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Courtesy of James Redford

A Sensibility of Hope: Interview with James Redford

A film industry veteran with a full and varied filmography, James Redford’s career highlights include writer of Skinwalkers (2002) a television series based on the work of detective novelist Tony Hillerman; director of Spin (2003) a coming-of-age romance/drama starring Stanley Tucci; director of Kindness of Strangers (1999), a documentary about organ donation and transplantation; writer of Cowboy Up (2001) starring Kiefer Sutherland; and the writer/director of Quality Time a comedic short starring Jason Patric (1995).

Redford currently follows the path of documentary filmmaker. In 2012, he produced Watershed: Exploring a New Ethic for the New West, about water issues in the American Southwest. He produced and directed the HBO film, The Big Picture: Rethinking Dyslexia, released in 2013—which also saw the release of Toxic Hot Seat, about the toxic substances placed in our furniture and household products. Released in 2015, Paper Tigers follows six high-school students through one year of an innovative program for traumatized youth. Redford followed that film in 2016 with Resilience, exploring the relationship between neglect and abuse during childhood and subsequent adverse physiological and psychological consequences. The film includes breakthrough treatments to prevent the damaging consequences.

After Redford’s wife, Kyle, introduced her friend, Karen Pritzker, to him, the two partnered to form their production company, KPJR Films. Pritzker had already been working for years at the Yale Center for Dyslexia and Creativity. Redford is also Chairperson and co-founder—with his father—of The Redford Center which addresses “frontline social and environmental issues through relatable stories, impact films, and campaigns that lead to positive change.”

All of the above may seem daunting—yet, as you will read, he has done and is doing much more. Redford has survived two liver transplants—after a rare disease blocked his own liver's bile ducts. Consequently, he founded and is president of The James Redford Institute for Transplant Awareness. He is a songwriter and musician currently playing with Olive and the Dirty Martinis, the Olive of which is actor Peter Coyote's wife, Stefanie. When not making movies or music, Redford surfs, cycles, and skis.

Although the answer was obvious, I did not want to make any assumptions, so I asked...

James, what brought you into the worlds of filmmaking?

Well, obviously, I grew up in a home in which film was the language of the household. My earliest memories, on the weekend, we would screen 16 mm prints of old classics in the living room.

Story telling takes so many forms, so visual story telling was just something that always seemed innately appealing. I had a brief foray into literature, and thought about teaching. I went to graduate school, and got my M.A. at Northwestern, in literature. By half-way through that program I realized that I was not meant to explore theory—I was more interested in exploring the true human experience.

After that there were a number of years of just trying to stay alive with health issues, etc. I eventually settled into narrative and documentary story telling.

Regarding writing, with your B.A. and M.A. in literature, do you also write for publication?

No, I don’t. I’ve never submitted anything for publication. I did work briefly as a correspondent for a magazine in Colorado, in the late eighties, called Rolling Stock Literary Review, that was published by the University of Colorado. But, by the time I was really focusing on telling stories, I was in screenplays.

You’ve got two documentaries coming out now, and more on the way. At this point in your life do you see yourself exclusively in the documentary world?

I don’t really have a set rule about what kind of stories I’m going to tell, but I would say that right now I’m up to my neck in documentaries—happily so.

Right now I’ve got two films rolling out, one of ‘em is The Big Picture: Rethinking Dyslexia which takes a hard look at dyslexia—what it is and what it isn’t—the problems as well as some interesting gifts that come along with it. I’m also in the midst of distributing a film called Watershed which takes a look at the looming water crisis in the southwest—and some hopeful ideas about how to adjust to a new reality involving water, ‘cause it’s coming.

Both of these films try to—and I would say it is definitely my guiding light these days—try to offer looking at hard situations with a sensibility of hope. You know, it’s just where I’m coming from. I’m trying to put my own personal way of looking at problems into how I tell documentary stories.

I want to talk about The Big Picture. Other than having something to do with problems reading, I knew absolutely nothing about dyslexia. Your film is revelatory. I was equally amazed and disturbed to learn about the challenges dyslexics face, and that one in five of us human beings has dyslexia.

