Sundance London - Robert Redford interview
Interview by Rob Carnevale
ROBERT Redford talks about why he brought the Sundance Film Festival to London and outlines some of his aims and hopes for it.
He also discusses his feelings about the state of journalism today, why he feels advances in technology have sometimes come at the expense of the craft of storytelling and why music is now an important factor in film both now and in the future.
Q. Why are you here? Why have you decided to come to London with Sundance?
Robert Redford: Two things came together. One was the fact that we were invited by the gentleman to my left at AEG. We were invited to come to O2. Secondly, it coincided with the desire of ours to move into international, although we wanted to be careful about that. The festival has grown to such a degree that we wanted to move internationally. The lab programmes at Sundance had gone international in many, many countries and so the question was can we take the full bloom of what the labs are about to another country? I was reluctant to do that for a while because I didn’t want growth just to be about growth. It had to have some meaning to it. So, I was reluctant to see us go out until the time was really ready. And it felt like it was and that we could take a scaled down version of what we do in the mountains in Utah in January to another country upon invitation and that it would be a good thing. It would be scaled down to bring sort of the alchemy of what we do at Sundance here and see how it was received. So, that’s why we’re here.
Q. This is specifically the Sundance London Film and Music Festival and while music is strongly on the periphery of the festival in Utah, in London it’s really centre stage. What was the thinking behind including music to such a degree?
Robert Redford: Well, I think one of the things we try to do is look ahead as we design our programmes and we think about who we are and what we want to do and the way we want to do it. I see the future coming as a hybrid. I think technology has driven us to the point where there’s now a hybrid. You see certain things coalescing that were separate before. So, we try to show that at our festival, For example, we have a section in our festival called The New Frontier and for many years there was a section of the festival where we just had a lot of the new equipment from Sony and other manufacturers in a room and I looked at it and I realised there was something dead about it. It was dead… like a bunch of robots in a room. There was no life to it.
I realised what was missing was the art connected to it, so we decided then to convert that into something called The New Frontier where we showed technology at its most advanced form working with artists. The product of that was really exciting and it brought life into that. So, that was the first hybrid we got involved with. The next thing was because we had the lab programme which is where everything started at Sundance back in 1980. It started with film and theatre and then it progressed to music and documentaries and producing. And so suddenly music and film looked like that might be the new hybrid – the importance of music to film and film to music and how it’s coming together, what T Bone Burnett represents in that regard. So, since that hybrid seemed like it was on the horizon we wanted to show that we were with it and bring our music composers lab here and bring music here with film to illustrate that that’s a connection now that’s growing stronger and stronger.
Q. What were the criteria for choosing the films that came over to London?
Robert Redford: The idea of audience and artists… Sundance basically has evolved from a series of step points and opportunities that came from that. So, it started as a path for new artists and new voices through independent film to be heard that wouldn’t get a chance otherwise. And what happened once we started our festival and once it survived, because I didn’t know that it would in the beginning, was I began to notice audience patterns. In the beginning it was just local people and then it grew to other states and then finally when globalisation occurred in the ‘90s and borders dissolved around the world we were able to bring films from other countries, so suddenly there was a whole cultural exchange that was made possible.
While that was going on what I noticed was the audiences that were coming were so diverse along with the films and they were multiplying. So, I realised that actually there was a two-way opportunity… one for the artists and one for the audience. So, that’s when we decided that we would try to put as much energy into growing audiences for these films and that’s why London is a great advantage for us because it’s a continuation of growing the audience to see our films and for the artists.
Q. You said that you want build a picture of your country internationally that’s broadly reflective of the diversity of voices not always seen in your country’s exports. Is this you damning Hollywood and the big budget blockbuster?
Robert Redford: Well, I think one of the things about my industry is that I guess you could say I’ve been fortunate to work both sides of the aisle, so to speak. In other words, I started early on in my career by working in large Hollywood films, most of which were fun and great. But it didn’t totally satisfy what need I had, which was something maybe a little more risky and therefore more low budget and more independent. And so finally when we started Sundance it was basically to enlarge the category of film to include those people that might be shut out by the mainstream thinking. And that that would increase the respect for film. So, at any rate, that’s how it all began.
