Robert Redford, left, son James and grandson Dylan, who was diagnosed as having dyslexia at age 10. (Redford family photo)
Let’s get this out of the way first: Yes, there’s a connection, and people tend to see it quickly.
“They usually say, ‘That’s Robert Redford’s older brother,’” says James Redford — which could be possible, if the Robert Redford everyone remembers from “The Sting” and “The Way We Were” had somehow managed to remain frozen in the 1970s.
Instead, Robert kept aging just like everyone else, so he’s 77. James Redford, his son, is 51.
He makes documentaries, among them HBO’s “The Big Picture, Rethinking Dyslexia,” which he’ll show Sunday in Farmington Hills. It’s a niche he’s done well in with the approval of his dad, who would also have approved if he were a botanist or a house painter.
“I never felt pressured or not pressured,” says James Redford, to pursue a career in film. “He’d say, ‘Find your own happiness. Whatever works for you.’”
What works for Redford, among other things, are playing guitar in a cover band called Olive and the Dirty Martinis, his third liver, yoga and telling stories.
Stories are “my core thing,” says Redford, who lives in Northern California and holds a master’s degree in literature.
He wrote a couple of good screenplays that were actually made into movies, which put him well ahead of most screenwriters, good or otherwise. Then he discovered documentaries, which strive to do valuable things in a world where the fourth “Transformers” movie will draw more eyeballs in its first two weeks than Redford can realistically hope for in a lifetime.
Fortunately, he knew that going in, and he’s willing to take his movies on the road.
Story hits home
“The Big Picture” will screen at 7 p.m. at Adat Shalom Synagogue in the kickoff to Jewish Disability Awareness Month. Admission is $10, and it’s best to reserve a spot at jewishdetroit.org/events.
Rolling a few credits, the program is sponsored by the Jewish Federation’s Opening the Doors Special Education Program in partnership with Eton Academy, a stellar institution in Birmingham that specializes in smart kids with learning disabilities.
The movie itself, in the most important credit of all, was inspired by Redford’s son.
Dylan Redford was born into a family with resources and better yet, expertise; his mom, Kyle, is a teacher. Despite that, he was all but illiterate until he was finally diagnosed as dyslexic in fourth grade.
“It can feel like an academic death sentence,” James Redford says, and while the film focuses on the positive — a disproportionate number of Fortune 500 companies, for instance, are run by dyslexics — they are also overrepresented in prison.
Redford has done some struggling of his own. Ulcerative colitis prompted a liver transplant when he was 30, and when that liver failed, he quickly needed another.
With that issue handled, his biggest health problem has been staying upright on two wheels. A pair of impressive crashes in the past decade led to a broken shoulder, a broken collarbone, and his retirement from mountain biking.
He tells that story, and the ones in his films, with a light touch. “The public sees documentaries, unfortunately, as medicine,” he says. “The question is, are you going to put in a little sugar?”
“The Big Picture” is the movie he wishes he’d seen when Dylan was 8 years old. It calls for some specific reforms, but it has a happy ending: Dylan himself, who’s a senior at Middlebury College.
Dylan likes studio art and film production. James envisions him making music videos.
“Dyslexia will always be something he has to manage,” Redford says, but it doesn’t define him.
It’s just an ingredient in the family business — not film, but rather tracking down happiness, wherever it’s hiding.