The Sum of All Fears
A Conversation with Phil Alden Robinson

interview by Dan Lybarger, 31 May 2002

Phil Alden Robinson would seem an odd choice to direct an adaptation of Tom Clancy's pro-establishment espionage thriller The Sum of All Fears. In his last theatrical movie, Sneakers, his computer hacker heroes bankrupt the Republican Party. He also wrote the Steve Martin comedy All of Me and adapted and directed the baseball fantasy Field of Dreams (earning a Best Adapted Screenplay Academy Award nomination), all of which were far lighter in tone than his present offering.

That's not to say he can't handle weighty subjects. In addition to being a former broadcast journalist, he helmed the debut episode of the HBO World War II drama Band of Brothers and won a Writers Guild of America WGA TV award for co-writing the script for the TNT civil rights drama Freedom Song, which he also directed.

The Sum of All Fears features Ben Affleck (Changing Lanes) as Clancy's heroic spy Jack Ryan. Affleck is taking the formidable role after Alec Baldwin and Harrison Ford have each made their mark with the character. In this outing, a much younger Ryan tries to discover why Russian nuclear scientists have turned up missing.

Like his constantly stressed hero, Robinson has not had much of a break lately. After completing the grueling schedule of post-production on the film, Robinson arrived in Kansas City for a roundtable interview as part of whistle stop tour to plug The Sum of All Fears. Despite the fact that his flight had arrived at three a.m. that morning, Robinson seemed not only alert but eager to talk about making a movie that only a short time ago might have been dismissed as a paranoid fantasy.

Dan Lybarger: How long have you been with this project?

Phil Alden Robinson: I actually came on late. I came on in August or September of 2000. Ben [Affleck] was already on board. They had been trying to develop this for a long time.

DL: Having the younger Ben Affleck as Jack Ryan is really interesting change because he's in over his head.

PAR: That's the key to the whole franchise to me. There's a moment in the first film, The Hunt for Red October, that I used when I went to the studio. I said, "Here's what this ought to be. You remember Alec Baldwin dangling from a helicopter in a storm in the North Atlantic banging against the submarine saying, 'I should have sent a memo.' Let's make that movie." [laughs].

I was always trying to make [Jack Ryan] in over his head. That's why he's awkward when he meets the boss (Morgan Freeman). The first time he meets Morgan,  he [Freeman] comments on his [Ryan's] clothes. The second time, they're together on the airplane, Ben is all dressed up, and Morgan's dressed casually. I always wanted to show [Ryan] not quite being in step.

That's part of the fun of having the guy be young. Let's embrace the fact that he's young. Let him have a girlfriend instead of a wife. He hasn't told his girlfriend where he works [the CIA]. We really had some fun with that stuff. By the time the action happens, you think, "This is not your average action hero." This is a guy you worry about getting into a fight.

The studio, in a really smart decision, said let's not try to get some pale imitation of Harrison [Ford] be cause he won't do as well as Harrison. Ford did a great version of that Jack Ryan. Also, in the books, Jack Ryan is not only getting older, but he's getting higher up in the bureaucracy and becomes President in the next book or two. How many action films can you make with that guy?

As a result of this film, I think the next Clancy book is going to be about a young Jack Ryan.

With this film, we just decided to say screw the timeline and pretend that the other films didn't exist. We set in current day, and he's twenty-eight years old. It really threw a lot of people on-line. I'm sure you remember.

DL: Yeah, because Jeffrey Wells's column at was initially critical.

PAR: Did you read his subsequent column? That was the best example. Wells was completely opposed till he read the script and saw what our plan was. Just last week, on Ain't It Cool News, Harry Knowles and one of the other regulars gave the raves of all times.

DL: This seems in tone a one-eighty degree turn from Sneakers. If Affleck makes too many mistakes, millions could die.

PAR: The stakes are much higher in this, and it's a more of a real-world movie. Sneakers is by its nature a caper film, which is as much about movies as it is about the real world. The Sum of All Fears was always intended to be about the world we live in.

