PARK CITY, Utah — “A long time ago I learned a lesson in how not to do it yourself.” Robert Redford leans forward and takes a huge bite out of his sandwich and then returns it to its cheap plastic container. He tells this story to dozens of people. Probably hundreds of people, and I suspect what's coming. It's passed into his personal lore, pulled out at meetings and interviews and panel discussions.
Over the years it's become one of his favorites; and it never fails to get the right reaction. In a way, it's his life story in microcosm, and to some extent, it can be read as a parable about his Sundance Film Festival, which began its 20th chaotic anniversary here on Thursday.
It's a story whittled down for timing and punch, and delivered in the easygoing BobSpeak he's become known for around this resort town.
He swallows and grimaces and starts:
“As I was saying, here's how not to do it yourself. I was asked to speak to a bunch of bankers in Utah. It was the first time I had been asked to speak before people. I said to them, ‘Why me, what could I say to these people?' And the guy who organized it said to me, ‘Doesn't matter. They just want to hear from you, they just want to see you.' I was so nervous they tried giving me a topic to talk about, but it was so boring. I just couldn't do it.
“What happened when I got up there ended up being a combination of nerves and everything I was feeling. My speech became an attack on the banking community. I way overdid it. I didn't mean to, but it was also the truth.
“Anyway, my speech became this incendiary thing and when it was done, I thought, ‘Oh, there goes my chance for a loan in this state.' When everybody was filing out it was just death, just this awful silence. I shook hands with people and it was really quiet and this guy comes up to me and I recognize him as the chairman of the bank. He says, 'Those were some pretty interesting comments.'
"I said, 'Thank you.'
"He said, "I just have one question.'
"I thought, 'Here it comes.'
"He says, 'Did you really make that jump off the cliff in Butch Cassidy?' "
Redford is 66 and appears to have spent every day of those years in the sun, his face as creased and weathered as the dark wooden logs holding up the $300-a-night lodges and ski resorts here. In person, he is indistinguishable from his screen persona: weary and decent, a regular guy with an effortless ability to lock eyes and draw you into his orbit. He doesn't work at being charming. Flanked by assistants with piles of paper pinned to their chests, he enters the room at ease, carrying a plate of strawberries dipped in chocolate and offers one before settling the silver plate before him and pulling out his lunch.
What's useful about that old story he tells about the bankers is that you could take it to mean any of a number of things, not to mention how it also incorporates the twin themes that relate to virtually everything we've come to associate with Robert Redford: idealism and celebrity.
He's never quite made peace with either.
It could be read as a parable about the dangers of wanting to be taken seriously. It could be a story about the trouble with having ideals in Hollywood. Redford himself sees it that last way: "At that moment it hit me that [his message being missed] doesn't matter. If you are an artist and you are with a politician you are there because the politician thinks you will translate into votes. But you don't give up your citizenship because you're an artist. What it does do is put tremendous responsibility on the artist to know what they are talking about."
Especially this week, when the filmmaking world turns to Park City and its annual marketplace for emerging voices, his story takes on a different relevance: It could be read as a parable for why Redford had to create the Sundance Institute in 1981, as a haven for obscure and dissenting filmmaking voices operating outside the Hollywood mainstream; or it could be a cautionary tale about his festival, which started small and lonely, grew up, got popular, and became an example of how Hollywood and celebrity co-opts and transforms idealism.
Redford is very good at listening, at seeming to believe and argue for both ideas, and then bringing you over to his side. He says he started the Institute with $25,000 of seed money from friends. "I got no support from the film industry, except maybe a $5,000 studio boost or something." The first Sundance festival was in 1985, after the actor-director took over the floundering United States Film Festival; for years it was regarded as a place where mediocre movies (many regionally made and terribly earnest) went to die.
"This festival has been like social anthropology for me," Redford says. "What happened was a festival that started small is still a festival but has changed, and some of that is OK. Filmmakers could use as many opportunities as possible. In those early years it was a determination born out of passion and strong feelings. The reason we were not as heavily attended was because people thought there was no commercial value [to independent film], and therefore no value.
"But commitment is always tied to money. For a film to be successful here at the festival now, it has to reach that critical mass of money and parties and attention. The fact that all of Hollywood is here just increases our mix, I think. It does nothing to change the way we program the festival. They just come here to buy, to open their wallets and glance around."
That's nothing you wouldn't have heard during the last seven or eight festivals, word for word. What complicates Redford's comments this year is the appearance of a new book, Down and Dirty Pictures, journalist Peter Biskind's dishy account of the independent film movement of the 1990s and its players.
Redford does not emerge unscathed. Rather he is identified as both the catalyst and inspiration for the indie movement - and as a passive-aggressive manipulator who backstabbed fellow filmmakers (including Steven Soderbergh) and allowed Sundance to grow out of control.
As Biskind writes: "The fact that this vertically integrated indie behemoth totally contradicted the vision of the early Sundance, which was structured precisely to insulate novice filmmakers from the demands of the market, seems to have bothered only the dwindling number of purists in the Sundance ranks."
Predictably, Down and Dirty has already become a chic Sundance accessory here, tucked under any number of arms wandering up and down Main Street, almost de rigeur at the Salt Lake City airport.
But then the Sundance Film Festival has always been alternately described as a slough and a showcase. Depending on where you're coming from, it's either amateur hour, a bastion of pretense and mediocrity, or a 10-day journey into the future of filmmaking - a place where, after traveling up salt-blasted Utah roads to 7,000 feet above sea level, careers and films get launched that would otherwise never see the dark of a movie theater.
If you pay attention, and keep coming back and seeing the subtleties of the place, you realize: it's actually all of these things, plus an open-air insane asylum of a marketplace, and a 24-hour party; and as far as Sundance's influence bleeding into the real world goes, there is nothing else to compare it to than a simple game of telephone. You could play with any number of indie icons who got their start here: Quentin Tarantino, Kevin Smith, Soderbergh.
