Alum, Idaho Filmmaker Featured – Hobart and William Smith Colleges \
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Alum, Idaho Filmmaker Featured

Russell Friedenberg ’91 and his wife Heather Rae are filmmakers in a state not quite as well known for film – Idaho. An article in the Idaho Statesman’s Treasure Magazine provides a glimpse into the couple’s relationship, professional motivations and upcoming projects. Friedenberg has written a thriller, “The Cold” that will soon be made and add to the number of prominent projects the article notes the two have completed since moving back to Heather’s home state.

“Since arriving in Boise, they finished Heather’s feature-length documentary ‘Trudell,’ which played at the Sundance Film Festival in 2005, and filmed Russell’s feature ‘ibid.’ in the Treasure Valley. (The film is now receiving praise on the festival circuit.) They produced and shot ‘Out of the Blue,’ Michael Hoffman’s documentary about the Boise State Broncos’ stunning Fiesta Bowl victory in 2007.

Heather produced ‘Frozen River,’ an independent feature that won the 2008 Sundance Grand Jury Prize for drama and is now receiving Oscar buzz for actress Melissa Leo’s performance, and they are nearing completion of a documentary, ‘Family: The First Circle’ about the impact of methamphetamine on the foster care system.”

Friedenberg graduated with a B.A. in history from Hobart College. The full article appears below.


Idaho Statesman
POP QUIZ: Heather Rae and Russell Friedenberg

Idaho Filmmakers
Dana Oland •Treasure Magazine • December 5, 2008

This husband-and-wife team is perfectly cast as partners, filmmakers, parents and community leaders. Heather exudes the yin of native stillness; Russell, the yang of East Coast irony. Thrown together by serendipity, they are drawn to filmmaking as art, as expression and as social consciousness. They moved to Idaho in 2004, returning to Heather’s home state to live, work, raise their children in a place they love – and help build a film industry in Idaho.

They work out of their Boise Bench home and spend time with their three children – Heather’s two sons Chema, 18, and Emilio, 13, and their daughter, Johnny, 6.

Since arriving in Boise, they finished Heather’s feature-length documentary “Trudell,” which played at the Sundance Film Festival in 2005, and filmed Russell’s feature “ibid.” in the Treasure Valley. (The film is now receiving praise on the festival circuit.) They produced and shot “Out of the Blue,” Michael Hoffman’s documentary about the Boise State Broncos’ stunning Fiesta Bowl victory in 2007.

Heather produced “Frozen River,” an independent feature that won the 2008 Sundance Grand Jury Prize for drama and is now receiving Oscar buzz for actress Melissa Leo’s performance, and they are nearing completion of a documentary, “Family: The First Circle,” about the impact of methamphetamine on the foster care system.

How did you two meet?

HEATHER:”Oh, that’s a long story.” She laughs. “The short version is Sundance Screenwriter’s Lab, fall 1999. I was running the lab; he was in the lab. The summer before that (1998), we were both at the Toronto Film Festival. I was there for Sundance; he was there with his writing partner Christian Campbell. Of course we didn’t know each other. I was at the airport. … “

RUSSELL:”I looked up and saw her from behind and said, ‘That’s the woman I’m going to spend the rest of my life with.’ Mind you, I’m not the kind of guy who says something like that. It just came out of me. (They didn’t meet until a year later when Russell and Christian went to work at Heather’s lab.) When Christian went to give her our script, he came back, and he was just freaked out (that it was the woman from the airport). Then it becomes a bizarre Hollywood story. The night before I actually met her, we (a group of friends) were playing the Dictionary Game. (You pick a word, and the players make up definitions.) The last word of the night was Selu. No one knew what it means. I’m like, ‘Say, Lou, can you pass the butter?’ It’s the Cherokee corn goddess. The next day, when I meet Heather, I notice a tattoo. I asked her what it is, and she says, ‘Selu, the Cherokee corn goddess.'”

In all of history, with whom would you most like to dine?

