“Here was a man that not only had a brilliant mind and a wonderful wit, but could also sing.”
What can you say about Bob Roberts? It’s now been 30 years since that pivotal Pennsylvania Senate race, which pitted the tall, charming, folk-singing conservative challenger against the longtime Democratic Senator Brickley Paiste. Most people didn’t give Roberts much of a chance at the beginning of that campaign. Sure, he’d had success in the music industry and made a killing on Wall Street, but he lacked political experience. (Besides, Paiste’s constituents loved him.) Nevertheless, Roberts pulled off the upset, appealing to voters’ sense of outrage and disillusionment while attacking the social causes that had been the hallmark of the counterculture. (It probably also didn’t hurt that Roberts garnered a lot of last-minute sympathy after he barely escaped death when he was shot by an imbalanced fringe journalist, Bugs Raplin — although there were always rumors that the whole thing was staged and that Raplin was framed.)
During that 1990 campaign, Roberts positioned himself as a self-made man with a simple mission: “I wanted to be rich.” And that unapologetic greed, married to an utter disregard for the less-fortunate, was sweetened by sing-along songs like “Complain” and “My Land.” (Sample lyrics: “This land / Is my land / This land / Is our land / You gotta be proud to be / In the land of the free.”) It was the spirit of Dylan-era protest turned in on itself, with an entitled racist spewing Reaganomics through folk ditties. Roberts was shameless, but the electorate fell for it.
Of course, that’s all fiction. Done in a pseudo-documentary format, Bob Roberts was more Tanner ‘88 than This Is Spinal Tap, although its creator, Tim Robbins, has said that 1984 classic was partly an inspiration. When we think of mockumentaries, our mind goes to the work of Christopher Guest, who starred in Spinal Tap and later made Waiting for Guffman and Best in Show, popularizing an improvisational style of comedy that used the pretense of “nonfiction” to show how bizarre “normal” people are. But like Tanner ‘88, Robert Altman’s look at a struggling politician (Michael Murphy) mixing with actual politicians like Gary Hart, Bob Roberts uses the rawness and immediacy of documentaries to say something real about the corruption of Washington.
Robbins wasn’t yet 34 when Bob Roberts came out in September 1992, just a few months before Bill Clinton’s presidential victory. Born in Southern California but growing up in New York — his father Gil was a folk musician who managed the Gaslight Cafe, the club that helped launch acts like Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen — Robbins pursued acting as a young man, appearing on shows like St. Elsewhere, The Love Boat and Moonlighting, and films that ranged from Howard the Duck to Top Gun. Then, in the late 1980s, he was cast as part of the romantic triangle in the hit comedy Bull Durham, which boosted his visibility and where he met his former longtime romantic partner Susan Sarandon. All the while, Robbins was also devoting his energy to the Actors’ Gang, an envelope-pushing theater group that started in L.A. in 1981. (The founding artistic director, Robbins remains on the board of directors and continues to helm productions.) So although Bob Roberts was his feature directorial debut, he brought a wealth of experience as an actor, writer and director — not to mention a desire to speak truth to power that he learned from his dad. When Gil died in 2011, Robbins wrote, “His commitment to social justice was evident to us from an early age, as was his infectious mischievous sense of humor.”
In 1992, Bob Roberts felt major, part of a crop of artistic endeavors that seemed determined to end the Republican’s 12-year stranglehold on the Oval Office. (R.E.M.’s Automatic for the People, with its scathing anti-GOP song “Ignoreland,” arrived a month later, and the Rock the Vote campaign, encouraging young people to get involved in the political process, was all over MTV.) Despite good reviews, though, Bob Roberts brought in only a little more than $4 million at the U.S. box office. (By comparison, earlier that year, Robbins was the star of Altman’s comeback vehicle, The Player, a satire of Hollywood that grossed approximately $22 million.) Audiences just didn’t seem that interested in Roberts’ bid to unseat Paiste (played by Gore Vidal in a rare acting role) — or the implications of a smiling Republican candidate who may be involved in a secret overseas CIA drug-running scheme. (Spike Lee regular Giancarlo Esposito, long before his Emmy-nominated work on Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul, played Raplin, the paranoid independent journalist determined to bring Roberts down.)
Though ostensibly a comedy, the film doesn’t feel all that funny anymore — more like bitter reality. Roberts’ subversive use of folk music to celebrate GOP talking points now just seems like all the bad right-wing art you stumble upon online. (Although, to be fair to Robbins and his brother David, who co-wrote the songs, tunes like “Complain” and “Drugs Stink” are insidiously catchy, working as both satire and music.) And although it’s simplistic (and misleading) to say that the movie “predicted” Donald Trump — Roberts is several degrees more attractive and confident than our current president — the snide cruelty that powers Roberts’ agenda is all too apparent in Trump and his party. Watching Bob Roberts today, with Roberts angrily warning voters they’re being left behind, it’s clear it’s the same dog-whistling that carried Trump to the White House. Roberts’ song “Retake America” might as well be his version of “Make America Great Again.”
