I caught up with Oscar-nominated character actor Robert Forster (the role of love-struck bounty hunter Max Cherry in Quentin Tarantino's 1997 hit Jackie Brown got Forster his nomination) for a very insightful chat on acting, film, his very assorted filmography, the greatest lesson he ever learned about film (directly from The Maltese Falcon director John Huston on the set of Forster's debut film), working with David Lynch in the dream-like Mulholland Dr. and Twin Peaks (2017), and how love and care color the arc of our lives, in his newest film, the heart-wrenching and beautiful What They Had – in US theaters now and coming to UK theaters in March 2019 from Bleecker Street, who brought you Colette, McQueen, and the new Papillon among other high calibre titles.

I also had a chance to chat with What They Had's writer and director Elizabeth Chomko, who modeled much of this very personal film about a Chicago family dealing with the slow, insidious creep of dementia in the family's once sharp and independent matriarch Ruth – played by Blythe Danner – on her own real family and what they went through with a relative.


Hilary Swank is the oldest daughter, somewhat adrift and unhappy in her life in California with her husband (Josh Lucas) and her college-age daughter (Taissa Farmiga); Michael Shannon is the gruff, sarcastic, but lovable bar-owning son who opted to stay in Chicago; and Forster as the family's patriarch, the wise but hurting veteran Burt, who can only care for (and agonize over) his wife and she withers to a husk of her former self. Burt is very much the glue holding the family together and the care that Forster brings to the role along with Chomko's powerful words and direction is really extraordinary – this movie really aches in the most sublime ways with Burt's love for Ruth and for his children and how that is reciprocated.

I am convinced after catching What They Had that Chomko will be a talent to watch in her up-coming project about the memoir of a family of a white collar criminal. It's further quite amazing that she learned all that she did about making a great film on her own initiative (taking the route famously popularized by Tarantino of not going to film school).

Elizabeth's advice for any creatives in the industry (male or female), is something we should all take to heart. In pursuing your greatness, "don't ask for permission" or validation. Amen to that.

Enjoy the interview – and zen-like film-making lesson – below from John Huston to Robert Forster to me to you (and watch the video of Huston accepting his AFI Lifetime Achievement Award in 1983 below – I promise it's directly relevant to this conversation with Robert) and catch What They Had in US theaters now and coming to UK theaters in March 2019.

John Huston accepts the AFI Lifetime Achievement Award in 1983

Hello Robert and welcome to The 405!

Hello Wess!

Getting right into What They Had, I'm curious what was it that initially attracted you to the role of Burt?

Oh it's a great role, ya know? Have ya seen the picture?

I have…

Yeah. Then ya know it's a real person. A person who's doing what the job life requires of him: caring for others, caring for his wife, standing up for somebody who he loves and wishes to protect.


It is the job of being a parent. I am the father of 4 and a father for – I like to say – 200 years if you count up the ages of my children.

So, it is a well-written and beautiful script, and there I was and it was not hard to know that it was terrific.

It was a superbly acted by all and well-written piece. Kinda hit close to home for me as my grandfather died this past January 1 of complications from Alzheimer's. So... I could absolutely relate to what the family was going through.

Some are cut shorter, yet we're all headed in the same direction. But we all need to do the best we can until that moment.

My grandfather definitely did that. Very well-said Robert. I'm gonna remember that quote.

We kind of touched on this next question a bit, but what was it like getting into that head space of Burt?

It didn't seem hard at all. I told Elizabeth Chomko, the writer/director that I read it and I heard myself talking. It was the easiest, most simple job I've ever had. I was not the least bit worried about interpretation, I knew what it meant.

That sort of in-touch nature really came through in a very natural character.

It was clear on the page. She wrote a wonderful script.

Poignant, touching, heart-wrenching and funny in the same picture.

Absolutely. Besides this, I've been the beneficiary of many great writers who've given me great things to say.

An actor's whole career is really made up of people who write things for you. She [Chomko] wrote a wonderful script, and I got the benefits of that.

