TIM ROBBINS: “45 SECONDS”

Actor, director and activist Tim Robbins joins us to share the details about his new documentary “45 Seconds of Laughter,” and his work to reform the criminal justice system through the arts.

Aired on October 3, 2019. 

TRANSCRIPT

GOOD EVENING AND WELCOME TO 'METROFOCUS.'

TIM ROBBINS PERHAPS BEST KNOWN AS THE STAR OF THE 'SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION' HAS BEEN EXPLORING THE THEMES OF REDEMPTION, COMPASSION, AND FREEDOM WITHIN THE AMERICAN PRISON SYSTEM THROUGH MUCH OF HIS CAREER.

ROBIN'S NEW FILM '45 SECONDS OF LAUGHTER' A DOCUMENTARY SHOT IN A MAXIMUM SECURITY CALIFORNIA STATE PRISON CONTINUES TO EXPLORE THOSE THEMES IN AN EMOTIONALLY IMPACTFUL WAY.

THE DOCUMENTARY FOLLOWS A GROUP OF INCARCERATED MEN, MANY OF WHOM HAVE HAVE COMMITTED SERIOUS CRIMES.

IN THE WORKSHOP, THE PARTICIPANTS LEARN TO TAP INTO SUPPRESSED EMOTIONS, TO EXPLORE THEIR OWN HUMANITY, AND TO EXPRESS JOY WITHIN THE CONFINES OF THEIR INCARCERATION.

HERE'S A LOOK.

I WANT YOU GUYS TO GIVE ME A PICTURE OF A FUNERAL IN THREE, DON'T THINK, JUST GO, TWO, ERECT.

JUST REALLY RECEIVE FROM EACH OTHER AND SEE IF YOU CAN FIND IN THIS STATE A TONE, LIKE A SOUND, TOGETHER.

THAT TONE IS EXTENDED.

HEAR THAT?

SHARE WITH US, SOMEONE ELSE.

KEEP THE TONE GOING.

AND JOINING ME NOW IS THE CO-FOUNDER OF THE ACTOR'S GANG PRISON PROJECT AND THE DIRECTOR OF '45 SECONDS OF LAUGHTER,' TIM ROBBINS.

TIM, THANK YOU SO MUCH FOR JOINING US TODAY.

IT'S AN UNBELIEVABLE FILM.

LET'S GET RIGHT TO IT.

WHAT IS THE ORIGIN, FIRST OF ALL, OF THE PRISON PROJECT?

WHEN AND HOW DID IT BEGIN?

ONE OF MY ACTRESSES CAME TO ME ABOUT 13 YEARS AGO AND SAID, I WOULD LIKE TO START A PILOT PROGRAM IN PRISON USING THE WORK THAT WE DO, THE WAY THAT WE WORK AND TRAIN OUR OWN ACTORS.

AND AFTER A COUPLE OF THOSE SESSIONS, WE CAME TO START TO REFINE IT ENOUGH TO UNDERSTAND THAT IT COULD BE TRULY EFFECTIVE FOR THE MEN AND WOMEN THAT WE'RE WORKING WITH.

AND SO IT WAS AFTER ABOUT TWO OR THREE YEAR THAT IS WE STARTED UNDERSTANDING THE POWER OF IT AND SEEING THAT THERE WAS SOMETHING -- FOR WHATEVER REASON, THERE WAS SOMETHING ABOUT THIS PHYSICAL NATURE OF THE WORK THAT WE DO AND THE WAY WE TRAIN ACTORS AND DID DEMAND FOR EMOTIONAL HONESTY, COMBINATION OF THOSE TWO SEEMED TO REALLY CLICK WITH THE GENTLEMAN WE WERE WORKING WITH.

SO, AFTER A WHILE, WE CAME TO UNDERSTAND THROUGH ONE PARTICULAR INDIVIDUAL, A MAN NAME CHRIS BASSTANNO IN THE FILM, HE STARTED HIS OWN THEATER COMPANY AFTER WE TAUGHT HIM.

