As a director, Robert Redford has had an affinity for stories of people who must overcome great obstacles in life. "The Legend of Bagger Vance" continues in that tradition with elements of myth and fantasy. "When I was young, mythology was huge for me-larger-than-life characters in bigger-than-life situations," Redford offers. "That and movies were my main entertainment, and the strongest underpinning in either is a good story. I have a permanent belief that good storytelling will survive any change in time."
Redford was introduced to the story of "The Legend of Bagger Vance" by producer Jake Eberts, who discovered the novel of the same name by Steven Pressfield. Having collaborated with Redford as executive producer on "River Runs Through It, A (1992)," Eberts knew it would be the kind of story in which the director would take an immediate interest.
Eberts told Redford that he thought it would make a good film, so Redford naturally asked what it was about. Despite Eberts' passion for the piece, he was having a difficult time describing it until he hit on the phrase "It's about a man who's lost his authentic swing."
"I heard that and suddenly all the lights went on for me," Redford recalls. "That phrase just struck me, 'his authentic swing.' Then I read the book and thought it had all the elements of great storytelling. It's the classic journey of a hero who falls into darkness through some disconnect with his soul, and then of his coming back into the light with the help of a spiritual guide. It also had a very strong love story, which is the best way to show the hero's coming back to life. Lastly, it had a challenge, a great contest. In the mythological sense, there finally has to come that 'slaying of the dragon' scene, and in this case it's an extraordinary golf match. You put all that together and you have a solid foundation to tell a really good story."
The hero at the center of the story is the character of Rannulph Junuh, played by Matt Damon. "I got very taken with the idea of Matt Damon, who, at least at this point in his life, doesn't have much of a mark on him, which is part of his appeal," Redford says. "I thought it would be interesting to put him in the part of this damaged young man and then watch him come back from that. More importantly, Matt can act, and is very intelligent and open. He was just a pleasure to work with."
For Damon, the opportunity to work with Robert Redford was the first thing that sparked his interest in the project. He then read the script and adds, "I thought it was very compelling and had a kind of mythic quality, and I'd never really done anything like that before. To do something new and with a great director was something I couldn't say no to."
Once Damon was cast, he and Redford spent a lot of time examining the character of Rannulph Junuh. "This is a story of redemption, so it was essential to find the character at the beginning and then show his arc," the actor comments. "I thought it was a really fascinating study of a guy who seems to have everything on the surface, but his entire connection to this game he plays, and therefore his life, is essentially undermined by his success."
Damon explains, "Junuh was the golden boy of Savannah, not only winning golf tournaments, but excelling at everything he did. He is used to everything coming easy until he goes off to war. When he finds himself failing in that life and death struggle, his idea of the world and how it works collapses. As a result, he comes back pretty down and out. He's given up until an opportunity presents itself."
That opportunity is a once-in-a-lifetime golf match against the greatest golfers of the day, Bobby Jones and Walter Hagen. But when Junuh finally agrees to participate, he discovers the stakes are higher than he realized. Damon expounds, "There are a few moments where you see his genuine desire to be who he was, but it's just too painful to reach for that. When he does, he's just furious that he allowed himself to be put in the position to fall again. He thinks what's at stake is just public humiliation, but what's really at stake is his soul."
The stakes are also high for Adele Invergordon, once the love of Junuh's life, who has organized the match in an effort to save her late father's vision: the Krewe Island Golf Resort, which he built before the Great Depression destroyed his dream.
Starring as Adele Invergordon is Charlize Theron, who had sparked Redford's interest with her performances in a variety of films in recent years. "What I liked about Charlize was that while she is obviously beautiful, there is something else there. She's talented more talented than I think some people know. Everything I'd seen her do, she did very well. There wasn't a wrong move made, which told me she has good instincts and a natural ability, and this was a chance to tap into more dimensions than other roles I'd seen her in. The character of Adele had to be a powerhouse; it required an actress who could convey many different emotions, often in the same moment. I just felt she could do it, and then I met her and I was even more convinced."
Charlize Theron adds, "We talked for about two hours and something happened in those discussions that I think made him realize that I understood this character. Adele has everything in life and suddenly has all the odds against her, but she fights against everything that stands in her way and sticks to her guns and achieves her goal."
