In Park City, Utah, Sundance founder Robert Redford often prefers to keep a relatively low profile while the festival is in full swing.
That certainly wasn’t the case in the UK Thursday, which marked the inaugural Sundance London Film and Music Festival. Redford was a prominent presence throughout the day, in keeping with Sundance’s need to project itself – if only over four days – in a new market.
In a genial mood for the opening press conference, Redford talked up Sundance, peppered his responses with jokes and gave every impression of enjoying his centre-stage role.
He expressed the hope that Sundance London might become an annual event. This year it offered a choice of 14 feature length films and eight shorts, all of them selected from the January festival in Utah. He was speaking at the O2 Arena, an enormous dome-like structure in east London that houses a 10-screen multiplex. (The contrast with Park City and its small screening venues could hardly be more obvious.) The O2, famed as a venue for music concerts, will host a selection of films, discussions and musical performances until Sunday.
At the launch, Redford took a potshot at recent comments by British prime minister David Cameron, currently under pressure because of competency issues in his government. Cameron had encouraged the country’s film-makers to concentrate on mainstream movies to bolster the British film industry.
"That may be why he's in trouble," said Redford dryly. "I don’t want to say it speaks to the man but that view, I think, is a very narrow one, and doesn't speak to the broad category of film makers and artists in the business.” Sundance Festival director John Cooper, seated beside Redford, interjected: “And it doesn’t speak to audiences either."
Asked about his long-held affection for independent film, Redford recalled: "I started in my career working in large Hollywood films but it didn’t satisfy the need I had for films which were more risky. When we started Sundance it was basically to enlarge the category of films to include those people that might be shut out by mainstream thinking. There’s a hunger for these kinds of films."
After the press launch, in a small interview, Redford noted that his suspicion of Hollywood business practices went back four decades. “I starred in this ski movie, which my company produced,” he said. “But the studio dumped it.”
The film in question was "Downhill Racer" (1969). It opened in cinemas, but the studio decided it had limited appeal and did not put its advertising and marketing weight behind it. Redford described with amusement his doomed plan to get his own back on Hollywood; it involved distributing packages of other films that Hollywood had also dumped to college students on campuses. It failed embarrassingly.
Still, that experience led him to look for ways to present non-mainstream American films, and finally, after a modest start in the 80s, Sundance became that vehicle. He conceded that as a major movie star, he had “worked both sides of the aisle," and had nothing against expensive blockbusters. "I just feel that there's a hunger for other kinds of films as well, and that's what we represent," he said.
These days, he thinks the tide has turned: “Other filmmakers who you might consider mainstream now come to us at Sundance,” he said, citing Stephen Frears and Spike Lee, “because they have no faith at all in the Hollywood. And they’re kinda right. Hollywood is now a tentpole system, where they’re focused on obvious action-packed hi-tech thrillers because they satisfy a great part of the public. So they’re going there because it’s about money.”
Later in the day, Redford took part in an unusual panel discussion about the role of music in movies, along with film composer T-Bone Burnett ("O Brother Where Art Thou?"). It was moderated by British author Nick Hornby ("High Fidelity," "Fever Pitch") who also wrote the screenplay for "An Education." The discussion was bookended by short sets from singer-songwriter Glen Hansard (who won a Best Song Oscar for the film "Once") and Brit indie rock band the Guillemots.
Redford recalled his earliest musical influences – Benny Goodman, and then Gerry Mulligan. Hornby noted that three of his earlier films – "The Sting," "The Way We Were" and "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid" – each contained music or a song that has made movie history.
“But I haven’t been responsible for the music in the films I’ve been involved in,” Redford admitted. With Butch Cassidy," he knew nothing of its famous song until he saw a rough cut of the film.
"Suddenly there was a scene where the guy (B.J. Thomas) was singing "Raindrops Keep Falling On My Head," and it isn't even raining. I thought 'Jesus, what?'. Well, how wrong was I?" The song was used in a scene where his co-star Paul Newman rode a bicycle with Katherine Ross. “The music played a huge role,” Redford said. “But I didn't see it at the time. The film was about joy and the song fitted into the alchemy of the film and strongly supported it.”
Music plays a strong part in Sundance London, and music acts including Tricky, Placebo and siblings Rufus and Martha Wainwright will appear at the O2 during the festival.