Most definitely. I actually quite literally just got done talking to her too.


Mmm hmm. [Nods]

She's such a nice woman. She's so... have you ever seen her or met her?

That interview was over the phone so unfortunately not, but I have seen her picture on imdb and in press materials from What They Had.

Next time when you see her talk, she looks like a movie star. I think she started out as an actress... did she say she did? I think she either started out, or wished to be, or wondered about it, or... but she wrote this script, and rewrote this script, and won the Nicholl's Prize for this script – a prize given by the Academy.

She deserved it. It is very well-written.

So it is very... well, what word are we looking for? The people have seen something and they know it's good. She went through a lot of knowing that it's good,

And she attracted a great cast. And she attracted the 2 guys who produced Little Miss Sunshine.

Yeah. Albert Berger and Ron Yerxa via Bona Fide Productions.

She really was the author and the hero of this whole project.

Agreed. I find it pretty incredible how she essentially taught herself much of what she knows about film and movies. I always have an even bigger respect for the self-taught, because its something I am in awe of. I couldn't agree more with the rest of what you said as well, having chatted with her.

The cast of WHAT THEY HAD. L-R Michael Shannon, Taissa Farmiga, Hilary Swank, Blythe Danner, and Robert Forster. a Bleecker Street release. Credit: Bleecker Street

The whole movie was so personal too from her writing it with an eye to her life story. Yet, there's also so much more that audiences could carry with them after watching it. What do you hope people will take with them most from What They Had? To me it opened up so much about how families deal with dementia, Alzheimer's, and even the family dynamics...

Well, the simplest dynamic that is most important is people in a family taking care of one another. It is the human condition. We are born; we can't take of ourselves. We have to rely on the one's that parented us.

Then a few years go by, and you can take care of yourself; and a few more years go by and you are expected to take care of yourself.

Yet for most of the rest of your life – most of the arc of your life – you've got to take care of others: you're expected to take care of others.

This is the human condition until the very end when you can no longer take care of yourself and you have to rely on the one's you have parented. "You better do a good job Bob," I say to myself.

And so the whole arc of life is taking care of or being taken care of, and moving into taking care of others. This is what this movie's about: it's about the simplest of human dynamics.

And some of the most universal too as you correctly pointed out. Very well said.

A new question I've been testing out with people: any funny or memorable moments that stick out from filming?



Listen I can tell you my favorite line in the movie – I keep hoping somebody will ask me, "what's your favorite line in the movie?" – well, I can tell you I didn't get to do it until the last day.

But it's in the beginning of the movie when she [Hilary Swank] says, "gee dad what happened to the Camry?" She sees that I've got a muscle car with the top down. And I say...

In Chicago in winter...

In Chicago in winter, and I say, "I'm 77 Biddy, fuck the Camry!"


[Laughs] and I say to myself, I know that's a funny line, and I couldn't wait to say it, and I never said it until the very last... and then she improved a line and said, "dad, the top is down!" and I say, "Yeah, gotta get it fixed."


[Laughs] and so that sequence we shot on the last day of shooting. My last day of shooting. She shot one – Hilary and Blythe [Danner] shot another day...

And you know there were a lot of scenes where there wasn't a lot of room for improvisation but... heads and tails. You know when you do a scene and you sometimes start a line or 2 that you improvise to get into the scene? And then at the end of the scene – if nobody says "cut!" – you keep on talking?


Those are the kinds of things that are the only chances actors get usually. In this script, the scenes were great... but the heads and the tails was fun to do. I remember saying – and this is a line that did not get into the movie, that I liked a lot, I heard a guy say this one time he was playing tennis, he would say to the other guy, "are you playing cheating or not cheating?"


And then I was playing Chinese Checkers with my granddaughter and I threw that at her, "are you playing cheating or not cheating?" Anyway, I got a laugh out of her.

That's awesome. [Laughs]

But anyway that did not make it into the movie. Elizabeth said there were so many good things to put in this picture but have to make it – you know – a reasonable length.

Absolutely. That can be tough too.