Yes. Honestly, I had trouble comprehending that when I heard it as a statistic. It really wasn’t until I finished this film and started screening it in front of audiences—and I would be standing on the stage looking out at audiences, and looking into faces, and seeing raised hands—that that statistic came to life for me. It’s just so wide-spread and prevalent. And if the person raising their hand isn’t dyslexic, it’s a parent, or grandparent, or sibling. I mean it’s extraordinary.

And why is it, you know, that mostly any struggle or difficulty that affects that percentage of the population—globally—would be so well understood, and so-well sort of wrestled with, on a very deep level. You’d think we’d be far more sophisticated about dyslexia at this point in terms of what it is, what it isn’t, and how to help people reach their potential in spite of it.

But I think it speaks to how deep our insecurities are, and how profoundly stigmatized people are who struggle to read, that they’re worried that it’s going to indicate poor intelligence. And certainly the trouble with reading out loud for dyslexics, and verbalizing words they’re not familiar with, it can be traumatic.

So, we live in a glib, fast world where we think that the faster you talk and the faster you read, the more intelligent you are. And I think we’re at the dawn of a time in which that sort of ability—'cause it is, those are skills—they’re going to become increasingly less important to moving far forward societally. Because computers do those things faster than we ever could.

So what human beings really have to offer, at least for now, is creativity, and original thinking. And, you see with dyslexics an unusual ability to do this. Why are we not embracing that? And drawing out the potential of one in five people? People who are uniquely well suited for the future. Makes no sense.

One of the feelings I had watching The Big Picture was anger—at myself for not knowing about dyslexia, at my world for not making sure I knew about the challenges and opportunities it affords, and for unnecessarily traumatizing countless millions of young people.

Yeah. Honestly, as a father, really, it comes down to that. The fact that [executive producer] Karen Pritzker approached me to make the movie was one of the biggest gifts of my life. When you watch your child be misunderstood and underestimated from age five until 15, and you know the potential, and you know the intelligence, and you know the creativity, and yet you see the world that refuses to recognize these things, it’s painful. And for me to have an opportunity to help dispel those misconceptions, I mean it was deeply therapeutic to make the film.

How many film festival screenings have you presented?

Half a dozen so far, and more to come. I’ve been to three or four of them.

What were your audiences’ responses?

When the lights come up, I’m looking at people in various stages of emotions. A lot of the younger dyslexics are energized and encouraged by seeing the movie. They recognize that it is their experience. They feel validated. You also see people in their sixties and seventies who have carried the weight of that stigma their whole lives—and, frankly, I think there’s some sadness there. There’s a realization that things are changing now, but that to live a life of shame around your reading speed and your spelling capacity, and let that inform how you see yourself is really kind of tragic. There was a sweetly sad quality to the folks who were never diagnosed, who struggled their whole lives.

And then there were the faces of the parents who are concerned, focused and anxious because they’re trying to figure out how to help their children navigate our educational system. And those are the ones for which I think this film has unique value—because if I had seen a film like this when my son was in third grade and functionally illiterate, it would have been really helpful for me to know that the outcome was far from dire, that it wasn’t an academic death sentence to be a dyslexic. In 2002, when my son was diagnosed, we really didn’t know.

And there’s all kinds of things going on now. You can feel there’s a groundswell around this thing. And we’re just tapping into it, taking part in that. But the core issue with this film was to make the film I wish I had seen—now having gone through the whole journey, from preschool through to college; I do have a perspective on that.

You said, ‘it would have been really helpful.’ Having learned from the film the trials and tribulations dyslexics and their families have faced, it seems like the word ‘helpful’ is an understatement.

The thing about my son—and so many dyslexics—is that you’ll see very often that the ability to see the big picture, which is unique to dyslexics, actually helps them keep a perspective on the problem. Particularly nowadays as we’re starting to use assistive technologies like voice recognition software, automatic spell-check, calculators—all these things are enormously helpful to dyslexics.

And, so as hard as it is—there’s still a lot of pain out there—you’ll also see a sort of self-effacing humor about it, a recognition that there’s more than this struggle. Very often dyslexics will be excelling in athletics or non-academic pursuits like art, dance or even participating in debates—things where they have the time to prepare and organize their unique and original thought. So, it’s not a legion of dour sufferers out there, in other words. But that doesn’t mean they don’t deserve a level playing field when it comes to education. They do.