Theron reveals the reason she could empathize with Adele's experience on a very personal level. "Growing up in South Africa, my parents had a very successful road construction company, and I had everything I needed. But when my father passed away, my mother was put in the position of having to fight against the odds. She had every bank in the city wanting to auction off the business, but she refused, and in six years she rebuilt the company again to be one of the most successful in South Africa. So there was something about this character that was a part of me in a sense."
With that understanding, Theron observes, "I think Adele's biggest challenge is one she doesn't even acknowledge at first. She believes her greatest obstacle is to save Krewe Island, but she comes to realize that her biggest challenge is to deal with Junuh, who she was once desperately in love with, but, up until the match, believed she'd moved on from."
"If Junuh was Savannah's golden boy, Adele pretty much met him stride for stride," Damon adds. "They were the stars of Savannah, a match made in heaven. But when Junuh loses his soul in the war, she becomes part of the life he left behind. Now, when the love of his life walks back in needing his help, he kind of blows her off until the appearance of this mysterious caddie named Bagger Vance."
The introduction of Bagger Vance in the film posed something of a question for Redford. "When you're dealing with someone who is a spiritual guide, how are you going to present that character? Are you going to have him coming in on a moonbeam or go for something else? I chose a different route, which I felt was more interesting both visually and from a storytelling standpoint that of a 'coyote trickster.' The 'coyote trickster' means you're never really going to know what this character's up to the very person who is going to describe the mysteries of life to you is himself a mystery. I thought that was great stuff. And for me, Will Smith was the perfect person to play that character."
When Will Smith got the call from Redford, his immediate response was, "You know, when Robert Redford calls you, you'll do anything." However, Smith soon discovered that the part for which Redford was calling him would be unlike any he had tackled before and one that presented him with new challenges. "This character was difficult in the sense that I had to struggle against my natural instincts, my own comprehension of comedy. There are certainly funny moments, and things that are humorous and ironic, but they're not necessarily funny in the classic sense. Sometimes you laugh at the poignancy of the moment, so that was very challenging for me," he offers.
"Bagger is like a guardian angel. The nucleus of his relationship with Junuh is showing him that the power, the happiness, all of the things we search for externally are inside us all the time. They're things you don't need to go find. The analogy in the film is the 'authentic swing,' which sounds like it's only about golf, but it's that part of every one of us that is the most real. It's very subtle," Smith notes, adding, "I'm not always comfortable with subtlety; I like it loud and clear, but for that reason it was good to play a character who isn't big and funny and is a lot more subdued to explore other aspects of myself and to emote in a way that's different from any of my past work."
Redford remarks, "Will is a talented guy, that goes without saying. His talent is obvious. Using that as a foundation, I knew he could do whatever I asked of him for the role. If somebody's willing to try something different and has faith in you, and you have faith in them, there's a trust there. It gave us a nice framework to work from."
"You really just have to take the plunge," Smith says. "You have to close your eyes and trust the director. The director is the only person who sees the entire picture and Bob was just so clear about what he wanted that I felt really comfortable in every scene with what he was trying to build. The fact that he's an actor too gave me an extra level of comfort because he can relate to what the actors are doing on another level." Theron agrees, "I think we all felt a special trust in him because, being an actor himself, he's been in our shoes and knows what it is to create a performance."
"Understanding the actors' rhythms and gauging their energy are tremendously important in terms of getting the performance, and I think I might have a better appreciation of that since I began as an actor," Redford acknowledges.
"The Legend of Bagger Vance" introduces a young actor who is just beginning his own career. J. Michael Moncrief makes his acting debut as young Hardy Greaves, the boy who grew up idolizing Rannulph Junuh and who is the catalyst for bringing him into the match. Moncrief won the role over several thousand young hopefuls who responded to open casting calls held throughout the South.
"We went all over the South because there's a quality that Southern people have that's unique, and kids especially have it because it's unadorned," Redford states. "I was looking for somebody who looked like a real kid and who wasn't too trained or too studied, somebody who had character in his face and wasn't going to be intimidated by the process. We found all of that in Michael. He was just a raw talent. He had a natural quality that I enjoyed and there's something exciting about a fresh face. I admit it's dangerous; you run a risk that when you start running the camera he's going to clam up and freeze and you're dead. But that didn't happen with him. He came completely alive and we were able to use what was real."
