Robert Duvall discusses turning down the role of Chief Brody in Jaws, filming on location for his latest A Night In Old Mexico and how Robert Downey Jr reminded him of Marlon Brando!
Ahoy, squirts! Quint here. It was about the time Robert Duvall dropped that he turned down the role of Chief Brody in Jaws that my excitement level went from 10 to 11. I'm a big fan of Mr. Duvall's work and jumped at the chance to speak with him again (last time was for Get Low). But when you mix some random trivia I somehow didn't know from my favorite movie of all time in with the realization that you're sitting across from a living legend you get damn close to Chris Farley-level geekouts.
I was able to talk with Mr. Duvall and the director of his latest film, Emilio Aragon, at SXSW where A NIGHT IN OLD MEXICO had its debut. The film is about a cantankerous sumbitch who is getting moved into an old folks home, so he high tails it to Mexico with his estranged grandson. There's drug money, prostitutes, murder and intrigue along the way, so of course it's the perfect vehicle for Robert Duvall.
We talk a bit about The Outfit, Joe Don Baker, Jaws (wait until you hear WHY he turned down the role), filming on location and how Robert Downey Jr. reminded him of Marlon Brando while filming The Judge. Enjoy!
Quint: Before we kick off, I wanted to tell you how much I love The Outfit.
Robert Duvall: Which one?
Quint: The Outfit.
Robert Duvall: Wow, really? You know, they claim the syndicates, the mafia people, kinda jinxed it. They didn't want it to be shown. That's what I heard. Jim Bacon, he told me that somehow they squelched it. Vegas and all that.
Quint: It's an incredible movie...
Robert Duvall: Joe Don Baker was in it. He's a Texas guy. I think I saw him in something recently...
Quint: Yeah, he was just in Mud. I love Joe Don, he's one of my favorite screen personalities.
Robert Duvall: He told me he had a home in Groesbeck, Texas and he'd come back at Christmas to a home all by himself. (laughs) I love Joe Don.
Quint: Why didn't you get Joe Don for this movie? He would have fit in very well.
Robert Duvall: He might have. I don't know which part.
Quint: I'm just saying you both are as badass now as you were then so I want to see you guys team up and do another revenge movie.
Robert Duvall: Yeah.
Quint: One of the things I noticed about A Night In Old Mexico is that it feels like it could have been something you would have made around the time of The Outfit or The Conversation. It's very character-driven.
Robert Duvall: They have films today like that, too. Actually, I thought this was the other side of the coin of Get Low. This character is different from that guy, but they could be distant relatives. Charlie Mitchell from Alabama wrote that. He and Bill Wittliff both understand what they're writing about.
Quint: Looking back at your career and all the amazing work you've done, it occurs to me that pretty much anybody could just say “I've made my mark, now I'm just gonna kick back and relax.” I'm curious what keeps you so driven to continue to make films.
Robert Duvall: Twenty-five years ago, the day we wrapped Lonesome Dove, I said “I think I can retire now because I've done something. This is my Hamlet.” But I haven't gotten tired of working. You read a character like Red... and this has been in the making since before Lonesome Dove. Forty years ago he started working on that. At one point Dennis Hopper was going to direct it, then a guy from France was going to direct it... He was in Austin 10 years ago and he got into a car with Danny Davis, my crazy friend from Houston. He took a pistol, threw it on the seat and (the french director) sat on the pistol and he said, (in French accent) “Danny! You are a gangster!”
So, I don't know whatever happened to that guy. Then a gentleman from Spain comes along with the knowhow and the money, so it was now or never. Twenty-three days. Thirty-five years to write it and 23 days to shoot it.
Quint: That's the world of low budget film now, isn't it? Everybody has to shoot fast or not at all.
Robert Duvall: Too fast. But sometimes when it's compressed you do better than when you have loads of time.
Quint: For sharp directors the time crunch can force creativity.
Robert Duvall: Look at Dallas Buyer's Club. That was done in a short time.
Quint: And it won the Oscar for makeup, which cost all of $200.
Robert Duvall: Well, the guy lost 40 pounds. That's the makeup right there!