HE WAS AN INMATE?

YES.

SO, HE TRAINED -- WE GOT A CALL FROM THE PRISON ONE DAY THAT ONE OF THE GUYS TRAINED 40 NEW GUYS AND THEY WANT TO PUT ON A PLAY FOR YOU.

WOULD YOU COME BACK AND WATCH IT?

I SAID, YES, SURE.

WE CAME BACK AND TEARS IN OUR EYES.

THEN WE SAW THE FUTURE.

THAT'S PAYING IT FORWARD.

THAT'S HOW WE DO IT.

THAT'S HOW WE EXPAND.

WE EMPOWER INCARCERATED MEN AND WOMEN THEMSELVES TO RUN THEIR OWN WORKSHOPS AFTER WE TRAIN THEM.

SO, THAT'S HOW WE'RE ABLE TO BE NOW IN 13 PRISONS ON 15 YARDS.

SO, HOW ARE THE PRISONERS SELECTED?

HOW DO THEY COME TO THESE WORKSHOPS?

WE ASK FOR THE -- WE DON'T WANT THE TRUSTEES OR THE WELL-BEHAVED.

THAT'S NOT GOING TO DO ANY GOOD FOR ANY OF US.

WE WANT THE PEOPLE THAT ARE HAVING A STRUGGLE.

WE WANT THE SHOT CALLERS, THE PEOPLE THAT ARE HEADS OF GANGS.

WE WANT RIVAL GANGS IN THE SAME ROOM.

WE WANT IT TO BE MULTI-ETHNIC.

WE WANT IT TO BE MIXED SO THAT THE WORK CAN HAVE ITS BEST EFFECT.

YOU HAVE GROUND RULES WITHIN THE WORKSHOP.

WHAT ARE SOME OF THOSE GROUND RULES?

FIRST WE DO OUR OWN TRAINING, GROUND RULES ABOUT HOW WE BEHAVE.

IT'S VERY, VERY IMPORTANT TO TREAT IT AS A CLASS AND NOT AS A SOCIAL GATHERING.

AND THE RULES ARE THE SAME RULES THAT WE HAVE FOR OUR OWN ACTORS WHEN WE TRAIN THEM.

BUT I'M THINKING OF WHERE YOU TALK IN THE FILM YOU DON'T USE THE GANG NAMES.

YOU USE THEIR OWN ACTUAL NAMES.

RIGHT.

YOU DON'T DO GANG LANGUAGE, GANG SIGNS, THAT KIND OF THING.

THE VERY FIRST THING WE DO IS INTRODUCE OURSELVES AND YOU HAVE TO USE YOUR REAL NAME, YOUR BIRTH NAME, NOT YOUR PRISON NAME.

THIS IS ONE OF THE THINGS THAT SETS EVERYBODY ON THE ROAD TO REDISCOVERY BECAUSE IN PRISON PEOPLE HAVE TO ADOPT PERSONALITIES THAT THEY MIGHT NOT BE COMFORTABLE WITH BUT JUST HAVE TO TO SURVIVE.

TALK TO MANY PEOPLE THAT ARE PARTICULARLY WHITE PEOPLE IN PRISON THAT HAVE TO JOIN AN ARYAN NATION KIND OF ORGANIZATION IN ORDER TO SURVIVE AND HAVE NO -- THAT'S NOT THEIR INCLINATION.

THAT'S NOT WHO THEY WERE OUTSIDE.

BUT THEY HAVE TO WHEN THEY'RE IN.

AND SAME -- ACROSS THE BOARD, THERE'S SO MANY DIFFERENT PRESSURES.

IT'S ONE OF THE THINGS WE TALK ABOUT IN THE CLASS IS -- ONE OF THE THINGS THE GUYS TELL US AND THE WOMEN TELL US AFTER A WHILE AFTER THEY PUT ON THE MAKE UP AND HAVE BEE DOING THE CLASS FOR A THEY SAY, I DIDN'T R'VE EN WEAR TIME I'VE BEEN IN PRISON.