Robbins would go on to direct two more films, the Oscar-winning Dead Man Walking and the ambitious period piece Cradle Will Rock, and he’d earn the Best Supporting Actor prize for Clint Eastwood’s mournful crime drama Mystic River. (And yet it’s very possible he’s best known for The Shawshank Redemption, the 1994 prison tearjerker that went from being a commercial disappointment to a beloved favorite over time.) Robbins remains an outspoken activist and a busy artist, but Bob Roberts still feels like his defining statement, encapsulating his political beliefs and his creative aspirations in one amusing, upsetting package. Playing Bob Roberts, he’s as boyishly handsome as he was in Bull Durham and The Player, but there’s something deeply vacant about the character — no soul behind the photogenic appearance — that makes the character deeply unsettling. There is no there there in Bob Roberts, and the fact that voters didn’t care — and still don’t in our real-life elections — only adds more grim weight to the performance.
Initially, this piece was conceived as a potential Bob Roberts oral history, and I spoke to others also crucial to its making, including casting director Douglas Aibel, associate producer (and longtime Altman collaborator) Allan Nicholls and actress Rebecca Jenkins (who plays the one woman in Roberts’ male-driven inner circle). But after looking back at my conversations with Robbins — which went over two days, each session in late March lasting more than an hour — I realized that the story was really his relationship to this material, which started as a Saturday Night Live short in the mid-1980s and continues to the present, where the film is currently unavailable for streaming anywhere. Bob Roberts risks being forgotten. As far as Robbins is concerned, though, what he documented back then is still happening right now.
At times during our conversations, Robbins could be as incensed as Bugs, railing about the Iran-Contra scandal and calling our current leaders “sociopaths.” But that justified anger speaks to the passion that made Bob Roberts possible in the first place. Maybe that’s why at one point he tells me it’s okay if curious viewers illegally download the film. “I have no economic interest in this anymore,” he tells me. “Steal it. Steal this movie. Download it. Spread it yourselves.”
Before we get there, though, let’s talk about how the idea first came to him.
Bob Roberts is about a lot of things. But it all started out of frustration over gentrification.
I saw what had happened in the Village [in New York]. It’s a place I grew up — my dad was a folk singer, I knew that whole scene intimately. I hung out at the Gaslight [Cafe] when I was a child. But it seemed to me like a page had been turned [by the mid-1980s], and I was just trying to get my head around what that was. I saw not only the gentrification, but the franchises started popping up. David’s Cookies was the one I remember — it seemed a weird thing to have in the Village when you had all these great first-generation or immigrant Italians that had these little bakeries there. And McDonald’s had moved in before that.
I saw how that kind of venture capitalism that Ronald Reagan spearheaded and empowered had come to my little town — my little town being Greenwich Village. So my reaction was to create a yuppie folk singer.
Initially, though, he wasn’t a politician, just a businessman.
Something was happening with real estate, too. Of course, this happens with gentrification all the time — that arrogance of the new tenement owner or the new brownstone owner wanting to clean up all this stuff that’s in the neighborhood, which was the neighborhood. It was just fertile soil that was tilled in the early 1980s, and then it went into a whole bunch of crazy land-development schemes in the Giuliani administration. Our current president was involved with that, too.
I’d been living out in L.A., but I went back to New York around 1985 to do a movie called Five Corners and stayed in the Village. That’s when it all hit me. I had been gone for, like, five years. I wanted to shine a light on the particular brand of asshole that had moved into the Village.
Bob Roberts was first on Saturday Night Live in a short film you made that aired in December 1986.
Yeah, I talked to SNL about doing it, showed them a script, and they gave me a little bit of money to do it.
That short is hard to find. It’s not on YouTube, and it’s not even available on Peacock. I’ve never seen it.
Was the reaction to the short what made you decide to expand it into a feature?
The reaction was great, but I started wanting to expand it already. I wrote the [feature] script pretty soon after that. It took me about five years to set up the film.
Shifting Bob Roberts to an actual political candidate, was that inspired by any particular politician of the time?
It wasn’t the specific candidates, because I don’t even think we knew them yet. It was more the ethos of those parties. The deregulation of the airwaves had begun — people were getting these national licenses. In other words, a wealthy man could own radio stations all across the country. This gave rise to Rush Limbaugh and the regular, daily propaganda that started coming out of there.
