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Unblinking as he is as a writer, producer and documentary filmmaker, Jamie Redford can’t seem to get through one interview without the questions turning to his Academy Award-winning father.
“The one question I am always asked is, ‘What’s it like to be Robert Redford’s son?’ How do I answer that?” he says. “I don’t know how to answer that question. It’s the only reality I know and it’s a good one.”
This story first appeared in the July 18, 2011 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.
With his easygoing smile, scruffy copper hair and sun-weathered skin, he is unmistakably his father’s son, though he’s not in the habit of trading on the family name. At 49, Jamie Redford is knee-deep with his own projects, such as producing “Mann v. Ford,” which will premiere tonight [Ed. Monday] on HBO. Directed by Maro Chermayeff and Micah Fink, the tough-to-take documentary details Ford Motor Co.’s dumping of toxic waste and the medical effects the practice has had on the Ramapough Mountain Indian tribe centered about 40 miles from midtown Manhattan.
More often than not during a noontime chat at Bemelmans Bar last week over a Diet Coke, Redford considered what was asked before providing an unrehearsed response. He is blunt about the film.
“It doesn’t let up, it doesn’t offer any false promises,” he says. “It’s simply not a happy ending but it really forces you to see a serious problem.”
One in four Americans, or about 74 million people, live within a four mile-radius of a toxic Superfund site, “And if you’re poor, minority, Native American — it’s double that,” he adds plainly. He notes the Ramapough community that “Mann v. Ford” spotlights has “an outrageous amount of cancer, diabetes and high blood pressure,” and says Ford refused to participate in the film and executives have yet to issue an official report.
When the conversation turns to growing up under his famous father, Redford remains frank.
“The challenge hasn’t been for myself, because honestly I just do what I do,” he says. “I come from a long line of storytellers in my family. The problem has been more trying to deal with the misconceptions and presumptions of others. I think we have seen this explosion of celebrity offspring phenomenon — in jail, drugs, causing trouble and I’m as baffled by that and sort of a hater as anybody. I think the average person thinks things have come easier and that I haven’t really paid my dues. There are presumptions about my last name that are very challenging.”
While a sequel to the Ford documentary is already a possibility, he’s also at work on a litany of projects, such as pitching an offbeat police procedural set in the Four Corners, directing a Yale-backed documentary about dyslexic overachievers such as Richard Branson and reading all of Wallace Stegner’s writings about the American West for a work he chose not divulge. Having worked on documentaries, written movies, directed and adapted for TV, Redford, who earned a master’s degree in literature at Northwestern University, said he sees himself chiefly as writer, with storytelling at the core of everything he does.
“The nice thing about writing is that it doesn’t matter who you are,” he says. “If it’s not good, it’s not good. That’s fair with me. I’ve written many things that weren’t good enough, and I accept that. What most writers have is…something with the way they see the world that is worthy of passing on so that’s within everything.”
Having had two liver transplants in his 20s and 30s, Redford stared down mortality at a younger age than most. “I’ve had to get used to the idea of uncertainty about the future but I think everyone comes to that sooner or later,” he says. “It’s hard to say what I would have been like ultimately prior to all this. I don’t think I waste a lot of time. In some ways I feel like I’m living the life of two people.”
He and his wife, a teacher and education consultant, have a teenage daughter Lena and a son Dylan, who has overcome dyslexia to make the honor roll at Middlebury College. Redford’s own childhood was divided between school years in New York City, his hometown, and summers in Sundance, Utah, the town that his father essentially built after buying a mom-and-pop ski resort in 1969. As a Dalton grad who grew up playing after-school sports on Randall’s Island, he sees New York wide and clear.
“Every time I come across the Triboro, or I guess it’s now The RFK, I have this sensation that everything else in my life — my family, my marriage, my work — is some sort of an illusion and I am actually stepping back into my reality,” he says. “There is something so strong about having grown up in New York City that when you come back it seems as though everything else is just a dream.”
Dream or not, he also characterizes his childhood as “kind of schizophrenic.”
“When I’d get to Utah I’d be so freaked out by the dark; And when I’d get used to that, I’d go back to New York and sure enough then I’d have a fear of the heights,” he says with a laugh. “It was sort of a never-ending period of adjustment.”
His parents are no longer married, but Redford is constantly in touch with them, often exchanging ideas. His mother Lola Van Wagenen, a lifelong educator, recently launched Cliohistory.org, a site that visualizes history. As for his father, Redford says most people would be floored by his “extraordinarily good sense of humor.…He can put you on the ground with funny stories. He’s old-school so he will just pick up the phone when it rings. Sometimes he will impersonate someone else until he realizes who is on the line.”
Despite a summer reading list that includes Sebastian Junger, Jon Krakauer and Malcolm Gladwell, the younger Redford also has a more spirited side.
“For complete and utter joy, I read Keith Richards’ biography three weeks ago,” he says. “If you play guitar and I do. I play in a band on weekends in Marin Country, Olive and the Dirty Martinis. We play covers from the Sixties and Seventies. He gave away some really sweet secrets in that book about how to re-create The Rolling Stones sound. It was like a gift from God.”
He has hung up his mountain biking helmet after too many trips to the E.R. for broken bones, ribs and concussions, but he still hikes and surfs all the time near his Bay Area home. As for how he measures his own success, he says, “Well, I have to feed myself. I didn’t inherit a mountain of gold so there are certainly those realities.”
“I was just watching a rough cut of my dyslexia film and there is a certain moment when you’re working and working, editing and editing, and you’re not satisfied,” he says. “Then there’s a moment where you feel things coming together and it’s like when I was kid. I used to build these towers on the beach with sand and I would put a tennis ball that would roll around and around and it would come out and come down to the ocean. From the top to the bottom. But it took a lot of time to make that work. You had to work at the mountain, work at the sand and then finally you would drop the ball down and it would go all the way. There is a moment in any kind of writing or film project where you have that feeling, that it’s finally coming together. I think that’s the best feeling.”