PARK CITY — “My best defense is the, after 23 years, the process and results speak for themselves. That’s solid stuff.” Thus did Robert Redford respond to the controversy clouding the skies over the Sundance universe in the wake of assorted published criticism of his stewardship of his organization.
Redford has been quite visible during the opening days of the Sundance Film Festival, opening the event Thursday evening by introducing Stacy Peralta’s “Riding Giants,” exec producing “The Motorcycle Diaries,” which Saturday received one of the most tumultuous reactions ever seen at the fest, and starring in “The Clearing,” which preemed Sunday night.
At the opening night event, he concluded his remarks by joking that, “Harvey Weinstein and I will be doing a book signing after the screening,” an inside reference to Peter Biskind’s book, “Down and Dirty Pictures,” the publication of which was timed to coincide with Sundance and which gets very down and dirty with the heads of Sundance and Miramax.
Redford claims not to have read either the book or a Los Angeles Times piece published on opening day that recounted the failures of some Sundance commercial enterprises, such as its cinema chain and production company. “When you become a target somewhere along the line, you can’t think about it too much,” Redford said. “It doesn’t deter me from doing what we set out to do. As Freud said, when one corner looks very dark, let’s look in the other corner, and in the other corner I find plenty of reasons to be proud of our results and to be optimistic.”
Acknowledging that, “In the early years, we were vulnerable,” Redford added that, “I knew we were going to make mistakes — you can’t take risks without stumbling. I spent a lot of time defining who we were and speaking about it, which was about further the opportunities for independent film, and that’s it.
“I’m not an executive. I get involved in everything we do very heavily, but it’s not my job to manage everything, it’s my job to hire the people to do it. I could be faulted for not finding the right people, but that’s another question. Finally, though, in the end, when I look at the results, when I talk to the filmmakers at the brunch, it’s clear that all of what goes on here is a result of our own passions for our work, and that maybe I’ve been able to help by navigating through the intricate universe of film. Let us be defined by the product and people who have come through here.”
Stating that the Sundance Institute itself “is in good shape,” Redford said that he and the staff have recently formulated a four- to five-year plan for the institute that involves embracing new technology and employing it in a way that is positive for the filmmaking process. “The new technological elements are threatening to some people,” Redford said, “but I’m rather optimistic. To me, it’s the democratization of film, because it opens up the world of filmmaking to anyone who wants to do it. We want to take advantage of the new technology but keep the human element, not just make more and bigger special effects. But of course there is the risk, in that the younger the filmmakers become, you run into the experience question, the lack of life experience and the tendency just to draw on other movies.”
Always a proponent of documentaries, Redford pointed out that the World Documentary section of the Sundance Festival, now in its second year, reps a manifestation of the Sundance Documentary Fund that stemmed from George Soros’ $4.5 million Open Society Fund relating to efforts on behalf of international human rights. Concretely, the fund provides a way for Sundance to provide seed money for docus, which it has already done in such far-flung countries as Mexico, South Africa, Vietnam, Jordan and even Iran.
The Sundance Labs have expanded in a similar fashion, moving away from their Utah base to take place all over the world. “But we haven’t gone in like an American retailer, taken the money and run,” Redford stressed. “We say, ‘We’ll help you with your process but respect who you are and what you do.’ ”
Redford’s one major regret regarding Sundance is not having set up an endowment years ago. “Always a killer for us is the fund-raising. So much time is wasted chasing down money, and then it’s pulled away, or the economy changes. It’s always hard. But I’ve always made it clear that there’s no end game for Sundance. The future comes in spurts.”
Having acted in four films over the past two-plus years — “Spy Games,” “The Last Castle,” “The Clearing” and the upcoming “Unfinished Life” with Jennifer Lopez — Redford may act in one more film before undertaking his next personal project as a director-star, a sequel to “The Candidate.” Originally planned to be released during the coming election year season, the Larry Gelbart-scripted picture for Warner Bros. looks now to be shot later this year.