I thought of [pairing] an unleashed, deregulated businessman Republican and an old-school Kennedy Democrat who had been in Washington so long that he had forgotten — or lost touch with — what the initial purpose of service was. [The Kennedy Democrat character] talks about having to be on the phone every day to raise money for the next election, so his main job is getting reelected and finding the money to do that. And in that system anyone is going to, inevitably, be compromised by the money that they receive, Democrat or Republican.
When you were writing the feature script, mockumentaries weren’t as big as they are now, although of course This Is Spinal Tap existed.
I was basing it on [D.A.] Pennebaker’s Don’t Look Back. That was the film that resonated most with me as far as a style and approach. Spinal Tap had come out already, so that mock-documentary form was there. But Spinal Tap and Don’t Look Back, they were the main influences.
Your dad being a folk singer, were you a Dylan guy growing up?
I was a big Dylan fan, and my whole artistic aesthetic was incubated in that scene and also the late-1960s theater that was happening off-off-Broadway — what they would call “experimental theater,” but it was just theater.
One of the film’s great conceits is that Bob co-opts folk music — an art form of liberal protest — and writes conservative anthems.
Appropriation of culture, it’s nothing new, it happens all the time. I remember when Ronald Reagan was running [in 1984] and he was playing “Born in the U.S.A.” at his rallies. The total lack of understanding of what that song was about and the idea that a politician would appropriate something like that — it’s an anti-war song — that’s where that [idea] came from.
When you were writing the script, did you ever think about another actor playing Bob?
I knew I had to do it because it was the way I raised the money for the movie.
This gets into your performance, which I think is one of your best. This guy is incredibly charismatic in some ways, but there’s a mask on that character. In terms of actually playing him, how did you approach who Bob was in the world?
That’s interesting because directing it, I didn’t really have the luxury of that kind of approach as an actor. It was pretty much all instinctual. I knew that I had to know it like the back of my hand. I knew that there’d be no time to rehearse. There was no time and no money to figure it out on the set.
So, the way I approached it was as someone that’s in the public eye and someone that is talented and charming and has used that talent and charm to gain success in the music industry. But at the same time, it’s a manipulation, it’s using the form. It’s subverting a form to spread a message that’s completely antithetical to what the whole folk-music movement was about. In essence, he’s a thief — it’s a theft of culture — and so he’s a fraud. He’s a fraud, as are most people in public service that are in public service for selfish reasons and for personal gain.
Politicians are very good at keeping a [charming] public face. It felt like there was the mask [for] the public Bob Roberts, and then there was the real person. When I was talking about the film to all the designers and cinematographer, [I said], “There’s got to be, maybe, two moments in the entire film where you see the real Bob Roberts.” There’s the moment when he’s being hounded by the journalist backstage at the beauty pageant — the camera goes down, and he thinks it’s off and he loses his shit. And there’s the moment at the end when his foot is tapping [when he’s supposed to be pretending that he’s paralyzed after the faked assassination attempt]. That’s where you see the real person.
During the years it took to get financing, I’m guessing you got a lot of rejection in the form of “Political films don’t do well.”
Oh, “Satires don’t sell,” all that stuff. It was nearly impossible to get that made, and I don’t think I’d ever get it made now. Listen, I can’t explain or figure out the arbitrary system that people decide whether to make a film or not. When you see what’s financed, you just wonder sometimes if there is any rhyme or reason. But in this particular instance, it was, as a first-time filmmaker, I hadn’t proven myself as a director or writer. But I had some cachet as an actor, and I could use that leverage to try to get people interested to allow me to do my first film.
Even then when I got financing, though, the rules changed in the middle of it. We’re doing pre-production in Pittsburgh, and I get a call from the financier: “We’re not releasing the money until you get another star.” And so, two weeks before we’re about to start, I had to scramble and make phone calls. Even though I had all these cameos lined up from John Cusack to Susan [Sarandon] to Fred Ward to James Spader to Helen Hunt [to play newscasters], it didn’t matter. They wanted someone that was in the film.
And that’s when you got Alan Rickman to play Lukas, Bob’s sinister campaign manager.
Alan Rickman really saved my ass. The film was made because of Alan Rickman — because he came in at the last moment and said, “I like this.” It’s not a great part for him, and he was riding pretty high at that point on the Die Hard success, but he saved the film. He came in and committed, I think, the two weeks before we were to start.
Did you know Rickman before that?
I knew him through Susan. He had done a movie up in Toronto with Susan so I had met him, hung out, really loved him. And so I reached out to him.
I’m always curious about situations like that. Is it one of those things where you say, “No pressure, but the movie isn’t going to happen unless you’re in it”?
