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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.”
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.”