The Big Picture: Rethinking Dyslexia - James Redford interview (exclusive)
Interview by Rob Carnevale
JAMES Redford, the son of Robert Redford, talks about how he came to make The Big Picture: Rethinking Dyslexia, and why it was such a personal project for him as the parent of a child with dyslexia.
He also talks about getting people like Richard Branson involved, why he is drawn to making documentaries and how his father is supportive. And he outlines some of the forthcoming projects he is also working on, including a new film that highlights the dangers of toxic stress on young children.
He was speaking at a screening in London of The Big Picture held to mark Dyslexia Awareness Week.
Q. This is obviously a labour of love for you…
James Redford: Yes it is, it’s very personal.
Q. What made you want to make the film in the first place?
James Redford: Well, I have to acknowledge the fact that the film is the brainchild of Karen Pritzker, my producer, who started The Yale Centre for Dyslexia and Creativity, who had the foresight to anticipate the need for a film content because that’s the age that we live in, it’s a great way to communicate, particularly with people who have trouble reading. So, having been in the documentary field, she approached me to do it, and I was more than happy to do it because I really felt I intuitively understood what parents would want to know given the fact that I had been in a position, years earlier, when my son was very young, where I had wished there was a good film out there. So, I just made the film that I felt would have pleased me as a parent, so followed my instincts.
Q. How frustrating was it for you, as a parent, that there wasn’t the information available that there needs to be on understanding dyslexia?
James Redford: It’s frustrating. The most frustrating thing is that because there’s a lack of information, there’s also a lack of awareness and that means that my son was misunderstood by many people, including some of his teachers. When you have poor handwriting and you read slowly, it can often mis-present as being lazy or unmotivated or stupid and those are some of the worst things that a parent would want people to think about their child. For him, it was very frustrating because it had nothing to do with his drive or desire. So, that misunderstanding of him was enormously frustrating for my wife and I. And we really hoped that the film will be part of a growing movement to change the perception of this dyslexia from being the politically correct term to cover up for lazy or stupid, to being understood as a different way of learning. And that’s really all it is.
Q. How big a decision was it to include your own family in the film?
James Redford: It should have been harder than it was, mainly because when we started to do it we had no idea that what we thought was going to be a rather humble affair was going to get so much attention. We made it as a small tool, an hour-long film that would perhaps reach select communities in the States that really are at the front lines of dyslexia. But when HBO purchased it and word started to grow, we were lucky to have a woman named Diana Iles Parker create an online community. So, the Facebook page for The Big Picture has become the landing page for so many families that want to know more. So, it’s now been around the world… there’s been hundreds of screenings around the world at this point and continuing demand for it. I’d like to take sole command for that because I’m a brilliant filmmaker [smiles] but I would argue that it’s more of an indication of the pent-up demand for more information for people who are touched by it – because one in five people on the planet are affected by it, which means that most of us, one way or the other, knows someone that’s dyslexic. So, we’re curious and we want to know more.
Q. Conversely, how easy was it to convince some of the more famous people you interview in the film to be a part of it, such as Richard Branson?
James Redford: You know, Richard Branson, Charles Schwab, Gavin Newsom, David Boies… they probably get dozens of requests a day to be in films or do news segments and things like that. But they were all very quick to jump in. And I feel that it’s a real testament that they have enormous sympathy and understanding of the need for this. In some ways, it’s often said that we are who we think we are when we’re six-years-old or 10-years-old and that everything after that is adornments, so I think those four men – one of the world’s great business entrepreneurs, one of the world’s greatest legal minds, one of America’s foremost politicians, and one of the world’s foremost thinkers on financial services… very different areas of life but I think they all remember the frustrations and the pains as if it was yesterday and want to do anything to help people avoid those feelings.
Q. And there’s no greater inspiration for anyone watching than seeing people like Branson achieve what they’ve achieved because it means that dyslexia poses no barrier to success…
James Redford: Yeah. But I would say that it’s also important to note that one of the dangers of doing that is that it could be misconstrued that every dyslexic should aspire to be a world class entrepreneur. It’s really not about that. It’s really about showing that your dreams are possible. It was Richard’s dream to do what he is doing and Gavin’s dream to do what he is doing. But that doesn’t mean that you have to be a celebrity or some sort of titan in order to be satisfied. What it is saying is that dyslexia, if you get taught properly, will not prevent you from pursuing your dreams.
Q. So, what has been your own favourite response to the film so far?
James Redford: That’s a good question and you’re the first one that’s asked me that. [Pauses to think] I think when you get an email from a child or a teenager that thanks you. You know the mind of a child… gratitude is not something that comes easily to a child; it’s a very mature emotion. So, when you get an email from a child or a teenager saying thank you for making the film because it really helped them to understand themselves or made them feel better, I don’t think there’s any greater satisfaction than that.
