In the 1991 novel Spin by Donald Axinn, a young boy loses his parents in a plane crash. His subsequent upbringing doesn’t fit squarely within the family model of the book’s 1950s setting. A ranch foreman and his wife raise the boy amid underlying prejudices and undeveloped dreams.
These story strokes don’t make for an immediate sell in Hollywood, where Axinn had worked to move the story from book to film. Nevertheless, he tried for a while, but he couldn’t pin down an adaptation and development deal to his liking.
In the fall of 2000, however, a friend of Axinn’s hooked the author and aviator up with writer and filmmaker James Redford, who made Axinn’s dreams a reality.
“I like the setting of the American West as a place to tell stories,” Redford told EthicsDaily.com on the phone from Marin County, Calif. He has spent much of his life living in the west, and Axinn had set his tale in Arizona.
Redford took on the adaptation and banged out a first draft in a couple of months. He continued refining the script over the next two years as his production team secured financing.
With Axinn himself as a producer, “Spin” finally got made. They shot for 30 days in Arizona on a budget just over $3 million. “Spin” released in limited markets Oct. 18.
But the American West setting wasn’t the only drawing card for Redford. He also liked the various storylines, including the one about aviation.
“I felt like it was the last hoorah for aviation, in some ways,” Redford said, pointing out that tremendous technological changes—and the frontier of space—were just around the corner.
“The power of flight in the Fifties still sort of represented the best of what we could endeavor to be,” he added.
That’s one reason Redford wanted to keep Axinn’s story set in the1950s and not make it a contemporary tale, as others suggested. But he also felt our impressions of 1950s families made a useful backdrop.
“There’s such an onslaught in the 21st century of information,” Redford said, adding that he saw in “Spin” an opportunity to step back, gaze upon family, and tell a simple story.
With the centerpiece of “Spin” being a family in tatters, Redford had inspiration. He said he remembered a childhood friend who lived in a troubled home, yet was able to survive and even flourish.
“It’s inspiring to me,” Redford said of such stories. Hence another reason for his interest in Axinn’s tale.
“The whole thing seemed more like family as I know it,” Redford said, “which is chaotic and messy and incomplete and conflicted, yet ultimately very powerful and very positive. I wanted to show that family can take on many shapes and sizes as long as the love is there.”
Redford, who lives in Marin County, is married with two children. He’s also a transplant recipient, having received a new liver in 1993.Two years later he founded the James Redford Institute for Transplant Awareness, which seeks to promote awareness of organ donation and transplantation.
Redford even produced a documentary on the topic called “The Kindness of Strangers,” which premiered on HBO in 1999. He also adapted Tony Hillerman’s novel Skinwalkers for PBS in 2002, and he’s just finished another Hillerman adaptation, Dance Hall of the Dead, which will begin shooting next year.
He and Axinn got along so well on the “Spin” set they’re already working together on a script adaptation of Axinn’s novel Allan, Burning, which Redford calls “a morality tale at its core.”
“Spin,” too, deals with moral issues, like prejudice. The young boy, Eddie, falls in love with a Mexican girl named Francesca. As a result, he is introduced to the discrimination she experiences.
“I feel like very often the prejudice is more subtle and more insidious than we think it is,” Redford said. As such, the prejudice seen in “Spin” is less overt.
“I wanted the issue to be there,” Redford added, “but I didn’t want it to be what the movie was about.” Thus, most of the prejudicial behavior comes not so much from outright hatred but rather, as Redford calls it, “benign ignorance.”
This distinction informs much of the movie, which pieces small, subtle moments together to form its whole.
“By choice, the movie has a pace of storytelling that doesn’t fit in today’s time,” Redford said. “I wanted to try and tell a story that has a sort of alternative.”
While Redford said he doesn’t think every movie should have that pace, some should.
“If people want an alternative,” he said, “it’s there.”
Cliff Vaughn is culture editor for EthicsDaily.com.
The movie’s official Web site is here.