Quint: So, you've been attached to A Night In Old Mexico for a while, then.
Robert Duvall: On and off. We won't go into the difficulties, but there were difficulties to being really attached.
Quint: Did you have any say in Emilio as director?
Robert Duvall: We say his first film and he's successful at what he does in filmmaking, music and everything. It's just vibes. Sometimes you work from vibes and if there's money on the table you find ways to make it work. It's not difficult.
Quint: Emilio, was it intimidating for you coming into this? I mean, you have a Bill Wittliff script and one of the best living actors at your disposal, so I imagine you at least knew you had a solid foundation.
Emilio Aragon: Of course. When I met Bobby the first time, we met in Virginia...
Robert Duvall: He came to my place, which was very nice of him. It doesn't usually happen that way, but he came to me. I fed him, he loves to eat! He has a good appetite!
Emilio Aragon: I really believe in energy. When you sit down and you talk to a person if there's something wrong you can feel it. We talked about the script, we talked about the character and we were in the same key, so the rest was easy.
Quint: Yeah, if you guys weren't on the same wavelength I imagine it would have meant a miserable 23 days.
Robert Duvall: Even if he had miserable, sometime the miserable could make something positive come, but it wasn't miserable. I mean, we worked hard.
Emilio Aragon: It was a very tough shoot.
Robert Duvall: Sometimes you get a little edgy, but it's all for the sake of the project. You get edgy or whatever, it's not to do it just to indulge. It's all for the sake of the project.
Quint: It wasn't just for the sake of ego is what you're saying.
Robert Duvall: Well, egos that are working in a good way.
Quint: Egos working together! As long as they're all aimed in the same direction you're okay.
Robert Duvall: Right, exactly.
Emilio Aragon: Angie Cepeda, she is amazing. Joaquin Cosio, Jim Parrack... everybody is wonderful in the film.
Quint: What I liked about Angie's character is that she's the only person who exists in this world who could dish it back to Red as quickly as he can.
Robert Duvall: It's interesting. Back 12 or more years when Dennis Hopper was doing it, there was a very good Cuban actress from Miami who gave a terrific reading for Patty Wafers. Maria Canals. When she read this time they had some stupid guy reading with her and was jacking her on. It became too energetic. It was too much and it was over, she never got another chance.
Ed Johnston, who is our casting guy, had been tracking Angie for a while. From Madrid. She came and was wonderful. When I saw her audition I laughed. She brought humor to it without trying to bring humor. It was just there, you know?
Quint: That's crucial to lighten the movie up a bit. By the time she's introduced you have the family drama and the thriller aspect with the stolen money... you need to have some lightness or Red would just come off as a crotchety asshole. You need someone to bring him down a little bit.
Emilio Aragon: Exactly because that is life. Life is that way. Life is not absolute drama or comedy.
Robert Duvall: You know the scene I think should be in the trailer... I don't know how they work the trailers, but I think it should be when we walk up the street and the guy says “I'll cut myself for five dollars.” That really happened to Wittliff. He was on a bridge to Mexico years ago and a guy came up to him and said, “Give me five dollars and I'll cut myself.” We got a guy from the Rio Grande Valley, he was just some guy who tried out and Brando couldn't have done it better! The guy was terrific!
Quint: It seems like most of the movie was done on location...
Robert Duvall: All location. The movie was done in Brownsville. It was supposed to be done initially around Santa Fe, New Mexico to get better rebates. Someone should go around the corner and make these guys give better tax rebates for Texas! But they switched it to Brownsville, Texas. It was a blessing to be able to this whole movie on a little budget in Texas. I don't know how they did it. Usually you have to do part in Texas and part in another state, but it was all done there in Brownsville.
Quint: Even the Mexico section?
Emilio Aragon: Everything. Fantastic. The production designer, Barbara Haberecht, did a great job with what she had.
Quint: Well, it worked. I thought you shot in Mexico!
