Sundance at 30: Robert Redford on the festival's history and future
When Robert Redford set out to create a place for independent filmmakers to show their wares 30 years ago, he didn’t know it would become the behemoth star-filled event that is Sundance today. Coming to the festival for the first time this year, I had my own preconceived notions and thought, like many people, that Sundance has gotten too big, too commercial. But even with the fancy parties and the major movie stars strolling down Main Street, I was still blown away by the wealth of new and groundbreaking films at my fingertips this week. While Redford acknowledges that the marketers and the glitz have taken something away from the festival’s roots, he is still able to see it through a first-timer’s eyes, and says that there is opportunity in its success – and that this might just be the best year yet.
“When we started this process back 30 years ago, when I had the idea for the festival and to put it in Park City, I thought it’d be a good idea to maybe make it a little weird because maybe that would attract people,” Redford says. “We just sort of went along and tried to stay true to our core beliefs about who we were, what our mission was in terms of providing a platform for new filmmakers to have a place where their voices could be seen. And at the beginning, there were a lot of people who saw this as kind of a crazy thing. I would have to go on the stage at the opening of the festival and sort of explain who we were, what we were trying to do, but now the nice thing is we don’t have to explain anything—we just are and I think people understand what we are.”
But the marketers that come in and take over Park City in mid-January have left a sour taste in Redford’s mouth. “In the beginning there was hardly anyone that came—there were a few films and we had one theater. We struggled until the film Sex, Lies, and Videotape  came through and then some movies started to get noticed. After a while, merchants begin to descend on the festival,” Redford recalls. “Sometimes I’ve had to read that we’re sort of going Hollywood or that we’re going uptown—we’re downtown.” But when asked about his future with the festival, Redford says it “will be what it has been,” and adds that he doesn’t involve himself in selecting the films, but that his focus is to “make sure of that we stay true to our original promise, which is to provide a platform for these new filmmakers to have a place to come show their work.” He also sees his role as preservationist as the festival grows, “It begins to attract a lot of attention and it also clogs the city—it makes moving around very hard because a lot of these places are using the festival to leverage their own product which has nothing to do with us, and there’s nothing we can do about that—free country and so forth — but sometimes it blurs who we are and what our purpose is. And I have to save that as best as I can.”
While the Hollywood stars might bring with them the big brands, it’s not the actors that Redford takes issue with. “There used to be a real separation with the talent—the main talent was obviously in the mainstream where the money was better and there was more visibility, but what I’ve noticed over time is that a lot of the talent — you can see it in this festival if you look at the cast listing—a lot of the main talent has come over into independent film—you’ve got Anne Hathaway, you got all these people who have come over—Philip Seymour Hoffman, they come over because I think the roles are more interesting for an actor to play.”
But to Redford, documentaries are at the core of Sundance. “Once we knew that we were not going to be going away, or that we would at least have sustainability, I wanted to use the Sundance Festival to create a platform for documentaries and then elevate that and just keep pushing and pushing, because I believe that documentaries would one day begin to almost compete with feature films,” Redford says. He adds that since the crossover phenomenon of Hoop Dreams in 1994, the ability for docs to go mainstream has only grown. “Once that crossover started, people realized that there was maybe some commercial viability to well-made documentaries, then we could really move it even further.” This year, Redford says he’s been impressed by much of the documentary lineup including Internet’s Own Boy about Internet activist Aaron Swartz, a film called The Overnighters about the people working the oil fields in Dakota, and One Billion Rising, a short film by Eve Ensler about violence against women. Documentaries also go along with Redford’s activist streak. While he stresses that the festival itself does not have a political agenda, it does attract films that take a position on issues. In speaking about Ensler’s film, Redford notes: “I’m pretty proud of that because we don’t set out to have any political agenda with documentaries or even films, but they come on their own and it’s kind of a reflection about how are people are feeling.”
A theme always seems to organically emerge from the festival each year. This year’s fest is a diverse field – and Redford says it’s hard to pinpoint what the overall tone will be just yet. “We’ll wait to see, but you could pretty well tell, honestly, that they do reflect the state of the union so to speak. What is the shape of our country, where are we with our country? What are the pressures? What are the hot spots? What are the low spots?” Overall, there has certainly been a focus on dark comedy, international releases (Redford notes there are 37 countries represented among the selections), and the integration of technology and music in film.
“You can see how technology has affected not only documentaries but films as well—a lot of the films in the festival this year are using technology as a subject matter like a film called I Origins,” he says. “Using technology to develop thematic plots—that never existed when we started, so technology has moved the needle quite a bit—it’s probably debatable how much or how good it all is but it’s happening and it’s given filmmakers a chance to make films cheaper and even [given them] more access to tools to work with.”
Music has also become a character in films as well as a mood-setter.”I think that whole relationship between film and music has been increasing and you have a lot of musicians now that are actually in films. You have musicians that are directing films, music is playing a greater role in film but it’s also crossing over into subject matter, whereas before it was just the score. Now you see films like [Damien Chazelle’s] Whiplash—there are films that are really about music, about musicians—that’s new,” Redford says.
Another difference this year for Redford is that he returned to the festival not just as founder, but for the first time as someone who’s worked with a Sundance filmmaker on a project. Redford’s turn in last year’s All Is Lost grew out of a relationship with Sundance Lab filmmaker J.C. Chandor, whose first film, Margin Call, premiered at Sundance, and he wrote the 30-page script for All Is Lost with Redford in mind. While it was surprising – “one of the ironies is, after 30 years, supporting all these filmmakers, no one’s ever asked me to be in a film” — Redford says he’s not opposed to working with another Sundance director in the future. “I would welcome it,” he says. “We’ll just have to wait and see whether that happens or not. I’m just glad this one chance did happen before it was too late, you know?”
Not too late are the two upcoming projects on Redford’s acting slate, as he continues to focus exclusively on his acting. First up is his first superhero film, a role this spring’s Captain America: The Winter Soldier. Always learning, Redford, who is 77, says he was attracted to the role because of its high-tech nature. “One of the reasons that I did it was I wanted to experience this new form of filmmaking that’s taken over where you have kind of cartoon characters brought to life through high technology,” he says. “The Avengers series is a product of high technology playing a major role in the new order of filmmaking so I wanted to experience that—I just wanted to know what that was like and I had that opportunity, so for me it was like stepping into new terrain just to experience what it was like.”
And soon, Redford says, he’ll be able to announce a director for A Walk in The Woods (Seinfeld writer Larry Charles is currently listed on the film’s iMDb page), the adaptation of Bill Bryson’s book about hiking the Appalachian Trail, in which Redford will star alongside Nick Nolte.
The Sundance Film Festival closes its 30th year on Sunday, Jan. 26 in Park City, Utah, and as the Jury Awards are set for Saturday night, Redford says he’s bullish on this year’s selections. “I feel quite good about it this year. Maybe, I don’t know it’s still a bit early, but I think what we may find out is it may be our best one yet.”