“Help!” [Laughs] I forget exactly, but something like that, I guess. “We’re doing this movie, we’re in pre-production. I need to get another actor in. I’d love it if you could consider doing it.” I don’t believe I would’ve said, “If you don’t do it, it doesn’t get made.” I was just reaching out hoping at that point.
You had four weeks to shoot Bob Roberts, which isn’t a lot of time. And it’s your first feature as a director. How did you get into the mindset of taking that on?
In a lot of ways, The Player was my film school. Working with Altman right before I directed my first film was a real gift because I would watch him very carefully through pre-production and [see] how Bob dealt with things. I was a big fan of his, a huge fan. I mean, when I saw Nashville, that was a film that I would want to make. It was the first film I saw that made me believe in the power of cinema.
Still, directing your first film is a lot of pressure.
Well, I had a healthy amount of terror going in. But I had a good team, and I had done a lot of prep. I had sketched out a lot of shots, and we’d talked a lot in pre-production about how it would be shot. I knew that I didn’t have the luxury of time to go to the monitor and check everything. I knew that I had to have the confidence in my performance as an actor to move on, because otherwise I would have gotten bogged down. So it was a lesson in uber-confidence. Knowing I had to make my day every day — I couldn’t get behind schedule, because there was absolutely no money to do that.
How old was I when I did that? [Ed. note: He was in his early 30s.] In 1991, I had already been directing for 15 years at that point — started in high school, and then started the Actors’ Gang in college and been directing and writing with them for years at that point. I had already done four original plays, and that’s a good crucible to learn in, because the way we would work, we would go in with a draft of the script and the Actors’ Gang would workshop it. Then, myself — or myself and my writing partner — would go home that night and rewrite. Then we’d come in the next day with a new script, and we’d see how that went. Then we’d go home that night and rewrite. I had almost like a television writer’s training, where nothing is sacred — if it’s not working now, it means something’s got to change. You can’t point fingers and say, “If the actor would say it in a different way…” No, it’s just something is wrong. There’s no fault, there’s no blame — it’s just whatever is not working right now. I learned very early on I couldn’t be sacred with anything I’d written, and that the proof was in the laughter or the reaction — and that is what works.
But the fact that Bob Roberts is presented as a documentary, did that free you up? There could be little mistakes because cinéma vérité is meant to be a little rough technically.
Yes, but you can have the documentary boom guy have his boom in the shot, but you can’t get your boom in the shot. [Laughs] If you fuck up a line and it sounds like a fuck-up, you got to do it again. Not everything had to be perfect and could look a little rough, that is true, but it still had to be meticulously planned. We had to go with the idea that for the complicated shots, a little extra rehearsal is worth it so that you’re nailing it every time you do it.
How did Giancarlo Esposito get involved?
He’s so great. Yeah, it was through [casting director] Doug Aibel is how I met him. It was an audition.
How much did that character of Bugs Raplin develop from the script to his performance? I guess I’m curious what Esposito brought to the role.
Well, he brought his special talent. It was very important for me that there be something unsettling about the character. I didn’t want him to be the knight in shining armor. I wanted him to be one of these people that does this embedded investigative journalism and gets so deep into it that they’re living a dangerous life. When you’re one of those rare, courageous journalists, it can get under your skin and fuck with your sense of reality. When you’re screaming the truth, and everyone’s saying, “You’re making a big deal out of nothing” — or “That’s not true” or “You’re a conspiracy theorist” or “You’re crazy, you’re a lunatic” — that’s a difficult road.
[Raplin is] modeled after a few journalists that I was aware of at the time that had been working the Iran-Contra scandal. Like the journalist from the San Jose Mercury News, Gary Webb. He was an investigative journalist, and he was doing a deep dive into the Contras and wound up dying, they said, from a suicide. But he had uncovered a connection between the crack cocaine epidemic in South Central Los Angeles and the drug-running that was going on. That’s a whole other realm of this movie that bears looking at — we have a way of moving past what, in my opinion, was a monumental exposure of corruption, complicity and illegality that we shouldn’t have forgotten. I mean, how many people really remember that whole scandal?
It’s funny: I wonder if anyone who sees Bob Roberts now knows what Iran-Contra was. I guess one of the reasons that I wanted to include that was because, for me, it was a chapter that wasn’t closed. It didn’t end with Oliver North being all righteous in front of Congress with his full uniform on. It didn’t end for me there. A lot of people didn’t accept responsibility in that situation and walked away scot-free. So I wanted to bring it up again in the film.
Casting Gore Vidal to play the aging Democratic Senator Brickley Paiste was an inspired pick. But he’s not someone who did a lot of acting. Was he your first choice?
Yes, I had met Gore through Susan and loved him — I thought he was the perfect person to do it. He read the script and loved it and was in right away.
