"It Started as Just a Hope": Robert Redford on Founding the Sundance Film Festival

StoryJanuary 29, 2015
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Robert Redford

acclaimed Oscar-winning actor, director, environmentalist and founder of the Sundance Film Festival. His best known films include Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, All the President’s Men and The Sting.

We speak with director, actor and Sundance Film Festival founder Robert Redford about the festival’s history, now celebrating its 31st anniversary. Sundance is now among the largest film festivals in the country, with some 50,000 attendees. However, it looked very different when it began more than three decades ago. "The first year, there was maybe 150 people that showed up. We had one theater, maybe 10 documentaries and 20 films, and now it’s grown to the point where it’s kind of like a wild horse," Redford says. We also discuss the festival’s efforts to promote women, people of color and young people — on both sides of the camera. This comes as the latest "Celluloid Ceiling" report from researchers at San Diego State University has found men directed 93 percent of the 250 highest-grossing films of 2014. Women directed just 7 percent, a decrease of 2 percent compared to 1998.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: So you have a film, Robert Redford, that is premiering here at the Sundance Film Festival, and that’s pretty rare for you. I mean, you’re constantly—

ROBERT REDFORD: It’s very rare. Wasn’t my idea.

AMY GOODMAN: —premiering in Hollywood.

ROBERT REDFORD: It wasn’t my idea.

AMY GOODMAN: So, talk about this film that—well, you were supposed to do this with Paul Newman?

ROBERT REDFORD: Once upon a time, yeah.

AMY GOODMAN: And you chose the person who most reminded you of Paul Newman to replace him?

ROBERT REDFORD: No, no, it was originally—look, the history of this project goes back about 14 years—that’s how far—right after 2000. When I read the book by Bill Bryson, I literally laughed out loud, and I saw it as a possible third picture for Paul and I to do, because it had the same—it had the same tone, but a different environment. So I thought, "Well, that would be good." But then, as time went on, getting a script, that took a long time; getting a director, that took a long time; and then Paul’s health declined. And so, pretty soon it was obvious that he couldn’t do it. He said, "I can’t do it."

So the first thing that came to my mind was Nick Nolte, because I think that Nick—Nick and I are roughly the same age. I think we started—I personally think he’s a good actor, and I think he’s smart. He’s really interesting. Maybe a little undisciplined, but that’s sort of what makes it fun. So, he and I, I think, had very similar backgrounds when we were both young. I was—I was off the rails when I was young, and I pulled it together.

AMY GOODMAN: How did you pull it together?

ROBERT REDFORD: I just got—I came back from Europe. I went to Europe to study art, and it was a dark period. And I came back, and I decided I really needed to focus on a healthier life, got married, had children, started a career. That’s what did it.

AMY GOODMAN: Before we talk more about the film, mentioning Paul, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, it’s where you got the name for this festival?

ROBERT REDFORD: Well, yeah. I did not want it. I didn’t want it. I thought it was too self-serving. And so, the group that I was involved with, we were looking for a name for the area. And Sundance came up, and I said, "Well, it’s a great name, but I don’t want to use it, because it looks like it’s self-serving, because of the film." They said, "Well, it’s just a great name. It’s just a great name," and tried to use all kinds of reasons why it should be used. "If you get up to the top of the mountain, the sun dances on the snow." And I said, "Ugh, I don’t think it’s a good idea." But I was outvoted. I think it is a great name. I was just afraid of there being too much association, that I was looking to capitalize on the film. I said, "What if the film is a disaster?"

AMY GOODMAN: Can you believe that the Sundance Film Festival is 31 years old?


AMY GOODMAN: Do you think of it as one of your children?

ROBERT REDFORD: You know, it’s interesting. I think of it—because it started—it was a big idea back in 1985. It was a big idea with a small start, because there was no support. There was only one theater in Park City. Sundance, the place, is not here in Park City; it’s 40 miles away, higher up in the mountains, tucked away. It’s where our lab programs are. That’s where the development process is. That’s where our nonprofit, Sundance Development, for the documentaries and the film and the theater and so forth, music. Park City works out for us because they have something we need, which is theatrical distribution capability, and we give them something they need, which is a venue to attract people. So, the first year, there was maybe 150 people that showed up. We had one theater, maybe 10 documentaries and 20 films. And now it’s grown to the point where it’s kind of like a wild horse. I can’t begrudge it. I mean, that was the dream. It started as just a hope. Then, when it became a reality, it started to have its own momentum.

AMY GOODMAN: And the point of it? Since you certainly, you know, have great acclaim in Hollywood, you didn’t need another venue, as all the creative ways you participate in the film industry, as director, as an actor. So why Sundance? You had it made.

ROBERT REDFORD: Well, it wasn’t so much about me. It was what I saw happening with the industry. During the '60s and ’70s, particularly during the ’70s, studios controlled film. And in those days, many studios would allow smaller films to be made under their banner. And I was very fortunate because some of the stories that I wanted to tell, about the country that I grew up in, went into the gray area. You know, during the Second World War, which is my first memory, it was a lot of red, white and blue. You know, we were—there were a lot of slogans, and we were supporting the soldiers off to war. I had family that was in the war, family that had died in the war. So when it was over, there was such a lot of propaganda about what a wonderful country we were to have this and to have that. I thought, it is a great country, and I'm pretty lucky to live in it, but as I grew up and heard slogans like "It doesn’t matter whether you win or lose, but it’s how you play the game," and I realized that was a lie. Everything mattered, just if you won or not. And I realized that this was a country that is very much about winning.

