American Rivers, in partnership with NRS and Chacos, recently released the short film, The Important Places, which tells the story of a father and a son, and how the Colorado River in the Grand Canyon reconnected these two men at a very special time in their lives. Told by Forest Woodward (the son) and Brendan Leonard, with stunning production work by Gnarly Bay Productions, The Important Places won the Most Inspiring Film award at this year’s 5Point Film Festival, and is an Official Selection at MountainFilm.
Check out the video here:
I recently sat down with Forest to explore some of the background and inspiration that made the film come to life.
American Rivers: In your film, The Important Places, you talk about how you were brought up around lakes and rivers from a very early age, and that you could practically swim before you could walk. How does that upbringing influence you now, as an adult?
Forest Woodward: Mom and Dad have photos from the pond below the house of them pushing me back and forth in the water between them at a couple months old — long before I could walk. At age 4 they had me kayaking the Little Tennessee River that runs a mile or so from the house. In the summers Dad would stand in the pond up to his chest as we paddled around like drunken ducklings, learning the strokes, how to wet exit, and eventually roll our boats. As a result I find that being in the water is both comfortable and comforting — whether it’s surfing or kayaking or just swimming…there is something deeply rejuvenating and meditative in that suspended space of floating.
AR: The film does an amazing job at illustrating, at a very deep and emotional level, the connection between you and your Dad. But it also hints at the fact that, as a younger man, you had to go out into the world and find your own way for a while. What sparked that desire to reconnect with your Dad, and how did the opportunity with the Grand Canyon make that reconnection possible?
Forest: My path away from home and my folks wasn’t really that unusual or exciting. I attended the University of North Carolina a few hours down the road from home, spending summers out in Montana studying photography, and after spending my last semester in Spain, I just continued moving further and further afield, following the camera and my desire to experience and document life as it unfolds in other parts of the world. Through this time I always kept in pretty good touch with the folks, returning home a couple times a year to spend time with them and my brothers and sisters who I’m very close with as well.
But regardless of the fact that we stayed close over the years, there is an undeniable dichotomy in the pulling of the currents I was experiencing in my early 20’s versus what Dad was experiencing as he simultaneously entered into his eighth decade of life. That is until my friend, and old photography mentor, David Marx called me up and invited Dad and I to go down into the Canyon with him for 28 days. Returning to the river together, and to the Colorado in particular, reignited a deeper bond that we had not shared in many years…and getting to sit with one another, and experience the peace and solitude of the canyon, free of distractions from the outside world really brought things into perspective and allowed a depth of connection that I’m not sure I was aware even existed before.
AR: The Important Places is not an advocacy film directly, but certainly threads the river, and the importance of the Grand Canyon to your family, through the film as essentially a central character. How did the opportunity to talk about protecting this amazing landscape factor in to the flow of the film?
Forest: The process of bringing the film to life ended up taking on a much greater scope than anything I initially imagined it might be. There are a number of reasons for this…one is the wonderful encouragement, coaching and story producing that Brendan Leonard gave me, another is the way that the Gnarly Bay guys brought together all the pieces of our story into something far more approachable and universally relatable than I had thought possible.
But in large part this all became possible when American Rivers called me up and convinced me that making this film and sharing our story might in some way help to preserve the canyon and raise awareness for her in a time of great need. With that realization, I think something clicked, and I opened up to the idea of sharing the story with a wider audience, hoping it might inspire others to engage in the fight to save the canyon.
AR: You mentioned your friend Brendan Leonard (semi-rad.com), who helped write some of The Important Places — how did his influence help to shape some of the finer details that make the film so simply enjoyable, as well as deeply moving?
Forest: Yes. Brendan was a huge champion of the project from the start. Initially I asked him if he would write the script and tell our story. He said no. He said it was my story, and I had to tell it. I cried and whined, and eventually, with his encouragement and fine penchant for relatable story telling and expressing honesty, I began to write, sending him drafts of the script, engaging in existential conversations about life and aging and dad and burritos, and eventually we came up with a script that felt true.
It sounds so simple, but it was the greatest gift someone could have given me. Anyone who is familiar with Brendan’s work is aware of what a wonderfully irreverent yet gentle voice he has; light hearted and humorous yet daring in his willingness to dance with the tougher themes of existence. He has a gift for stripping aside the baloney and pulling out the essence of stories that are inspiring. He brings out the best in people, and he certainly did that for Dad and me with this film.
AR: The Grand Canyon is often considered to be one of the most protected pieces of real estate in the country, but in fact it is surrounded by threats that would diminish the wild character of this irreplaceable national treasure. How did making this film reinforce the need to protect this amazing place for us, for wildlife, and for future generations?
Forest: I have traveled to 47 of the 50 states, and while there is much of this country that I have yet to see, from my experience I would say that the Grand Canyon is one of the last places in this country that is truly and deeply (no pun intended) wild. As the sprawl of humanity thickens and seeps outwards through the cracks of suburbia and beyond, these places are becoming fewer and smaller, gnawed at on all sides.
Spending time down there with Dad I realized how rare it is to get to experience spaces like this, how fortunate we are that they still exist, and how imperative it is to the physical and spiritual vitality of the human race that we make sure these places are preserved. It’s not just about the natural beauty — that is where it starts, that is the fundamental universal language with which the canyon speaks — it is about the way it forces us to disconnect from the ever present ‘otherness’ that is the internet, cell phones, emails, etc, and to reconnect with what’s important.
And what is that thing that is so ‘important’? Well, that’s the beauty of it — I can’t tell you what it is. You have to go and find it for yourself. For Dad and me it was just time spent being silent with each other, being scared and humbled, strengthened and inspired, connected without distraction or desire for the ‘otherness’. In the canyon time stretches, it twists and turns, wrapping itself around you like a rope on a top, and upon exiting that embrace there is an energy, a pulling of the string that will likely send you spinning with a momentum and balance that is nothing short of life changing.
AR: Thank you, Forest, and thank you for making such a beautiful and deeply moving film — clearly the connection between you and your Dad runs deep, possibly even deeper than the Grand Canyon and its magnificent landscape.
Protecting YOUR important place is important, and by joining American Rivers you are pledging to help us safeguard one of our most important, irreplaceable national treasures. We pledge to do all we can to keep this, and other important places across the country, wild and free for you and for future generations.