People always remember Paiste’s sort of monologue that he does near the end of Bob Roberts in which he laments where America is heading. And that wasn’t scripted, right? You just had him improvise that.
There was one day that I went up to my production designer early in the day, and I said, “Listen, we don’t have this on the schedule, and I officially can’t shoot this, but I want to do an extra shot today. I need a desk, and I need some dressing to make it look like it’s Brickley Paiste’s office. We’re just going to sit Gore down, and we’re going to talk to him.” I talked to Gore and said, “Listen, here’s the deal: You just lost the election. I want you to talk about that, and I want you to talk about Bob Roberts.” Gore used to do this State of the Union, so I said, “I want you just to talk freely about what is wrong with the culture in Washington and the country itself as someone that no longer has to be politic, no longer has to worry about getting elected. Just let it go, unleash.” And we sat down and got those interviews with him in less than an hour, just snuck it in.
Bob Roberts is clear that Paiste is a better option than Bob. But I wondered if you had reservations about that character, too. Maybe he’s been in the job too long? Maybe he’s corrupt in his own way?
Well, I’d rather have him than Bob Roberts. [Paiste] was the last vestige of a New Deal Democrat. They were already dying out, and that nobility was exiting. The idea that the reason why [politicians were] doing this is in service of the country and the people — you could tell the tide had turned on that at that time. [After] eight years of Reagan, that was pretty much out the window.
I think Reagan’s whole agenda was to get rid of any programs from the New Deal. He wasn’t able to do it in his term, but Clinton sure helped that. We’re still in the struggle to keep Social Security going, unemployment insurance, workers’ rights.
The most obvious Don’t Look Back reference in Bob Roberts is the video for “Wall Street Rap,” which is an homage to “Subterranean Homesick Blues.”
I just remember in pre-production saying, “I want [the dancers] to look like those women in that video where they’ve got white shirts and black skirts.”
Oh, Robert Palmer’s “Addicted to Love.”
Yeah, “Addicted to Love.” [That was the inspiration] for the costumes. We just shot that in like an hour and a half. It was pre-choreographed, and then we did like a half-hour rehearsal, and then we just shot it.
The movie is so well known for its folks songs that you and your brother wrote. Did that process start with “Let’s write a song about this particular topic because Bob Roberts would sing about that?”
Some of them came from folk songs. “What Did the Teacher Tell You” is based on a Tom Paxton song. “My Land” is obviously Woody Guthrie. Then there were songs that were manifestations of some of the policies that were going around at the time — “Drugs Stink” and “Complain” — that started with lyrics, and then my brother brought the music to those. “Beautiful Girl” isn’t really a folk song — it’s more like a Vic Damone song that you sing at a telethon or a beauty pageant. “She’s a beautiful girl / As pretty as a picture…” You know, shitty lyrics. But “Drugs Stink” was about the War on Drugs. “Complain” was about this idea that, somehow, welfare mothers are the problem in society — people living off our tax dollars, lazy, and they just want to stay at home and watch television, not work. All that rhetoric was around at the time, so it was just a way of addressing that.
I’ve always heard that you insisted that there be no soundtrack album because you didn’t want these songs out in the world being misinterpreted (or used by right-wing politicians). How much of a fight was that?
I had to put my foot down on that one. But I got really lucky. I brought [Bob Roberts] to Cannes in 1992. I was in The Player at Cannes [that year], too. Between The Player and Bob Roberts, I had quite a good experience at Cannes — a lot of press, a lot of excitement. So I was able to negotiate a distribution deal [for Bob Roberts] with complete autonomy.
There was pressure not only about the soundtrack but also about the film itself. Miramax had picked it up at Cannes in a distribution deal with Paramount, and I can’t tell you how many phone calls I got from Harvey Weinstein trying to get me to cut this or cut that, change this or change that. But I had final cut — I had autonomy, and I knew the film already worked, and I wasn’t interested in Harvey’s ideas. It was a summer of fighting back [against] that stuff, probably to the detriment of the distribution of the film. But I instinctually knew the film was good the way it was. I was a young stubborn man that wasn’t going to be bullied by someone like Harvey Weinstein.
Along those lines, you always intended for Bob Roberts to come out before the 1992 presidential election?
Back then, it just wasn’t that common to release “political” films right around an election.
Well, they’re reluctant to put out political things 24/7/365. But there was an awful lot of attention that [Bob Roberts] got in Cannes and subsequently through the summer — a lot of magazine covers, a lot of attention. I’d be interested to find out what happened with the distribution of it. I remember at the time my grandfather giving me reports on his local theater — they had it for a week, and then it was gone. I’ve never found out [what happened].
I remember seeing Bob Roberts when it came out. It seemed like it was going to be a big deal… and then it just wasn’t.