I think there's a perfect length to a movie – around 90 minutes. If it's longer than that, it better have something great. People can only love something until it starts to get a little too long and this picture is not too long.

It felt perfect to me in terms of pacing and what that relative time felt like – how much time it felt like passed.

Yeah. This picture is picture is perfect length: 93 or 4 or whatever that exact number is.

101 minutes to be exact. Although it doesn't feel that long. I wouldn't have guessed that number had I not checked.



Robert Forster as Pvt. L.G. Williams (his debut role) in REFLECTIONS IN A GOLDEN EYE (1967).

What you said about the time of a movie and having to decide what material to cut reminded of something I read about your debut, the quintessentially southern gothic 1967 thriller Reflections in a Golden Eye, directed by the great John Huston (of The Treasure of the Sierra Madre and Key Largo fame) and co-starring the incomparable Elizabeth Taylor and Marlon Brando. Huston evidently was agonizing for some time over two apparently equally stellar but different takes of Brando doing a scene and just couldn't make up his mind. At any rate I am rather curious there particularly because Huston is a favorite director of mine – how was that as a formative experience for you?

You know I was very comfortable. I figured that if everybody had something to worry about, it would be them because they didn't know whether I would be able to do whatever it was that was required and it really wasn't that hard. I realized at that time that movie acting was behavior.

John Huston gave me my entire first lesson in movie making.

When I met him the first time, I explained to him that before that I had only did one job. I did a Broadway play before that and I wasn't bad but I didn't call myself an "actor."

I said, "I've never made a movie, I don't know how they're made, I don't know what the tricks are. But if you hire me, I'll give you your money's worth." And he says, [Huston impression] "I will give you some instruction."

From the time that he said that to the first day of shooting, I kept asking him, "what are those instructions?"

And he kept putting me off. He kept saying [Huston impression] "Not yet Bobby..."


And so on the very first day of shooting we're on Long Island at Mitchell Field – an old military base – finally as I'm getting out of the car, here's this voice from behind saying, [Huston impression] "now's the time Bobby!"


So I say, "shoot! I'm all ears!" and he says, [Huston impression] "go take a look through the lens."

I walk over to the camera, the cameraman steps aside, I look through the lens, I turn back to Huston. He's got his fingers the way director's have them when they show you a film line, you know?

Yeah. Framing a scene with the fingers or hands.

And he says, [Huston impression] "you see those? Those are the film lines".

I said, "yeah" and I look again in the lens and I say, "that line that shows the cameraman what the audience sees."

He says, [Huston impression] "yes, those are the film lines. Now, ask yourself this: what needs to be there?"

A finger framing gesture.

That's so beautiful in its simplicity.

In one sentence – a zen sentence – he tells me I am responsible for and have the authority to put what's supposed to be inside that frame.

It's always been the thing that taught me everything. I finally figured out I have to do the detective work to figure out what the writer intended me to put in that scene. I had to know what the director wanted me to do: make an exit or an entrance, or say some dialogue, or move some props around.

Whenever I hear "action!", I gotta know what the director wants, but that's not the end of it. The guy who sets the lights wants me to be in 'em. And the one listening to the sounds has to hear them correctly. Otherwise the shot's ruined.

If something gets messed up in the shot, somebody says no good for sound, start again. If I put the cup in the wrong spot, somebody says, "no good for continuity. Start again." If I do something too big for the size shot I'm in, somebody behind the camera says, "no good for composition. Start again."

Quite a lot to keep in mind, indeed.

You owe something to everybody. Including the guy you're acting with: you may have to ascend emotionally in a scene. So you have to build a little ramp so that that actor can ascend emotionally in a scene.

Something in the script as simple as "dropping the glasses on the floor" – as simple as physics requires, no more, no less – you better sell it as simple, believable, honest behavior.

And to the one who's cutting this film together: you've gotta know how the roller coaster track of this film is constructed so that you can help contribute to the downs and the ups – and then around the curves, if you're not believable, the audience will not be with you at the end of the ride.