THAT MASK I'M WEARING ON THE YARD IS NOT WHO I AM.

I'M MORE THAN THAT.

I'M MORE THAN THAT ANGRY FA AND THAT TOUGH GUY FACE.

THEY SAY THINGS LIKE THAT ON THE AIR.

RIGHT.

AND ONLY PART OF MYSELF CAN GO THROUGH, THIS MASCOT.

YOU HAVE THEM DO A SERIES OF EXERCISES.

EACH EXERCISE HAS ITS OWN GOAL OR PURPOSE.

BUT OVERALL, WHAT IS THE LARGE GOAL OR PURPOSE OF THIS SERIES OF EXERCISES?

WHERE DO YOU WANT TO GET THEM TO EMOTIONALLY AND PSYCHOLOGICALLY?

I THINK THE ULTIMATE GOAL IS TO REMIND ALL OF THEM THAT THEY'RE HUMAN BEINGS AND THAT THEY'RE WORTH SOMETHING.

AND THE WAY THEY ACHIEVE THAT IS THROUGH A COLLECTIVE, NOT THROUGH THE INDIVIDUAL.

AND THAT'S WHY WE ORGANIZE MOST OF THE EXERCISES AROUND GROUP ACTIVITIES.

HOW DO YOU ACHIEVE THIS TOGETHER?

THE TWO LINES WALKING?

HOW DO YOU REACH THE END, TURN AROUND AT THE SAME TIME WITHOUT SEEING EACH OTHER?

HOW DOES THAT HAPPEN, BY THE WAY?

IT BLOWS ME AWAY EVERY TIME, BUT IT HAPPENS.

I SAW ONE IN IRON WOOD PRISON THAT WAS ABOUT A MINUTE AND A HALF WHERE THEY WERE -- THEY HAD THEIR BACKS TO EACH OTHER.

AND THEN SOMEHOW MIRACULOUSLY, THEY TURN AROUND --

AT THE SAME TIME.

IT WAS STUNNING.

I GET CHILLS EVEN THINKING ABOUT IT RIGHT NOW.

IT'S ABOUT CONNECTION.

IT'S ABOUT COMMUNICATING IN WAYS THAT WE'RE NOT NORMALLY USED TO COMMUNICATING IN.

IT'S ABOUT WHAT CAN HAPPEN IN AN ENSEMBLE WHEN YOU ACCEPT EACH OTHER, YOU DON'T JUDGE EACH OTHER, AND YOU ARE GENEROUS WITH EACH OTHER.

NOW, THE THEATER FORM THAT YOU USE IN THESE WORKSHOPS, WHY THAT?

WELL, BACK IN 1984, I TRAINED WITH AN ACTOR NAMED GEORGE IN PARIS.

THEY HAD COME TO L.A. FOR THE OLYMPIC ARTS FESTIVAL, AND THEY WERE A SENSATION.

SO, ONE OF THEIR ACTORS, GEORGE, STAYED BEHIND AND RAN THE WORKSHOP.

SO, FOUR OF US FROM THE ACTOR'S GANG WHICH WAS AT THE TIME TWO YEARS OLD, A BUNCH OF PUNK ROCKERS WITH A BIG PASSION BUT NOT A LOT OF DISCIPLINE.

WE TOOK THIS CLASS AND IT KIND OF SHIFTED OUR THOUGHT ABOUT WHAT WE CAN DO IN THEATER AND HOW WE CAN ACHIEVE IT.

ESSENTIALLY THE COMMUNITY DELARTE IS THE PEOPLES' STORY.

THOSE TROOPS BEGAN IN ITALY WHEN THEY WERE TRAVELING AROUND DOING SOCIAL SATIRE.

THEY WEREN'T ACCEPTED.

THEY WEREN'T PART OF THE ELITE.

AND THEY WERE IN A LOT OF WAYS THE ENMUEMY OF POWER.

