Screenwriter Leslie Dixon grew up with a rich but tangled family legacy, as the granddaughter of Western artist Maynard Dixon and Depression-era photographer Dorothea Lange.
Though Lange’s stark black-and-white images of farmworkers and Dixon’s exuberantly hued impressions of desert landscapes are familiar to art lovers, the family’s complicated life is less well known.
It was Leslie’s husband, Tom Ropelewski, with whom she co-wrote “Look Who’s Talking Now” and “Lover Boy,” who first decided to look at his artistic in-laws in doc “Child of Giants.” Pic premiered Oct. 9 at the Mill Valley Film Festival.
In the midst of shooting, Ropelewski switched his focus from a straight bio of the couple to using Leslie’s father, Daniel Rhodes Dixon, to help tell their story.
“I saw there was a three-act structure, and an emotional one,” says Ropelewski, a former U exec, now a screenwriter and director.
After a Depression childhood during which Daniel and his brother were repeatedly farmed out to foster homes so their parents could focus on their photography and painting, he eventually made peace with his mother, writing articles about her work. His writing career took off and he became a “Mad Men” era adman, working on the iconic “Think Small” series of Volkswagen ads and writing for magazines.
Working with supervising producer George Paul Csicsery, first-time documaker Ropelewski was able to complete the feature-length film in two years — fast by docu standards. “I’m used to having the discipline of a screenplay deadline,” he says.
Daniel died halfway through the project at age 84, making the completion of the family record all the more poignant. Rare family photos (“All my wife’s baby photos are shot by Dorothea Lange,” Ropelewski marvels), vintage film footage and interviews with Lange’s assistants help illustrate the story of a couple whose vast talents didn’t always include child rearing.
The docu is a true family affair with grand-nephew Paul Dixon, a four-time Emmy nominee, onboard as supervising editor and interviews and input from several other family members.