Let's try Alexander Payne, who rode into Sundance in 1996 with Citizen Ruth, a comedy starring Laura Dern. Without Payne, Election wouldn't have been made. Without Election, would Reese Witherspoon have gotten a break? And without Reese, Legally Blonde wouldn't have been made. Without the success of Election, would Payne have lured Jack Nicholson to star in his follow-up, About Schmidt?
Redford likes to bring up Ed Burns, the actor who got his break with a 1995 Sundance favorite, The Brothers McMullen. "I had the good sense to give Eddie a chance," he says. "I was in a foul mood [the day they met]. I was in New York coming back from this photo shoot I didn't want to do and this guy comes up. Looks like a panhandler. Says, 'Mr. Redford, can I talk to you?' He gives me a tape. There was something about him, and it hit me that just because I'm having a bad day it shouldn't change why we're here at Sundance. I took it and watched it and loved it and sent it to [festival director] Geoffrey Gilmore and said 'Get this in the festival.' "
So, sure, Redford has a hand in what films get attention - though he pointedly says he doesn't.
This year's festival runs through next Sunday and offers 137 features, again many from unknown filmmakers; and since Sundance is nothing if not fashionable, and considering the success of theatrically released documentaries over the past year, about 30 percent of those films are nonfiction.
Most are still without theatrical distribution - for now. Early last week, days before the festival began, Lions Gate announced it bought SAW, a thriller with Cary Elwes and Danny Glover. Earnest Dickerson's Never Die Alone with DMX is set for March; Lars von Trier's Dogville, starring Nicole Kidman, is due a month later. Artisan has Eulogy, a dark family comedy starring Ray Romano and Zooey Deschanel; MGM already snagged Saved! with Mandy Moore; you can catch Redemption with Jaime Foxx on cable this year, or Iron Jawed Angels with Hilary Swank next month on HBO.
Still unattached and unseen but attracting interest in the documentary competition: DIG!, about the rivalry between two indie rock acts, the Dandy Warhols and the Brian Jonestown Massacre; and Persons of Interest, which takes a closer look at the U.S. Justice Department's treatment of Arab-Americans after Sept. 11.
In dramatic competition, there's Garden State with Natalie Portman; We Don't Live Here Anymore with Mark Ruffalo and Naomi Watts; November with Courteney Cox. Those names alone should entice film buyers. But it's always the unknown feature, with lesser lights, that's had the best track record at Sundance: You Can Count on Me, In the Bedroom, American Splendor, Shine, Memento, 28 Days Later - all used the festival as a spring board.
Two movies expected to draw a healthy bit of controversy because of a famous name attached (and the inevitable charge of nepotism): The Motorcycle Diaries, an adaptation of the classic Che Guevara journals, executive produced by Robert Redford; and The Clearing, which stars Redford in his first performance in an independent film.
This is maybe the most striking dichotomy about Robert Redford: He channeled his influence in the studio world into an independent film empire while rarely actually stepping into the world of independent film himself. But it's not so much a contradiction as another part of his enigmatic personality.
The way he sees it, studios once made independent films. He made independent films. They just didn't call them independent films. In the 1970s a new generation of directors and actors came out of the 1960s fueled by activism and energy, and for a decade they made the kind of movies that probably wouldn't be made by Hollywood today.
He counts himself part of that: "I was pretty active in the 1970s making films that wouldn't get made today. In any case, I didn't think about that then. I never thought, 'I'm in the '70s.' Later on, there was thing called The '70s. Later came the historical context. 'Independent' was a nonexistent category back then, it was D.O.A, government-grant territory."
Redford makes even his successes sound like failures, and uses them to paint a compelling picture of how Sundance had to happen. The Candidate, for example:
"That was an original piece - it was originally meant to be part of a trilogy - and the point was to show how we get people elected in this country. What is the system through which we get people elected? How much does it have to do with the people? How much with the substance? Or is it cosmetics? Obviously, the point of the film, in a darkly comic way, was that it was about cosmetics. The release of the film coincided with the year of the 18-year-old vote and the hope was that it would reverberate on college campuses, that it might have some resonance and would get more kids out to vote and take advantage of that new law.
"It didn't. From my standpoint it affected not much change at all. Exposing the system I thought might benefit the people and lead to harder questions the next time. It didn't have any bearing on the future."
All the President's Men?
"I was naive at the time. I saw that film as an appreciation and a gratitude for the First Amendment being preserved by the journalistic process. It wasn't about Watergate. We purposely created a detective story to show how close we came to losing a very valuable principle.
"In the 25 years since that film, rather than provoking a more intense profession with more integrity, the focus on celebrity made it go the other way."
"To me, that was about using that [celebrity] condition to show how entertainment marched across all systems of information, so that it now occupies everybody's obsessions. Predictably, entertainment worked its way to the front page of newspapers. So I see no change."
Redford's legacy is probably not his on-screen career - which actually constitutes a handful of classics and a lot of mediocre star vehicles - but Sundance itself. At any rate, that's what he seems to be getting at.
He says it all with understatement. It's meant to quietly detonate in your head, and get you into the Sundance mind set, which is flowing with dreams of can-do spirit and empowerment. Briefly it occupies the space in your head where all those questions linger about how much Sundance has sold out to celebrity, about how Hollywood it has become - about how Redford figures that the majority of his best films are a notch away from independent productions. It's rhetoric, it sounds good, and like all rhetoric, it contains a sliver of truth.
Maybe more than a sliver.
"By the way," he says, "just because of that disappointment I feel, it doesn't stop me from wanting to make those kinds of movies. Because I still can. I can at least try."