Hailing from a small town outside of Savannah, Moncrief was 12 years old when he learned he'd landed the pivotal role of Hardy. He recalls, "We were just pulling out of Winn-Dixie and fixing to go on the main road and the casting director, Debra Zane, called us on our cell phone and said, 'It's time to celebrate; you got the part.' I was excited and shocked and started pinching myself, literally, to see if this was a dream because I've always wanted to be an actor." The family did celebrate with an excursion to the local Dairy Queen, where Moncrief ordered a Blizzard.
In some ways, Moncrief's experience on the set was not unlike Hardy's on the golf course: Moncrief was living out his dream of being an actor, and Hardy was working alongside his idol on the site of the greatest golf match of the day. With that, the young actor's approach to the role was refreshingly simple. "Actually, I just closed my eyes, and I could feel what Hardy was feeling and see what his point of view was."
It didn't take long for any intimidation Moncrief might have felt working with his famous castmates to fade, as evidenced by a prank he pulled on Matt Damon. "During a golf practice, I replaced Matt's ball with an exploding golf ball. When it exploded, he jumped back. Then he started chasing me," Moncrief grins.
Juxtaposed with the fictional characters in "The Legend of Bagger Vance" are two real-life legends from the world of golf, Bobby Jones and Walter Hagen. Joel Gretsch appears as Bobby Jones and Bruce McGill plays Walter Hagen, and Redford reveals they both took to their roles with relish. "These guys got so into it, I got nervous," Redford laughs. "At one point, I said to Bruce, 'You have to take off the knickers and go back to the real world,' and he said, 'I don't want to talk about that.' But it was great that they could bring something of themselves to the roles. They're both avid golfers. Bruce is a money player; he plays for the edge, so style is less important than winning to him. Like Hagen, he has a flamboyance about him, while Joel is a naturally graceful, gifted golfer with a beautiful swing, and that's what Jones was. You put those two together and they fit their roles perfectly."
"I've played golf since I was four, so it was a privilege to portray Bobby Jones," Gretsch says. "He's arguably the best golfer to ever play the game. It's hard to make comparisons to Jack Nicklaus or Tiger Woods because of the different eras, but what Jones achieved in the short amount of time he played was quite a feat by any standard, and his accomplishments off the course were equally as impressive. I'm in awe of him, so it was pretty amazing to try and step into his shoes."
McGill is no less impressed with the credentials of his alter ego. "Walter Hagen is the father of the modern-day touring professional. He realized early on that it was entertainment people were after, so he went out and created interest in himself by winning these major tournaments. He could then charge a fee to appear in exhibition matches. Hagen loved the game; he was always ready to go: 'Come on…what you got?…bring it on.' He was always laughing, joking, smiling, but his focus was intense. When it came down to the few seconds it takes to execute a golf swing, everything came together. He could pound it—often didn't know where he was going to pound it to, but he was also a great putter, and, as we say in the film, he'd learned a long time before that three lousy shots and one brilliant one still make par."
Getting The Swing
Making par was one thing. Being up to par was an entirely different matter. At the center of the movie is the golf match that pits one-time amateur champion Rannulph Junuh against two of the greatest golfers of all time. With that in mind, it was imperative that Matt Damon be able to swing a golf club with the best of them. Prior to being cast as Junuh, however, Damon had never swung a golf club at all. PGA master professional Tim Moss came on board as the film's technical advisor, and was given the mission to turn the novice Damon into someone who would be a believable challenge to Jones and Hagen.
"I had to learn from ground zero," Damon affirms, "but in some ways it was actually better than if I'd played some before. I showed up as this lump of clay that Tim Moss could make into a golfer rather than him having to break my bad habits first. I didn't have any bad habits I didn't have any habits so it worked out well."
