A right-wing celebrity millionaire challenges the political establishment and throws his hat in the ring for major elective office. He made a fortune while the economy cratered, advocates the death penalty for drug dealers, guest-hosts a famous late-night sketch comedy show, basks in the glow of beauty pageant contestants, lambastes the liberal media at every turn, and cultivates a fanatical following that responds to his angry screeds demanding, “Why has your American dream been relegated to the trash heap of history?”
His name was Bob Roberts.
Bob Roberts was not Donald Trump. But in Tim Robbins’ 1992 political mockumentary — in hindsight, it feels like a shockumentary — Roberts is a charismatic ’60s-hating folk singer who preys on the resentments of white Pennsylvania voters during his U.S. Senate race against incumbent Brickley Paiste (Gore Vidal). He sings songs like “Retake America,” “This Land was Made for Me,” and “Times are Changin’ Back,” tunes that were much easier to laugh at before 24-hour cable news practically lifted their lyrics to serve as their chyrons. There are scenes in Bob Roberts — like when an angry campaign mob starts beating a dark-skinned passerby who just happens to be in the wrong place at the wrong time — that will send chills down the spine of 2017 viewers. Robbins, who starred, wrote, and made his directorial debut, was aiming for satire, but beneath the parody was an x-ray of the American psyche in the post-Reagan era that exposed all sorts of malignancy. Bob Roberts was both a wake-up call about the vulnerabilities of our increasingly polarized political system and an instruction manual for how to take advantage of them. Robbins’ liberal politics are weaved throughout the film, but you can also imagine a young Stephen Miller seeing Bob Roberts and loving it for his own special reasons.
When Bob Roberts opened in theaters on Sept. 4, 1992, Bob’s fake election was overshadowed by the actual presidential debates between President George H.W. Bush, Democratic challenger Bill Clinton, and independent billionaire Ross Perot. The film grossed less than $5 million and disappeared from theaters before election day. Twenty-five years later, though, the film has taken on the weight of prophecy, like President Eisenhower’s farewell-address warning about the growing influence of the American military-industrial complex.
Robbins, who is currently in Marjorie Prime and will soon star in Alan Ball’s HBO’s series Here, Now, with Holly Hunter, looks back at his time on the campaign trail.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: It feels like a good time to talk about Bob Roberts because not only does it stand up as a great film 25 years later, but it also serves as this spookily prescient blueprint for the rise of our current president. There’s a line in your film where Jack Black’s ignorant zealot says that Bob is “prophestic.”
TIM ROBBINS: [Laughter]
Did you ever expect to be prophestic when you made this movie?
Let’s say I was hoping I wouldn’t be prophestic.
It was made fall of ’91 during the Bush I administration, which of course, in retrospect now seems like a model of moderate conservatism compared to what’s come afterwards. But you certainly didn’t feel that way at the time, right?
No, in a lot of ways, [Bush I] opened the door to what conservatism would be. All of the indicators were there: the selling of the first Gulf War, the media’s involvement with that, the rallying of public support for the war. But also the nature of discourse and the shift from media that was local to political organizations that had absorbed or purchased many outlets throughout the country with one message. I’m talking about the early talk-radio phenomenon, the Rush Limbaughs. The whole idea of that for me was very disturbing, because what it looked like to me at the time was that there was political philosophy that was being espoused on a daily basis, a political philosophy that has to do with manipulation of the facts. And this seemingly innocuous rise of talk-radio punditry, for me, clearly had an agenda to it. The deregulation under Reagan that allowed that and the further deregulation under Clinton, post-Bob Roberts, led to more and more conglomerates of radio stations throughout the country that were relentlessly pursuing an agenda that served the elite class. What was Machiavellian about that was that their messaging was anything but elite. The messaging was to the working class. At the time, it seemed like what they were doing was lying and creating division, where there was no need for division. And quite frankly, it worked. I think what the powerful understood at the time was that they were in the process of losing the majority that would support their agenda. It’s just really good planning on their part: How do you maintain an environment that is antithetical to the needs and concerns of the overall population? How do you get the majority in this country to vote against their economic and social interests? And the way to do that is propagandize—propaganda that was going to be done on a daily basis to keep people divided and keep them stoked up angry about issues that were loaded emotionally, such as abortion, such as the tolerance for gay people. So that when people go to the voting booth, they’re voting against these crazy liberals that Rush has been talking about that are trying to tear at the very fabric of what it is to be an American, and voting for someone who says the right things on those hot-button issues but in actuality and in fact, will be voting for tax cuts for the rich and increasing the military budget at the cost of other industry, will be voting for NAFTA and your job disappears.
