"Family is a force of humanity"

Robert Redford’s son Jamie talks about his directorial debut Spin


"I think we’re all desensitized," says Jamie Redford, responding to a answer to a question about what is implied rather than shown in his PG-rated family drama Spin. "I don’t think there’s much left to see or say regarding violence. In this particular movie, with this story, I don’t think it would add anything. What you don’t see is more effective. The idea of restraint was a very important thing to me."

With a title like Spin, in the current political environment, the first-time director’s indie debut might reasonably be taken for one more cinematic salvo in the election wars — especially given the outspoken politics of Redford’s iconic father, Robert.

Actually, Spin, adapted by the younger Redford from Donald Everett Axinn’s debut novel of the same name, is an intimate coming-of-age drama set in 1950s small-town Arizona. Starring Ryan Merriman, Stanley Tucci, Dana Delany, and Paula Garcés, it tells the story of an orphan named Eddie (Merriman) whose parents were killed in a flying accident, and who was left by his uncle (Tucci) to be raised by a Mexican employee (Rubén Blades) and his Anglo wife (Delany), a schoolteacher.

If this plot summary isn’t ringing any bells, you’re not alone. Axinn’s novel isn’t exactly an Oprah Book of the Month title. In fact, it’s obscure enough that when I looked it up on Amazon.com, other than bare product details like the publisher and page count, there was no further information — no plot summary, no editorial reviews, no customer feedback.

Where did Redford run across the book, and what made him decide to make this his first film? "I met Don Axinn through a mutual friend," Redford tells me via cellphone from Manhattan, where he’s just finished doing a TV interview. "He said this guy was determined to make a movie on his book. Which is something that you hear. That and a nickel will get you on the bus." Not in Manhattan, I don’t tell him.

"And when I met Don, he had a few scripts that had been developed, I read those first. But I passed on it initially because I felt that just couldn’t connect to the material." But then Redford read the book, and found himself drawn to novel’s themes of characters surviving broken families and its sense of the time and place. So Redford, who already had a few screenplays to his name, including another adaptation of a novel, decided to retell Axinn’s story himself.

At 42, Redford acknowledges that he hasn’t exactly rushed to try to follow in his father’s Hollywood footsteps. "My life has been anything but usual," he says. Alluding to the lifesaving liver transplant he received in 1995, which led him to found the James Redford Institute for Transplant Awareness, he goes on, "There was a long stretch of time where I had some serious health issues that were a lot more important to me than whether I was making movies… Directing was something that I knew I would want to do at some point when my health allowed for it and the right material came along."

Another issue, says Redford, was his own family. "Moviemaking is an enormous burden on a family," says the husband and father of two children (a boy, 13, and a girl, 8). "My wife and I both felt that till my kids got to an older age where they were both in school, even thinking about directing didn’t really work for us."

Why the title Spin? For the protagonist, a young aviator, it has more than one meaning. "Don’s explanation of the title is that this boy is in a spin, that he’s sort of lost, without his rudder to anchor him… the airplane and the loss of the rudder is sort of a metaphor for personal issues that the boy is facing."

Despite touching on some difficult themes, from losing parents to child abuse, Redford’s film is remarkably low-key, with nothing that could remotely be considered exploitative or gratuitous. At one point Eddie gets into a locker-room scuffle with a teammate, but there’s no dramatic Hollywood brawling. Later, another teammate takes an interest in the same girl as Eddie, but he isn’t treated like a villain scheming to take the hero’s girl, and there’s no romantic-triangle melodrama. At the same time, Eddie’s responses are immature and petulant, but there’s hardly an attempt to shock the audience with bad-boy behavior.

"Family movies have devolved in some ways to where they’re very black and white," Redford comments. "When you hear the idea of a family drama, it’s pounded into us by marketing forces… you almost know what the story is before you enter the movie theater. In most movies, the character going after the hero’s girl is almost invariably evil. I felt that Spin presented some opportunities to mix it up a little bit."

There are also other opportunities to mix things up a bit. If Spin is a family drama, it isn’t the story of a typical family. Eddie is raised neither by parents nor relatives, nor is he adopted; and his love interest, a Mexican girl named Francesca (Garcés), is raised by an abusive widower father.

Yet there’s hardly an anti-family or anti-marriage slant. Eddie’s guardians are a loving and happily married couple who have a child during the course of the film. And Francesca’s father may be abusive, but her extended family in Mexico, with whom she comes into renewed contact during the course of the story, are loving and supportive.

"I wanted to show that family is a force of humanity as well as a force of genetics," says Redford. "Looking at my own family history over the last couple hundred years, I had family that pushed handcarts across the prairie in the 1800s, and I’ve seen in their diaries how many second and third marriages there were due to illness and death, and how families were constantly having to evolve and change, but were capable of surviving."

Resisting applications to contemporary debate about the definition of family, Redford says, "If somebody walks into this movie and says, this makes me feel better about my situation, which is unusual but has a lot of love in it, then that would make me really happy. I think that’s as far as I can take it in terms of the message of the film."

Despite its unusual situations, Spin it isn’t at pains to establish all its relationships from the outset, and it took me awhile to work how who the characters all were. "I think some people will enjoy that and embrace it and other people probably won’t," says Redford. "I feel that the power of this movie is that if you let it unfold slowly it would work into the audience over the arc of the story rather than everyone knowing what the ending is going to be ten minutes in.

"In a time when information moves across our screens all day long at the rate it does, this was an opportunity to work at a difference pace. I really enjoyed being able to try that in this movie, and to try to tell the story in a series of images as much as dialogue."

Does Redford have a favorite from among his father’s movies? "I think Quiz Show is probably the most powerful one for me. I think the ethical questions that movie explores are so complete and thorough and so well done. I think that stands out to me as a film that I often think back on." Quiz Show, Redford says, exemplifies the kind of moral and ethical questions that he wants to explore in his own films. "Asking questions about life is something I’m always going to be trying to do in my work, about what is it all about, really."

Spin isn’t the only project Redford has worked on set in the American southwest. He’s also adapted a pair of Tony Hillerman mystery novels for PBS’s Mystery! — a project he enjoys in part because of the novels’ Navajo milieu. "I love the PBS series that they do with the Tony Hillerman novels, because PBS is committed bringing the native American — well, I guess it’s now Indian, we’re back to Indian now, because it’s evolved — there’s a museum of the American Indian in Washington, DC. When I started talking about Tony Hillerman and PBS movies, it was native American, but it’s gone back to American Indian.

"We’re helping American Indians bringing their voices to film and television. It’s a very cool thing, it’s a great opportunity. I’m far from American Indian, but with my love for their southwest and my respect for their culture, I consider it a privilege to be involved in these projects."

What, if anything, has Redford learned making his first film? "I had heard how large a role marketing and distribution strategy plays once you’re done with a film, I’d heard about it, but I think going through it for me to really appreciate and understand making an independent film the actual making of the film is only half the process. There’s mind-numbing amount of strategizing, Making the movie is about a lot more things than making the movie.

"I guess it’s a long way of saying I don’t really have any plans of being a producer."