AND MOST OF THE STORIES TOLD HAVE TO DO WITH THE STRUGGLE BETWEEN THE POOR AND THE RICH AND THE PURSUIT OF TRUE LOVE.

SO, IT'S A STORY WE KNOW.

IT'S A UNIVERSAL STORY.

I'VE SEEN THIS STORY IN MANY DIFFERENT CULTURES THAT ARE NOT ITALIAN.

I SAW IT IN BALI IN A TOWN SQUARE, THE SAME STORY, A YOUNG WOMAN IN LOVE WITH A MAN, WANTS TO MARRY HIM, THE GUY WANTS TO SELL HER OFF, YOU KNOW?

SO, WE START WITH THAT.

AND HAVING OUR TYPICAL CHARACTERS HELPS JUST ELIMINATE THE WHOLE PRESSURE OF CREATING A CHARACTER OUT OF WHOLE CLOTH.

YOU HAVE AN ARCHETYPE, BUT WHN THE ARCHETYPE, THERE ARE INDIVIDUAL SPECIFIC BEHAVIORS YOU CAN FIND.

AND YOU SEE THE INMATES DIG FROM THEIR OWN EXPERIENCES.

YES.

AS THEY PERFORM.

AND EVERY ONE OF THEM HAS BEEN IN LOVE.

THEY MAY DO IT IN SPANISH.

IT'S SO ELOQUENT.

ANYWAY, THERE ARE A NUMBER OF MANY, MANY MOVING MOVEMENTS IN THE FILM.

THERE'S ONE WHERE YOU HAVE THE INMATES, ONE INMATE PORTRAYS SADNESS AND BREAKS DOWN AND ACTUALLY BREAKS DOWN AND CRIES IN FRONT OF THE CAMERA.

THERE'S ANOTHER ONE AT THE END WHERE THE INMATES INVITE THE GUARDS INTO THEIR CIRCLE, THANK THE GUARDS AND THE GUARDS THANK THEM.

I ALMOST START CRYING WHEN I THINK ABOUT THESE THINGS.

THERE'S A PARTICULAR MOMENT NOT WORKSHOPS, TIS AT THAT GETS ME E ALL OF THEM TO A FUNERAL.

AND YOU SAW A LITTLE GLIMPSE OF IT IN THIS FILM.

BUT THE LONGER EXERCISE IS YOU TAKE THEM ALL TO THE FUNERAL OF ONE OF THE CHARACTERS AND EACH ONE OF THEM HAS TO GO TO THE GRAVE AND SAY SOMETHING -- DOESN'T HAVE TO BE OUTLOUD.

IT CAN BE UNDER THEIR BREATH, A GOOD-BYE.

AND THEY PUT A FLOWER INTO THE GRAVE, A MIMED POWER.

AND EACH ONE GOES THROUGH THIS AND YOU SEE THEM GOING DEEPER AND DEEP INTO THIS STATE OF SADNESS OR FEAR OR ANGER.

AND THEY'RE REMEMBERING FUNERALS THEY'VE BEEN TO, OR WORSE, THEY ARE REMEMBERING FUNERALS THEY COULDN'T ATTEND OF THEIR MOTHERS OR THEIR SISTERS BECAUSE THEY WERE INCARCERATED.

AND THEN AT THE END OF -- AFTER EVERYONE'S PUT THE FLOWER IN, I ASK EVERYONE TO LOOK AT EACH OTHER.

AND IT'S THAT MOMENT THAT THINGS SHIFT IN A HUGE WAY BECAUSE THEY LOOK AT THEIR FORMER ENEMY AND THEY SEE HUMANITY IN THEIR EYES.

AND THEY CAN'T HATE THEM IN THE ABSTRACT ANYMORE IF THEY HAVE SHARED THIS.

AND THEN AFTER THAT, I SAY IF YOU WANT TO, YOU CAN COMFORT THE OTHER PERSON.

WOW.