DL: Speaking of the real world, has this movie been delayed because of 9-11?

PAR: It was always intended to come out (now). In fact, when I came on board in August of 2000, they said, "This is a Summer-of-2002 picture."

DL: There are some jokes reminiscent of your earlier movies like In the Mood, particularly the not-too-subtle potshots at Boris Yeltsin. How did you balance the humor with the serious nature of the material?

PAR: I've always been a firm believer that movies should be funnier than you think they're going to be. You have to when laughter will be appropriate. In this case, that's the first half of the film. If the humor is honest and comes from character, I think you're O.K. We had really adept actors. [The humor] was in the script. Paul Attanasio and Dan Pyne wrote a great script. As long as you're being true, you can't go wrong.

In the editing room, we cut a bit out of the last half because I thought there were one too many [jokes]. It's a balancing act.

DL: You have Baltimore blown to bits, but…

PAR: It's actually a very small part of the outskirts of Baltimore. Baltimore survives.

DL: With a lot of films on this subject, like The Day After and others, the filmmakers would have concentrated on the destruction, whereas you trusted your audience to interpret from a few scenes and spent more time chasing the villains.

PAR: The movie for me was always more about the response to terrorism, not about the terrorism [itself]. When we first started talking it, I said there's a real restraint shown in depicting violence. I don't have the need as a filmgoer to see it up close and as a filmmaker I have even less of a need to show it.

I don't want to show the football stadium disappearing a blinding flash or a fireball or a mushroom cloud. I want to see the shockwave miles away as it affects characters we've got to know. We'll refer to the damage, but we did it in long shots. We were very careful to show the [nuclear] cloud on one side of the background, and there's lots of tall buildings on the other side.

That shot with the football stadium is actually a CGI (computer generated image) in a real aerial shot of Baltimore. We put it as far away from downtown Baltimore as we could. Then we put a voiceover of a TV announcer saying the blast radius was about a quarter of a mile.

As you said, the audience has to connect some of the dots. The big question was how do you show it? I just thought a little of that stuff goes a long, long way. We're asking the audience to take kind of a difficult concept. Let's not rub their noses in gore. We don't show anybody dead in the blast. We see the aftermath in a wide shot.

DL: Did you avoid using real NFL team names during the football scenes intentionally?

PAR: It was intentional on the NFL's part.  They have a policy [against it]. I think Oliver [Stone] wasn't able to use team names either. It didn't have to do with the content of our film. They just have a blanket policy.

In fact, I wanted to get a star to sing the National Anthem, a real famous person. The studio said, "Please don't do that. It'll be too close to reality." At the time I thought, "Oh, come on! I want Ray Charles, or somebody like that." They said, "No. You can't kill Ray Charles!" You know, in the end, I think they were probably right.

DL: When Stanley Kubrick was making Dr. Strangelove, he said he was bothered by the way that in other people's movies, world leaders have cool heads when nuclear crises occur, so his leaders were quite nervous. The leaders in your movie are equally stressed.

PAR: And if they're not calm, they're distraught in a focused way. Kubrick is the best who ever lived.

I have to believe that's what goes on behind closed doors. Once in a while, the President's emotions must get the best of him. Clancy once said, "If you put the leaders of a country in a room and tell them the decisions they make might lead to blowing up the world, only a sociopath would not have an emotional reaction." The most reasonable people in the world, by virtue of their reason, are going to be emotional and distraught and kind of at wit's end at some point.

I thought, "I've never seen that in a movie." We really worked hard on that. For the first scene where the President is getting on Air Force One, I said to the cast, "I'm not going to give you marks. I'm not going to tell you where to go. You just get on the plane and find your own place. Don't wait for the previous guy to start his line. Step on the line before he finishes. If somebody is stepping on your line, talk over them." I said to the camera operators, "Don't watch the rehearsals." For every take that we did, I moved the camera operators into different positions, so that they never fell into a routine of, "If this guy moves here, I can swing here."

