“The Mid-Size Studio Feature is Gone”: Ken Kwapis on A Walk in the Woods
When Ken Kwapis was a cinema student at USC, he ran the school’s film society and programmed retrospectives that enabled him to not only study the classics but also to meet several of the directors who made them – among his guests were Orson Welles, John Cassavetes, and Don Siegel. The experience clearly influenced Kwapis when he became a director himself, as he forged a career similar to that of many of the filmmakers of the classical studio era, albeit without the same corporate support system. Like a Michael Curtiz or Victor Fleming, Kwapis employs a self-effacing style and often works in light entertainment genres like romantic comedy (He Said, She Said, He’s Just Not That Into You), children’s films (Follow that Bird, Dunston Checks In), and, in television, situation comedy (he directed the pilot for the American The Office).
This combination has led him to be somewhat underrated, largely thanks to the laziness of critics who are unable or unwilling to look beyond the obvious and see that a film like Dunston Checks In employs a dynamic use of color, camera movement, and composition that would make Jerry Lewis and Frank Tashlin proud, or that 1997’s The Beautician and the Beast is a visually sophisticated romantic fable reminiscent of Lubitsch. If comparing a Fran Drescher vehicle to the works of one of the greatest directors who ever lived seems perverse, remember that Douglas Sirk made some of his best films with Rock Hudson and the aforementioned Don Siegel created a masterpiece when he directed Elvis in Flaming Star. Those directors, like Kwapis, worked with what they had within the system and found ways of serving their corporate masters and their own muses at the same time.
While Kwapis’s form of visual expression is invisible, that does not mean it is non-existent; to the contrary, few filmmakers put as much thought and care into every shot, looking for ways to underline, emphasize, and comment upon the action without getting in its way. In his best films, Kwapis uses a widescreen aspect ratio and judicious selection of lenses to honor multiple perspectives in the frame and respect the audience’s intelligence, telling ensemble stories in which, as Renoir put it, everyone has their reasons. (He Said, She Said, which Kwapis co-directed with Marisa Silver, is perhaps the purest expression of his generous and democratic worldview.) His is a precise and controlled but not a manipulative form of cinema. It’s an approach that works beautifully on Kwapis’s latest film, A Walk in the Woods, where he gets the chance to collaborate with a pair of Hollywood icons, Robert Redford and Nick Nolte. Redford plays travel writer Bill Bryson, whose memoir of the same title serves as the source material for the film. As in the book, Bryson reunites with an estranged friend, Stephen Katz, to hike the Appalachian Trail. The men don’t let the fact that they’re old and out of shape stop them – at least not at first – and their journey gives way to a poignant yet very funny meditation on friendship, regret, and roads both taken and not taken.
Reuniting with regular cinematographer John Bailey, Kwapis crafts an intimate epic in which the natural glory of the Appalachian Trail provides a sly visual commentary on Bryson and Katz’s emotional journey. On the one hand, their very human problems and concerns are given added weight by the dramatic context; on the other, some of the issues they can’t resolve or let go of seem comically inconsequential when measured against the majesty of their surroundings. Kwapis’s light touch, and the delicacy of Redford and Nolte’s performances, allow A Walk in the Woods to sneak up on the viewer in the manner of a great Leo McCarey film like Love Affair or Make Way for Tomorrow; the style is so relaxed that we don’t realize how much is at stake until the story resonates for hours, days, even weeks afterward. I spoke with Kwapis on the eve of the film’s release to get his thoughts on working with the actors, balancing character and environment, and shooting an independent film with a true sense of scale.
Filmmaker: How did Bill Bryson’s book come to you, and what did you respond to in the material that made you want to direct the film?
Kwapis: Redford optioned the material a long time ago, and he and his producing partner Bill Holderman had been developing it almost from the time the book was published in 1998. Redford’s original plan was for A Walk in the Woods to be a vehicle for himself and for Paul Newman – he wanted it to be the third Redford/Newman vehicle. Unfortunately, Paul Newman grew ill and finally passed away. At that time, as a consequence, Redford shelved the project. He couldn’t imagine doing it with anyone other than Newman. The project looked like it wasn’t going anywhere until Redford directed The Company You Keep and cast Nick Nolte. It was the first time the two of them worked together, and according to Bob, it was the first time they really got to know each other. I’m sure they’ve crossed paths over the years, but they didn’t know each other. They had a splendid time working together, and Redford decided to resurrect A Walk in the Woods with Nick in the role of Bryson’s old friend Stephen Katz. At that point there were several writers and directors who were involved in the project at various stages. Barry Levinson was involved. Richard Linklater was involved. There’ve actually been a number of people who for various reasons didn’t stay with the project.
