With the “Odd Couple” pairing of Robert Redford and Nick Nolte, director Ken Kwapis (“Big Miracle,” “He’s Just Not That Into You”) has made an unmistakable buddy road picture in “A Walk in the Woods.” It’s certainly laconic vs. loquacious on the Appalachian Trail: one part existential journey and another part environmental reverie, as told by sardonic travel writer Bill Bryson (Redford) in his memoir, adapted for the screen by Redford’s producing partner, Bill Holderman.
Of course, it’s easy to see the attraction for both Redford and Nolte: “A Walk in the Woods” perfectly plays off their iconic personas. And for Redford it’s even more personal, about aging and learning to co-exist with the environment (a marvelous bookend to “Jeremiah Johnson”). But for Kwapis, who’s always had a facility for straddling comedy and drama, it was about finding the sweet spot where those two conflicting personalities could best flourish.
“They both know how to let the camera capture the inner life of the character,” Kwapis said. “Part of my job was to make sure the contrast between them was sharp but never too wild. Bryson is more brainy and sardonic whereas Katz [Nolte] is much more effusive and emotionally available.”
“One of the challenges is that there’s not much plot,” Kwapis continued. “Two characters decide to walk from A to B — 2,100 miles. Will they make it? But the important aspect is their reconnecting after a decades-long separation. One of the points that Bob and I really got excited about in our first discussion was the idea that Bryson can’t say why he wants to go on the hike. He can’t articulate it…it’s unknown to him…he can’t understand his own need to do this. But he sees that he’s in a creative rut and sees portents of his own mortality around him. He’s become ‘comfortably numb.’ And Nolte’s character bursts into this at the perfect moment, uninvited.”
Still, it’s unavoidable that the spirit if Paul Newman hovers around “A Walk in the Woods.” Redford developed the project with the hope that it would be their third film together. But then with the passing of Newman in 2008, Redford shelved it until he took a liking to Nolte after working together on “The Company You Keep” in 2012. Yet as wonderful as Nolte is (the rebellious bad boy and former alcoholic par excellence), you can’t help wistfully imagining what Newman and Redford might’ve been like one last time (especially when the duo encounters a “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid”-like moment).
Meanwhile, this marked the sixth collaboration between Kwapis and cinematographer John Bailey (this year’s ASC Lifetime Achievement recipient). They shot all of the Trail on 35mm film and the rest digitally, going for looser overs or two shots, keeping Redford and Nolte in the frame together. “There’s something ineffably cinematic about it,” Kwapis said. “We also felt that 35 gave us a certain measure of portability. Instead of going deep into the Georgia woods with all of the electronic umbilical cords, we just put a camera on your shoulder.
“A Walk in the Woods” additionally reunited Redford with Bailey, who hadn’t worked together since the Oscar-winning “Ordinary People,” Redford’s directorial debut. “It was meaningful for both of them,” Kwapis recalled. “I’ve had long discussions with John about the how each successive therapy scene used a longer lens to push us back, so that by the final scene there’s no sense of environment and you’re up close to Judd Hirsch and Timothy Hutton.”
Kwapis also worked with editor Carol Littleton [Bailey’s spouse] for the second time and credits her for emphasizing character nuance. “For example, when Nolte talks about his drinking, it’s a wonderful opportunity for Nolte to give powerful speeches, and yet Redford is just as important and there are long stretches when the angle favors him and you really get what’s going on through Bob’s eyes. And Bob is so involved in what Nick is talking about, and to me that’s the best version of telling a story visually when you don’t have to be on the speaker and the listener is just as compelling.”