Moss offers, "In order to present Matt as a legitimate player, I had two choices: I could make him a cosmetic player, or I could teach him to really hit the golf ball. Since there were so many golf shots to be played, I decided the best thing to do would be to teach him exactly as I would anyone else, to turn him into a fundamentally sound player. I believed that with the fundamentals under his belt the cosmetics would naturally follow, and that's exactly what happened. I have never seen anyone take to the game as quickly as he did. Matt is a good athlete. His hand-eye coordination is just phenomenal and he worked very hard."
Maybe a little too hard. Damon had blisters on his hands from spending hours on the driving range, and during one practice session over the Thanksgiving holiday, he swung the club so hard, he separated his ribs. Despite that, the actor states, "I'm completely addicted to the game now."
Will Smith came to "The Legend of Bagger Vance" already a self-avowed "golf junkie," and though his role did not require him to do much golfing onscreen, he took the opportunity to work with Moss to improve his own game. "What's great about golf is that it allows the average person to taste perfection," Smith remarks. "That one shot, that one hole you can be the best in the world at that moment and then you spend the rest of your golf career chasing that. Golf is so simple and so difficult at the same time the wonderful oxymoron of life."
Moss also worked with Joel Gretsch and Bruce McGill to help the actors adopt the styles of Bobby Jones and Walter Hagen. "We had model swings for Joel and Bruce based on the footage we have of Jones and Hagen. Hagen was kind of a chopper; he started with a slide and ended with a sway and his foot pointed out. There were a lot of technical things we'd consider wrong now. Jones was more balletic, very balanced and poised. One of the things he really tried to do was make the same consistent swing over and over," Moss explains.
"Hagen's swing was unique," McGill says. "The first few days I did it I was hurting myself because it's a very wide stance and he really cranked it."
Gretsch adds that learning to swing a club like Jones was only half the battle. He also had to adjust to swinging a hickory club like those used back in 1931. "Nowadays we have graphite shafts and steel and titanium heads. With hickory clubs, you really have to slow your swing down; if you swing like you normally do, the club head would be a foot behind you because they're so whippy."
McGill, on the other hand, had little problem adjusting to the old-fashioned clubs. Not only an avid golfer, he is a collector of golf memorabilia, and actually owns a set of hickory clubs with which he was able to practice.
"Golf was a different kind of game in the '20s and '30s," Redford expounds. "People played in knickers and tweeds and ties and vests. Greens were about the same length as fairways are today, and the fairways were really rough. They used wooden clubs and the golf balls were not made with high velocity capacity, so a lot more had to be earned naturally."
Just A Moment Ago...
Obviously, golf is not the only thing that has changed over the past seven decades, so Redford put together an award-winning creative team to help him recreate the Savannah of the day. Collaborating with the director on "The Legend of Bagger Vance" were cinematographer Michael Ballhaus, production designer Stuart Craig, costume designer Judianna Makovsky, editor Hank Corwin, composer Rachel Portman and visual effects supervisor Richard Chuang.
As the story progresses from 1916 to 1931, Redford and cinematographer Michael Ballhaus experimented with different camera techniques, like super 8 and 16mm mixed with 35mm, slow motion and step framing. They also applied an evolving color palette to reflect visually the passage of time. The early years of 1916 are seen in a monochromatic tone that has the haze of memories. There is a brief glimpse of the '20s with its art deco, "anything goes" motif that then gives way to the muted, washed out colors of the Great Depression. The exception was on the golf course, where the primary color used was, naturally, green.
The color scheme was carried on in the work of production designer Stuart Craig and costume designer Judianna Makovsky. "We talked specifically about how the color and light of the landscape would be echoed in the color and silhouette of the clothes," Makovsky says. "The lines of the fashions of the day were very simple, very elegant, regardless of status, and we wanted to convey that."
In creating the wardrobe for the film, Makovsky had to design clothing that reflected the broad range of social and economic standings of the times. "In 1931," she illustrates, "people of Adele's class would still have the clothes they bought, probably in Paris, before they lost their money. She's not destitute. And since she's the hostess of the party, she would present herself quite beautifully."
Status also influenced the wardrobe for young Hardy Greaves. "Because his family has no money, his clothes are pretty old and tatty," Makovsky states. "We made about half his wardrobe, but a lot were actual clothes of the period."
