Robert Redford opens up
Sundance founder on film, festival, politics
By Paul Clinton
For the first time ever, Robert Redford will act in a film that is appearing at the film festival he founded. CNN's Paul Clinton reports (January 15)
LOS ANGELES, California (CNN) -- Every year, thousands of filmmakers, journalists, public relations people, and marketing directors from every major film company in the world descend on the tiny resort town of Park City, Utah.
They're there to meet, greet, see, be seen, eat, drink, ski -- and, oh yes, watch lots and lots of movies at the Sundance Film Festival, the world's premier marketplace for independent film.
Robert Redford founded the festival and has nurtured it since its creation in 1980. This year marks a first for Redford at Sundance: He's starring in a film that's screening at the event.
Recently, Redford sat down with CNN and talked about independent film, the festival, its history -- and his Sundance film, "The Clearing."
CNN: So, this is the first time you've had a movie, "The Clearing," that you're actually screening at Sundance. It's not in competition, but it is premiering there.
REDFORD: Yeah, it's kind of ironic. I didn't submit it and I didn't accept it. I don't get involved with the programming at Sundance. That's done with the staff, and we keep that very much independent, always have.
But on the other hand ... it so fit the profile of the films that I support, I thought that it's about time that I put my body where my mouth was, and did one. There's an irony here, you know. I'm out there usually introducing these kinds of films, and now I'm in it so it means that I've got to do the dog-and-pony thing on the stage, which is going to be weird. I'm just here for a photo op, you know. (laughs)
CNN: You've got another one, "Motorcycle Diaries," that you executive-produced.
REDFORD: It's actually not a first. I've had other films in the festival that I have produced or my company has produced. ... But this is the first year that there's been such a conglomerate of films that represent my involvement.
For example, there's "Motorcycle Diaries." Then there's also a film in the festival that came right out of our lab that I worked on with Jacob Kornbluth, and it's called "The Best Little Thief In The World." ... Chris Eyre, who came through our lab with "Smoke Signals" who I'd worked with ... has a film in the festival that I'm introducing. Then there's "The Clearing." So you put all of those together, it's a ...
CNN: It's a Robert Redford festival (laughs).
REDFORD: I'm going to need a paramedic.
Redford and Willem Dafoe star in "The Clearing," which is having its premiere at Sundance.
CNN: Are you surprised how Sundance has evolved?
REDFORD: I am. ... I wasn't prepared for the size and the dimension. I wasn't prepared for what we started as a festival and still program as a festival, to turn into a market.
The fact that it's turned into a market doesn't displease me because whatever helps the filmmaker [is fine with me], since the initial purpose of Sundance was to develop opportunities for the filmmakers ... and to create opportunities for audiences to see that work.
Am I pleased about it? Yeah, sure I am. I mean it gets to be like a wild bull after a while that you have to manage, and use the reins on. That's better than standing over a burial ground.
CNN: As a lover of film, I've been sort of dismayed over the years as the attention has gone toward the big-name stars rather than the unknown filmmaker. Is that distressing to you that the emphasis has changed?
REDFORD: I have some ambivalence. Look, I am part of both of those two worlds, and I'm not going to disdain the mainstream part of being considered a name. On the other hand, the whole purpose of starting Sundance was the other part of that.
What happened basically was that nothing has changed. A lot of people think we changed ... they will [put us down] and say, "There are too many cell phones on the street." Well, that's not our invention. And "They're all wearing black." Well, we're not in the fashion business.
The fact of the matter is that nothing has changed from the first year that we started to this year. We program it exactly the same, which is for diversity and not for commerciality.
What happens is when the merchants came in with the successes that came out of the festival, and when the merchants came, the celebrities came, and when the celebrities came, fashion came, and when fashion came, the paparazzi came. You know it all just sort of tumbled in on itself. I don't care about that, that's fine. As long as it doesn't overwhelm the festival.
CNN: You're a huge champion of independent film, but you very rarely appear in one, unlike, say, William H. Macy.
Redford notes that such films as "The Candidate," which he produced, were made independently, if within the structure of the studio system.
REDFORD: Well it's actually a mix. The notion of independent support didn't start in 1980. It went way, way back.
[My] film "Downhill Racer" really began my involvement with independent film because that was an independent film. It was made for $1.6 million. "The Candidate" was a small independent film. So I'd actually had been involved in independent films, the only difference was they weren't "outside independent," they were "inside independent," meaning they were within a studio context. ...
If you put together "The Candidate," "Jeremiah Johnson," "Downhill Racer," and "Ordinary People," those were all very, very small low-budget independent films, but they were made within the studio system. So probably they're not seen as independent. ... At the same time I was making "The Great Gatsby," "The Way We Were," "Out of Africa," and larger pictures, but not at the expense of those.
Art, money and politics
CNN: In recent years, more Oscar-nominated films are getting their start at Sundance. What does that say about the audience and the studio system?
REDFORD: Well, it's pretty transparent in what it says. These films started outside the studio system; now they're inside the studio system because the studio system is just a business. ... So if independent films start to make money, they're gonna focus on them, maybe sometimes try to co-op them. But that's sort of normally what you'd expect. ...
I think that the blockbuster [mentality of the studios] will probably come and go, and a new thing will replace it. All it's gonna take is a few failures, and Hollywood will quickly get off that horse.
CNN: Does involving yourself in social issues go hand-in-hand with being a filmmaker, an artist?
REDFORD: Well, yeah it does. It can also be abused. ... I think you have to be careful with that because film is a very powerful medium, and it can be easily abused, so I don't think propaganda works very well.
But on the other hand if you use a fundamental element, just a great story, it can be people in a kitchen in Beirut. They never have to leave that kitchen, and you can tell a very wonderful story, and you can get the whole picture and how they're living, and what the abuses are in their lives.
CNN: The Sundance Film Institute, which supports future filmmakers, is separate from the festival -- but the festival gets all the attention. Does that bother you?
REDFORD: The institute is to me the meat of all our programs because that is the seed for how we help move filmmakers along into the marketplace. It's been an issue for me for many years because the festival was so charismatic for obvious reasons.
CNN: Well, congratulations for getting into Sundance. It must be so exciting for you.
REDFORD: Yeah, it only took me 23 years. (laughter)