PARK CITY, Utah--Robert Redford remembers the early years of the Sundance Film Festival: "We had 30 or 40 films, in two theaters. I was standing in the street outside the Egyptian Theater, handing out brochures like a street hawker, trying to talk people into coming inside. I saw David Puttnam, who was running Columbia at that time, and gave him the pitch. He went in, saw Jim McBride's 'The Big Easy,' and bought it. That was the first film bought at Sundance."
But not the last. On opening day Friday in Park City, Redford sat in Wahso, an upscale Asian grill on Main Street, and considered what he had wrought. This year, 3,600 films were submitted to the festival, and 140 were selected. The town is jammed. Sidewalks are shoulder-to-shoulder with filmmakers, buyers, sellers, publicists and fans. "It can't get any bigger," Redford said. His little festival has become the most important in America.
Redford himself is an uneasy figurehead. Although he welcomed the opening-night crowd at Thursday's gala down the hill in Salt Lake City, "I don't want to be out front," he said. "In the early years, I was right in the middle--tossed around like a cork in a rapids. Now I step aside and enjoy the festival."
He protests too much. Redford's shadow looms large in this corner of Utah, where his Sundance resort also screens festival entries; afterward, moviegoers can have a drink at an antique bar built in Ireland for the film "The Wild Bunch," bought by Redford in Thermapolis, Wyo., and lovingly restored, bullet holes and all. In the summer, his Sundance Institute is a workshop where veterans work with young directors, writers and actors, improving films that often get made and praised. No single person has done more for the independent film movement than the onetime matinee idol who now, at 65 and proudly not a customer for plastic surgery, frets: "Celebrity is distracting us from important issues. We're going to war, and all you hear about are the 10 top celebrity this and that."
This year's festival benefits in a curious way from the economic downturn, Redford said. In the go-go years of the 1990s, when dot-com money poured into the film industry,there was an "overpopulation of filmmakers, with digital formats making it almost too easy to make a movie without a whole lot of credentials. There was a danger of losing audiences who couldn't take all the junk."
Good independent films always find a way, he said, and he thinks this year's selection is better than average--"and also funnier. I think you'll find more lightness this year."
Redford has always been a political liberal, and "in the current political climate," he said, "with the administration leaning further and further toward secrecy and stonewalling, independent films are a way to get out information."
He remembered the shell shock of last year's festival, under the cloud of 9/11. This year, "the anxiety is still there, and the government has responded with an attack on freedom of speech and expression. The Constitution is under attack under the disguise of patriotism. The administration forgets that dissent is the American way. A lot of this year's movies will reflect that."
As a producer, director, writer and actor, Redford is personally voting for indie films. He's making "The Clearing," a low-budget film with a Dutch director named Pieter Jan Brugge, co-starring Helen Mirren and Willem Dafoe. He's talking with Danish filmmaker Lasse Hallstrom about a film co-starring Morgan Freeman. And he will direct a sequel to 'The Candidate," the 1972 film he still remembers as one of the best times he ever had: "We shot it in 40 days on $1.6 million."
Down the street from where we're talking, the separate Slamdance Festival also opened Friday, providing a home for the best of the Sundance refuseniks. "The more the merrier," Redford said. "I'm glad some films can be shown that we had to turn down. The selection process is so brutal. We can't show them all.
"But sometimes a film slips through. I remember one year I was in an elevator in New York, and this kid accosted me. He looked like a panhandler. It was Edward Burns. He hands me a tape and begs me to watch it. I get that all the time, but I thought, what the hell, that's what it's all about. So I watched it. And I liked it. It was 40 minutes too long, but it was good, and he trimmed it. That was 'The Brothers McMullen' (1995), which went on to win the festival."