Q. So, does that make the struggle to make a film like this worth it? I mean, how difficult is a film like this to get made in the current climate?
James Redford: Oh, very difficult. Again, going back to Karen, my producer, she raised the funds for it and she had the vision to do that. Without her, I can’t take credit for going out there and pounding the pavement for two years to make this movie. I was chosen to make it and very delighted to have the privilege of making it. But sometimes a visionary comes along who knows when it’s time to pursue a certain thing. She comes from a large family. The Pritzker family in the States are often referred to as the American Medici’s. They do a lot of very good things. So, the fact that she was personally familiar with dyslexia from her own family, and the fact she understood the potential value of doing a movie is really to her credit.
Q. This isn’t your first documentary. What do you like about making them?
James Redford: I think any documentary needs to have some element in which entertainment is a consideration. You have to engage your audience. You can’t just throw information out there. You have to do it in an artful way that’s engaging and perhaps even entertaining and that’s a really lovely challenge from an artistic point of view, taking really important information and deciding how to convey this information. But that’s a very different thing to just pursuing entertainment alone. For me, these are two things that are important to me: making films and making a difference. And documentaries are a really, really wonderful way of bringing that all together.
Q. How useful is the Redford surname? Does it open doors or can it be a hindrance?
James Redford: Well, when you’re trying to raise money it tends to be a hindrance because people say: “Well, what do you need money for?” [Laughs] But I was not given a silver spoon in my family, so I pursue my projects in very real terms. But other than that, of course it’s an advantage in that luckily I come from a family in which my name is well respected and my father has spent decades doing good things with his celebrity and trying to make a difference in the world. I really see that as something to honour and I’m proud of that legacy.
Q. What does Robert think of your career? I know when he came to promote this year’s Sundance London he was keen to talk about his passion for documentaries. Is he supportive of you when making them?
James Redford: Oh very much so. The Sundance Film Festival is really one of the leading festivals to support documentaries and get them out there. I think you see more documentaries in theatres these days than ever before and I think that Sundance Film Festival and The Sundance Institute have a lot to do with that, shining a light on these topics and giving them a venue to be seen and understood. It’s obviously something he believes in and does a lot of narration himself. In fact, we had the pleasure of doing a film called The Watershed together, about the challenges facing the Great Colorado River in the States, and I produced that and asked him if he would narrate it. It’s a really powerful thing to hear his voice against your film, narrating it. It’s one of the all-time great voices for narration.
Q. It is at all nerve-wracking directing your dad?
James Redford: Well, I produced that film so I wasn’t ever quite in that moment [laughs].
Q. Would you like to be?
James Redford: I would never say never [laughs]… one never knows in life, so many things have happened that I never thought would happen, so we’ll leave that open…
Q. You have directed a feature film [Spin]…
James Redford: Yeah and I’ve written screenplays for a few movies and some TV shows but at this point in my life I’m really focusing on documentaries because that’s really what I like to do.
Q. You’ve got Toxic Hot Seat next…
James Redford: Yes, it’s coming out on HBO on November 25, which is looking at the essential problem of chemical flame retardants in American upholstery furniture. It’s a big issue of why that chemical is there when it doesn’t really prevent fires and it does pose health risks. So, the film is an investigation of that strange problem and all the things behind it, which of course lead to things like unregulated industries, very powerful special interest lobby groups and a lot of money at stake for chemical companies. And how, honestly, really, it’s a celebration of good citizenship and good journalism. The journalists really saved the day on this one, The Chicago Tribune, so it was really fun to hang out with them.
Q. How do you decide which documentaries you’re going to direct or merely produce?
James Redford: If I don’t say, “oh my God”, then I’ not going to do it. I have to have an outrage or blinding passion because they’re so hard to make and so hard to raise money for and very hard to be seen. This is a pleasure to have a sold out theatre for The Big Picture. It’s not something one can expect all the time. You just do something that you think is really important and see where it goes.
Q. So, is there anything that has you really outraged at the moment that you have your eye on?
James Redford: Well, the one I’m doing beyond… Toxic Hot Seat was really outrageous to me because we’re all being exposed to levels of toxicity that make no sense. But the one that’s really deeply concerning to me that I’m actually in production on right now is about the dangers of toxic stress in children and what happens when children are exposed to chronic stress as little children and how it physically alters them for life if you don’t help them recover. There’s so much interesting research going on in both Scandinavia and the UK and the States about the dangers of toxic stress in children and their development, so I’m now producing and directing a film that follows ways in which we can help children recover from potentially life-altering experiences. It’s really important to me. Find out more