It was really eerie to sit down and revisit the film, because there were so many political Cassandra moments that jumped out at me. There’s one scene where the documentary filmmaker asks one of Bob Roberts’ fanatical disciples why he likes Bob, and the kid says: “He believes in America. He believes in making money. Being rich. He’s not one of those sensitive liberals who makes you feel responsible for everything that’s gone wrong.” You couldn’t articulate a better explanation for the appeal of President Trump in 2016. You were thinking of parody, but now parody has become reality.
I guess the film was a warning about that, and look where we are now. I honestly think that what Lynne Thigpen says is quite on the nose about Trump. She played the interviewer from Good Morning Philadelphia, and she does a sit-down in her dressing room after she’s interviewed Bob. She talks about the “rebel conservative,” the “Machiavellian poser” who’s turned the notion of what the Left has been representing completely on its head.
I couldn’t find it online, but is it correct that you made a short film about Bob Roberts that aired on SNL back in 1986?
What was the seed that planted Bob Roberts in your head in the first place?
The seed was I grew up in Greenwich Village in the ‘60s and ‘70s, and I went away to college — UCLA. I guess I left in 1978, and stayed out in Los Angeles until 1985. I was cast in a movie called Five Corners, and I moved back for a couple months. I rented an apartment in Greenwich Village and I saw what had happened to the neighborhood. It had been gentrified. Where there used to be a first or second generation Italian shoemaker or baker, there was now a David’s Cookies. Where an old craftsman used to make guitars, another chain had moved in. Seeing my really interesting bohemian neighborhood turned into more of the same — the mallification of America — for me, that was disturbing. Because it wasn’t the Greenwich Village that I knew and I had grown up in. So I wrote the short film in response to that. In the first incarnation for the Saturday Night Live short, Bob Roberts was a yuppie businessman, but he wasn’t a politician. He was one of these guys that I saw in the neighborhood that had renovated a condo and was calling Greenwich Village his home. So it was a satire on the gentrification of my neighborhood. As time progressed, as I started to write the screenplay, Bob’s ambition grew. The businessman became a politician.
Was there always music?
Yes, he was a businessman folk singer. I actually shot one of the scenes at the Village Gate, which was this very famous nightclub. And Art D’Lugoff who ran the place really dug the idea of it because he was pissed off about [gentrification] too. “Times are Changin’ Back” was [one of the songs in] there. I believe “Don’t Smoke” was one of the songs — and that became “Don’t Vote.” And “This Land was Made For Me” was in there too.
Political faux documentaries aren’t meant to be blockbusters, but what was the feedback from studios or the people you needed to finance the film?
Well, let’s put it this way: it took five years to find financing for it. And this was back then, when there was a lot more appetite for indie films. We cobbled together the financing. We were in preproduction in Pittsburgh, and one of those things happened where you think you have a film but then you get a phone call that says, “Yeah, you need another star in the film.” And it was one of those late last-minute scrambles to try and hold the film together, sending the script out to people that I knew and trying to get them to agree to do a part that wasn’t the lead, for a lot less than they were earning. And it was Alan Rickman that saved the film.
God bless him.
Yeah. He read the script, loved the script. There was not really much of a part, but he said to me, “I think this film should be done.” He was riding on the success of Die Hard at the time, and he meant something to the financiers. So Bob Roberts was made because Alan Rickman signed on.
You have this amazing cast. Alan was coming off a high-point in his career, but you also had Giancarlo Esposito, Ray Wise, David Strathairn, a young Harry Lennix. It’s an eclectic bunch, and I assume most of them were like-minded, politically speaking. Did you get any Nos from people because they flinched at the film’s message, some “Thanks, but no thanks”?
Not a lot of Nos. A lot of the cameos were people that either I had worked with or who I knew through things that Susan [Sarandon] had done. Peter Gallagher, I had just worked with in The Player. James Spader had just worked with Susan. The idea was that I would cast the more famous people in the roles of the newscasters, and those were the kind of cameos you could ask someone to come to Pittsburgh for, you know, two days and it wouldn’t be a burden on their schedule. Helen Hunt was one of the reporters. Fisher Stevens. Fred Ward and Susan, of course. And I think the real the thing that truly helped the film was the casting of Gore Vidal, because he was bringing his own sensibility [to the role of incumbent Sen. Brickley Paiste]. First of all, just the fact that he liked the script was huge for me. It was, you know, validation, from someone who I really deeply respected. But also, it allowed me to really tap into him. So I had all my scripted stuff, and then I had this idea. We were at a set, and I asked the production designer, “Can you find me an office in this location we’re going to be in, and can you dress it as something that looks like a senator’s office?” The idea was to sit Gore down and to interview him post-election, after he’s been defeated. And let him talk about America and talk about Bob Roberts. And give him the opportunity to give his perception of what was dysfunctional about our system through the words of a man that’s given his life to service and has just been defeated by a huckster, a con-man.
