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A little over 5 years ago Laura Dunn began working on this film. She saw the struggle over Barton Springs between locals and developers as a microcosm for what is going on all over the globe. She wanted to explore the question: as we grow how do we protect our most precious natural resources? Enter Robert Redford and Terry Malick. Malick had signed on to executive produce the film and asked Mr. Redford if he would be interested in joining him. He said, “Absolutely.” He had grown up spending a lot of time in Austin and had learned to swim at Barton Springs. The impact it had on him was very important. As far as documentary filmmaking, that too was important. He had gotten involved with them in the 70s and 80s and put a lot of energy into them because he believed in them they would move out of the academic and talking head realm and wanted to be part of that growth and development. He also believed in young documentarians like Laura who were interested in film but also interested in their truth telling capabilities and were able to take a subject that was potentially very dry and boring and make it art.

Excerpted from Q & A held at Alamo Drafthouse

On the meaning of the film’s title, Unforeseen…

LAURA DUNN: The name Unforeseen comes from a poem by Wendell Berry. It is a really beautiful poem that struck me early on in making this film. The film starts with the lines of the poem which is,

I walked the deserted prospect of the modern mind
where nothing lived or happened that had not been foreseen,
all the hidden had been destroyed,
a new earth appeared in place of the old made entirely according to plan.

These first four stanzas describe this world as foreseen. Every landscape has been paved over with the image of man; there is nothing natural left. It is about the despair of that which I often feel. In the end he comes across this little pool of water and in that little pool of water there is all this life springing forth. It’s the resilience of nature; that which is unforeseen; that which we don’t control; that which is unexpected. For me it was a beautiful poem that spoke to Barton Springs as something that is unforeseen here on our beautiful landscape in Austin. And it points to spiritual elements that the film is reaching for: while we want to control our destiny and our landscapes and every little thing that is natural the hope resides in what we can’t control and is unforeseen.

On the reaction they hope to get from Austinites…

LD: We’ve had a couple of screenings locally and it’s been quite interesting. My hope would be that it would re-inspire some of those that have been at this a long time; that it would invigorate some of the old guard who have really pioneered this battle to protect Barton Springs and its landscape and that it would inform the new comers. I have a lot of neighbors who are new to Austin who are intelligent, interesting, concerned citizens who don’t have a sense of the history or fragile hydrology so I would hope that I could educate and inspire people to get engaged locally.

Mr. Redford weighs in on the dilemma of presenting both sides…

ROBERT REDFORD: For me, this is the success of this film. Ironically, the more emotional connection you make is with Bradley. And because Laura allowed him to tell his story and take it wherever he was going to take it, and you can see for yourself. For me, even though I’m very on the side of the environment and very clearly on the side of protecting Barton Springs there is another part of me that sees a guy who came from hard scraps background and he has the American dream and his idea of the American dream is to build. Those two halves are part of my life but I lean towards the environmental side and still appreciate the other side. I think that is why the film has the strength that it does—because you do see both sides.

On Gary Bradley, better known as “Austin’s most hated developer”…

LD: I first met Gary Bradley a couple of months into researching this film. I’m not from Austin, I had been here for grad school and I really didn’t know much about the story. You start looking at any news archives from the past 30 years and Gary Bradley is all over it. So I wanted to meet him. When I met him he was just a fascinating person. I cared about the environment but as a filmmaker you are looking for people who live their lives in big bold ways and he is truly a cinematic person. So when I met him he was articulate and interesting. He had a huge satellite map of Austin behind him on the wall. I just became fascinated with trying to see the world through his eyes because it was foreign to me. I thought by including his perspective it might bring something new to the discourse. I think the environment is so often an unfairly polarizing topic and unfairly belongs to one side or the other which is absurd. I’m an independent myself. I’m registered as an independent and proud of that and I think a lot of Texans are. So I thought by bringing him in and loving my enemy so to speak and by really trying to have compassion for him and his storymight bring something new—some new tension to the story. I grew to really befriend him as I did everyone in our film. I believe in the ethics of documentary filmmaking that if someone is going to contribute themselves to the film I have to respect them. I’m not God, I don’t have it all figured out and I certainly don’t want to have a self-righteous tone in the film. I want to be considerate to Bradley and Bill Bunch and everyone in between.

Gary’s response to the film…

You know Gary Bradley was not thrilled about the film when he saw it and we talked through it. He would tell you that the film overall treated him fairly although he would have made it differently. He probably disagrees with most of the context but hopefully most of his story he feels has integrity. I know there were a lot of environmentalists in this town who were pretty upset about it. And perhaps remain so. They felt that I gave way too much credit to Gary and other developers and I totally understand that. I’m sympathetic to that. If you’ve been fighting this battle for 30 years you have a personal story in your head and that’s the story you want to see and you don’t really want to see it as a symbol or a microcosm

The response from developers…

LD: I know some who have seen the film and appreciate it and really like the film. David Humphries was one and he was the lawyer representing Jim Bob Moffett in that very famous hearing in 1990. He is someone who introduced me to a lot of people in the development community and was really wonderful to me. I don’t know what that means exactly. You just don’t know. I think people change and I think we have to always stay open to that possibility.

