For more than two decades, Rachel Dretzin has been focusing her camera of American culture with her documentary films at Frontline. From her debut film Hillary’s Class, she’s won a Peabody (The Lost Children of Rockdale County) the Robert F. Kennedy Journalism Prize (Failure to Protect) and Emmy (Growing Up Online). But now Rachel is entering the feature world with her documentary, Far From the Tree, based on Andrew Solomon’s non-fiction best-seller. Focused on families with children dramatically different from their parents, Dretzin follows the families of Jason, a man with Down syndrome, Jack, a teen with autism, Trevor, who at 16 committed a murder, and Leah and Joe, a married couple with dwarfism hoping to soon become parents. Guided by Solomon on screen, the film explores the similarities of families marked by otherness.
Lesley Coffin: After reading the book, what concept did you initially have and present to Andrew Solomon regarding how to adapt a book about over a hundred families into a film?
Rachel Dretzin: In the beginning I wasn’t sure if it would be a single film or a docu-series, I just knew that the content was incredibly dramatic and cinematic. I was so drawn to the perspective of the book and wanted to bring that into the visual world. But what I realized, especially after working closely with Andrew during development, was that the power of the book was reading about all these stories about different families side-by-side and seeing the connections these had to one another. You normally wouldn’t think of how a family with an autistic son would relate to families with a gay son or families with a prodigy. And I really felt, and I think Andrew came to the same opinion, that this film would be best if it could give audiences a similar experience and not just silo each identity into a different episode of a series. Which is why we decided to really adapt this 800-page book into a 90-minute film, and keep that experience the same but cut down the number of families profiled.
Lesley Coffin: Andrew is a main subject and his family’s story is also included in the film. How involved did you want him to be in the film, both on and off screen? Did you conceive this as a project he would guide the viewer through?
Rachel Dretzin: I always knew Andrew should play a role in the film, because his story was kind of the glue that brought together these different stories. He did that effectively in the book and we wanted to do the same in the film. But I also think Andrew’s story provides a different perspective from everyone else. Because he understands that the way the public saw homosexuality, as a crime or illness, he can make the point that if that change can happen in a few decades, what’s to say that won’t happen with other things people now see as an illness or defect. He was always conceived as being in the film, but making that work was probably the most challenging part of making the film, at least for me. It was a struggle to incorporate him without making it seem corny or turning him into a news correspondent. We really wanted a film which seemed elegant and subtle.
Lesley Coffin: Were you considering the difference between a films made for TV verses something that would play in theaters?
Rachel Dretzin: I definitely was thinking about that while making this. The truth is, in this current environment, most people will see the film on their small screens. But I really made the film thinking of how people who go to the theater to see the film. I wanted the film to be on a scale that worked in that environment. It was wonderfully liberating to not be making a film for television and having to deal with those restraints. I’ve made many films for Frontline, a wonderful investigative journalism series on PBS, but there are restraints. It has to be 51 minutes. It has to have narration. Those work well for film made for Frontline, but I was liberated to make a film and tell this story however I felt worked best. I have three children and choose to work in television because that allowed me to balance work and family. But it’s wonderful to now also be working in the feature doc world.
Lesley Coffin: Having screened at festivals you’ve had that theatrical experience. What’s been the experience of seeing this kind of film with crowds? I’d imagine a film like this, about tolerance and acceptance, is an emotional one to see in a big group, especially for families who feel like those in the film.
Rachel Dretzin: I’ve now seen it with five or six audiences, and each time is unique, but every time that communal feeling people have for the characters in the film and each other comes through. I think the film really benefits from that group watch experience. Every family can relate to the themes of the book and film, even if they don’t have a special needs child or child who’s gay. We’ve all had someone in the family that felt different. I think that’s what touches so many viewers.
Lesley Coffin: How did you select the families you’d ultimately follow on screen?