"They were itchy and uncomfortable and, most of all, hot," Moncrief remembers. "We started the movie in September, and it was like 80-something degrees, and I was in these wool pants and a long-sleeved shirt and sweater. That was the worst part."
Makovsky designed the wardrobe for Bobby Jones and Walter Hagen from the numerous photographs of the two men taken over the course of their careers. "Jones had a very simple, classic American style, while Hagen was more flamboyant," she notes. "We tried to show that in the first round of golf where Walter Hagen plays in a suit, which is something he really did. He was known to have played in a tuxedo once, just to annoy his partner."
For the golf course gallery, Makovsky and her team had to recreate dozens of vintage outfits, complete with knickers, golf caps, sweaters and even socks.
Makovsky conceived Junuh's wardrobe to echo the character's state of mind. "We decided that his clothes should all be old; he would not have anything new. He no longer cares how he looks, so most of his clothes are from the early '20s. His golf clothes, in particular, are from 1916, because he hadn't played golf since he went to war. For the match, he just pulls out his old clothes and shoes from 15 years before."
Similarly, Stuart Craig offers, "We tried to make Junuh's house speak eloquently about the fact that he is a lost soul, adrift and removed from society. We designed the house so that it was credible that he would continue to live there, but at the same time it's desolate and incredibly sparse. For example, we deliberately didn't put any pictures on the walls, because that seemed to personalize the place too much. It gave him a history, which he was trying desperately to cut himself off from. So, instead of pictures, we had mirrors, the effect of which was to reflect him back to himself. We made his place as soulless as we possibly could."
By contrast, Craig says, "Adele's mansion was the kind of a house that her father might well have built with new money. The location was perfect for us because it was built in 1926, so it was absolutely spot on for the period. We also chose it because it reflected that sort of quintessential image of Savannah beautiful houses on these magnificent squares. 'The Legend of Bagger Vance' is very specifically set in Savannah, Georgia," he continues. "I tried to capture the timeless essence of the town with its wonderful oak trees, the Spanish moss and so on."
Production was slated to begin in mid-September, but the impending arrival of Hurricane Floyd forced the cast and crew to evacuate Savannah for Atlanta and Macon, Georgia. Several days later, the company returned to Savannah to prepare for the trek to Jekyll Island, where principal photography commenced.
Located off the coast of Georgia on a unique barrier island, the Jekyll Island Club Hotel and grounds served as the fictional Krewe Island. Originally constructed in 1888 as a hunting retreat for America's elite (J.P. Morgan, William Rockefeller, Joseph Pulitzer, the Vanderbilts, Goulds and Astors), the hotel is a National Historic Landmark.
Finding golf courses that evoked the architecture of the period had proved more daunting than the filmmakers had originally thought. "There are thousands of golf courses," Craig admits, "but few that are credible as a course in 1931. Today, everything is so controlled and manicured, completely unlike the '30s."
Fortunately, the filmmakers discovered courses designed by renowned golf course designer Pete Dye, which were created with a respect for the indigenous nature of the region and would look much like the courses of the '30s.
From Jekyll Island, the unit moved to the Pete Dye Course at the Colleton River Plantation in Bluffton, South Carolina, where principal photography continued for one month. For the final segments of production, the cast and crew relocated to Kiawah Island, South Carolina. Designed by Pete Dye and opened in 1991, the Ocean Course at Kiawah Island served as the location of the 18th hole of the dramatic match between Junuh, Jones and Hagen.
Craig and his team constructed a new 18th hole on the grounds of the Ocean Course, building it in its entirety, from tee to green, as a par five with a 220-yard carry off the tee. They also designed a fairway, which has a shape more like a bowl than a tabletop, so the fairway collects the ball and brings it down into play. The end of the green functions as an amphitheatre, with the crowd high and encircling the arena where the climax of the contest is played out.
"The story of this golf match is a metaphor," Redford reflects. "No one knows better than a golfer that in the game of golf are contained all the lessons of life. But 'The Legend of Bagger Vance' is not just a golf story. It's about a character who loses his swing his authentic swing and has to find it again. And in that sense, it's universal because we all lose our swing in one way or another at some point in our lives. We're all tested by adversity and I suspect that all of us have at times hoped for someone like Bagger Vance to come along and help us through."