AND THEN YOU SEE THESE GUYS HUGGING AND TEARS COMING OUT OF THEIR EYES.

AND IT'S LIKE -- IT'S -- YOU KNOW, THAT'S THE SHIFT.

THAT'S WHAT THEY START TAKING OUT INTO THE YARD.

AND SINCE WE'RE WORKING WITH THE SHOT CALLERS, SINCE WE'RE WORKING WITH THE PEOPLE THAT HAVE POWER WITHIN PRISON, IT STARTS TO MAKE THE YARD SAFER.

YEAH.

WELL, LISTEN, AT THE END OF THE FILM, YOU END THE FILM WITH A QUOTE FROM SISTER HELEN WHO OF COURSE WROTE 'DEAD MAN WALKING,' THE FILM YOU WERE NOMINATING FOR DIRECTING.

THE QUOTE READS, EVERYONE IS WORTH MORE THAN THEIR WORST ACT.

IS THAT IN A NUTSHELL WHAT YOU HOPE THE VIEWERS TAKE FROM THIS FILM, THE KNOWLEDGE THAT THAT, AND THE SENSE THAT THAT IS TRUE?

I WOULD HOPE SO.

AND IT'S SOMETHING I THINK WE ALL KNOW.

IT'S JUST WE NEED TO BE REMINDED OF IT.

I THINK THE OTHER THING IS THAT WHEN WE HAVE SEEN THE INCARCERATED PORTRAYED IN MEDIA, WHETHER IT'S IN FILMS OR TELEVISION SHOWS OR WHETHER IT'S IN THOSE SHOCK DOCUMENTARIES THEY DO ABOUT HOW DANGEROUS AND, YOU KNOW, HOW BAD EVERYONE IS IN PRISON, IT DOESN'T REALLY PROMOTE A PARTICULARLY COMPASSIONATE OR UNDERSTANDING . AND AS LONG AS THAT IS THE CASE, IT'S OKAY FOR US AS A SOCIETY TO PUT SOMEONE AWAY FOR 40 YEARS FOR POSSESSION OF MARIJUANA.

UNTIL WE REALIZE WHO THESE PEOPLE ARE, UNTIL WE UNDERSTAND THAT THERE ARE, THERE'S AN AMAZING WEALTH OF HUMAN TALENT AND WORTH IN PRISON, WE HAVE TO -- UNTIL WE UNDERSTAND -- AND AS HUMAN BEINGS WE'RE GOING TO CONTINUE THIS INCREDIBLY INSANE OVERINCARCERATION THAT WE'VE ADOPTED AS POLICY IN THIS COUNTRY.

IF YOU LOOKT IT, IT'S AN OUTRAGE WE'RE PUTTING KIDS AWAY FOR SO LONG.

WHEN I WAS DOING 'SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION' IN 1993 IN OHIO IN A PRETTY CONSERVATIVE AREA AND I ASKED THE PRISON GUARDS WHAT THEY WOULD DO TO CHANGE THE SYSTEM, THEY ALL SAID LEGALIZE MARIJUANA.

THIS IS SALT OF THE EARTH CONSERVATIVE REPUBLICAN OHIO SAYING THIS.

I SAID WHAT DO YOU MEAN?

THEY SAID LISTEN, IF YOU DON'T HAVE THE COURAGE TO LEGALIZE MARIJUANA, AT LEAST HAVE TWO SEPARATE PLACES TO PUT THE PEOPLE.

THE NON-VIOLENT AND THE VIOLENT.

BECAUSE WHAT WE'RE DOING, WE'RE PUTTING IN THESE KIDS.

THEY GOT UNLUCKY, THEY GOT PUTTING IT IN WITH THESE VIOLENT CRIMINALS.

THEY CALLED IT CRIME SCHOOL.

OBVIOUSLY WE WEREN'T LISTENING TO PRISON GUARDS BACK IN '93, WITH E GOT INTO A SYSTEM OF OVERINCARCERATION THAT HAS JUST BLOWN UP.

