James Redford, filmmaker and son of Robert Redford, dead at 58

October 20, 2020

by Mick LaSalle 

James Redford, a Bay Area screenwriter and documentarian who devoted the bulk of his filmmaking career to social and environmental causes, died Friday, Oct. 16, at his home in Fairfax (Marin County). The son of actor-director Robert Redford, the 58-year-old Redford had been suffering from bile-duct cancer of the liver.

Like his activist father, the young Redford — known also as Jamie by friends and family — was not just about exposing problems through his filmmaking, but about pointing the way toward solutions. His 2017 film, “Happening: A Clean Energy Revolution,” showed the perils of our current environmental path, while demonstrating how clean energy could both save the planet and profit the U.S.

His 2013 HBO documentary, “Toxic Hot Seat,” which he made in collaboration with the late Bay Area filmmaker Kirby Walker, was about the toxic chemicals that were required to be in furniture at the time, ostensibly to retard fire. It was soon discovered these chemicals were also causing cancer in firefighters and presented potential health risks to anyone who flopped onto a couch and released those toxins into the air.

The film was “extremely important for the whole firefighting profession in the United States,” said Tony Stefani, a former captain in the San Francisco Fire Department and now the president of the San Francisco Firefighters Cancer Prevention Foundation.

“It brought to light the elevated cancer levels among firefighters, and it also had an effect on the general population,” Stefani said.

Redford’s approach was “not to despair. Instead, he was always solution based,” his wife, Kyle Redford, told The Chronicle by phone. She attributed his optimistic pragmatism to his early life experiences.

David James Redford was born on May 5, 1962, in New York City to Robert Redford and Lola Van Wagenen — the third of four children by the couple before they divorced in 1985.

Starting when he was 15, he suffered from a rare liver disease. A first liver transplant was rejected, but his second, at age 31, was a success, and he was able to live a vigorous life. He was a surfer, rode a mountain bike and enjoyed the outdoors.

Thanks to his father, Redford grew up on film sets and was familiar with the process. After moving to the Bay Area in 1998, he produced his first film, “The Kindness of Strangers” (1999), directed by Maro Chermayeff. The documentary was about the importance of transplants and organ donations.

Kyle Redford said that it was very important to him that viewers of the film didn’t feel browbeaten into becoming organ donors. Her husband James “felt very strongly that it was an act of generosity, not obligation,” she said.

Early in the millennium, he wrote three narrative features — “Cowboy Up” (2001), a western starring Kiefer Sutherland; “Skinwalkers” (2002), a collection of mysteries set in the Navajo community; and “Spin” (2003), a romance adapted from a novel by Donald Everett Axinn and starring Stanley Tucci for which he made his directorial debut. Following those experiences, Redford began concentrating on documentaries.

In 2005, he and his father co-founded the Redford Center, based in the Presidio, which gives grants to filmmakers for movies centered on climate or the environment.

In 2012, Redford directed “The Big Picture: Rethinking Dyslexia,” which presented the latest science on the learning disorder, demonstrating it to be a mechanical disability rather than an intellectual problem. James and Kyle Redford’s son, Dylan, who is dyslexic, appeared in the documentary.

Redford’s other films include “Paper Tigers” (2015), which followed six students in Walla Walla, Wash., who attended a high school that was taking an innovative approach to treating students’ behavioral issues and past trauma. The film chronicled the group over the course of a year.

In his documentary career, Redford didn’t aim for theatrical releases but rather focused on television, where his films could be seen by hundreds of thousands of people.

He is survived by Kyle Redford, his wife of 32 years; their children, Dylan Redford and Lena Redford; and his parents, Robert Redford and Lola Van Wagenen.

He also leaves behind friends and colleagues such as Stefani, who remembers Redford as “the nicest guy you’d ever want to meet.”

“Even though he was a Redford, he was super down to earth,” Stefani said. “He just wanted to make the world a better place to live, to protect the planet, and protect the people that live here.”

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