A road movie without a road, "A Walk in the Woods" is based on travel writer-humorist Bill Bryson's memoir of hiking the Appalachian Trail, at a time when Bryson was at least a decade younger than either of the actors who star in the movie -- Robert Redford, 79, and Nick Nolte, 74. Yes, it's a story about age, and time, and of doing things that appear impossible: During one scene, Nolte tries to lift Redford on his shoulders. And he looks like he might be bursting a blood vessel.
"I thought he was!" Redford laughed, during a recent interview from Los Angeles. "I looked down and said, 'Gee, the guy looks like a tomato, I better get off his back.' "
Not a walk in the park
It was a strenuous shoot, said director Ken Kwapis, "made tougher by the fact the actors had to climb a steep hill while performing some of the scenes. And guess what? They didn't always get it in one take."
"After six, seven or eight takes," said Redford, "we really did feel like we hiked the trail."
Bryson's story was a classic midlife-critical meltdown: He's at his wit's end. And can't really say why.
"What I liked," said Redford, "was this character who has a wonderful family, loves his wife, has a semi-successful career, things seem to be going well, but why does he feel something's missing? He can't explain it. He feels he's got to do something to jar things loose and then he decides to go on this extravagant adventure and can't explain why."
His wife, played by Emma Thompson, says, "I think you're crazy but if you're going to do it you can't go alone." Which leads to the Nick Nolte character, Stephen Katz, the only person Bryson can find to take the trip.
So "A Walk in the Woods" is also a movie about friendship, said Redford, who, when he originally got involved with the project in 2004, envisioned doing it with an old friend of his: Paul Newman.
"We'd been looking for a third film to do," Redford said. He and Newman, who died in 2008, had starred in two classics together, "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid" (1969) and "The Sting" (1973). "But we never wanted to repeat anything, except the essence of the relationship. So I had Paul in mind. And he thought it was great."
Newman bowed out
But then when we got together, "he did something very typical of Paul," Redford continued, "because he was an honest guy about himself and his work. He said, 'Look, Bob, we're 30 years beyond the last film we did together and the difference in our ages' -- which was about 14 years -- 'is now more profound. I'm not sure that at my age that I'm up for it.' It was disappointing, but I moved on to Nick, and the more I explored the idea of Nick I realized that that was actually a better pairing."
Either way, Kwapis conceded, "A Walk in the Woods" is not a complicated movie.
"Two men decide to walk from point A point B," he said. "Will they make it? That's as complicated a question as we get. So the whole film lives and dies on whether the men undergo an emotional change over the journey." Part of the work he did with Redford and Nolte was making sure they had an emotional map for the film, and "one thing both of them do well is make sure they're at the right point emotionally along the way. Bob puts so much thought and detail into his performances, I don't think people realize how much craft is involved."
The director said that, talent-wise, he had "an embarrassment of riches" -- not just Redford and Nolte, but Thompson and Mary Steenburgen, who plays a motel-keeper with whom Bryson has a brief (and chaste) flirtation along the trail. Also, "two of my favorite comic actors of the moment," Nick Offerman and Kristen Schaal.
"My mom and dad were so excited," Schaal said, about their daughter's being in a movie with Nolte and Redford. "This was it for them. They might even go see it in a movie theater."
If they do, they'll get the full impact of cinematographer John Bailey's glorious vistas, which were intended -- and succeed -- as punctuation on the environmental message of "A Walk in the Woods." The audience doesn't get beaten over the head with it -- "No, that would be disastrous," Redford agreed -- but it's certainly there, and was on the mind of the cast, especially Redford and Steenburgen, whose husband, Ted Danson, is a board member of the ocean-conservation group Oceana.
"I married up," she said, speaking environmentally, and Redford's efforts in that department were a reason she wanted to work on the film. "I almost worked with him so many times, and it never happened," she said. "So it was important to me to make it work and say yes, because I'm such a fan of his work and also how he's lived his life."
A crowded trail?
Kwapis acknowledged his film could result in an upsurge of people -- maybe old people with dicey blood vessels -- swarming onto the Appalachian Trail. "I read somewhere that the film 'Wild' caused something like a 400 percent increase people walking sections of the Pacific Coast Trail," he said. "So I'm sure there will be increased foot traffic. In a bigger sense, I hope it will inspire people to maybe look into their own backyard and think about the natural world in their own vicinity. I live in Los Angeles and after reading Bryson's book I was inspired to literally look out my back window and say, 'Oh my gosh . . . I don't think I could name one of those trees."
Fine films about older adults
Buddy movies are everywhere. You can't get out of their way. They haunt your dreams. But movies about relationships between older adults -- like the one in "A Walk in the Woods" involving Nick Nolte and Robert Redford's characters -- are a different story. Older people are usually paired with younger (from "Harold and Maude" to Lily Tomlin's current "Grandma") for both dramatic and commercial reasons. But the following movies, which gave new meaning to pop culture, went the other way, and found success:
MAKE WAY FOR TOMORROW (1937) Filmmaker Errol Morris once declared Leo McCarey's moving drama "the most depressing movie ever made, providing reassurance that everything will definitely end badly." In it, an elderly couple (Victor Moore, Beulah Bondi) lose their home to foreclosure and are forced to split up, because none of their children will take both parents. On the bright side, two mature actors are the center of attention, and create a partnership rare for the screen.
THE SUNSHINE BOYS (1975) Red Skelton and Jack Benny were supposed to star in the film adaptation of Neil Simon's Broadway smash about an estranged vaudeville comedy team. But the roles went instead to Walter Matthau and George Burns, the latter of whom won an Oscar and went on to enjoy one of the great second acts in show-biz history.
LONESOME DOVE (1989) Robert Duvall and Tommy Lee Jones are Augustus "Gus" McCrae and Woodrow Call, the weathered, ornery ex-Texas Rangers at the center of Larry McMurty's epic story, are drawn out of retirement for a perilous but (possibly) profitable cattle drive to Montana. They encounter every manner of psychopath and catastrophe, but their relationship is the heart of the made-for-TV miniseries.
THE BUCKET LIST (2007) Jack Nicholson and Morgan Freeman play escapees from a cancer ward who set out to complete a list of things they've never done, like skydiving, visiting the North Pole and riding motorcycles on the Great Wall of China.
AMOUR (2012) An honest and moving portrait of a couple on the decline, with magnificent performances by French vets Jean-Louis Trintignant and Emmanuelle Riva, who was nominated for an Oscar. It did win for best foreign language film.