pick. They're either busy, or the studio says they can't afford them, or there's something wrong, or they don't want to do it. In this picture we said we wanted Paul Newman, Susan Sarandon, Gene Hackman, Stockard Channing, and James Garner. And the studio said, "Terrific, go get them." And I was surprised to hear that, because [the actors are] not cheap. The studio especially wanted Susan, and Susan is a wonderful actress who works very selectively; she has a very happy home life, and if she works, she prefers to work in New York City. She didn't really want to come out to L.A., but I went and camped out on her doorstep for a while… We're friends. And I think she did it, finally, partly because I was badgering her, and partly because of the script, but really because she wanted to work with Paul Newman. And that's how I got every actor. That's how I got Hackman, Garner… Every actor I know will stop what they're doing to work with Paul. We got every actor we wanted on Nobody's Fool. It's an extraordinary thing. There are a handful of actors who are like that, where other actors will stop what they're doing to work with them. My guess is that Jodie Foster is like that. It's in great part because they're great actors, but they're also known as being hard-working, serious, and generous to other actors. Hackman is not only a great actor, but also one of the loveliest people I've ever met. He works very quietly. He's like a battleship in the harbor at 6 a.m., a huge battle ship. It sails over to where you tell it, and you say, "Aim over there." The cannons move, and at 7:15, you say, "Fire!" It hits the target, turns around, then sails out again. He's perfect; he's an absolutely perfect actor. I can't imagine someone better. As was Garner. The shooting of this picture, in 30 years of making movies, was the most pleasant shooting I've ever had. It was delightful.