Who would have thought that one of the more polarizing movies at this year’s Sundance would be the one where Robert Redford and Nick Nolte play old guys trying to walk the 2,100-mile Appalachian Trail? (Seems an appropriate movie to talk about in the middle of a blizzard, no?) The controversy that had Twitter and Hitfix aflutter was whether this slight, pleasurable movie that my dad is really going to love — an adaptation of Bill Bryson’s humorous memoir, A Walk in the Woods — should have screened at Sundance at all. Did it take away the spot of a smaller film simply because Redford runs this festival?
Festival director John Cooper dispelled that notion while introducing the movie on Friday: “Bob didn’t know I was watching the movie, and then I programmed it and he just had to deal with it.” What followed was an extremely pleasurable 104 minutes of watching the two seasoned actors play old friends (Bryson, played by Redford, and his college buddy Stephen Katz, played by Nolte) trying to reconnect after 30 years while doing a strenuous physical activity far beyond the capabilities of their 70-something bodies. They have to dodge bears and, at one point, an extremely annoying hiking companion (Kristen Schaal). There are mud pits, treacherous rivers, snowstorms, inadequate camping equipment, and a little bit of misogyny when Nolte talks about the pleasures of making sweet love to one particularly corpulent lady. But goddangit if it didn’t put a smile on my face. The Hollywood Reporter is with me, calling it “a fun, geriatric version of Wild.” As is Adam Scott, to whom I described the plot during an interview (his buddy Nick Offerman plays an REI salesman). “I will totally watch that movie,” said Scott. “I’ll watch it immediately,” chimed in Jason Schwartzman.
Lucky for you, you get to watch at least part of A Walk in the Woods immediately in this clip, exclusive to Vulture. It shows the first time Bryson and Katz re-meet, 30 years after a falling out, and Bryson gets a sense of what his hiking companion for the next two months or so is going to be like.
A few other things you might want to know about the movie:
They’re way older than Bryson and his friend were.
Bryson and Katz were 44 when they did the trek, which is still pretty old for hiking the Appalachian Trail. Redford and Nolte are both in their 70s, which adds a layer of pathos to the adventure. “They’re really close friends who went on an escapade of adventure around Europe, scamming things, having fun, and then they parted ways,” said Redford at a roundtable of journalists. “So when these guys come back together again, 30 years later, they’re trying to maintain a certain degree of toughness to hide the vulnerability, and then there’s this one moment where Nick’s character says something that really touches me. He says, ‘I came out here so I could have one last adventure with you.’ ‘One last adventure,’ which means someone sees the end of the road. This may be your one and only chance, and there’s something desperate and touching about that to me.”
Paul Newman was originally supposed to have Nolte’s part.
Redford has been working on this project for 12 years, and everyone is sad that a movie bringing Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid together one last time wasn’t made. But Bill Bryson, for one, can’t quite imagine him in the role. “It would have been fantastic to see what Paul Newman would have made with that part,” said Bryson, “but I’m sure that it would’ve been a very, very different movie from the one you saw last night. I think that Nick Nolte is Katz, in a way that I don’t think Paul Newman could have possibly been. They would’ve had to adapt it much more for Paul Newman’s talents. I still think it could’ve been a wonderful movie, but you would’ve lost Katz as Katz is in the book. Nick Nolte captured that perfectly.”
Nolte signed on because Redford called him up.
“I just called him to say, ‘Would you like to do this? Let’s get together,’” says Redford. They’d only worked together once before, on the 2012 Redford-directed The Company You Keep, about a former Weather Underground activist on the run from authorities. But they had a great rapport and grew closer as the shooting progressed. “It has to. We couldn’t help it,” said Nolte. “I don’t think Bob necessarily wanted me to be one of his best friends. I’m not sure I necessarily fit in Bob’s life, especially if he had to introduce me at dinner. I hadn’t shaved or bathed for a few days, but it was all fine. He accepted me for what I was.” Did they bond hard-core? I asked. “I don’t know what you mean about hard-core,” said Redford with a wink. “You mean drugs?”
Redford and Nolte did their own stunts.
Or at least, as director Ken Kwapis (He’s Just Not That Into You) puts it, “Except when we were worried about killing them. They did all the walking and it’s actually not easy to do complicated dialogue scenes going up a hill and do it over and over again.” As Nolte puts it: “I did everything, except for what Bob wouldn’t do. We’d debate it, whether we’d survive it or not. If we didn’t think we’d survive it, we wouldn’t do it. We felt we had an obligation to finish the film.”
Nolte spent several months preparing for the movie by getting his hiking boots on early and walking around his property. Redford, on the other hand, says Kwapis “is an incredible athlete and swims every day, and frankly, he could just show up. But I think Nick was sort of driven by having to keep up with Bob.” Unfortunately, Nolte did have trouble with his leg while shooting, which adds to his character’s vulnerability onscreen, and he ended up having to get a hip replacement once shooting was over. “Right now it’s killing me,” he said. At least the audience at the premiere was so impressed with all the physical work he’d done onscreen that when Nolte came to the front of the theater for the Q&A and immediately sat down, he got a huge round of applause.
It’s not meant to be Wild, with some great moment of emotional catharsis at the end.
“It’s not a complicated movie,” says Kwapis. “It’s about two guys moving from A to B, but emotionally, they move a great distance.” Redford says that all he wants is for audiences to have a reaction. “Maybe if the film succeeded at all,” he says, “you would feel something: camaraderie, revived friendship, moments lost, attempts to regain the moments when time is running out. I felt that had a lot of weight to it.”