Rachel Dretzin: We started by narrowing down the chapters in the book. There are 12 chapters, two about Andrew and 10 about other families and identities. So we were looking at those 10. And we started knocking out a few right away, either because the stories were too dark or they’d be difficult to tell cinematically. We felt there’s been so much coverage of transgender identity recently to include that chapter in this film. So after narrowing things down to about 5 chapters we felt complimented each other but wouldn’t be redundant, we started to cast the film. Only one story in the film was in the book, so we were starting from scratch. And it took a year to find the families we’d ultimately feature in the film. We were looking for families that popped on screen and would touch the viewer. But we also needed families that talked to each other. And we kept tweaking that part of the film. We’d find a family and suddenly another family didn’t make sense because they were too similar. It really took a long time and in the end, I don’t think there’s a false note with any of the families we ultimately choose.
Lesley Coffin: I would think finding ways to integrate the story of Trevor and his family would be the hardest. Trevor’s separated from his family and in a story about accepting difference, his story includes this unacceptable crime. Why did you feel that was a story that needed to be included, and what approach did you take to make sure it fit into the overall film?
Rachel Dretzin: You’re right, that was the hardest story to tell and to integrate alongside the other stories. But from the very beginning we felt we needed to tell more than just the stories of families with children with disabilities. The experience of having a child very different from yourself can also involve that child’s behavior. And stories in which a child behaves dramatically different from their parents, especially in ways which are socially reprehensible including committing a crime, brings out a lot of other issues about parenting the other stories won’t. There’s the question of blame, which we all involuntarily assume when we hear about a child committing a crime. To live with that as a parents who’ve already lost a child is such a lonely existence. We felt it needed to be part of the story, we felt we needed to include a crime story. The Reeses were the last family we found, and even once we found them, we encountered tremendous obstacles. They were, themselves, very hesitant to talk about this, because they’ve lived as pariahs for so long. But also making the tone of that story rhyme with the tone of the other stories was a very delicate process. But we never considered cutting them out.
Lesley Coffin: What was it about Jason’s story that made you feel this was a story from the book worth retelling in the film?
Rachel Dretzin: It was a little bit of an accident. We called Emily, Jason’s mom, during our research. We did that with a couple of the people who’d been profiled in the book, hoping they could provide insight or connect us with other people. And Emily was one of the strongest characters in the book, and she told us about what had happened to Jason in the four or five years since the book had been published. And she told us about Jason’s obsession with the character of Elsa in Frozen and his complete devotion to her. And she also told us about his relationship with his roommate. And those are two things that had happened since the book. And got really interested in telling Jason’s story, because the main reason we steered clear of stories already told in the book was because they’d been resolved and we didn’t want people discuss things that had happened in the past. But Jason’s story was ongoing. After meeting Jason and his roommate, you just see how irresistible they are. And his obsession was Frozen was completely real, it was such a drama for Jason and his mother. So we thought the story that was happening now, and the story of this boy who’d been a wunderkind, defined everyone’s expectations about Down syndrome and then his family had to come to terms with his limitations, would be a strong story.
Lesley Coffin: This isn’t a film made for children, but this film is a great film for families and can be used as a learning tool, as well as a really entertaining watch. Have you thought of how a movie like this can be used to teach things like acceptance and empathy?
Rachel Dretzin: I’ve been making documentaries since before I had my kids. And this is, by far, the film my own children have had the strongest reaction to. They’ve all seen it multiple times and they genuinely love the characters. I actually think this is a great film for children, it’s a film for grown-ups too, but children are so open, they really respond to the story. We are in a moment in our country where we are building a lot of walls against each other. Sometimes we know we’re building those walls and doing it consciously, and sometimes we don’t realize it. And even if we have compassion for people with disabilities, we don’t realize the wrong assumptions we still might have. I hope, and I think based on reactions, that this film turns those assumptions on their head, and gives audiences a new way to see otherness. I think this is definitely the right moment in our society to have a film like this. I want this film to help make us see each other in less of a closed way.
Read FF2 Media’s review of Far from the Tree.
© Lesley Coffin (7/20/18) FF2 Media
Photo Credit: Sundance Selects