'A Walk in the Woods' Director on Why Robert Redford Put Film on Shelf After Paul Newman's Death

Courtesy of Sundance International Film Festival
'A Walk in the Woods'

Ken Kwapis tells THR about his first time shooting with drones, Nick Nolte putting him in a headlock and Atlanta standing in for the Appalachian Trail.

The director of the Robert Redford-Nick Nolte comedy A Walk in the Woods learned firsthand during the shoot that Nolte's upper-body strength is as impressive as ever.

Woods, which hit theaters on Wednesday, Sept. 2, centers on writer Bill Bryson (Redford) and estranged pal Stephen Katz's (Nolte) effort to hike the Appalachian Trail. Based on the best-selling 1998 memoir by travel writer Bryson, the film also stars Emma Thompson, Mary Steenburgen, Kristen Schaal and Nick Offerman.

Director Ken Kwapis, who has helmed such previous films as Sesame Street Presents: Follow That Bird (1985), The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants (2005), He's Just Not That Into You (2009) and Big Miracle (2012), spoke to The Hollywood Reporter about why Paul Newman's death delayed the film, using drones and camels during production and getting put in several playful headlocks by Nolte on the set.

The film was in development for over a decade before you came on board. What took so long to get things off the ground?

I was a latecomer to the party. [When Redford read the book,] he fell in love with it. He optioned the rights from Bill Bryson and began developing the script as a vehicle for Paul Newman and himself. But Paul Newman grew ill, and after he passed away, Redford shelved the project — Bob told me that he couldn't imagine doing it with anyone other than Newman, so the project sat dormant for some time. Then, Bob began directing his [2012] picture The Company You Keep, and Bob cast Nick Nolte in a supporting role, and they had a couple of scenes together. What's interesting is that Bob and Nick really didn't know each other, but they had a splendid time working together, and when Bob wrapped The Company You Keep, he pulled A Walk in the Woods off the shelf and said, "Nolte's the perfect Stephen Katz."

How did you get involved?

Along the way, there were different screenwriters and directors involved with the picture. I know Richard Linklater was involved for a moment, Barry Levinson was involved, Larry Charles. I know [novelist] Richard Russo worked on the film. I met Bob in the fall of 2013 — we got on really well and had a wonderful meeting of the minds about the script. And then in January of 2014, Bob called me, and he said, "Let's meet one more time" — we did, and then he said, "Let's please make this film together." So I was almost immediately on a plane to Georgia to begin scouting locations. I love the idea that even though it's about two older men tackling this very challenging trail, at the end of the day, it's really a story about what comes next, what's the next adventure around the corner.

Kwapis directs Redford and Thompson in A Walk in the Woods.

What was it like to give direction to Redford, who is both a legendary actor and also a director himself?

The great thing about Bob is, right from the get-go, he told me, "I'm going to take off my directing hat, and I'm going to take off my producing hat. I want to focus solely on my performance. I really want to create the character of Bill Bryson." He's a wonderful director and a wonderful storyteller, but I really loved that he trusted me to guide him and the others. Sometimes, the smartest thing a director can do is to shut up and let two masters do their thing. But it was very important to me to find the right balance between these two characters. I wanted to maintain a good contrast between them.

How much of the film actually was shot on the trail?

We were based in Atlanta — we shot most of the picture in Atlanta. The good news is that Atlanta has remarkable parks and wilderness for hiking in and around the city. We were able to re-create the Appalachian Trail in Atlanta. We also went outside the city to Amicalola Lodge — that's where Bryson and Katz begin the trail. That is where most northbound hikers begin. And then, with a small unit, we went along the Appalachian Trail itself to photograph Bryson and Katz at various iconic spots along the way. None of the great locations were accessible by car — we actually used camels at one point to carry gear in the Georgia woods. And the shots were not easy. Among other things, we were using a drone for our aerial shots.

Redford and Nolte take a break during filming.

Had you worked with drones before?

No, it was the first time I had ever done aerials with a drone, and to be honest, not long after we wrapped, the government actually enacted a prohibition on using drones in national parks. We got our shots in under the wire. (Laughs.) But they're great shots. And the drone is shockingly stable — even on a slightly windy day, I'm shocked by how stable those images are.

Given the film's lean budget, was it tough getting the movie made in the way you wanted?

Yes and no. This is really the first significant, independently financed film I've ever directed, maybe with one exception. Every other feature I've done, it was financed by a studio. So on one hand, [Woods] had certain restrictions because you only had a certain amount of money. You couldn't go over budget — you had to solve the problem. But on the other hand, I felt remarkably liberated by the fact that I wasn't reporting to a studio. I didn't have to report to a studio chief — I just had to bring it in on time and on budget. When you're working for a studio, there's a lot of people minding the store. I'll leave it at that.

Redford and Nolte in a scene from A Walk in the Woods.

What was it like working with the other actors in the film?

What I love about all the other players — Emma Thompson, Mary Steenburgen, Kristen Schaal, Nick Offerman — all of them have an amazing ability to be funny in a way that's completely grounded. You never feel like anything they do is schticky. And Kristen can go way out there. (Laughs.) Her character is a very memorable one in the book, and Kristen knocked that one out of the park.

Did the two lead actors keep things lighthearted on set? Did they ever pull any pranks?

Both Bob and Nick were very mischievous, and they certainly liked teasing me. And occasionally, for no apparent reason, Nick would just put me into a headlock. He was always very affectionate about it, but it reminded me that, "Oh, my God, once upon a time, this guy was a college football player." (Laughs.) Some serious upper-body strength. But I would say that they really enjoyed each other's company. They stuck to the script — it feels loose and off-the-cuff, but the truth is, they really stuck to the script.

What's something we don't know about Redford?

Here's something that surprised me: He likes to sing. And I will tell you that he is a big fan of the film Singin' in the Rain, and occasionally he would greet me in the morning by singing the song "Good Morning" from Singin' in the Rain. I said, "Bob, why haven't you done a musical?" I think one day he also sang a song from the great musical The Most Happy Fella. (Laughs.) I just thought, "Wow, who knew? He sounds pretty damn good!"

Email: Ryan.Gajewski@THR.com
Twitter: @_RyanGajewski