Q&A: Redford Reflects Upon Sundance

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For Robert Redford, what began 25 years ago as a sanctuary where he could nuture budding filmmakers in Sundance, Utah has blossomed into an international institute for the arts and one of the most popular independent film festivals going. TIME's Desa Philadelphia caught up with Redford to talk about the Sundance Film Festival as it's about to kick off for the 22nd time tonight (January 19th). She'll be posting more interviews with stars and directors and telling us the latest buzz as the event unfolds. TIME: Why did you create the institute and the festival?

ROBERT REDFORD: At the very very beginning in 1979 when I had the idea I had reached a point in my career where I directed my first movie and had been producing and acting for a decade and had a very very heavy workload. I decided to stop and put something back and I had the idea of creating a place for more independent type artist to come and work and have a place to develop. The mainstream was already showing signs of moving toward a more centralized position. Also there was new technology coming, there was video, there was cable, there was computers and you could imagine that the combination of those three things would mean big changes and that the changes might go more towards special effects and innovation and move a little big away from more humanistic type of films. And we just decided to create a place for new artists who hadnít had a chance yet to develop and work, and putting them in nature and taking money out of the picture which changes everything. You were inviting people to work more collectively in the hope that we might create some kind of community for independent artists. What happened was once we started to develop new talent we realized they had nowhere to go because the mainstream part of the marketplace was not opening up to them, and suddenly there was a need to have a place for their work to be seen and so thatís why I started this festival. Then that opportunity turned into an opportunity for audiences because they were being deprived in the marketplace of a wide variety of films to see. The festival then became a market on its own when the merchants came to the festival and began to acquire product.

TIME:Did you have any hopes about the scope of the festival when you first created it?

RR:You hoped it would achieve the goal youíd established for the artists but you had no idea as to the scale because that was going to be up to other people. When it became clear that this thing was growing what we did was seize opportunities as they came down the line, for example as the world was getting smaller, as globalization was occurring so fast it became pretty clear that we had a platform that could be for good for international films. The festival is actually just a small part of our overall process. But Sundance is a year-round workplace that has film, theatre, music and documentaries. It goes all year long, so itís a place where we develop content with new artists. We saw that you could take the labs to all over the world and you could bring those filmmakers to Sundance. Suddenly film took on a larger place as a cultural experience, so you could use film as a cultural experience rather than straight out entertainment. As the thing grew, it really just grew as a series of evolutionary steps, one following the other and we would seize the opportunities as they developed, but there always had to be need attached to it.

TIME:What are your thoughts on just how big the festival has become?

RR:It can only get so big because of the parameters of the city that weíre in which is fine. I think there is a time when growth can start to eat itself and so in a way weíre almost protected by the parameters of Park City. When we started I didnít know if we were going to make it because a lot of people said no one was going to come because it was about independent film and it was in the middle of winter. I put it there to make it harder for people to get to so it would attract attention and you knew that the people that did come came because they cared. It was a risk. The first year three or four hundred people came total. And now you have 45,000 people and itís right at the edge of things; thereís only so much the city can grow.

TIME:How do you feel about the commercialism in Park City around the festival that has nothing to do with the festival?

RR:Sundance is not Park City. The reason the festival is in Park City is because it suits them and us. We donít want, nor can we contain, those massive crowds. They do want them because of their retail, they are a full-out business resort. The labs, the programs, everything we do except for the festival happens here (at Sundance). So therefore it fits very nicely because it works for the city because they get a $40 million dollar increase over ten days, which is good for the merchants.

TIME:So you donít think the festival is becoming too commercial?

RR:It depends on where you see the festival from. For example, as the festival has increased in notoriety, the merchants came, then celebrities came, then the paparazzi came, then fashion came, and everybodyís welcome. But at the core, we program the festival the same way we did the opening year, we program for diversity. So if you look at the festival from the inside, where the filmmakers are, youíre going to get one perspective. If you judge it from the party circuit, outside, you might see a different festival. But the truth is weíve never changed anything; itís just that the festivalís population and exhibition have grown, and all that comes with it.

TIME:People have used the fact that a lot of the films at Sundance get mainstream distribution as an example of why itís no longer an independent film festival.

RR:Thatís an old cry. Basically they use the word Hollywood. Hollywood is a business and a very good one. I think it just says Hollywood recognized something of value and it came to Sundance. Once the product began to outperform some of the big blockbuster films in the marketplace it drew even more attention to the festival, and films that came through our festivals as straight independent films got purchased and went into the mainstream and performed very well. Furthermore, whatever films go in that direction thereís always going to be a new batch of films that are completely independent. Itís only when they get into the marketplace that somebody says Ďwell itís Sundance, itís easy.í It really isnít.

TIME:But isnít that a sign of success. Isnít the point to get the filmmakersí work out there?

RR:Well thatís why I donít get anxious about that. The point of it all was to create opportunities for the filmmakers and thatís happened. So if they get their work sold, great. In the end the choice is not ours, the choice is the filmmakerís and the publicís as to what they want to do with it all. As long as we keep producing new, fresh, work; which we will.

TIME:Actually, now people are scared not to come to the festival. Or theyíll go a whole ten days without getting noticed.

RR:I donít know what to say about one. I donít want any part of that one. I can barely last through the festival, itís a pretty exhausting place for me.

TIME:Now that itís gotten so big, do you still see yourself as the face of Sundance and the festival?

RR:The face of Sundance, perhaps, because I started it but I think the festival has its own face now, it doesnít need mine anymore to tell the story or to promote it. Itís self-sustaining, itís self-generating. It doesnít need me to be a front person for it. The role I enjoy playing most is the creative, in programming the festival or working on how we are going to present the panels. Or looking to the future, how itís going to grow.

TIME:Are you satisfied that Sundance has filled a need in the film community?

RR:I am. I certainly think we played a role in establishing a new category, and I new opportunity.

TIME:So when do you sleep?

RR:Oh, I havenít done that for years.