RUSSELL: (Laughs) “How do you say that without seeming self-effacing or self-involved? If I was to give the pat answer, I would say Stanley Kubrick. But I would want to have dinner with Bertrand Russell (British philosopher and mathematician). He was my godfather, and I was named after him. I’ve read all of his works, and I feel like I know him, but I would want to sit with him. My dad studied with him at the New School for Social Science in New York and was quite close with him. He (Russell) died within months of my being born.”

HEATHER: “I’d have to say my biological father, Vernon Bybee, who died way too young.”

Why do you do what you do?

RUSSELL: “I know why I do what I do. The art of storytelling is one of the oldest and most sacred ways of understanding ourselves, and understanding history and making way for a clearer view of what culture, society and philosophy are moving toward. Without story, I don’t think we can understand the human condition.”

HEATHER: “I was going to say storytelling because it’s such an ancient form, and Russell said it better than I could say it. But I am really highly inspired and compelled by images. And that started with my biological father. The one time I went to visit him, I was in my teens, he gave me a video camera. It was one of the big old ones that you put an actual VHS tape in. We went on a road trip into the backcountry, to a spot where we actually put his ashes. That was the very first time I used a camera, and it changed everything. So, images.”

RUSSELL: “And she’s a much more phenomenally inspiring image to look at than I am.”

How do you resolve conflicts in your relationship?

RUSSELL: (No pause) “I let her win.”

HEATHER: “Not true. Partly, you just pick your battles. Between Russell and me, the biggest thing in resolving any conflict is humor. I will be so unbelievably mad, and he’ll do something hilarious, and I can’t be mad anymore.”

RUSSELL: “You can just write ‘Comedy and Wine.’ (Laughter.) Every story is about class, they say. All writing is political. I think all relationships at their core are about values. If you have the same goals and values, everything else gets sloughed off because you have a spine to your narrative.”
What is on your bedside reading table?

RUSSELL: “I just finished Sara Gruen’s book ‘Water for Elephants,’ and the most amazing book I’ve read recently is ‘The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao’ by Junot Diaz, a Dominican writer who just won the Pulitzer Prize for literature.”

HEATHER: “Mine is kind of embarrassing. It’s a half-read Hillary Rodham Clinton biography that’s left over from when she was a viable candidate, and a pile of scripts.”

What is your motto to live by?

HEATHER: “My motto, what I say in my head, is just to give thanks. I’m always looking for the blessing in things. Be grateful.”

RUSSELL: “The way we come at the world, is to be grateful. That’s what we teach our kids. We are so fortunate to live where we live and have what we have, when so many in the world are struggling. Just to be able to make a living in our industry is amazing.”

HEATHER: “But what’s your motto?”

RUSSELL: “Stress is the confusion created when one’s mind overrides the body’s basic desire to choke the crap out of someone who desperately deserves it. That’s my motto.”

What brought you back to Idaho?

HEATHER: “I grew up here, and one of the things that keeps us rooted here is the quality of life. You can live in a city where everything is seven minutes away.”
What are you working on now?

HEATHER: “I just signed on to produce a new film with America Ferrera, (‘Ugly Betty’) titled ‘American Tragic.’ That will film for two months in New Mexico.”

RUSSELL: “I have a lot of projects. It looks like this thriller I wrote is going to be made soon …’The Cold.’ Morgan J. Freeman (‘Homecoming,’ ‘American Psycho II’) will direct; Heather will produce.”

What is on your MP3 player or your Netflix queue?

RUSSELL: “Music for me is mostly Sirius Radio: BBC and Led Zeppelin Channel. Netflix: ‘Gandhi,’ ‘Things We Lost In The Fire,’ ‘Country’ and a queue with about 120 other films behind it.”

HEATHER: “For me, it’s music. Be Good Tanyas, Lykke Li, J.J. Cale, Citizen Cope, Immortal Technique, Sandrine Kiberlain, John Trudell and Travis Ward.”

Dana Oland writes for Treasure Magazine and the Idaho Statesman. To offer story ideas or comments, contact her at doland@idahostatesman.com or 377-6442.