Yeah, which was disheartening. I’d been really working hard to publicize it. I’d been doing tons of press, which is my end of the bargain, I believe. But something I’ve learned over the years: The quality of the film doesn’t matter. It’s the belief in the film in about two or three individuals — and whether they’re going to dedicate their resources to its release or not. If they love the film, and they want it to be out there, it will be out there. If they’re embarrassed by the film, but they spent $80 million on it, it will be out there — they will create a market for it. It’s not brain surgery — it’s simple economics. You put your resources into releasing something — you go 100 percent into it — it will be out there, and it will get seen. So it really begs the question: When a movie doesn’t get that kind of release, who is responsible for that? Who made that decision? It’s an economic decision.
It could have been that I didn’t kiss Harvey Weinstein’s ass and make some changes and make him feel like he is a brilliant editor. Or it could’ve been someone else, Paramount, that didn’t like the film. It could have been an interview, after Bill Clinton was playing the saxophone, where I said, “Well, there’s elements of Bob Roberts in Bill Clinton, too.” It could have been any number of things. It could have been that the studio just bought another film they were more interested in.
It’s all so arbitrary. I learned very early on — actually it was on [the 1990 horror flop] Jacob’s Ladder — that economic success of a film has absolutely nothing to do with whether it’s a film of quality that will stand the test of time. We saw that with Shawshank, saw that with Jacob’s Ladder. Jacob’s Ladder came out at exactly the wrong time — that was a film about a Vietnam veteran suffering from the effects of a drug that was given to him by the military, and it came out, I think, three weeks before we invaded Kuwait. Jacob’s Ladder was released into the anti-zeitgeist — it was the opposite of zeitgeist. “We don’t want to see this film right now. The national psyche cannot take it.”
On the commentary track you did for the Bob Roberts DVD years ago, you mention that you’re glad the movie will have another chance to find an audience since it didn’t in theaters. Well, Bob Roberts is currently not available anywhere streaming. I had to buy a used DVD off Amazon. You can’t even rent it off Netflix’s old mail-in service. It’s like the movie doesn’t exist.
It’s something that I had a huge fear of when I saw how Netflix and streaming services were becoming the arbiters of culture. They decide what is going to be on the menu of movies. They decide the culture. Like you say, it’s hard to find that film right now. Who’s making that decision? In this case, it’s for posterity, too — it’s history. It’s “What films will make it as cultural touchstones? What films will be seen in the future?” If someone decides that they don’t like the film or they don’t like me — and they decide that they will not have it on their platform — that’s one person’s decision. It’s the same as releasing the film — it’s up to a couple people whether you’re going to see the film or not. Even if that person hires a whole staff of people that would be the cultural arbiters, no small group of people can represent the wide variety of interests that an audience has. But by making these decisions, they are becoming the curators of culture.
They have the power to decide what movies are part of the conversation and which aren’t.
With the last presidential election, I had my representatives calling Netflix. I’d reached out myself: “Can you please release this onto the platform? It’s very relevant right now.” I think they released it around November 1st, which is a little late in the game to be releasing that. They left it up for a couple months, and then it went away again.
Is it horrible for me to just say to the public, “I have no economic interest in this anymore. Steal it. Steal this movie. Download it. Spread it yourselves”? That’s ultimately going to be the future — there’ll be pieces of culture that make it through despite the decision of the cultural gatekeepers.
Did you ever read the book The Swerve?
No, I didn’t.
It’s a great book about On the Nature of Things, [written by] Lucretius, who was a writer who believed in Epicureanism — not the definition of the word we know today, but related. Epicureanism [believed] that one should live their life in the pursuit of pleasure and avoidance of pain. It wasn’t a religion — it wasn’t a form of government. It was a philosophy that said it wasn’t advocating hedonism. It was advocating the idea that there is incredible pleasure to be had in the simplest things in life, in nature, in the whole idea of human contact. If the pain that you’re [experiencing] is a job that’s killing you — or a relationship that’s killing you, or a boss that’s killing you — your objective in life is to avoid situations like that. It’s a very simple basis of a philosophy.
Anyway, this philosophy was written in the form of this beautiful, longform epic poem by this guy named Lucretius. And when Christianity came into being, they were crushing things like this — they were burning these books. They viewed Epicureanism as a threat because it’s a different philosophy. So they started to eliminate all signs of this philosophy. In essence, they became forbidden pieces of culture. And the only reason we have this book today is because there were monks who took it upon themselves to smuggle these books out of Rome and out of Athens, and travel them up into Germany to monasteries where they had rooms filled with books from antiquity to preserve them. The monks [thought], “We might not agree with this, this might not be our religion, but it is a philosophy born in the mind of man and therefore inspired by God — and therefore we have to allow its existence, because if it isn’t true, we should be able to argue against it.” That belief caused hundreds of monks to take it upon themselves to prolong these stories that were told.
