Josh Tickell is a Sundance award-winning film director and bestselling author. Josh co-directed the 2017 release, Good Fortune, the rags to riches biopic of Paul Mitchell and Patron cofounder, John Paul DeJoria, which is out June 23 in theaters and available on iTunes from August. Tickell’s forthcoming book, Kiss the Ground – How The Food You Eat Can Reverse Climate Change, Heal Your Body and Save the World, hits stores in December 2017; the companion movie, Kiss the Ground, will be released in 2018. Tickell’s movies have been shown in the White House, selected as a New York Times Critics’ Pick and shortlisted for an Oscar. He has spoken at more than 100 different colleges globally. He has been a guest on such shows as The Tonight Show with Jay Leno, Good Morning America, Morning Joe and The Today Show.
Rebecca Harrell Tickell’s documentaries include Pump, narrated by Jason Bateman, The Big Fix (an Official Selection of the 2011 Cannes Film Festival), and Fuel, the 2008 Sundance Award-winning documentary about America’s addiction to oil. At 9 years of age, Harrell Tickell was called “a plucky schemer always working an angle” by Roger Ebert, commenting on her starring role in Prancer, the 1989 MGM Christmas classic with Sam Elliott. As a filmmaker, musician, activist, public speaker and author, she is committed to telling stories that change the lives of people who are affected by environmental issues. Harrell Tickell penned the book Hot, Rich and Green!, about redefining feminism and the role of women in the environmental movement. Harrell Tickell is the co-owner of and powerhouse behind the Big Picture Ranch.
“That’s the worst idea you’ve ever had,” said our friend Ken. This was saying something, because, over the years individually and collectively, we’ve had some pretty bad ideas. There was the film called Sex and Algae that never made it out of the pitch phase, there was that cross-country parade we did in all sorts of alternative-fueled vehicles with a bus that kept breaking down, and yes, there was even a discussion about getting a promotional hot air balloon. Like we said, bad ideas.
But our conversation with Ken was different. After all, we were talking about our big dream of moving out of Los Angeles to a small country town a couple of hours away in the foothills of the Los Padres National Forest. Our big idea was to create a new kind of production company that was part organic permaculture farm, part movie studio and part education center. “It’s going to be terrible for your careers. Think about all the meetings, the connections, the whole world you’d leave behind,” continued Ken. The worst part about Ken bursting our bubble was that, on so many levels, he was right.
After slogging through the trenches of the film industry for almost a decade, we were finally getting to know some of the “right” people and even getting invited to some of the “right parties.” Our first film, a documentary about alternative energy called, Fuel, had won the Sundance Audience Award back in 2008. While we hadn’t exactly hit anything out of the park since then, we’d premiered our second film, The Big Fix, at Cannes to standing ovations and good reviews. Our office had a coveted Main Street address in Santa Monica, even though it was above a bar and filled with the smell of beer and French fries by 2 p.m. when the summer sun baked our brains and computers like a broiler.
The real problem, though, was that, despite appearing to be on the right track for Hollywood happily ever after-ness, we were miserable and broke. The sheen of being young in Venice had long since worn off, especially as gun battles in the backyard of our trendy, termite-ridden Venice beach rental continued.
We wanted kids. We wanted trees. We wanted a place where “stop and stop traffic” was a memory. And barely surviving inside the pressure cooker of Los Angeles just didn’t seem like the right place for that sort of thing.
So, after some searching, we found it. A way-too-expensive for us, but way-under-market-value 5-acre avocado orchard complete with a house made for kids and a huge barn that we could convert into a production studio. After we got the prior owner excited about our crazy vision for a permaculture production studio, she agreed to carry the loan, we signed the papers, packed a couple of moving vans with the help of five Russian grad students (long story), and put Los Angeles squarely in the rearview mirror.
Unbeknownst to us, our dream property would soon present a nearly endless list of hidden problems. It took six months of 18-hour days to fix roofs, fences, water lines, septic and greywater systems, re-do electrical, get rid of the long standing pesticide-spraying land managers and wrangle our little five-acre piece of paradise into some semblance of functionality. Finally, it was done. Our editing systems were installed in the “barn,” light switches produced light (instead of sparks), taps produced clean water (instead of black murk) and the coyotes were deterred by the fences (well, mostly deterred). Then, just when we were settling into our new life, everything changed again.
During this time, we had been working on a documentary called Pump that was the final piece of our “energy trilogy” series. As the film was getting close to being finished, we got the big news. We were pregnant. (Yes, there is irony in getting pregnant while making Pump and the jokes were many). In reality, however, the pregnancy was nerve-racking.