You owe the audience something. And for the ones who hired you: you've gotta help them make their schedule. Be ready on the first day to deliver the goods and know what's supposed to be inside that frame and refine it and refine it and refine it until you hear "Cut! Click!" move on.

This has to be the best lesson in the craft I've ever had the pleasure of hearing in these interviews and my own research Robert. Incredible.

It is one of the great jobs of all time. You owe something to everybody. And I remind people, it sounds like a great deal to create an action which advantages everybody's needs at once but it is not that hard. Actors I know who I would not trust with a grocery list – and that includes me – can do that 8 days a week.

[Laughs] indeed. Actors like you do make it look effortless though.

It is not that hard to create an action which advantages more than just yourself. And I know people – my children – who knows you can create better actions all day long if you just keep the needs of other people in mind and try to deliver to those.

It is not hard to create better actions and it's as simple as that.

I like how you elucidated that philosophy – it makes a lot of sense.

These are the things I've learned throughout my career, and during the worst of my career – when I had nothin' goin' for me – I started that little actor's studio and I always said, "if there's no job, you better do somethin' Bob. You better find a way to express yourself."

So I started that little actor's workshop, and I told these stories to actors, and they evolved into me going to anyone who wants a free speaker – I speak freely, and I do it anytime someone calls me and says, "can you show up here?" And if I can book it, I say "yes" and I speak freely.


They ask me, "why do you speak freely?"

I tell them, "the truth is free. It's BS that costs a lot of money."

So true. I couldn't possibly agree with that more.

Because it's simple and true. And there ya go.

Brevity being the soul of wit – I like it.

Trailer TOO LATE (2015).

Pivoting just a hair – the responsibility to everyone that you mentioned made me think of this next question – you did a film in 2015 called Too Late which is on Netflix now. What were the challenges like with that considering the very novel way that it was filmed with each scene being a single take on a 2000 foot reel of 35mm film?

That was a very interesting experiment.

That it was. Just saw it for the first time the other night.

The director wrote – as you know – 5 scenes and shot them each as one long take. He took that 1000 foot roll – he shot it on film – and you know that if you chop the frame in half and make an extra wide frame, you can shoot double the length of 1000 feet of film which is usually 10 minutes, approximately 10 minutes.

That part of the process I did not know.

He created 5 20 minute scenes, and we rehearsed them – he claims it only took us 3 days – I thought it took us a week.

We rehearsed them once in an office. Then we got to the set, we rehearsed them for one whole day. Then on the second day, he tells me – I always said it was longer but he said the cameramen came in in the middle of the second day and started setting up the tracking shot.

They would've done it in a wheelchair – with a guy pushing the cameraman all around – because you know they shot that first sequence around that house. They start outside by the pool, and then she goes into a dressing room, and she goes out a door, back out to the pool.

Logistics there and timing had to be something.

It's a complex shot. This guy...

Director/writer Dennis Hauck.

What a creative guy he was and what an interesting experiment that was. It was a very short – I would've said a week, he said only 3 days – plus the rehearsal we did in an office. But that was one of the most interesting things I've ever done.

I thought it was a solid production. Interesting plot to go along with the interesting filmmaking methods.

Robert Forster as Sheriff Frank Truman in TWIN PEAKS (2017).

Robert Forster as Sheriff Frank Truman in TWIN PEAKS (2017).

I would be remiss if I didn't ask on another note, what was it like re-uniting with David Lynch for the new Twin Peaks?

I always say, "anyone that hires me twice is very tasteful!" [Laughs]


"If they hire you twice, you've succeeded Bob!" [Laughs]

Yeah, nearly 3 times considering you were almost in the original Twin Peaks.

Yeah. David Lynch did try to hire me long ago but I was busy. Then he hired me for Mulholland Dr. and then my agent called me and said, "I just got a call from David Lynch." As soon as I hung up the phone, David Lynch calls and says, "Hi Bob. This is David."

I said, "Hey David! They told me you were gonna call."

He says,"look I'm re-doing Twin Peaks. Would you like to play the sheriff?"