Well, someone found this book in the 15th century and brought it back to Florence, and it started becoming recirculated again. By the time that the American Revolution happened, this book was prominent. Jefferson had three copies of On the Nature of Things in his library at Monticello. In the Declaration of Independence, [we talk about] “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” — the “pursuit of happiness” is directly from Epicureanism.
[Laughs] I’m certainly not comparing Bob Roberts with On the Nature of Things. But I’m saying that there is a reason why certain cultural expressions are encouraged and promoted and advertised and marketed, and there are reasons why there are certain cultural expressions that are either ignored or suppressed.
The idea of casting well-known actors to play the anchors — essentially having famous stars deliver this inane news chatter — sorta speaks to this notion, within the movie itself, of how we as a society decide what’s important and what’s not.
Someone will do a study on this someday in the future, and then we’ll talk about the brilliance of the propaganda that has happened in this country over the last 30, 40 years. To take it from a social democracy inspired by FDR and the New Deal into an out-of-control capitalist oligarchy…
We might not have a complete perspective on this yet, but it’s been very clear that the agenda for the right-wing in particular — but for both political parties, to some extent — has been to get away from the New Deal and into neoliberalism. And we see the results of it right now — it’s been becoming incredibly dark and obvious in the way that this whole [COVID] crisis is going down.
We’re dealing with sociopaths, and we have been for the past 30, 40 years. People with direct knowledge that their actions are causing irreparable harm throughout the world environmentally, yet still continue those actions for their own profit: That is sociopathic behavior. When you know you’re killing something — and you use rationales like “stockholders” or “my employees” — and the environmental destruction gets worse and worse and you’re profiting from it, you’re a sociopath. We’ve got to start using that word, because that word aptly, distinctly describes the behavior of people that value profit over human lives. [They] willfully continue this behavior, despite the evidence of science, despite the evidence of global warming.
And you can apply this to many sectors of our society. When you know a child is going to starve because you’re cutting a free lunch program at schools — you know that a kid is going to be malnutritioned — you’re a sociopath. When you say, “We’re going to give $500 billion to our donors and our rich, connected business associates in the middle of this coronavirus crisis,” you’re a sociopath. When you’re denying health care to people — when you say there has to be an economic, competitive environment for the health-care industry and the insurance industry — when you support that and you know that people will die because [they’re] not able to afford fucking insulin, you’re a sociopath.
I guess Bob Roberts, I always viewed him as a sociopath. I always viewed him as a very dangerous person because he’s able to flip that facade of patriotism and Christianity and charm on its face. But in his heart, he’s a criminal. He’s a sociopath.
The issues you’re talking about, they’re in Bob Roberts and they haven’t gone away. If anything, they’re worse. How does it feel to be right?
It doesn’t feel good. I fell in love with movies in the 1970s. That was a mistake. [The 1970s were] an anomaly — Hollywood studios were going under, and they didn’t know what to do. Television had kind of destroyed them — [Hollywood was] trying to recreate past glory by doing shitty musicals. But then Easy Rider came along, and it’s a huge hit, so the studios throw up their hands and say, “Hey, they must know what’s going on — let’s get the hippies to do some films.” And that’s how we got Coppola, and that’s how we got Scorsese, and that’s how we got Pakula, and that’s how we got Brian De Palma — this incredible freedom of storytelling that happened. It was about movies that mattered, and that was inspiring to me as a young man to see.
A movie could ask vital questions and make you think and make you reexamine your own priorities and shift your worldview. That’s the power of art — and why was it powerful? Why was it able to do that? Well, because the creators of those [films] had freedom. They had autonomy. That doesn’t exist anymore. The thing I faced with Harvey — “If you want to cooperate, we’ll work with you and get this thing out. If you want to be an artist, you can go fuck yourself when this movie comes out — that didn’t exist in the 1970s. And that’s why those films resonate so beautifully.
If people have never seen Bob Roberts, what might shock them is they get to see a very young Jack Black play a deeply disturbed Bob Roberts fan.
I first met Jack when he was 12 years old. He auditioned for a play I had written called Inside Eddie Binstock — I cast him as the understudy for the kid that I cast, so he got to do the play a few times. I knew right away he was super-talented. Then he started gravitating toward the Actors’ Gang — I remember him being still in high school and wanting to hang out with us and we were doing illegal things. [Laughs] I was like, “I didn’t want the kid around!”