Redford and I met in late 2013. I think one of the reasons Redford approached me was because he enjoyed the way I balanced comedy and drama in my work. I know he was also appreciative of the environmental message in my last film, Big Miracle. In that film the environment is severe, overpowering: northern Alaska, 40° below 0°. The Appalachian Trail is different, however. This is a story about two men who decide to walk over 2,000 miles, and neither of them are really suited for it. I loved the idea of trying to bring to life the experience of struggling on a trail day after day for weeks and months. One of the first things I was struck by is how much the story is really about the environment. The second thing I was struck by is how funny Bill Bryson’s memoir is. It’s rare to think of a piece of travel writing as laugh out loud, but Bryson’s book has many truly knee-slapping moments. I just felt really at home with that material, and I knew exactly the tone that I wanted to get in terms of the humor. Then, the last thing I was impressed by with the book is that it’s a travel memoir, but really, at heart, it’s a character piece. It’s an interior journey. In a way, it has a very classical aspect in the sense that it’s epic in scale but intimate, a very introspective story.
Filmmaker: In fact there’s very little story at all, it’s all behavior.
Kwapis: I loved the idea that there really wasn’t much of a plot. Two men decide to walk from point A to point B. Will they make it? That’s about as much plot as you get. What’s at stake for these characters is — “what’s at stake,” may be the wrong way to put it. That sounds like a plot thing. What’s important is the interior journey that they go on, these two men both reflecting on the lives they’ve led and the choices they’ve made. It’s also a journey that allows them to reflect upon their friendship, the fact that they let their friendship, a very important friendship, go by the wayside, and at this late date, they’re trying to recapture it. It just touches on a lot of really meaningful issues.
I directed a film that explores the nature of female friendship, The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants, but I’ve never had a chance to direct a film that explores the nature of male friendship and how male friendships survive over time or don’t. It’s funny, I used to think that what made male friendships really unique and valuable was the fact that you could not talk to someone for months or years and then reconnect and pick up the conversation exactly where you last left it. I used to find that a really laudable thing, but I’m starting to question that. I’m starting to feel more and more that the friendships that matter are the ones that you continue to nurture, that you don’t let go fallow. You have to keep watering that garden.
Filmmaker: And what luck to be able to explore that with Redford and Nolte, who are two of the greatest actors we’ve ever had.
Kwapis: I feel on a subtle level this is a film about Redford and Nolte’s lives. It’s about them. It’s about our memories of them. It’s about our collective memories of their stunning careers. Each of them has a body of work that’s just extraordinary. Part of what I enjoy when I’m watching the film is that sense of my own history with these two actors, the pleasure I’ve gotten over the decades watching their work. It sometimes gives me pause. It certainly gave me pause while I was working with them to occasionally remember how many cinematic milestones these two men were a party to. It’s remarkable.
Filmmaker: That leads me to another question I wanted to ask about the way you work with actors, because one of the things that I think I like about all of your films is you seem to have an ability to get great performances out of a wide variety of actors. You have younger performers in something like Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants. You’ve done stuff with seasoned pros like Robin Williams and then worked with an orangutan in Dunston Checks In. Here, you’re working with two icons, Redford and Nolte. I’m wondering, does your approach in terms of how you deal with actors change from movie to movie and actor to actor, or are there some set methods that always serve you well?