And so, I decided I wanted to make a—I wanted to make a film about what I would call the grayer area of America, where it’s more complex, issues are more complex. So, the first one was Downhill Racer. And I was able to do that because I was doing a larger film at Warner Bros. And then The Candidate. I wanted to do a film about—back in 1970, that said we elect people not by substance, but by cosmetics, and it’s how you look, and that had a lot to do with it. And I wanted to make that point—a person not at all qualified, but he looked like he was, but he wasn’t. And so, it was about that. And then other films about the American West, the settling of the American West by mountain men, then All the President’s Men. So those were films that I was allowed to make if I was doing a larger film.

But then it changed. In 1980, the industry began to be more centralized, and they were following the youth market, because that’s where the money was, which I understand. But it looked like it was going to be at the expense of some of those other films that were more about the humanistic side of cinema, stories about America, American way of life, complex stories. And so, in my mind, I thought that was very valuable. I thought that’s a wonderful use of film. You can have the big blockbusters. You can have—with technology coming along, creating more special effects possibilities, you knew that they were going to use that, and that’s great. But I felt it was going to be at the expense of giving up those other kinds of films, so that’s what led to Sundance.

And I thought, "Well, what if we can start a development process where young artists can have a voice, but we can help them develop their skills so they can at least get their films made?" That was the labs that started in 1980. Then, once that happened and we started a development process at Sundance, suddenly we realized that we were helping them develop their skills so that they could get their films made, but there was nowhere to go, because the mainstream had not allowed any space for them. And that led to the idea of a festival. So, originally, it was just an idea that maybe we can have a community of filmmakers coming together and share each other’s work. And maybe if we were lucky, somebody will come, and somebody else will come.

AMY GOODMAN: You talk about diversity in all sorts of ways. There’s a big discussion at Sundance in promoting women, for example, in the film industry—

ROBERT REDFORD: Very much so.

AMY GOODMAN: —on both sides of the camera. One of the women who talks about how important Sundance has been in her life is Ava DuVernay. In 2012, she won best director, the first African-American woman to win best director. That was—

ROBERT REDFORD: Yeah, she’s on our board.



AMY GOODMAN: And now the controversy over Selma. I mean, she has been nominated—the film, for best film, for the Oscars. As for best director, she didn’t get it. David Oyelowo did not get nominated for best actor. And it led to this hashtag, #OscarsSoWhite. And many have cited the 2012 survey conducted by the L.A. Times that found Oscar voters are 94 percent white, 76 percent male and an average age of 63 years old. Your thoughts about this?

ROBERT REDFORD: I’m older than that. That’s my first thought. I don’t occupy myself with what the Academy is doing or what its criteria is. I’m a member of the Academy, but I don’t really occupy myself with what its thinking is, because if it gets controversial, I don’t know that I know enough about what prompts it. I do believe in diversity. I think diversity is healthy. I think diversity in film is really healthy. And I remember—

AMY GOODMAN: Do you think the Academy needs to diversify?

ROBERT REDFORD: Yeah, I do, yeah. I think it’s only healthy. I mean, there was a while when you didn’t have any women directing. Now you have women stepping up, which I think is really important. I think the future would be quite well—do quite well with focusing on women and young people. I think the youth of tomorrow, I think we need to spend time thinking about them, particularly on the environment. You know, if we’re going to be polluting this planet, what are we doing for the new generation? What are we giving them to work with? And the same thing in film. You know, young people have new ideas, and you want to create space for them to develop. And women, I think, have a lot to bring [inaudible]. The country needs more nurturing, that’s for sure.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s Robert Redford, Oscar-winning director, actor, environmentalist, founder of the Sundance Film Festival, now in its 31st year. I spoke to him Wednesday night here in Park City, Utah. Here at Sundance in 2013, for the first time, women directed 50 percent of films in the U.S. dramatic competition. That stands in stark contrast to Hollywood, where women filmmakers actually appear to have lost ground over the last 17 years. The latest "Celluloid Ceiling" report from researchers at San Diego State University found men directed 93 percent of the 250 highest-grossing films of 2014. Women directed just 7 percent, a decrease of 2 percent compared to 1998. Again, that was 17 years ago. Sundance alumni Laura Poitras, director of Citizenfour, and Gillian Robespierre, director of Obvious Child, and Ava DuVernay, director of Selma, were among just 17 women directors whose films broke into the top 250 highest-grossing films this past year. When we come back, we speak to Robert Redford about his new film here at Sundance, A Walk in the Woods. Stay with us.


AMY GOODMAN: That’s "Glory" from the film Selma. The song sung by John Legend and Common has been nominated for an Academy Award. The film Selma has been nominated for best film.

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