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A 'Spin' off the old block

James Redford's directing debut opens in local theaters today

According to James "Jamie" Redford, directing the movie "Spin" was little more than "a happy accident."

Yes, he is the son of actor, filmmaker, entrepreneur, outspoken environmental activist and Sundance Film Festival honcho Robert Redford. And up to now, the 42-year-old James Redford has made his living as a screenwriter on such made-for-TV movies as Tony Hillerman's "Skinwalkers" and the 2001 feature "Cowboy Up."

And Redford says he never really had any directing aspirations until the novel "Spin" landed in his lap — a best-selling book by Donald Everett Axinn about a Caucasian youth raised in a Latino family and the interracial romance that follows. "I pretty much consumed the book — and knew I had to see this made into a movie," he said during a telephone interview. ("Spin" opens locally today.)

"When finally I met with Donald," Redford said, "I was only planning to write the screenplay, not direct it. But I guess he thought otherwise. He started talking to me about specific scenes and shots, and then I realized, yeah, I guess I am making this movie.

"Obviously, given my background, I've been around movie sets. But I still really had no idea what I was doing. I look back now on it and wonder, 'What in the world was I possibly thinking?' "

Redford admits that he could have used some pull — as well as his famous last name — to get the project made. "But that was something I wanted to avoid. I believe in working for your own breaks. Besides, if this had been a big, major-studio production, I'm afraid we might have had to make compromises or had to change the story.

"After all, this is not the type of material Hollywood makes into movies anymore. Unless they could get one of their young stars to do it. But I was more interested in getting the right person for the part. And to do Donald's novel justice."

That "right person" was actor Ryan Merriman, who stars in the coming-of-age drama as Eddie Haley, an orphaned boy who is raised by his uncle's Latino ranchhand and his wife (Ruben Blades and Dana Delany).

"From the moment we met him, we knew this was our Eddie," Redford said. "He's got a timeless quality that allows him to be believable if the story is contemporary or if it's set in the '50s, like our film is."

Also, Redford said Merriman had the right chemistry with Paula Garces, the actress playing his love interest in the film, as well as with Stanley Tucci, who plays Eddie's Air Force pilot uncle and reluctant father figure.

"Ryan really can work with anyone," Redford said. "He's a fantastic young actor who's going to have a long, successful career, and we were fortunate to get him this cheap. I'll always feel great about having given him one of his first big breaks."

In addition to his film and television work, Redford is also a strong proponent of organ and tissue donation. He runs the nonprofit James Redford Institute for Transplant Awareness (www.jrifilms.org) and produced the 1998 documentary on the subject, "The Kindness of Strangers."

"Unfortunately, there's been a really negative stigma attached to organ donation because of the way it's been treated in the media and in film and television," Redford said. "But it's not all shady back rooms and black-market operations — not in this country. I know it sounds like a clich, but it really is the gift of life."

And Redford should know. He was diagnosed with a liver ailment more than 10 years ago, and if not for an organ transplant, he might not have survived. "There's nothing like a healthy dose of your own mortality to show you how things really are," he said with a laugh. "But seriously, I still have my life because of the generosity of another person."

Consequently, Redford and the film's producers held a fund-raising screening of the film last weekend in Utah County. "We're doing anything and everything we can to spread the word about organ donation."

Redford actually wrapped production on "Spin" in 2003 and says he's now already looking forward to future projects, whether or not he directs them. He and Axinn are talking about collaborating, and he's already at work adapting another Tony Hillerman novel for television.

"I seem to be on a bit of a roll here," Redford said, "and it'd be foolish for me to stop. Besides, I'm loving what I'm doing right now."


E-mail: jeff@desnews.com