Robert Duvall: No. They invited us. They brought cabrito over, these nice ladies, and said “When are you coming to our restaurant?” I said, “I'm not going across the border to your restaurant!” In fact, one of the best restaurants came across the border because of youth gangs jeopardizing their whole business. It was too dangerous, so they brought their whole Mexican food over. As good of beef ribs as I've ever had, including in Argentina. In that Mexican restaurant that they brought across the border.
Emilio Aragon: Sundays were the only days we had off. I was touring, looking at the work of the production designers and their people and there was this guy painting a wall. This wall was, like, two blocks from the border. I said, “How's everything going? Everything okay?” He said, in Spanish, “Yeah, everything's okay... besides a bullet that hit over here.”
Robert Duvall: Matamoros was right after that, where that marine was imprisoned for four months. But it was a great location. I'll never forget, the mayor threw a wonderful brunch for everybody on the cast. It was terrific.
Quint: I take it then that you hired a lot of locals for the minor roles and crew.
Emilio Aragon: Almost everybody, yeah.
Robert Duvall: That wonderful girl... she was a big, beautiful Mexican woman that ran our hotel and they gave her a part of a hooker. They cut her out, but I told them you have to put that back in! She wanted to be an actress, but her husband always had to be on set because she was playing a whore. He was jealous! He was always there.
Quint: I love it when movies go on location and use the particular color of the region. One of my favorite movies of all time is Jaws and Spielberg did that to great success there.
Robert Duvall: Jaws. I turned down the lead in that movie.
Robert Duvall: Yeah. I wanted to play the other guy. I wanted to play the Portuguese fisherman, but I was too young.
Quint: You wanted the Robert Shaw role?
Robert Duvall: Yeah, but I was too young.
Quint: You were in talks to play Martin Brody, the police chief?
Robert Duvall: Yeah, the lead. We talked for, like, two hours, me and Spielberg. There's a lot of Portuguese (influence) up there, so I wanted to play (the Quint role) Portuguese, but I was too young.
Quint: That would have been something.
Robert Duvall: Yeah, but he (Shaw) ended up doing it well.
Quint: Haha, yeah, there's a lot of Irishman in his New England fisherman.
Robert Duvall: A critic for the Havana Daily Newspaper, a Communist newspaper, gave Spencer Tracy a terrible review for The Old Man and The Sea. Said he had the wide girth of an anglican trying to play a Cuban. But sometimes it works playing something foreign to yourself.
Quint: Oh, I think he's great in the film. That's one of my favorite performances in any movie, actually.
Robert Duvall: Jaws, that's something.
Quint: What are you guys up to next? Do you think you'd work together again?
Emilio Aragon: I would love to.
Robert Duvall: Accidents happen. Things that come around the corner surprise you more than you planned for sometimes. I'm trying to work on a project about the Texas Rangers. We'll see. It's easier to raise $100 million than $5 million. I worked with (Robert) Downey in a movie recently. We're going to do some pickup shots and the money they're spending for four days of pickup shots we could have done a whole movie with.
Quint: That's The Judge, right?
Robert Duvall: The Judge, yeah. Really smart script. He's a great guy to work with, Downey.
Quint: I've been lucky enough to have seen him work a little bit and he was always pushing himself. Every scene he was laser focused.
Robert Duvall: He listened to his lines. How do they do that, listen to their lines? Brando did that. I don't know how they do that.
After the interview was over the publicist was very earnestly trying to keep on schedule, but Mr. Duvall (he kept saying to call him Bobby, but I just couldn't) possibly taking my girth as a clue that I liked BBQ grilled me about the best places in and around Austin to get authentic smoked meats. I listed off my favorite places and Duvall said he tried Franklins, didn't care for it, and loved Smitty's in Lockhart. I mentioned Black's BBQ in Lockhart and said that was a must stop if he'd never been, especially for their sides and sausage.
I bring this up because I ended up going to Lockhart with a really good out-of-town friend two days later and who should I happen to see at Black's BBQ? Robert Duvall. The T-1000 also showed up, but that's neither here nor there. Life Achievement Unlocked: Recommend BBQ to Robert Duvall.
Hope you enjoyed the chat, folks. Still got plenty more in the pipeline. Stay tuned!
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