Was this always a project that you wanted to direct, or did that become a necessity to get it made?
No, no. I always saw it as my first directorial project. Me being in it was the necessity to get it made. That was something I hadn’t necessarily originally intended, but in order to get the financing, I had to commit as an actor.
I don’t know what the precise chronology was, but it’s possible that you made this after or even in between your projects with Robert Altman. You had The Player right before? And maybe Short Cuts was right after? I’m curious what you learned from him that helped you as a first-time director.
I would have to say that his influence was fundamental to the success of the film. I had basically just set Bob Roberts up right before I was doing The Player, so for me, working with Altman was better than going to film school. On the set of The Player, I was unusually aware of what Bob was doing and how he approached directing. What was incredibly helpful to me was Bob embraced me as a collaborator. When I first met him, I remember talking a lot about the Actors’ Gang, because he was really curious about the work I was going in the theater. At that time, I had been writing and directing in the theater for quite a few years. So when he hired me, he sat me down in the office and he said, “I want to rewrite some of this script and I’d like you to be involved in that.” For me, that was kind of a mind-blowing experience, because when I was in high school and I saw Nashville, it kind of turned my whole perception of what movies can be around. It kind of reinvented what I had seen movies as, so I had always admired him as a filmmaker that was in his own class, his own world. The movies he was making were different than most of the movies I had seen. He was hero of mine, so for him to take me on as someone that was worthy of more than what I could bring as an actor was a huge, huge shot in the arm for me, for my confidence, for my approach directing my first film. And on top of that, with his consent, I took his first AD and the cinematographer, Jean Lépine, and asked them to work on Bob Roberts. And then, on top of that, in the editing process, I would show the film every… two weeks? Little private screenings on Fridays, and Bob came to a few of those and gave me notes and gave me encouragement.
Am I correct in saying you never released a soundtrack of Bob’s songs?
[Laughs] That’s correct.
Sadly, I think some of them would actually sell pretty well in a few regions in this country.
I don’t want that money.
Was that your concern at the time? You didn’t want the parodies to be misused—
I didn’t want them played out of context. I didn’t want to be riding in my car and hear some right-wing shock jock playing my music and hearing my voice.
The irony is, the songs are actually really good — not the message, of course — but good in the sense that they’re funny and that I actually want to listen to the tune. These are songs that you obviously put a ton of thought into. It was you and your brother, right?
That’s right. David Robbins. He wrote the music, I wrote the lyrics. Our dad [The Highwayman’s Gil Robbins] was a folk singer, so in a way, we knew the form. We also knew that we appropriating a form with lyrics that were awful. [Laughs]. Awful in the sense of being divisive. Years later, my brother and I formed a punk rock band called Gob Roberts and we did quite a few of the songs, sort of hard-core punk rock versions of “Complain” and a few others. People got the joke. And we changed some of the lyrics around. We wound up opening up for Pearl Jam and Deathcab for Cutie on the Vote for Change tour.
It’s tough to find accurate data from 25 years ago, but it looks like Bob Roberts wasn’t in theaters long. Like a month, starting in just a few theaters and maxing out at about 300. When you look back at the way it was rolled out, do you feel it got buried? I mean, thank goodness for DVD and cable and everything else, but what was your impression at the time? Because it got good reviews.
It got great reviews. I was little disappointed, to be honest. I felt they could have [done more] and more people could’ve seen it. You know, it was a challenging thing to sell. I don’t know, I don’t know. I’ve come to look at this in the long term: Shawshank Redemption was not a huge success when it came out [either]. My idea is when you’re making something, it better be something you’re going to be proud of 20, 30 years later. And the real test of a film is whether it can still play in 25 years. Does it still speak to the audience? You know, there are a lot of movies that made a lot more money than Bob Roberts, but they’re not relevant or they’re not watchable now. So, at the end of the day, history will judge all this. I think when we look at culture from a period of time, like if we go into the past and look at the culture that existed at the time, historians don’t look at how much money they made. Historians look at what the content was and was it relevant to the society at the time and is it still relevant now.
There’s no need for a sequel, because the reality has eclipsed the parody at this point, but where would you guess Bob Roberts would be in 2017?
He’d be in the White House. And there would be some kind of fake healing to get him out of the wheelchair.