The Sundance Kidder

With his own movie in tow, Dallas' indie-film guru goes to Robert Redford's festival, falls in love with the First-Timer, and embraces the hype

To most of the world, at least those who love all things "E" (Entertainment Weekly, Entertainment Tonight, and E!), the word "Sundance" means Robert Redford's indie-film festival, held each January in the snow-and-golden-sun-capped mountains of Utah. Newspapers, magazines, and TV shows have also wrapped another layer of creepy meaning around it--something intimidating like Power and Glamour. All those celebs-swanning-in-snow pix; all those show-biz reports about ego-driven distributors elbowing each other to slam down millions of dollars to buy movies, if only to shelve them and keep them out of the reach of other moguls looking to buy, or bury, The Next Big Thing.

Outsiders (that is, those without festival badges and expense accounts) see Sundance as a weeklong orgy of bidding and beering--Hollywood's annual retreat to the slippery slopes, where business is conducted on the bunny trails. Maybe some hot pic will get The Buzz and melt the snow for a minute or two, but for every sex, lies, and videotape (The Movie That Made Sundance, so They say), there are a dozen movies such as 1999's Sundance fave Happy, Texas--product that comes and goes so quickly it's not around long enough to forget. Everyone's hot before Sundance.

I've been going to Sundance for a few years, and I've known Redford for a few years longer--since he first became The Sundance Kid in director George Roy Hill's 1969 movie, the one that resurrected Redford's at-the-time stunted career. Redford is wacky and unpredictable--wacky, because for about five years, he actually paid for Sundance out of his own pocket, a little-known fact; unpredictable, because he keeps people hanging for an indefinite period of time before he commits to appearing in their movie. It's only appropriate the fest Redford founded two decades ago resembles its creator.

Get a haircut: Billy Corben was among Sundance's most celebrated First-Timers. His frat-house-rape documentary, Raw Deal: A Question of Consent, was bought by Artisan during the festival.
Get a haircut: Billy Corben was among Sundance's most celebrated First-Timers. His frat-house-rape documentary, Raw Deal: A Question of Consent, was bought by Artisan during the festival.
Get a haircut: Billy Corben was among Sundance's most celebrated First-Timers. His frat-house-rape documentary, Raw Deal: A Question of Consent, was bought by Artisan during the festival.
Tearlach Hutcheson
Get a haircut: Billy Corben was among Sundance's most celebrated First-Timers. His frat-house-rape documentary, Raw Deal: A Question of Consent, was bought by Artisan during the festival.

Every year's going to be the Important Year at Sundance: The Year After Soderbergh, The Year After Reservoir Dogs, The Year of Miramax, The Year of the Digital Video Invasion. Everyone needs a peg, a storyline, some prefab drama. This was gonna be the year of...who knew? That's what makes it exciting: These days, the only Sure Thing is that there's no telling what's going to be The Next Big Thing. The biggest thing to come out of Sundance this year were pictures of a half-naked Courtney Love stumbling down the slopes--the very definition of "slow news week."

But under that "golden" exterior of Redford (and Sundance) lies the darkened core, the soul fighting to become complete. But this fight will never be completed, and this still-fighting core is what makes Redford and Sundance worth watching. For me, Sundance had always meant "struggle," in a lot of different ways.

In 1985, the first year I went to the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah, all there was was watching movies. I saw 42 movies in 11 days--even ducked out of the awards ceremony to hit some Australian punk movie. Sundance, way back in the last century, was like taking a long, stinging, soaking shower in movies-images-sounds.

The next year, they put me to work on the jury, which is charged with handing out awards to films entered in the fest's competition. Tony Safford, the festival director that year (he's now an exec at 20th Century Fox), said it was because he'd spotted me going to more movies the previous year than anybody else; he tagged me "The Yoda of Sundance." That year, Newsweekfilm critic David Ansen and I were outvoted by the rest of the jury and didn't get to give the Grand Prize to director Tim Hunter's brilliant film River's Edge (which contains Keanu Reeves' best performance). Instead, it went to some movie not even available on video today. Time has proven Ansen and Yoda were right.

The last time I attended the festival, in 1997, Cynthia Hargrave (my wife and producing partner) and I brought along a movie we'd produced, writer-director Morgan J. Freeman's Hurricane Streets. It won three awards--best director, best cinematographer, and the coveted audience award--and we sold our no-budget indie movie about New York street kids to MGM/UA. It was a week-and-a-half frenzied ordeal of creaming and screaming distributors bidding to buy the movie, ticket mob-fights to see the movie, and the chance to see no other movies (except Shine). FWupfh! Figured we'd never need to go back there again except...for fun.

No such luck. Sundance wanted our new movie, Perfume, for the end of the 2001 festival. Perfume--for which I had co-written the story that allowed the actors to fill in the blanks--contains a funnily interlocking set of stories about the folk in the New York High Fashion demimonde, and it features (for me, at least) stunning, improvised performances by Jeff Goldblum, Paul Sorvino, Omar Epps, Rita Wilson, among so many others. Long before the fest, people kept telling us: "C'mon, c'mon, it won't be so crazy this time. You don't need to sell your movie, Lions Gate has already bought it, so you'll just go in-out, just a couple days of parties..." For fun? OK, for fun.

But then, you forget. It's not only a film festival anymore. It's also about Sundance-ing. The HypeLife is coming, charging up and blurring out the distinction between your real life and your movie's. HypeLife, 24/7. And you can't stop it. You gave your life to the movie when you made it. And it never stops taking.

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