This was recently posted by Atissa Manshouri on the Mill Valley Patch. It will give you some background on how the film came to life. Thanks for the post, Atissa.
For Tom and Kristi Denton Cohen, the Mill Valley Film Festival is more than just a cherished hometown event. It’s where they first met in 1983 (she as a volunteer, he as a filmmaker), where they live and where they will finally screen their feature film The River Why, a labor of love that’s taken more than 20 years to reach the screen.
The film is based on David James Duncan’s novel of the same name, a cult favorite ranked 35th on the San Francisco Chronicle’s list of 100 best books about the American West. The story of young fly-fisherman Gus Orviston’s coming-of-age and his quest for self-knowledge on the banks of a remote Oregon river has developed a wide following in the years since the Sierra Club first published it in 1982.
Bringing the novel to the screen has been a passion project for the Cohens for over twenty years.
A director (Hungry I Reunion, 1981) and producer (Massive Retaliation, 1984), Tom Cohen optioned the novel and wrote his first version of a screen adaptation soon after it was published. By the time he and Kristi married in 1987, it was meaningful enough to them both to include lines from the script in their wedding vows.
But a bad economy in the late 80s and the surprise success of another fly-fishing film, A River Runs Through It, in 1992, derailed the project. Tom moved forward with his career as an attorney and Kristi with hers as a director and producer of documentary, corporate and nonprofit films.
In 2002, she directed and co-produced Vertical Frontier (MVFF 2002), a documentary about the history of rock climbing in Yosemite narrated by Tom Brokaw, winning several awards from outdoor and mountain film festivals. Her success with that film encouraged the couple to give The River Why one more shot.
With a revised script co-written by John Jay Osborn, Jr. (The Paper Chase) in hand, Kristi and Tom set about finding an experienced LA-based production company, a strategy she learned from attending a Sundance Independent Producers Conference.
She met Jun Tan, a producer with Ambush Entertainment, at a film industry gathering in San Francisco, and he connected her with LA-based Matthew Leutwyler, a Redwood High School graduate who just happened to have read and loved the novel while spending time in Australia. He came on board as the film’s director.
A stroke of good fortune followed. Academy Award winning actor William Hurt – a fly fisherman himself who lives in Oregon – agreed to a supporting role in the film.
“He’s been absolutely tremendous,” Denton Cohen said. “When people hear that he’s involved with the film, it gives a certain credibility right away.”
Finding a natural outdoorsman to play the role of lead character Gus Orvitson was vital, and the filmmakers recalled an Outside magazine profile of up-and-coming young actor Zach Gilford (Friday Night Lights), who led wilderness adventure trips and counted ice climbing among his hobbies.
“There’s a certain movement that you have in the wilderness that just can’t be faked… it comes through in the body language and the eyes,” Denton Cohen said of Gilford’s comfort in the film’s setting. “Zach had that.”
Production took place in July 2008 on Oregon’s Wilson River and Portland, with a cast that includes William Devane, Amber Heard, and Mill Valley native Kathleen Quinlan, and a crew made up of many Marin-based colleagues.
Denton Cohen felt a strong responsibility to shoot the film in the greenest way possible, not only because of the author’s commitment to the wilderness and the novel’s environmental and naturalist themes, but because she had also become painfully aware of the excessive waste produced on most film shoots.
The producers’ sometimes funny and often frustrating efforts are documented in the short film Greenlit, an enlightening companion piece to The River Why that reveals the many obstacles the filmmakers faced in shooting green.
Although shepherding the film from the page to the screen required over twenty years’ worth of blood, sweat and tears for this Mill Valley couple, Denton Cohen said the struggle has been well worth it.
“If this film makes people stop looking at their handheld devices… just stop and look at a river for a moment, I’ll be happy,” she said. “It’s certainly had its ups and downs, but it’s not just your typical Hollywood film. It takes people to a place they haven’t been before.”
The film had its world premiere at the Dallas International Film Festival in April, but for Denton Cohen and her husband, the hometown screenings here will be “a real celebration… It’s a really good feeling to be here.”