Yes. That’s one of the strongest points of the film. How else are you promoting The Big Picture in addition to HBO?

HBO has an enormous subscription base; premiers on HBO tend to reach a million plus people—conservatively. So, it’s an enormous tool in that regard.

And I also see the value of this project—Karen and I see it the same way—that really the film is, as hard as we’ve worked on it, and as proud as we are of it, it’s the biggest piece of this campaign, but there’s more.

There’s the website, the screenings, the discounted educational DVD for high schools that we’ve worked hard to subsidize, so that we can make sure that it gets to schools. We are helping people host community screenings. And, you know, why I’m talking to you, and why I talk to people is that the film actually allows a dialog to happen. So, there’s the value of watching the film itself, but then there’s the fact that the film being out there opens the door to a whole bunch more. Many more dialogs happening in the media. And that’s all part of trying to create a better understanding.

Will you be releasing a commercial DVD?

Yes, there will be a commercial DVD release in the spring [2013]. This will give us an opportunity to include more information.

As someone who sees several documentary films a month many of which do not have distribution I feel frustrated on behalf of the filmmakers. How to get the film seen has become more challenging than raising the production funds. What are your thoughts about these challenges?

I get puzzled sometimes, because when I have conversations with people, so many people say, ‘oh, I love documentaries.’ And I say, ‘really?!’ Sometimes I wonder if people feel like it’s a vitamin that you have to take, rather than really enjoying the film—that's my despairing part.

But at the same time I have to think that if you include all the people that see a clip on YouTube, or a Vimeo snippet, or a piece carried on some other site, and they at least watched five minutes of it, that's a bigger number. It may be in today's world it's actually a good idea to go ahead and celebrate those five minutes. Given all the things that are tugging at our attention and time these days, five minutes actually matters. It really does. Don't discount the value of people merely watching the trailer who don't actually get to the film.

A North Carolina friend of mine calls them 'medicine films.' I could go on about The Big Picture, but I want to address Watershed because I would say that thirty percent of the screeners I receive are about the environment, and our environment is my number one concern. I'd like to thank you for Watershed, make some comments, and hear your responses to them. Watershed seemed to be a little bit different from the typical environmental film. This film has a poetic quality.

That I take as a compliment. It's very pleasing to hear you say that because I think in this case, you know, in talking before about where documentaries fit in a larger scheme, in a bigger picture, this film is a really unique project.

It was conceived at a conference in Sundance Resort. My father gets all the thanks for saying, 'We've gotta do something about water.' And, he's always been a visionary, obviously, and forward thinking. And he has always seen water as the looming issue—particularly in the west—and he really wanted us to do something unique for the west. I mean my whole family, we are guardians of an environmentally sensitive resort in Utah, and my kids now are in their twenties, and showing the same respect for that—as my sisters and I grew up with. We take this very seriously. We're westerners. There's a long-standing pioneer heritage on my mother's side of the family.

So the west is in us, and this idea of doing something about water in the west was sort of my father's charge. We convened at the resort a bunch of stake-holders around the issue of water to talk about what was needed.

We had bureaucrats from California and Arizona who work in water distribution; representatives of migrant farm workers who are in the farmlands, who are working in environments that sometimes have lots of piped water, but can be hostile environments for working in; we had representatives of the Navaho Nation; we had mayors from small western towns; a few journalists; I mean, you name it.

And there was a lot of disagreement about why things were the way they were, and whether they were perceived as big problems or small problems. But one thing was clear: Everybody there, regardless of where they were coming from, said that there is an ignorance in the population of the southwest. People don't understand where the water comes from, how little of it there is, and what the pressures are on this resource moving forward.

Everybody at that table was used to working with water—whether they're water lawyers, or environmentalists, or agricultural representatives. They're all bursting water and the complexities of the issue—'cause it's what they do. But the thirty million people that live off that water, people don't understand. So they said, 'If you really want to be helpful, rather than get bogged down in our endless policy disputes, why don't you do something that brings awareness to people?'