In the middle of the rehearsals, I wanted to see how intense the chaos was, and it was pretty good. Ron Rifkin, who was playing the Secretary of State, stopped doing his lines and said, "I can't get this f*cking chair to open!" I said, "Ron, that is great!" He said, "No, I'm sorry." I said, "No, don't bother. Use it. Do it in every take." You never see that in a movie, in the middle of a serious discussion of nuclear war, where someone is frustrated by the chair. That was the most honest thing. We were really for all of that kind of reality.

At the first test screening, in the focus group, some people in the audience didn't like that scene. The facilitator asked them why not. They said, "The President is nervous, and we want him to remain calm." It wasn't that they didn't like the scene. They just didn't like the thought that these guys are human. It scared them.

DL: Have you met with Clancy?

PAR: I still haven't met with him. I talked with him on the phone several times at great length. He was very generous with his time, and he can talk. He knows a lot of things about a lot of things.

He had some suggestions and some criticisms, and we did a bunch of them. I'm going to meet him in two weeks. We're going to be watching the premiere in Washington.

Ben actually went down to see him. He flew down to Baltimore when he was offered the job to go talk to Clancy, to get his blessing, to ask about Jack Ryan and to get Clancy's advice. They hit it off pretty well.

DL: The characters seem a bit more human than the ones in the Bond flicks.

PAR: I think these things—I don't mean the Clancy films, I mean action films—aren't usually smart. They're usually not about interesting characters, so when you give the audience that, there's something great about that. The audience is always smarter than we give them credit for. They're always more capable of assimilating complex thoughts.

DL: What do you think of the trailer? Doesn't it give away a bit too much?

PAR: [Sighs and shrugs his shoulders] I lost the argument. I asked them not to show any [of those scenes] in the trailer, and they actually precede those shots with the lines [that give away the story], which just drove me crazy.

It's a very, very, very capable marketing department. They know what they're doing. My problem is that I think it affects the experience of seeing the movie.

The example they kept giving me was, "That shot of the tidal wave in Deep Impact hitting New York really drove them into the theater." It gave away that surprise.

DL: That could be a problem, too because your movie isn't promising the Apocalypse on screen.

PAR: I like the marketing people; they're nice to be around. But I didn't like the poster [which features Affleck and Freeman's faces and a row of nuclear missiles]. I thought it was a very good poster if you just want to get in teenage boys. It says to me, "If you like war, you'll like this movie." In fact, it's a film that says, "If you don't like war, you'll think this is a good movie because it's about stopping a war."

DL: Do you think there's room for a movie like this after 9-11 and considering the popularity of Spider-Man and the new Star Wars episode?

PAR: I think there's a film like this for a couple of reasons: Because the film is really about the response to terrorism, and the second message of the film is that you don't rush headlong into violence. You get the information, and then you do it in a focused, multilateral way. You get all the nations involved. When we designed that message, it was a year before September 11th.

We screened the film so much after September 11th. Overwhelmingly, we kept hearing how grateful they were that it was restrained and that it had a positive, life-affirming message. They liked the fact that it was a real-world story. A year ago, this would have been a popcorn movie. Today, it's drama, and they appreciate this.

DL: The tone of the new film seems far different from movies like All of Me, Field of Dreams and Sneakers.

PAR: Part of that is my desire not to repeat myself. Part of [not repeating] is that it keeps me interested in the process. If I'm trying something I haven't done before, I feel challenged, and I don't get complacent.

There is, I have discovered, a common thread in all of them. They're all about a young man trying to grow up. I'll leave for you to decide what that says about me [Grins].

Even Freedom Song is about that, and the Band of Brothers episode [I directed] is about that. I've actually wondered, "What if they had offered me the Harrison Ford version [of The Sum of All Fears], which wouldn't have had that element in it?" Thematically, I don't think it would have appealed to me as much. It wouldn't have resonated as much.

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