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Alumna Kristi Denton Cohen helped bring cult novel to the screen

Kristi Denton Cohen produced 'The River Why.'

When Thomas Cohen bought the film rights to David James Duncan’s 1983 cult novel The River Why in the mid-’80s, he had no idea it would take more than 20 years to bring it to the screen. But thanks to Cohen’s wife, Kristi Denton Cohen (BA ’74), the movie finally saw the light of day in 2010, with a cast that included big names like William Hurt, Amber Heard and “Friday Night Lights” star Zach Gilford.

Voted 35th best novel in the San Francisco Chronicle list of the 20th century’s 100 best books of the American West, Duncan’s coming-of-age tale centers on Gus Orviston (Gilford), a recent college graduate who retreats to a small cabin to pursue his passion for fishing and winds up developing a new appreciation for the environment and for his fellow man.

“It’s not an easy film to make because it’s based on a novel with a lot of inner dialogue,” says Kristi Cohen, the film’s producer. “I pitched it at the Sundance independent producers workshop and called it a cross between A Catcher in the Rye, Winged Migration and A River Runs Through It. And in this day and age, that’s pretty difficult to sell.”

It helped when Hurt signed on, she says, but when the Great Recession of 2008 hit and Hollywood became wary of picking up all but the most commercial of films, Cohen and her team went after a foreign release deal that required the film to screen on premium cable first. After a limited festival run and after screening on Showtime last August (it screens there again in May), the film was released straight to DVD.

“A producer these days is no longer finished with her job when the movie’s finished,” Cohen says. “You have to take on so much more with distribution, and the rights are very complex, with all the Internet rights, theaters, satellite, cable — it becomes very complicated.”

In keeping with the film’s environmental theme, Cohen also has organized a number of benefit screenings across the country for river and fish conservation groups such as River Network or Trout Unlimited.

Before The River Why, Cohen had a hand in another movie with an environmental theme: She produced, wrote and directed Vertical Frontier, a 2002 documentary — narrated by Tom Brokaw — about climbers in Yosemite battling the park service over proposed housing construction. Her next film, she says, will likely take her back to her documentary roots, though she’s not opposed to doing another fiction film in the future.

“The thing I love about film is that you’re always learning something,” she says. “I didn’t want to be stuck in a box where I stayed learning the same thing over and over. I’m still learning, and that’s what I love about it.”






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