Oscar-winning actor Robert Duvall (“Tender Mercies”) returns to the director’s chair after 13 years with the independent family Western “Wild Horses.” In the film, Duvall, 84, plays Scott Briggs, a Texas rancher who decides it’s time to write his will before he passes away. Ready to make amends with his estranged gay son Ben (James Franco), he invites him back to the ranch to divvy up the land. A past crime, however, comes back to haunt the Briggses when a Texas Ranger (Luciana Duvall, Robert’s real-life wife) reopens a cold case that could spell disaster for the family.
During an interview with Robert and Luciana Duvall at the 2015 South by Southwest Film Festival, I got a chance to talk to the couple about their new film and what kind of director Duvall has become after more than a decade. We also talked about whether Duvall is still interested in acting after earning his seventh Oscar nomination this year for “The Judge” and learn about a movie he hopes to make into a TV miniseries very soon.
You made your last film as a director in 2002 with “Assassination Tango.” What motivated you to get back into the saddle again for “Wild Horses?”
Robert Duvall: I read a script with a lady [Texas] Ranger and I wanted to see [Luciana] play a lady ranger. I figured we could make a movie, but we had to work for about a year and a half to really make a script out of it. We kept a few things in the original script and went out and got some wonderful actors like James Franco and Josh Hartnett and Adriana Barraza.
Luciana, Robert directed you in “Assassination Tango.” Did you see any differences in his approach as a filmmaker this time around?
Luciana Duvall: No, he’s very subtle in what he looks for, but very specific at the same time. If he knows you’re in search of something, but you’re not quite there, in a very indirect way he will let you know. (Laughs)
RD: Yeah, but after 13 years, she’s harder to direct now than she was then.
LD: I think what he wants is for [actors] to be in touch with themselves no matter what. If I’m going to throw a purse or yell or walk away, that’s fine as long as you’re in touch with yourself, meaning that you’re not trying to force something. You do it and you feel it.
RD: Let the process take you to the result rather than going straight for the result.
LD: Yeah, by not having the pressure that you have to do it right or perfect, it almost becomes improvised, even if it has imperfections. In this film I was more helpful and more involved than before because I was playing a role that was very complex. I think that’s what is fascinating about working with Bob. There was this one scene and [James Franco and Josh Hartnett] didn’t have enough time to spend with each other, so when you see them off camera they weren’t connecting. James was reading and Josh was doing something else and [actor] Devon [Abner] was being…
LD: Shy. So, Bobby allowed an environment within the scene in which they became very close. I think that allowed them to improvise and to go anywhere they wanted.
RD: A guy like [Marlon] Brando used to watch “Candid Camera” to try to make [his performances] as lifelike as possible. People might say, “Oh, he’s just playing himself.” I say, “Try it.” It’s not always an easy thing. [Actor] Wilford Brimley used to say, “Well, when they say ‘action,’ you better come up with something by not trying to come up with something.”
Well, speaking of acting, you just came off your seventh Oscar nomination for your role in “The Judge.” Is that acting bug still biting?
RD: Maybe. I was supposed to do something with [director] Terry Gilliam, but it wasn’t a good script [“The Man Who Killed Don Quixote”]. I don’t know if they’re going to still do it. I was going to play Don Quixote. I read that when [Larry] McMurtry wrote “Lonesome Dove,” he was very much influenced by [“Don Quixote” author] Miguel Cervantes – men saving women, horseback, you know. I don’t know if you saw this wonderful movie called “Wild Tales.”
The Argentina film? I have.
RD: The director (Damián Szifrón) and I talked. He said he was doing a Western and said he maybe wants me to be in it. He’s a very interesting guy. So, I still get a few [offers]. I also have the rights to “The Day the Cowboys Quit” by Elmer Kelton. He was voted the greatest Western writer of all time. A lot of people in Texas have never heard of him. He wrote for the Stockman’s Gazette in San Angelo. He knew the land and the air like nobody else. The only movie he ever made was with Tommy Lee Jones, “The Good Old Boys.” [“The Day the Cowboys Quit”] is a story based on fact about some cowboys that weren’t allowed by the big ranch owners from the east to have their own small herd of horses or cattle, so they went on strike. So, we’re working with AMC to try and get a two-night miniseries. It could be one of the greatest Westerns ever made if it’s done right.
So, where is the Don Quixote film at right now?
RD: I don’t know if it’ll ever happen. You daydream about certain things. Some things you plan and then something comes around the corner and surprises you and it’s better than what you planned. So, we’ll see. We’re really trying to inch forward with “The Day the Cowboys Quit” with AMC. Hopefully [screenwriter] Charlie Mitchell from “Get Low” will get it. Because of “Get Low” I got “The Judge.”
Why did you choose James and Josh to play your sons in this film?
RD: We were very fortunate. First we had Josh playing one part and then we had Franco playing the part. We had to apologize to Josh to play the other part, which he was better for anyway. Then we got [Oscar-winning screenwriter] Horton Foote’s (“To Kill a Mockingbird,” “Tender Mercies”) son-in-law (Devon Abner) to play the other son. Then I said I didn’t want anybody to play the Texas Rangers except the Texas Rangers. They do undercover work, so they’re actually good actors. These guys bring an authenticity, even if it’s in a small way. There’s a melding process of using actors and non-actors. It was a nice mix. Maybe you couldn’t do that with theater, like Shakespeare or a [David] Mamet play, but in film you can do a lot of things, which is nice. I saw a film [at SXSW] two years ago called “The Dynamiter.” It was a film where they just took kids off the street. It wasn’t amateur, but it was very rudimentary. Two nights later, I saw the original “Bonnie and Clyde” and I couldn’t stand it. [It was] fraudulent, compared to this little teeny movie. Just because something comes from Hollywood doesn’t mean anything.
You and Clint Eastwood are the same age. Do you ever wonder how he’s able to knock out one or two projects a year?
RD: He’s become the poor man’s version of Franco. (Laughs) Franco’s gonna do four movies this year. [Franco] can take a [script] and memorize it in 10 seconds – photographic memory. I think that’s the reason he can work fast. [Eastwood] directs a lot. He keeps going. You know who I’d like to get for “The Day the Cowboys Quit”: [Oscar-winning director] Katherine Bigelow (“The Hurt Locker”). Oh, man, she’s terrific. I love “The Hurt Locker.” It’s my favorite movie of the decade. I love what she did with [“Zero Dark Thirty”], too.