During the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, we had spent months filming in and around the Gulf of Mexico where heavy chemicals were used to disperse the oil (namely a nasty compound called Corexit). After the oil spill, there were numerous reports of miscarriages and malformed babies from new mothers in the gulf region who were exposed to the chemical dispersants. As the pregnancy progressed, doctors warned that our baby might have possible problems, including a single umbilical artery. So we did what any filmmakers under a lot of pressure would do. We went to Sundance for a little inspiration.
There in the wintery wonderland, between watching movies and keeping a pregnant Rebecca from slipping on the ice, we met up with a man who had made a strong impression on us years before. His name was John Paul DeJoria and he was the co-founder of Patrón and Paul Mitchell haircare products. Back in 2008, “JP” as his friends call him, had come to the premiere of our movie Fuel, had loved it and become an executive producer, helping give the film the lift it needed for distribution.
As it turns out, JP has an intriguing life story. He grew up in and out of foster care. He was homeless. He ran with biker gangs. He was a successful salesman but seemed to only find failure in every aspect of his life but two: he always found a way to look on the bright side of life and he always managed to contribute to other people, even when he was living in his car. That positive attitude gave him the gumption to try to start a business with his then friend Paul Mitchell. After bootstrapping their haircare line, the men eventually found a level of modest success until Paul tragically passed away from cancer. JP continued to work hard, building the company and its giving back programs into an international model for “conscious capitalism,” a way of doing business that takes into account people, planet and profits.
It was Rebecca’s idea to turn JP’s life into a movie. We desperately needed a break from the bleak world of oil and energy documentaries. Even the Washington Post in speaking about our last film had said, “Pump raises important points. And if we don’t start taking them to heart, the Tickells may never move on to other worthy issues.” Even the media, bludgeoned with our get-off-oil messages, wanted us to find a new subject. We desperately needed to focus on some good news. So we pitched JP on giving us the rights to his biopic. Even though he had been approached many times before, something about our pitch got him to say yes. We left Sundance with a new vision and new hope.
It was in the middle of filming what would become known as Good Fortune that Rebecca went into labor. After being tossed out of the hospital at 4 a.m. due to lack of labor progress (who needs universal healthcare anyway?), a midwife friend stopped by to check on Rebecca and … whamo! Next thing you know, we were having a surprise home birth. After what can only be called a spiritual experience, our first child, a healthy baby girl named Athena, was born at home.
Producing films is tricky, but producing children is a whole other can of worms. Athena came into our lives with so much love, energy and vigor and she was a total disruption. Slowly, our work style morphed to meet the needs of our growing family. And slowly, between JP’s wild, bullet train-like schedule, and the insane amount of archival footage needed to tell his life story, Good Fortune came together. Not to be outdone, our second child, a healthy baby boy named Jedi, was born at home right before the premiere of Good Fortune. We now had two little munchkins who are passed around our whole film team and loved by all, from our production manager, to the editors, and even the executive producers. Our work and our kids are part of the same world for us, and folks who work with us eventually come to the realization that the kids can walk into any meeting at any time because our little ones always come first.
Working on Good Fortune helped us realign our priorities. We’ve gone back to our roots and are in the home stretch of finishing on our next film, a documentary called Kiss the Ground that presents a solution to climate change. It turns out the soil can sequester tremendous quantities of CO2 when it’s not being tilled and sprayed with copious amounts of pesticides. Josh even wrote the book (also called Kiss the Ground), with a foreword by Whole Foods founder John Mackey, that will be published by Enliven/Simon & Schuster this November, in advance of the movie’s release.
In terms of our friend Ken, he wasn’t exactly right about our careers taking a nosedive. He’s been up here to visit our little slice of heaven a few times and has even talked about the possibility of moving up one day. In fact, most people, given an excuse to get out of the big city and come visit us here in the country, are glad to take the drive. That’s worked in our favor as the trips to L.A. become less and less frequent over time.
It’s a busy life here in the country. After years and years of hard work, our dream and our production company, Big Picture Ranch, is starting to thrive. Kiss the Ground will soon mark our fifth major documentary and the first one with a big book release and tie-in. We’ve got more films in the pipeline and plan to shoot our first indie narrative next year.
Oh yes, and the permaculture orchard is thriving too. And so is our family. When we ask our daughter, who is now three years old, what she wants to be when she grows up, she says “A filmmaker.” She pauses for a moment and adds, “And a farmer.” Only time will tell how things evolve. But for now, with our kids and our work, we remain full of hope.