But when he came of age, he started doing plays with us, and I cast him in a play called Carnage, a comedy about televangelism. He played a character called Opie, this young, enthusiastic singer on a Christian television show. He was brilliant — and a great singer, too. He had a song in the play, and then the rest is history. He became a full-on member of the Gang. Actually, [Black’s Tenacious D bandmate] Kyle Gass was in Carnage, so [that was] their first meeting.
You have brought the Bob Roberts character back a few times since the movie. He appeared at a Ralph Nader rally in 2000. He was part of the Vote for Change tour in 2004 — you performed as part of Gob Roberts, a punk band playing the Bob Roberts song. And right after the movie came out, you were on SNL as the character. How do you decide when it’s okay to bring him back?
It’s random and arbitrary, and three times is enough.
It’s tempting to wonder what Bob would be up to now.
I’m not going to call it a sequel because it’s not Bob Roberts, but it’s a next chapter in this character to some extent. His name is… well, I’m not going to say his name, but he’s kind of a hybrid of Bob Roberts and Ubu Roi. Ubu the King is a character from a play by Alfred Jarry, written in 1904. The first performance, the audience tore up the seats of the theater and threw them on the stage at the actors. It’s a pretty infamous use of theatrical art and the first play the Actors’ Gang ever did. As I’ve been witnessing the degradation and cruelty of this administration, I keep thinking about Ubu. He’s an unleashed, uncontrolled id of a man. [Ed. note: On October 8th, Robbins released Bobbo Supreme, a satirical podcast series he’s referred to as “a fever dream in five episodes. Bob Roberts meets Ubu Roi.”]
The movie’s end credits end with one large word on the screen: “Vote.” How important do you still think voting is?
I believe we have to go back to a paper ballot. And we should have ranked-choice elections. The system has been strangled through voter suppression and gerrymandering — we don’t have a government that represents the majority of the people in this country, and that’s becoming clearer and clearer to more and more people.
When a certain faction of the country understands that it will be in a minority in 10 years — and then their agenda is gerrymandering and voter suppression — it should be pretty clear to everybody what’s going on. These people don’t want fair elections — because in a fair election, none of these people have their job. You make a whole bunch of noise about emotional issues and how you are the morally upstanding candidate, but you also vote on the side of pharmaceutical corporations, the health-care industry, the side of private funding for private prisons, you’re not going to win the election if people know that. So you’ve got to figure out a way that you can create wedge issues that get people all pissed off — abortion, “they’re going to steal your guns” — but, truth is, they’re not representing the best interests of the people.
Should we vote? Yes, of course, we should vote. How much of a difference it’s going to make is really going to depend on a massive shift in consciousness. I’m talking about a real change in the way that we not only receive information, but how we act on that information. Taking a more active role in our survival. The COVID crisis is putting this all into perspective for us — it’s showing us what a government can do with its resources, if there is a need for it. It’s showing us the true character of business leaders. It’s exposing the cruelty of the capitalist system and the need for universal health care. People can either have a massive shift in consciousness, or after this is all over, we go back to the way things were. This is an opportunity for us to really reassess and really think about what our own priorities are in life.
Over those end credits, we hear Woody Guthrie’s “I’ve Got to Know,” which feels like an antidote to the faux-folk that Bob has been peddling throughout the movie. It wasn’t a well-known song of his — you’d heard a cover and found out it was a Guthrie tune.
I contacted the Woody Guthrie estate [to ask about the rights], and I screened the film for Nora Guthrie, his daughter. I remember very clearly she didn’t say much when she walked in, but at the end, she had tears in her eyes. She said, “I wasn’t going to tell you this unless I liked the film, but just last week I was going through Woody’s archives, and he’s got hundreds of reel-to-reel tapes.” For some reason, she pulled down a reel-to-reel tape of Woody singing that song into a tape recorder in some hotel room somewhere, and it was the full version of the song. It had never been released or heard by anyone, and she said, “It’s yours. It belongs in this film.”
That must have been a great feeling. It makes all the work you poured into the film worth it.
That was just one of those moments that was so… I’ve been a very lucky man. I’ve been able to meet heroes or relatives of people that were inspirations to me. To just have them acknowledge the work I’m doing and see me for what I am, it’s very moving to me.
I often get asked the question, “Do you feel like your activism has hurt your career?” I’ve been asked that question so many times I have to assume there’s some truth in it. [Laughs] But my answer always has been and shall continue to be, “If I hadn’t done that stuff, I wouldn’t be able to live with myself — and I wouldn’t have met extraordinary people I’ve met in my life that have informed my past, my present and my future.” I’ve been able to show my work to all kinds of people that I would then be able to learn from: Altman, Nelson Mandela, Paul Newman, Harry Belafonte, Bruce Springsteen, people that have been inspirations to me, mentors to me from afar. That’s far more essential to me than having enough money to buy an airplane.