Mr. Redford expands on the direction of change…

RR: I was in Houston on another matter about the coal companies that were coming through Texas and fast-tracked by the government. The thing that was really amazing to me was that the Texas coalition was formed to fight this thing and it was the usual same old story—they were fast tracking it and not allowing public hearings and sliding through at the expense of the people’s voice. The Texas Coalition was formed and it was almost unthinkable that a coalition with these components in it could have existed five or ten years ago. You had mayors, you had lawyers, you had citizens, you had environmentalists, you had CEOs, you had such a consortion that was so diverse all coming together as one voice against this project. Having been involved in fights like this over 30 some odd years that was unprecedented and I think it represents a shift and a change. I think there is a change where some people who were on one side are opening up and moving to the other—both ways–which I think is extremely positive.

How documentary filmmaking affects that change…

RR: I think the age we are moving into, how you tell your story, is really important. As a documentarian there was a time when the odds were so against you, you used to have to come at the story with teeth bearing and that’s not the case anymore. The sophistication of film and the sophistication of audiences who get more exposed to film look at it differently. The environmental movement has to accept that there is a new way to tell the story. I’m proud of the way that Laura tells the story because I think it is more about our future.

The importance of “seeing the whole world through a grain of sand” as stated by Terry Malick…

LD: I think that is a beautiful way to look at it. It’s the specificity of it that makes it scalable. I wasn’t worried about that because to me there was no question. If the film doesn’t contribute to the local discourse then it isn’t worth making. And to me if that compromises its scale beyond Austin, that’s fine. It would be hypocritical to try and make a film to engage people in their local communities by exploiting my own local community and not engaging it. Of course distributors don’t always see it that way and the media, no offense, doesn’t always see it that way. But I see it that way and I think a lot of our audience has seen it that way.

RR: When we say it is a microcosm it is that. Yes it is specific to Austin but it has a far bigger range to it. The specificity creates a kind of power.

Negative feedback…

LD: Negative feedback. Well, I’m sure. I know that I’ve upset people on both sides of the fence so that makes me feel like I’ve done a good job. I believe in the power of art to subvert people’s expectations and to disorient them and see the world a little differently. And if it does that and makes people mad in the process I feel like it is a success. I actually feel like I have gotten more flack from the environmental community than from the developer community so I don’t know what that means exactly.

In response to one of the founders of SOS feeling that the film didn’t show more of the fight for passage of the SOS ordinance…

LD: The environmentalist that doesn’t like the film very much. It’s one film and it can’t tell the whole story and by giving an all night hearing 9 minutes of a 90 minute film was a lot to give it. And I fought for that and thought that was important. We do mention SOS and Bill Bunch talks about it eloquently. With every point in the chronology of the film it can only touch on these broad strokes and if you want to learn more about the specifics you can find out. Like I said, I totally respect the concerns and don’t feel defensive I just need to explain my process. As far as Bradley, I think we all have dark sides and I think the film looks at the consequences of development. There is a lot I could have told about Bradley, there is a lot I could have told about a lot of people and I just chose not to and chose to take the higher ground. I welcome criticism—I think that is important.

RR: I can’t speak for the SOS group but I can speak on the editing side and how hard it is to do that. I can also speak on the Bradley thing because it would be my inclination to be on the environmental side and want to see the darker side of a dark character. On the other hand because he represents the society equation that a lot of people are going to be against, it would have been easy to paint him dark. I think the topographical reference to him in the paper–that indictment tells the story pretty well. The idea of what is fundamental and what causes them to go off the track are power, greed, money and things like that. But it is also about a guy who starts out and has a dream. That’s the story that is told. ***

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  1. Patti Glover

    I live in Joshua Tree, Ca. which is about 50 mi. North of Palm Springs Ca. We have a vulture from New York trying to destroy our small desert community with the same raping of our environment as seen on your movie Unforeseen. We have no industry here, yet this vulture wants to build on this extremely sensitive area. I will be a disaster for our desert which is very water sensitive. I hope to show this movie to our local MAC meeting. Thanks….Patti

  2. Caro Eberly

    “The Unforeseen” is a terrific and troubling movie that touches on the topic of overdevelopment and total environmental unawareness that has become one of my passions in life to stomp-out. I would love to meet Laura Dunn and ask her to go back to the Hill Country to New Braunsfels, TX, where a water park developer has literally distroyed this beautiful historic town, and is draining the aquafers that feed this part of Texas.
    Thumbs up to Ms. Dunn and her amazing work. I too will have a showing of her film.
    Thanks, Carol