Discovering the Art of Documentary Filmmaking: A Conversation with James Redford
RESILIENCE: The Biology of Stress & The Science of Hope chronicles the promising beginnings of an international movement to prevent childhood trauma, treat Toxic Stress, and greatly improve the health of future generations. The film follows the birth of a new movement among paediatricians, therapists, educators and communities, who are using cutting-edge brain science to disrupt cycles of violence, addiction and disease.
The original research was controversial, but the findings revealed the most important public health findings of a generation. RESILIENCE is a one-hour documentary that delves into the science of Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) and the birth of a new movement to treat and prevent Toxic Stress. Now understood to be linked with a wide range of medical conditions from heart disease and cancer to substance abuse and depression, extremely stressful experiences in childhood can alter brain development and have lifelong effects on health and behaviour.
However, as experts and practitioners profiled in RESILIENCE are proving, what’s predictable is preventable. These physicians, educators, social workers and communities are daring to talk about the effects of divorce, abuse and neglect. And they’re using cutting edge science to help the next generation break the cycles of adversity and disease.
In our interview, The Fan Carpet‘s Marc Jason Ali spoke to James Redford about his career, on the eve of the Premiere of his new film Resilience: The Biology of Stress and the Science of Hope and his advice for those embarking on a career in the industry…
If we go back to the beginning, was there a defining moment for you to get into the film industry?
Yeah, so I was in graduate school getting a degree in literature and I realised I didn’t like it (laughs).
I wanted to tell stories and not study them. And the question from there was “What kind of story do I want to tell?” and although I’d started out as a screenwriter and over time I produced my first documentary in the mid 90s, it was a very personal one, it was about organ donation and transplant and the beauty of how that all works, and that was relevant to me because I’m alive to today because of two transplants.
After that experience of both the transplant and making a documentary, I look back on it now and I realise the sort of cast the die for me in terms of what kind of stories I wanted to tell moving forward. So I think I’m on my 8 or 9th documentary at this point.
Yeah looking at your credits on IMDB it says seven, but obviously it not ones that are in production. So that feeds perfectly in my next question, what is it about Resilience that enticed you to get involved and is documentary film-making something that you want to do more of?
Yes this is my calling, this is what I do, it’s what I think about in the middle of the night, I love it. So yeah that’s me, I make documentary films.
So in 2012 I made a documentary called Big Picture that looked and all the myths and stereotypes surrounding dyslexia and how damaging they are to children who have it, how damaging they are and how unnecessary it is, and how to help children with dyslexia, which the current research shows that one in 15 or one in 20 kids on planet Earth have it and yet we don’t really understand how to better educate kids who have a certain learning profile.
So that film and its ability to be a helpful tool to people that where concerned with dealing with dyslexia, which was really rewarding for me and my partner on that film, a woman named Karen Pritzker, she’s a well known philanthropist in the States and has been long involved in supporting causes that are educational in social environments for children. So after that film, that was our first project together, we where sort of casting ideas what would be our next big idea and she had been following and looking at and sort of struck by the Adverse Childhood Experiences Study for a number of years and was really surprised how little known it was and we felt that it would be like planting our flag on the moon in a way and we could reach people with such important information that was completely unknown.
Did you ever take the ACE test?
Well I didn’t take it, but I’ve certainly thought about it. I have a low score myself.
I imagine so, it’s just a fascinating part of the film.
You know I think anybody that reads that test and looks at the question, it’s a moment of self reflection and you know for a number of people it can offer a perspective on what’s been hard or difficult in their lives, you know, an emotional thing or a physical thing and anything that allows us to understand who we are better and why we are and who we are is just good, it’s good for everybody particularly for both caretakers and those trying to ensure their kids grow up happy and healthy despite their challenging situations, it’s really important for them to understand.
One of the aspects that I really enjoyed with the film was your use of animation to chop things up. Was that a conscious decision?
Oh yes. You know, so let me think about this. A number of the films I’ve done including the one I’m doing right now are heavy in science and technology, and I love the challenge of how do you keep this from being boring, how do you present this information without having people’s eyes gloss over? And each film, you know, I’ve take a different tactic to that question, but for this one making this science relatable and working in metaphor and you know visual metaphors where really important to me and immediately graspable.
So I worked in effect, spending hours and hours combing the internet for animation styles and when I saw these two artists work together I immediately knew they where the ones and later found out they where in London (laughs) but we were able to get all of our work done online, it’s such a gift these days you can work that way, they’re brilliant.
So obviously this is a documentary, but do you have any preferred genres and favourite films?
I think by and large my local art house cinema where I live usually has documentaries and foreign films, so I usually just go down there because I know that there program is going to be at the very least interesting, so those are my preferences.
Are there any other aspects of the film industry that you would like to pursue?
I think it’s important to understand that some people think “oh no this is alarming and terrible news and people now have to wonder it’s hard enough to have child and now have to wonder if it’s going to make me sick” and that’s understandable.
But really, more important to that is the fact that there is so much that we can do to reduce the risk of that stress from having a toll on health and as you saw in the movie a caring adult relationship, teacher or mentor or a family member that isn’t your mother or father, there’s just so many ways you can engage and support children and we all know that that’s good, now we can look at it and its just biologically necessary you know, chronic stress control and neurotoxins as common as lead or mercury or arsenic. So to really know that there’s just that much more reason to be curious and understanding and caring about kids who are in bad situations.
