With guidance from his publishing friend Susan Hill (who masterminded the best-selling life story of Bob Geldof) Feeney Callan searched for a subject who had real political influence through the medium of culture. Twenty-four hours after their conversation he settled on Redford and the book began.
“I never say in the book that Redford invented independent cinema, but what he has achieved is he’s created an assembly line for independent film with his Sundance Festival,” Feeney Callan says.
“What he really did was at the height of his fame in 1979 was look at his own life (his marriage was falling apart) and that brought him to the decision to direct Ordinary People. In the same year he was on the verge of a personal breakdown, and in the same year he set up Sundance, which was an enormous undertaking.”
Redford put his own money into it, to empower independent filmmakers, to give voice to marginalized and ethic film.
“I get very passionate about his decision to do that, and it’s reflected in my own decision to give 15 years of my life to this subject,” adds Feeney Callan.
How ahead of his time was Redford? As well as setting up the first major independent American film festival and then watching it explode, Redford hosted the first major global warming summit at Sundance in 1988, four years before the United Nations groundbreaking Rio summit when it became an international issue.
“What you end up with is this enormously underreported evangelist that Redford is,” says Feeney Callan.
“The bottom line is I came away so changed as a person that I came to the U.K. and I set up Bobcom.com (a one-stop-shop for independent music, musicians and a fan community to discuss and share music tips). It’s the son of Sundance, and I set it up with partners to empower neglected and marginalized musicians in the same way the Sundance Film Festival does.”
You can’t look at any one of Redford’s films without looking at them in total, Feeney Callan says. He makes the argument in his biography that on any project Redford has produced or directed he’s fundamentally the writer, and he has the same authorial focus.
“A film like A River Runs Through It is about heritage and the necessity of understanding your origins, whether it involves family disputes and how that helps us mend our futures. It’s one of two movies he made about stewardship and heritage; The Milagro Beanfeild War is the other.”
There’s a thread, Feeney Callan insists, that runs through the films Redford has directed that involves American identity, that asks what can be changed about our circumstances, and that calls attention to the need for a spiritual compass to navigate life (which is, he says, what The Legend of Baggar Vance is about) and that also examines the state of our political debate (Lions for Lambs, The Conspirator).
By understanding Redford’s family of films, in all their permutations, you can begin to understand the wider American family, Feeney Callan says. And perhaps you can learn to live in peace together too.
“One of Redford’s favorite quotes is that America isn’t interested in the past, it’s interested in the future -- but it’s interested in the future without education to fortify and cope with the future,” says Feeny Callan.
That flinty awareness has haunted every frame of Redford’s work and it’s what drew the Irish biographer to the project.
“America’s a scribble board, there are opportunities there that exist nowhere else. It’s films opens doors of understanding. There’s more to cinema that queuing up for popcorn. That’s what made Redford’s film’s so powerful.”