Sundance London 2013 - Robert Redford interview
Interview by Rob Carnevale
ROBERT Redford talks about bringing Sundance back to London for a second year and some of the unknown elements about Sundance that he holds dear.
He also discusses his views on the current state of independent cinema, his passion for documentaries and why there needs to be a discussion on the economic benefits that filmmaking can bring. Sundance London runs from Thursday, April 25 to Sunday, April 28, 2013.
Q. This year is the second Sundance London. Looking back on last year, how do you think it went and what did you learn from the inaugural event?
Robert Redford: Well, last year we came here and it was the first time that Sundance had ventured out of its home-base in Utah in the United States and we came because we were invited basically. We thought that rather than come in in a big way, it would be wiser and more practical to come in in a smaller way and rather than come in for a week, to come in for just a few days. It was kind of like a toe in the water experiment. We did not know how it was going to go, we did not know how we might be received… so that’s how it started last year and we said, ‘well let’s see how it goes’. And if it goes well, then maybe we’ll come back if we’re asked. I don’t think Sundance would ever insert itself or push itself in any other place. We would only come if we were asked and then see how it goes. If it doesn’t work, we wouldn’t do it again, but if it does we would. So, it went well for us. And we’ve been asked back a second year and we’re happy to be here.
Q. Sundance London is as much about music as it is about film. Why is it as important for you to shine a light on music talent with Sundance London?
Robert Redford: Because music and film have become more and more integrated over the last years and because Sundance is about floating with change. I think change… we believe change is inevitable and so therefore we treat it positively and float with it. I know some people maybe are afraid of change and they react against it. But we see it as positive. And one of the changes that has taken place outside of technology and film coming more and more together is music and film. And rather than just be a background of back-up to the film, or a background effect to the film, as in the old days, it’s become more integrated to the point where sometimes music is the film. So, because of that we wanted to take our lab programmes and bring that forward. So, we have a music lab along with a documentary lab and then our film lab. So, they kind of coalesce around the merging that’s going on in the marketplace.
Q. What are you most excited to see or do during this Sundance London?
Robert Redford: Well, aside from the fact that it’s a pleasure to be in London and see London… we probably won’t get to see that much of it. But there’s a purpose inside of what we’ve just described, which is what Sundance is about. We are about giving opportunities to new voices in film and focusing on independent film. When we started there was no real category for that. So, I think probably we fed that, if not enhanced it. The idea of coming here is to bring these films because we were asked to come and we were asked to bring American films to London. So, those films are films of new filmmakers who we feel have new voices that tell new stories in a different way. And we want to share that with other people.
But beyond that, it’s giving those filmmakers an opportunity for their work to be seen outside the United States. Maybe there’s an overall hope that in doing that – because we also, when we have our festival, bring films from other countries to Sundance… so maybe, if we want to get big-minded about it, then maybe we’re helping to create film as a cultural exchange and show how other people are living, particularly through documentaries. So, show other people are living in other countries, what their burdens are, what their struggles are, and then we show what ours are, whereas other larger, mainstream films are more focused on pure out entertainment, which is good. But their stories might be told differently. So, that’s primarily our purpose, to bring that concept here to London and share it with the people.
Q. Does the fact that you’re here for a second time indicate a longer commitment of the Sundance brand to London?
Robert Redford: I think it depends. I think it’s hard to declare the length of a commitment until you let it play out and see how it goes. I think our commitment to be back here is, as we said, a result of last year and us liking it and it apparently going well for Londoners. So, this year will be the same. I think it just depends on how things roll out.
Q. How would you all sum up the state of independent cinema at the moment? Do you think it’s going in the right direction?
Robert Redford: In terms of the state of the art it’s difficult. It’s always been difficult and it will continue to be difficult. The state of the film business in general is not particularly healthy. Independent film has always had to struggle for a place in the universe, it’s always had to struggle for a place in the exhibition area because the mainstream in the beginning would not create spaces for independent films, so they had to take different routes. That’s increased and that’s better. But overall, mostly due to the economy, it’s difficult.
I’m particularly fond of documentaries. I’ve made quite a few in my time, some of them probably not even known about. But I felt that early on, when I got into the film business, there was just mainstream film. There was no independent film. The only independents that existed then were pretty much through documentaries. But in their earlier years, you had movies like Emile De Antonio [Underground] and films like Point of Order but they were mostly talking heads discussing something. And I felt at that time, because I was so taken with documentaries, because you felt like there was a reality that wasn’t apparent in other films in general, there was attention, there was conflict and all that wonderful stuff, but it had an edginess to it. It made you feel like you were there and somehow it made you feel like you were getting some truth. I felt that documentaries only would improve over time. That was optimistic maybe then. And that they would move closer and closer to film itself… the way film works. The camera would be moving, you wouldn’t just have talking heads, you would show scenes of actuality and so forth. And so as that was going on I was more and more encouraged that documentaries were moving in that direction, so when we started the film festival in 1986 we didn’t know for a few years whether we were going to survive or not. But once it looked like we were going to survive and we had a platform, then we could use that platform to enhance other parts of film, meaning documentaries. So, we created something called the House of Docs, to invite filmmakers there and we kept pushing documentaries forward so that now, in our festival, they occupy pretty close to the same space that films do.
Q. Do you think there’s a role for government funding for film and other arts? This morning, the government’s art minister said that institutions must make an economic argument if they’re to receive funding. They must show that they bring money into the economy in order to justify it. Is that something you agree with?
Robert Redford: Yes, it’s my impression – and I might be wrong – that Great Britain and London in particular has better support for artists than we do. And I think that what’s been difficult is when you have an extremely conservative political body that seems threatened by film and sees art as threatening, then the argument comes up that, well, it’s a trivial pursuit. It’s like casinos or something like that. And somebody needs to step forward and talk about the economic benefits that films bring. I mean, they bring not only people who work on films to make the films, they bring people who work to display the films in theatres and so forth. There’s a lot economics mixed in that brings billions to the table. But no one seems to talk about that as an economic benefit. But it’s there and I think at some point that should be made clear – that there’s an economic benefit just by the existence of film.
Q. Many of the films that come out of Hollywood tend to follow a certain political line. Why is it so hard for filmmakers who are offering an opposing narrative to make films that get distribution? And how important is it for you to promote their work?
Robert Redford: I’d like to talk about something that people aren’t aware of… because the film festival gets so much attention, that tends to drown out what I think is an even more important part of Sundance, which is the lab programmes that start in June, where we bring new independent filmmakers to Sundance and they work with mentors who are very experienced writers, directors, camera-men, actors, editors… and they work together in a kind of mentorship programme. It’s about process. It’s not about the end result. We don’t focus on the end result. We focus on the value of process and what can be learned through that. So, that’s a lab programme for film and then we move into the theatre, which has the same programme that lasts for three weeks, and then we move into the documentary lab and then a music lab. So that takes us almost into the middle part of the summer, and then we have our screenwriters’ lab. So, basically very few people know that that’s basically a process for us that has equal importance to the festival… that’s a showcase. But the development is why we started Sundance. In the beginning there was only the labs; the festival came later.
Above photo by Gareth Cattermole/Getty Images for Sundance London.