I said, "the same part?"

He says, "no, no... you'd be the brother of the guy who was the sheriff."

Michael Ontkean in the original. Sheriff Harry S. Truman.

I said, "by all means! You just tell me where to go and what to do."

That movie was very secret. I didn't see any scenes except my own.

I remember reading that somewhere. About the secrecy.

All I saw were my own sides, the scenes that I was in. No actors ever talked to other actors about what their scenes were like, with anything they didn't do together. It was all very, very secret.

David Lynch – as I say – is a pal. He hired me more than once.

Absolutely. Mulholland Dr. is one of my all time favorites. That and Vertigo

Vertigo. Yes. Yeah. David Lynch... he didn't direct Vertigo?

Oh no. That was Hitchcock

Yes. That was Hitchcock.

...but Vertigo actually did a lot to influence Mulholland

Yeah. David Lynch. The best David Lynch story is this.

On the first night I shot on Mulholland Dr., we shot up on Mulholland – we did the scene where I'm overlooking the city – and I walk back across the road and I have a short conversation with a cop.

At the end of the scene, David came up to me and he said, "do it slower." So the next time we shot it, I did it slower.


Then he came to me and he said, "do it slower." I thought well, I can justify that, and I thought about it, I walked across the street and I did a slllllllllloooooooowww scene.

Then David came up to me and he said... "do it slower."


Wow. At that point I say to myself,"do I tell David that I don't quite believe myself when I'm doing it that slow?"

But, this is David Lynch, so I did the scene as slow as he wanted me to do it. It was months later that I realized and discovered that I was in a dream sequence. And I didn't know it while I was shooting it but... slow is what he wanted, that's what he got. Only much later did I realize why he wanted me to do it slower.

Yeah. Still such an often-debated movie. Part of what makes it great.

Yeah. He is a master.

Robert Forster as Detective McKnight in MULHOLLAND DR..

You've worked with quite a few masters Robert. Lynch, Huston, George Cukor, Quentin Tarantino, Robert Mulligan, just to name a few.

I've been lucky. I've been the beneficiary of great writers and Elizabeth Chomko surely fits into the category of great material. The people wrote great stuff that I got to say and I am a lucky, lucky guy.

After watching What They Had, I'm really looking forward to what her future creative output is like.

Me too.

With that pantheon of greats, I had another segue there, what makes a great film?

Laughter and tears. 100 years from now, when this film is shown, there will still be laughter and tears.

I say if something lasts 100 years that is one of the components of art. That it'll be good a hundred years from now and I'd say this picture has that going for it at least. Other components of art I'm sure have to be there but that's one of them. A hundred years from now we'll still be getting laughter and tears.

Sad at the same time because that also relates back partly to the prevalence of Alzheimer's and dementia [24 million estimated worldwide].

We could solve it by then. There are a lot of smart people workin' on it.


One of these days... look, when I was a kid everybody's mother was scared of polio. And in one fell swoop, Salk came along with a vaccine and it was over with.


So we are expecting somebody to come along. But old age will not be over with 100 years from now. And people will still be caring for one another and there will still be fighting within the family for who gets to take care of mom and what should happen and who gets to take care of dad.

We'll be faced with that forever. It is the human condition.

So true. Even with no dementia this would retain its power as art. Our final question Robert: what's next?

I have a job and I signed confidentiality agreements about 3 weeks ago and read the script in an office. So I know I have a job. It's a lovely job, and while I am promoting this picture, I will disappear for 2 or 3 days at a time and shoot this other film.

I'm not at liberty to say much more...


But I am delighted to say I got a job. [Laughs]

Robert Forster and Blythe Danner star as Burt and Ruth Keller in WHAT THEY HAD, a Bleecker Street release. Credit: Bleecker Street

Trailer: Quentin Tarantino's JACKIE BROWN (1997). The role of Max Cherry got Robert his Oscar nomination.

Trailer Haskell Wexler's MEDIUM COOL (1969). Another noteworthy film with Robert Forster.