And that was our first charge. And then we thought who can best convey the realities around water? And we thought rather than hearing from well-educated experts and lawyers, let's go visit the people who actually live there, let's help them tell the story, they're the regular folks that are living their lives in and around that precious resource, and are figuring out how to deal with it.

And at the same time, in diving into that, I didn't know, until I saw the photographs of Peter McBride and the writings of Jonathan Waterman, that the Colorado river no longer reached its delta, that since the mid-nineties the Colorado river delta had dried up and become a virtual desert—because of the way we're managing that river.

So, we've created a vast desert, and it used to be one of the major migratory stopovers in North America. And there was a local economy, all kinds of wildlife that thrived in that area. Gone. Just, bang, gone. And even more stunning was the realization that it wouldn't actually be out of our thinking to fix that problem.

So, we got compelled by the idea of telling a story and demonstrating some consequences, and yet, at the same time, offering solutions and hope. You know, again, this theme of hope—I sort of feel that every filmmaker has their own manifesto or values, you know, they bring their own set of ideas to what they do. And I’m of the mind that if you’re going to point out problems to people, then if at all possible you should also point out some ways out, or some solutions. There are a lot of filmmakers who wouldn’t feel the need to do that. And there’s no right or wrong. So this film points out what the problems are, but we also wanted to show that there are ways to address them.

How are you and yours getting Watershed out there?

Watershed has been a tough thing to get out there. We’ve done better than I hoped we would do. The big push initially came from our relationship with Whole Foods. They chose the film as one of six films in 2012, as part of the Do Something Reel Festival. To Whole Foods’ credit, they thought there was value in supporting films that promote action in positive light. And this meant that in May of 2012, the movie was available on their website for the entire month. And they held dozens of screenings across the country, in their stores. This was our first push.

Then we were funded by Save the Colorado, which is a non-profit out of Colorado, for a seven-city tour which we will complete by mid-October [2012]. The tour included screenings in San Diego, Denver, Salt Lake City, Los Angeles, Tucson, Phoenix, and Las Vegas. So we will have blanketed the region with public screenings and, equally important, trying to get local media to focus on the issue while we’re there. As for broadcast, we’re in discussions with a potential broadcaster. Regarding a DVD, part of our mission as a family non-profit is anybody that wants to host a screening of the film can make a request for a DVD, and we will send the disc to them for free.

This is sort of where we’re at right now. But, again, this film is unique. It’s voices from the river, it’s advocacy for more attention, and yet you do get to know the characters. Mark Decena, the director, he’s a San Francisco-based filmmaker, and he did an extraordinary job. Our feeling was let’s take this important issue, and let’s make it artful. Why can’t it be artful? Why can’t it be enjoyable? Why can’t you just be lulled in by the visuals, and lulled in by the music, in particular? I’m really happy with what he did. I just thought that as a fellow filmmaker, I just felt deep appreciation for the way he put Watershed together.

Yes, you can tell that a film is getting to me visually when I’m aching to get it on Blu-ray.

(laughing) Yeah, I know. And it’s really good sound. And, you know, the music, I find myself thinking back on the music all the time.

The Latest

I spoke briefly with Redford about his current project.

I’m just now finishing a film for HBO called Happening which is my chronicling of the renewable energy revolution in America. I wade into the fray as a semi-intelligent, quasi-environmentalist that likes to think he knows things that he doesn’t actually know. I’m taking the audience through the renewable landscape to see how much is actually going on that we don’t know about, and how cool it is because it has nothing to do with relying upon the right President or the right Congress.

There are still obstacles to overcome in order to fully embrace renewable energy, but it’s inevitable—it’s just a matter of do we want it now or later. If you’re worried about pollution and climate change, well, now would be better.

I have projects coming up later this year, but Happening is my main push right now. It’s being produced through The Redford Center which also produced Watershed. HBO will cablecast Happening this year.

Coda: Redford made it clear there is much more to come. I encourage you to join me in staying tuned.

This is the latest, updated version of my interview with Marin’s own James Redford. The interview first appeared in CineSource Magazine, then in my book, Telling Their Own Stories: Conversations with Documentary Filmmakers


James Redford, filmmaker, documentary, Redford Center, James Redford Institute