Kwapis: I feel like I try to look for something human in whatever scene we’re doing. I try my best not to aim for comedy even when I know the outcome of a particular scene or a particular moment should be funny. I like to create a loose atmosphere on the set. For the past 25 years, I haven’t used the word, “action.” Generally, I’ll just say, “Go ahead,” to start the scene. I think that releases the actors from feeling like they need to, quote, “act.” It’s a small thing, but I think it creates a sense of ease with the ensemble. I think the more you can erase the line between shooting and not shooting, the better. I also try my best not to stand near a monitor. It sounds old-fashioned, but I like to be near the cameras so that when I say, “Cut,” the first person the actors see when they look up is me. I don’t want to be the voice from around the corner yelling out directions from a monitor in a video village. I almost want to be in the scene with them because, again, it just makes the process feel a little looser. I think that applies to all actors.
With Bob and Nick, what was important was trying to create a sense of their history and friendship. Even though these two characters haven’t seen each other in a long time, I wanted to get a sense, as you watched them, of what they were like when they were close, when they were best friends. Again, these are two actors who have not worked together much. I had the same challenge with Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants. The four actresses had never met. I had a short rehearsal period in order to help create the feeling among them that they were best friends.
One thing that has nothing to do with my technique or my abilities: both Nick and Bob have spent about 50 years a piece perfecting their craft as big screen actors. Both of them started as television actors, but the bulk of their work as been on the big screen. Both of them have an amazing ability to tell an entire story with the smallest gesture. A lot of people have commented on how amazing Redford was in All Is Lost because there was no dialogue to let you know what was going on. You only had his actions and facial expressions to let you know what he was thinking, and yet he projects an incredible intelligence. What I loved was trying to strike a balance between his energy and Nolte’s. Nick plays a character who wears his heart on his sleeve. He’s not measured. He’s profane. Obviously, Nolte has played bigger than life characters before, but what I love about Nick playing Stephen Katz is that he’s also an incredibly vulnerable character. This is a guy who has reached out to an old friend and is basically down on his luck. He’s a washout. He’s a recovering alcoholic. Who knows if he’s been employed for a while? He reaches out after decades to his old friend who has not only gone down a different path but has become, by any measure, incredibly successful. For Stephen Katz to reach out at this point in his life…on one hand, it’s brave, but it speaks to this character’s vulnerability. Katz says to Bryson, he says, “I wanted one more adventure with you before it’s all through.”
Filmmaker: You’ve been working on and off with director of photography John Bailey ever since Vibes; he also shot Redford’s first movie as a director, Ordinary People. I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about what you respond to in his cinematography and why he’s such a valuable collaborator.
Kwapis: You always feel when you’re watching films shot by Bailey that what’s in front of the camera is not synthetic, has not been manufactured. It’s photographed. There’s a respect for photography as opposed to many filmmakers who see photography merely as gathering data to be manipulated later. In that sense, John’s approach keeps me as a director connected to classic Hollywood filmmaking. When we watch dailies, we’re excited because we created an image. It’s not because we have captured data to be manipulated in a DI suite. It’s about the fact that we created an image. I don’t know if that makes sense.
Filmmaker: Yeah, totally.
Kwapis: I think that if you look at some of the really standout films in John’s filmography, including Ordinary People, but I’d also mention The Accidental Tourist, there’s a kind of realism, but it’s never drab. It’s realism that’s always rich. If you look at some of Edward Hopper’s paintings, those are the kinds of things that John and I will talk about. When John and I were shooting License to Wed in Chicago, we went to the Art Institute to see Hopper’s “Nighthawks.” John and I stood there for nearly 45 minutes, and John gave me a tutorial on Hopper’s use of shadow. I realized how important it is for cinematographers and directors to keep their eyes open, to look, to study light, to see how light falls on things, to think less about creating a shot and more about asking, what is that image that’s going to tell the story? Anyway, we’re still learning. We’re still figuring it out.
Filmmaker: Bailey has written very eloquently on his blog about his belief in the superiority of film capture over digital, and on this film you combined the two.