The idea of independence and diversity is what it comes down to. My country is known for its diversity, so the idea would be how can we programme one of the things that makes my country unique and that is diversity? And it’s that kind of diversity that’s not so available in mainstream film industry because it has been scaled down and become more centralised over time and following the youth market. So, therefore, it got narrower and narrower and more prone to blockbusters, which is fine… it’s entertainment and it’s good. But not at the expense, I felt, of the more humanistic side of cinema. So, that’s where we are. So, it’s basically enlarging. It’s not to deny or eliminate those films because they are obviously satisfying on a world-wide basis. I just feel that there’s a hunger for other kinds of films as well and that’s what we represent.
Q. In this country Prime Minister David Cameron recently suggested that the British film industry should primarily focus on commercially viable movies. Do you have any thoughts on that?
Robert Redford: Well that maybe why he’s in trouble!! I won’t get into the other reasons because that’s not my business. But I think that’s a narrow view. I don’t want to say it speaks of the man. All I can tell you is that view is a very narrow one and doesn’t speak to the broad category of filmmakers and artists.
Q. You’ve mentioned that when you saw the technology at Utah it was just ‘robots in a room’. Do you feel sometimes that all the technological advances that filmmakers have now – IMAX and 3D – sometimes overshadows the craft of telling a story and characterisation?
Robert Redford: Yes, I do. But I think the fallout will occur on its own organically. It’s not for me to predict it necessarily. But since you ask the question, I do think that technology has gone a little too far, too fat. I’m not a particular fan of 3D at the moment – for certain things, yes, but not so many things. But I think it will find its way in or out and the audiences will decide. But my feeling right now is that probably things have gone too far, at some great cost by the way, and time will tell whether it really works or not and I’m not sure if it will. But it will find its own way and it’s not for me to say.
Q. There’s been such a huge buzz about Sundance London, especially Prince Charles documentary Harmony, which he is introducing on Saturday. What does that support from the royals in Jubilee year mean to you?
Robert Redford: Well, there’s another part of Sundance that doesn’t get much attention and that is the importance of the environment. By putting Sundance in the mountains in Utah rather than an urban environment in New York or Los Angeles, where you might think it would happen, there were two reasons for doing that. The first was I couldn’t afford to start it in an urban environment and the only thing I could afford was to contribute by own property in the mountains. So, that’s how it started. The other hope, and it was just a hope because we didn’t know until we tried it, was that there might be something interesting that developed when you preserved part of nature against art and development.
Sundance has spent a lot of time, and I’ve spent a large part of my life, working for preservation of the environment and for conservation, sustainability and so forth, and over time that part of Sundance has been eclipsed by the film. But His Royal Highness has been working on the same topic for many, many years and over the years we have sort of indirectly communicated with that common interest. I met with him last spring to discuss the idea of how we could work that into our festival since that was a part of Sundance as well. So, that’s how this has come to pass. He’s been committed for a long time, which I greatly admire, to sustainability and environmental conservation, so since I’ve done the same thing in my country it seemed like a natural fit that we could support his film in his country.
Q. Given the battering you receive sometimes from a certain wing of the American media and your comment in Lions for Lambs on the triviality of media, are you keeping a keen eye on the Levinson enquiry? And do you hope for the return of proper investigative journalism?
Robert Redford: Sure, I do. I’ve been watching it with fascination, I must say. And also to pay you a compliment in one respect and that is as I watch the proceedings I’ve been very impressed by what I would call the dignity and kind of elegance with the way the process has gone forward. People take their time speaking. In my country, things have become so accelerated and hyped up that you can hardly follow. There’s so much personality being put into how the press expresses itself that it’s gotten to be like a lot of noise and not so much substance as opposed to noise and personality. And that’s sad to me to see because I think it blurs the more important part, which is where are we going to find the truth? It gets harder and harder to find, with the Internet and so forth… It’s made truth harder to find along with its positives. So, I think journalism has declined because of the role of entertainment in journalism, which has gotten too excessive. It’s kind of nice for me to watch those proceedings done with a certain amount of dignity because that’s not going on in my country.
