It had come to this: father and son, face to face, about to beat each other's brains out. Richard and Chris Roe had just wrapped up a grueling six-month trip around the world filming a documentary about fathers and sons, and together they had eluded harm in civil-war-torn Kashmir, fever-plagued New Delhi and crime-ridden Soweto. Yet here they were in the parking lot near a scenic New Zealand lake, embroiled in a furious argument and on the verge of coming to blows. "If he wasn't so big, I probably would have hit him," remembers Richard, 59. Adds Chris, 33: "I really thought he was going to swing."
The Roes didn't duke it out that day and somehow managed to finish their 90-minute film Pop & Me. Filled with touching interviews and painful insights about father-son bonds—including a scene in which Julian Lennon explains how his father, John, neglected him—the $425,000 movie surprised its makers by winning top honors at the Los Angeles Independent Film Festival and snagging a distribution deal with MGM, which will open Pop & Me across the nation starting this month. Ironically, the all-too-obvious animosity between Richard and Chris—highlighted by their parking lot blowup, which was captured on video and included in the movie—has only added to the film's appeal. "You can see the antagonism between them as they travel the world together," says Thomas Ethan Harris, programming director of the festival. "That dynamic of fathers having difficulty relating to their sons is what makes the film special."
In fact, their search for universal truths about the father-son bond helped the Roes resolve some of their own lingering issues-but not before it nearly destroyed their relationship. "We always used to laugh, 'Can you believe those two are traveling together?' " says Meg Packer, 54, Richard's ex-wife-and mother to Chris and his brothers Rich, 34, and Gabby, 31. "Of all the people in our family, they can be the two most difficult."
The idea for the movie originated in 1995, the year that Richard, a former stockbroker, lost his job as director of an upscale boys' camp and saw his 29-year marriage to Meg end. Around that time, both his parents died and Richard moved from Philadelphia to Los Angeles to be near his three sons. Over dinner one night, he told Chris of his whimsical plan to attempt a trip around the world without spending a cent. Chris, then a graphics designer, agreed to accompany the man he called Pop and make a documentary about the adventure.
But early on in the journey the Roes discovered that men they interviewed along the way were far more intrigued by their father-son teaming than by Richard's no-budget trip. "They started talking about their own fathers," says Richard. "They used our camera as an excuse to say things they always wanted to say." He and Chris reworked their premise, hired a cameraman and cautiously set out to make Pop & Me. "It was always a concern that things wouldn't work out," says the head-' strong Chris, who was worried that he and his take-charge father might not get along on such a grueling trip.
Sure enough, the fact that Richard financed the movie through savings and loans from two friends, while Chris was bent on making the creative decisions as director, led to an ongoing battle for control. Ultimately, such power struggles between fathers and sons "became one of the themes of the film," says Richard. "We spoke with a lot of sons wanting respect and with fathers thinking they were giving it. But the sons weren't getting as much respect as they wanted." In fact, the Roes' interviews with subjects as diverse as a former Egyptian police chief, a Hungarian censor and a New York City restaurateur turned into mini therapy sessions. "We were trying to find answers that could help in our relationship," says Chris.
They eventually interviewed 29 sets of fathers and sons in 26 countries across five continents during a six-month span in 1996. In Monaco they landed their biggest fish when they got Julian Lennon to open up about his life as the son of a Beatle. "Basically he said, 'Jonn gave more love to the world than to me,' " says Richard. The trip's scariest moment occurred in New Delhi when Chris came down with something resembling the painful dengue fever that was felling hundreds of people a day. Chris was so ill that he lost 15 lbs. in 10 days, yet at his father's urging still traveled to Kashmir—then in the midst of violent fighting between rival factions—to film an interview. He turned out not to have had dengue fever, but, Chris says, "I felt my dad was more concerned about keeping the film going than about what happened to me."
Their constant bickering nearly killed the project for good in China, where Chris despaired of ever finding common ground with his father. "We weren't getting any closer, we were getting further apart," he says. "I started telling myself the film wouldn't be any good." Then, when all the interviews had finally been shot, the Roes had their biggest row in the New Zealand parking lot over Chris's unhappiness at not being allowed to make key decisions. "I hadn't felt so relaxed in months," says Richard. "But Chris has a tendency to prick my balloon. And so this big argument ensued." The pair reconciled in time to shoot Pop & Me's climactic scene: their tandem bungee jump in Queenstown, New Zealand.
But the friction between them continued in the editing room in Los Angeles, where Chris wanted to put their moments of conflict into the film and Richard insisted on toning things down. "He said, 'People don't want to see the negative stuff,' " recalls Chris. "I felt he didn't trust me to finish the film." Richard admits, "I didn't trust him to make a film that I or my investors were comfortable with." The two did agree on one thing, however: that they needed to see a psychiatrist together to break their creative impasse. Their sessions persuaded Chris to make some concessions, and Richard to allow his son to keep their fights in the film.
In April 1999 Pop & Me finally made its debut at the Los Angeles Independent Film Festival, where it beat 30 films to win first prize. The Roes are gratified by the film's success, but it is the progress they made in their relationship that remains their most precious reward. Says Chris, who is married to Jill, a marketing manager: "I have a much better understanding of my dad now. I take things a lot less personally." Reliving their odyssey in Chris's one-bedroom loft in Venice Beach, Calif., Richard puts his hand on his son's shoulder and gives him an affectionate squeeze. "The two things people always comment on are the honesty of the film and that they related to it," he says. "It turns out Chris was right."
Johnny Dodd in Los Angeles
On Newsstands Now
- Amy Robach: 'I'm Lucky to Be Alive'
- Paul Walker: Inside His Tragic Death
- Julia Roberts: Choosing Family Over Hollywood
Pick up your copy on newsstands
Click here for instant access to the Digital Magazine