Kwapis: Yes, we decided to shoot all the exterior scenes in 35mm, for a couple of reasons. One is that the equipment’s actually more portable. You don’t have all the electronic umbilical cords that you do when you’re shooting digitally. That was part of it. The other part of it was that we’re out in the woods, where we don’t have the means or the time to really control the lighting. When you expose film for shadow detail, if you have bright, overexposed highlights, they won’t burn out the way they do when you’re shooting digital because the film negative just has greater density. In many of our scenes in the woods, we couldn’t control those moments where the two characters would suddenly walk into an open burst of sunlight through the trees. Because it’s 35mm, that information may blow out, but it’s there, in the negative. In the digital realm, it’s not there. There’s nothing there. There’s no information to retrieve. That allowed us in the color timing process to bring these images, to bring those things into balance, bring those hotspots into balance with the rest of the image. I think John and I just have, as many directors do, a sense that there is something ineffably different about 35mm that you cannot get in the digital realm. Obviously, the two formats mix and match perfectly well, but I do think that the scenes on the trail benefited from our being able to shoot in 35mm. I don’t want to give it up yet.
Filmmaker: There were a lot of really gorgeous, sweeping, aerial shots in the movie, and I was wondering how you achieved those.
Kwapis: Now that I’ve said all this about 35mm, those were actually done with a small digital camera mounted to a drone, which provided incredibly steady, rock solid aerial shots. Those were aerial shots that could not have been done with a helicopter.
Filmmaker: Another thing that I’ve really responded to in your features, at least since He Said, She Said, is the expressive use of the ’scope aspect ratio. I feel like you really use it to illustrate the relationships between the characters and their environments. I was wondering if you could talk about what you like about that ratio and how it served you well on A Walk in the Woods.
Kwapis: I think that the key thing, and I learned this with D.P. Steve Burum on He Said, She Said, is the way it enables you to create relationships between the characters. You can set up a two-shot between Nolte and Redford even if it’s an over the shoulder shot. Let’s say it’s more like a three-quarter rather than a true over the shoulder. You can hold on it longer. You don’t feel that same compelling need to cut around because you’re getting not just one character, you’re getting the relationship between two characters across that screen. Nothing makes me happier than a great 50-50 shot in ’scope where you can just linger. You’re not responding to one or the other. You’re responding to the energy between the two characters.
Filmmaker: How does the editing contribute to that energy?
Kwapis: Carol Littleton felt it was really important to make as experiential a film as possible, meaning the audience should feel how hard it is to hike this trail. Every so often in filmic storytelling, people say, “Cut the shoe leather.” In fact, the shoe leather is the main part of our story. Shoe leather is our story. I think that it was important, especially at the beginning of the hike, to get a sense of time, a sense of duration, a sense of the difficulty of the trail. I also think Carol does something that many editors don’t know how to do: she knows when not to cut. She knows how to let a moment linger. In fact, the dialogue may be over, but it’s that final moment, that additional moment, that thoughtful pause that you bank. It’s the thing that makes those characters more lived in, more relatable. Even though it’s not jolting us forward, it’s not propelling us into the next scene, it’s actually doing something more important. It’s drawing you inside those characters. That can’t be done when you’re constantly tightening the pace.
Filmmaker: Another thing I really liked about the movie is that it’s an independent film that has some scale to it. I feel like movies have moved to the extremes, where everything is either really small or really enormous. I was wondering if you feel it’s gotten more difficult to make the kinds of films that interest you, or is it just a matter of adjusting to the changes in the business and remaining flexible in terms of how you get movies financed?
Kwapis: Well, this is not a secret. Everyone realizes today that the motion picture studios have stopped making character-driven stories, by and large. A Walk in the Woods, 10, 15, 20 years ago, is exactly the kind of film that a major studio would have produced. I think that it’s also no secret that there’s been a huge brain drain, and a lot of the smartest writers have moved to the small screen. As they say, “Characters are welcome on the small screen,” perhaps more than they are on the big screen these days. Now, I’m not pessimistic because I feel like there’s room now for a new generation of filmmakers to emerge to show us something new on the big screen, something that we haven’t anticipated. I don’t mean something that’s technically splashy. I mean something with a tone or a kind of storytelling that will suddenly make us want to get off our couches and go to the big movie theater again. I’m very optimistic. I just feel like there’s an opening for new kinds of filmic storytelling, not serialized storytelling as we see on television but a new kind of long form, filmic storytelling to emerge. I couldn’t say what it is, or else I’d be doing it. I don’t want to bemoan the whole state of affairs. It’s a little lazy to get down on it, though there’s no question that the mid-size studio feature is gone.