WE INCARCERATE MORE PEOPLE THAN ANYBODY IN THE WORLD.

AND WHEN YOU UNDERSTAND THE DEGREE OF SENTENCING FOR THE CRIME, OFTEN TIMES NON-VIOLENT CRIMES BECAUSE OF LACK OF DISCRETION OF THE JUDGE LEGALLY OR MINIMUM SENTENCES OR THREE STRIKE LAWS, YOU START TO UNDERSTAND WE'RE DOING SOMETHING AWFUL TO NOT ONLY THE PEOPLE THAT WE'RE INCARCERATING BUT THEIR FAMILIES.

THEIR FAMILIES ARE DESTROYED BY THIS.

YOU MENTIONED 'SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION.'

THIS IS THE 25th ANNIVERSARY OF THAT FILM.

IT'S UNBELIEVABLE.

YOU ARE KNOWN AS I SAID IN THE INTRODUCTION, YOU'RE PROBABLY BEST KNOWN FOR THAT AND FOR DIRECTING THE FILM VERSION OF 'DEAD MAN WALKING.'

THIS THEME OF JUSTICE WITHIN THE PRISON SYSTEM CLEARLY HAS BEEN A BIG PART OF YOUR SOCIAL CONCERNS.

WHY?

WELL, I GREW UP IN GREENWICH VILLAGE IN THE '60s AND EARLY '70s.

AND AS ROMANTIC AS IT SOUNDS, IT WAS A ROUGH TIME.

THERE WERE FIGHTS.

THERE WERE STABBINGS.

THERE WERE -- YOU HAD TO LEARN TO RUN OR FIGHT.

AND YOU HAD TO AVOID CERTAIN AREAS.

YOU KNOW, THE PATHS THAT I WOULD TAKE TO MY APARTMENT WERE OFTEN DETERMINED BY TRYING TO AVOID A VIOLENT -- A POTENTIALLY VIOLENT SITUATION.

SO, TO GROW UP IN THAT ENVIRONMENT, I CAME TO UNDERSTAND THAT, YOU KNOW, THE PEOPLE THAT WERE GOING TO PRISON WERE OFTEN TIMES PEOPLE THAT I KNEW.

AND SO I NEVER REALLY FELT THAT FAR REMOVED FROM PEOPLE THAT WEREN'T AS LUCKY AS I WAS.

IN FACT, I STILL PLAY HOCKEY WITH ONE OF THE GUYS THAT WENT THROUGH THAT.

AND SO I -- IN THE '80s AND '90s, WHEN I SAW PEOPLE START TO GET -- CRIMINALIZED POSSESSION OF MARIJUANA, FOR EXAMPLE, IN THE '70s AND WHEN THAT STARTED TO REALLY TAKE HOLD AND THE OVERINCARCERATION STARTED TO HAPPEN, IT WAS THERE FOR THE GRACE OF GOD -- I WAS GUILTY OF THE CRIME OF POSSESSION THAT PEOPLE WERE BEING PUT AWAY FOR MANY, MANY YEARS FOR.

SO, AGAIN, I DIDN'T FEEL THAT FAR REMOVED FROM THE PEOPLE WE WERE INCARCERATING.

SO, I SAID ABSOLUTELY.

WE ALWAYS TRIED TO REACH OUT TO OUR COMMUNITY.

AND WE'VE BEEN DOING EDUCATION PROGRAMS FOR YEARS IN UNDERSERVED SCHOOLS.

SO, WE SAW THIS AS A NATURAL EXTENSION OF THAT.

ALL RIGHT.

WELL, TIM, THE FILM '45 SECONDS OF LAUGHTER' BECAUSE THAT'S THE LAST THING THEY DO AT THE END OF EVERY KPEREXERCISE, THEY LAUGH 45 SECONDS.

THANKS FOR JOINING ME.

'45 SECONDS OF LAUGHTER' WILL BE FEATURED AT THE NEW YORK FILM FESTIVAL.

Funders

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