Q. You spoke about music and film increasingly becoming a hybrid art form, so can you expand on that and how you see them meshing into something new?
Robert Redford: Well, first of all because music is so important to film. You can look at films in the past… I would think that a film that came out of London, out of Great Britain, Chariots of Fire… a lot of it was the music. I remember the music played a huge role in a film that I was in, Butch Cassidy & The Sundance Kid. I didn’t see it at the time because I thought it was stupid. Suddenly, there was a scene where a guy was singing Raindrops Are Falling On My Head and it wasn’t even raining! I thought: “Jesus!” But how wrong was I? Music has played a great role in film and some of the films that I’ve been involved with too. So, that’s what T Bone [Burnett] and I are going to be discussing. One of the important things we started in our labs was music composition, which is run by a man named Peter Golub – he brings new artists together with experienced artists and musicians and composers to develop that, and then those composers can work with our novice filmmakers to come together in that hybrid that I was talking about. So, obviously music is very important to us otherwise we wouldn’t have a lab programme for it.
Q. What are you hoping to take away from Sundance London?
Robert Redford: We would hope obviously to be received well. We would hope that what we do in America at Sundance has some appeal here in London. That’s the hope but we won’t know until the thing is over. I have no idea how it’s going to go. We only hope that people respond to our more diverse, more independent kind of film. And I guess the other part of the hope is that it would inspire support of that same type of creativity here in London to continue and to help grow it. And then finally the main objective that we started with, which was to create new opportunities for artists and new voices to be heard and to extend that opportunity to audiences in other parts of the world. So, this is the first step if it works.
Q. With such fervent media attention on the financial success of the entries at Sundance each year is Sundance in danger of maybe losing its soul a little bit?
Robert Redford: That’s an interesting question… the question of losing our soul is always on my mind, particularly with success. Success has a dangerous side to it and it’s something I’ve been aware of my whole life. It’s something you don’t embrace so much as shadow box with. So, the idea of our growing and our becoming more successful I always pay attention to not losing who we are and how we do things. We started in a real grassroots way. We started with no support, we started with one theatre and we started from scratch. Over time, I realised there was some value to that because it coincided nicely with the artists who came who were also starting from scratch. So, we were representing that segment of our society. And when growth comes and success comes, it can threaten that because you can get taken with the money and taken with the success and start reaching for the money. In that reach, you could lose yourself, so it’s something that we try to watch very, very carefully – that we pay attention to who we are, who we were and who we try to stay being and still at the same time welcome success but use it wisely rather than poorly.
Q. If Sundance London is a success would you plan on bringing over some of the labs to England?
Robert Redford: I think probably the better person to answer that is Keri Putnam, who directs our lab programmes, and Michelle Satter, who is here with us today. She deserves a whole lot of credit because she was there at the very beginning when we started the labs and she’s weathered the process as it’s gone on year after year, the bumps and grinds along the road. It’s become so refined now that it runs like a fine car. So, I would say that they’re probably the better ones to answer that question… whether we could afford it, because we are non-profit. On a personal basis, I would love the idea since we have labs in other countries – Africa, Jordan, China, India, other countries. Obviously, London would be a wonderful place to send a lab but I don’t know whether that would work or not. They would know better than I.
Q. Do you think that in America the government does enough for the arts? And if not what more could they do?
Robert Redford: No! Well, money and acknowledgment. Let’s start with acknowledgement! Let’s start with the fact that art has to be acknowledged as playing a more important role in our society than it’s currently being credited for. I think that goes into the educational system too. I think art should play a greater role in the curriculum of education. But because of the narrow minded, sort of more right wing elements in our political system… basically one of the reasons they are so far right is they’re afraid of change. They see art as an agent for change – rather than a positive they see it as a threat. And so therefore they try to knock it down or keep it from growing, which I think is a horrible mistake. We don’t have the subsidies that other countries have, like you do, and I think it’s a tragedy. I feel pretty strongly about it.