TORONTO — Robert Redford's Sundance Film Festival has hooked up scores of eager young directors with theatrical distributors.
Now Redford has succeeded at the same independent game he helped establish with Sundance: He came to the Toronto International Film Festival with a drama made outside of Hollywood and went away with a deal to land it in theaters.
Acquired Wednesday by Lionsgate and Roadside Attractions, Redford's Lincoln assassination saga "The Conspirator" arguably was the biggest film to enter the prestigious Toronto festival without a distributor already in place.
Redford had been to the Toronto festival before with a film he directed, 1992's "A River Runs Through It." People had asked him about the possibility of premiering "The Conspirator" at Sundance in January, but he never considered it, recalling the mixed feelings he had when his own festival premiered a film in which he starred, "The Clearing," in 2004.
"I was uneasy about that and still am and think that was a mistake. I don't ever want to do that again. I see that as too dangerously self-serving, and I just don't want it," Redford, 74, said in an interview.
"The Conspirator" is a $20 million production, small by Hollywood standards but huge for the independent world, where movies often are made by unknowns who max out their credit cards just to cover the basic costs of filming.
The story of "The Conspirator" also is huge, chronicling the little-known aftermath of the assassination, when boarding-house owner Mary Surratt (Robin Wright) was put on trial at a military tribunal along with male defendants accused of plotting with Lincoln's killer, John Wilkes Booth.
Reluctantly recruited to defend Surratt, a Union war hero (James McAvoy) gradually comes to doubt his own government's motives, viewing his client as a scapegoat in a sham trial.
"The Conspirator" is the first production financed by the American Film Co., launched by billionaire Joe Ricketts, who founded the online brokerage Ameritrade and whose family owns the Chicago Cubs. Ricketts started the production outfit to make films based on American history.
Wright, like many Americans, knew nothing about the conspiracy trial that followed the assassination.
"The household name was Booth growing up in history class," Wright said. "That's all I remember."
The film is stacked with rhetoric about civil liberties and constitutional rights, lines that could come from the mouths of critics assailing tribunals and detention of suspects in today's war on terror.
"The fact that the comparisons are there, it's partly because it's about a miscarriage of justice, which I think is completely part of the human experience. Not just the recent experience of post-9/11 Western countries," McAvoy said. Redford "was at pains not to let us really ram it down people's throats. Some of the lines we had to change as well because they were just too on the nose, and some of the stuff that some of the characters said were like quotes from many politicians of today."
Redford said he was cautious about the rhetoric, saying, "I have been framed — maybe it's my own fault — framed as somebody that's doing political films with a liberal bent to them."
Any parallels to today arose entirely from the story unfolding in "The Conspirator," he said.
"The beauty of it is, this is not something that a filmmaker invents to put in there as a kind of a lesson to be learned or something to be preached to get attention. History provides it," Redford said. "History is a series of loops. Patterns keep repeating themselves. If you get McCarthy, you're going to get Nixon, and you're going to get Bush. You're just going to get that. You're going to get those patterns."
"The Conspirator" co-stars Kevin Kline, Evan Rachel Wood, Alexis Bledel, Justin Long, Tom Wilkinson and Colm Meaney.
Lionsgate and Roadside Attractions plan to release the film next spring, timing that suits Redford, who said he senses renewed interest in the assassination with an off-Broadway play about Booth and other Lincoln-related projects.
"It feels like the time for this is kind of now. Because something's getting in the air right now about Lincoln. It's coming back. It periodically comes back in waves. Lincoln's assassination has never gone away. It's become an ongoing American issue," Redford said. "There's something in the air, and you want to get ahead of that."