Absolutely and the kindergarten teacher created that “Miss Kendell” character and that’s just a stroke of genius really to put a face on it, but a friendly face on it…
Yeah and you know that Dr Johnson his program is expanding and he’s heading towards taking it to the state of Connecticut, the entire state of Connecticut will be using Kendell in their school systems and now there’s a lot of people now that they understand it and they understand how to deal with stress and minimise its effect, there’s just so many ways in which you can do these kinds of things.
One teacher in fact, one administrator at an American high school in a community that’s very sceptical of this sort of thing he just said “look whatever you think here’s what I want you to do, I want you to stand at the front of the door when your kids enter the classroom and I want you to shake their hand, look them in the eye and say Hello to every one of them” and so the teachers did it, it was just something to do whether they felt emotionally tied to it or not, just the simple act of taking a moment to engage the kids like that had really positive aspects on how they behaved in class and how they did. So it really doesn’t take a whole lot to make a difference you know.
Who inspires you within the industry?
Hmmm that’s a great question! Well you know I have friends and colleagues who are making important movies, I think Louis Psihoyos a documentary film-maker who did The Cove and Racing Extinction and doing really important work. I think Jeff Orlowski who did Chasing Ice now got Chasing Coral coming out, I think he’s doing really interesting work. There’s a woman named Dawn Porter who did a film called Trapped about healthcare for women in the States, some Conservative politics.
I’m really inspired by my colleagues you know, we’re all in it together and that’s the wonderful thing about the documentary too, it’s not very competitive it’s like we’re on the same team and working towards the same goals.
Yeah awareness, getting people to know what’s out there.
It’s a certain kind of person, it’s very rare that you end up not wanting to hang out with your fellow film-makers.
Yeah absolutely, one of my team members is an award winning documentary film-maker, her name’s Charysee Harper and she’s just brilliant. She’s back in the States at the moment, she runs a company called Xplore the World and she does these documentaries, the first one that I worked on with her was called The Other Side of Carnival which was dealing with the history of Carnival, not just from Notting Hill Carnival but all the rest of it, the history. I think they’ve just finished part 2 of Panomundo which is their two part documentary series on the history of the steelpan drum, so it’s just fascinating stuff.
It is, it is indeed. It’s hard you know, takes time, hard to raise the money.
I admire her dedication, and I admire anyone that does that sort of thing because you have to go to so many different places even if it is localised to America, America’s a big place (laughs) it is a huge country. What have you got, 50 odd states? (laughs)
And 250 million people
Yeah it’s huge, it’s bigger than England.
Fandoms are a big part of the industry, who or what are you a fan of?
Hmmm well I’m 55 so of course I love British rock (laughs). I will never tire of listening to Led Zepplin, or The Stones or Jeff Beck or Eric Clapton or The Yardbirds. That’s my vintage…
Yeah (laughs) I’ve got Immigrant Song on repeat on my playlist on phone so yeah (laughs) I love to get the Led out every now and again (laughs).
Did you by any chance catch that show that they did about 5 years ago, it was a one night only performance?
No I didn’t unfortunately but I would have loved to.
Yeah me to
Bit of an interesting one, but is there a book that you’re a fan of that hasn’t been adapted to film yet that you’d love to be a part of? Perhaps your first fiction feature?
Hmmm. Well you know I started out writing screenplays and I had a good career writing screenplays and was sort of headed initially towards doing features and I directed a film back in 2003 and it was creatively very very rewarding. But you know it’s being LA based film-making and all that can really wear you down and so when I looked at it side by side, that sort of versus documentaries there was just no comparison for me personally, that’s certainly not the decision that everyone would make.
So I don’t really think about features that much any more and what I’ve found over time is that by the time you encounter a good book chances are almost 100%, not only has the book been optioned but it’s already been developed into a script and maybe headed towards pre-production. The reliance of the entertainment industry on good literature is extraordinary and it’s spending less and less time and money developing their own new projects and new ideas, it’s just more efficient for them to develop ideas off of existing ones they consider, that are proven to be engaging.
Absolutely. My last question before I let you go, it’s been wonderful talking to you, what advice would you have for someone embarking on a career in the film industry?
Well it’s the best of times and the worst of times you know. it’s the best of times in that the capacity for anyone who really wants to make a film, can make their own film, the technology the way it is these days the ease at which you can produce and edit your own content is phenomenal.
When I was a young man you had to mobilise an army to do something, even a short film and today there’s so much more ease, the production is so much easier to embark on.
But at the same time you’re also dealing with a vastly different media landscape in which there’s so much more content and so many more choices and so much more distraction that I think it’s ever more important to make sure that when you’re choosing a project you’re going to commit your time and energy and life to it, make sure that it resonates for you deeply on a personal level and if you ask yourself at the end of the day “this project doesn’t make it to the screen or my dream….will my time have been worthwhile? Will I have learned something as a person in making this project?”
In other words; is it continuing your education is it helping you understand life more, and that’s true for features and documentaries so I think if you can answer those questions then you’ve got a great project.