"The best and dearest thing to my heart is making art," said a rather jovial Robert Redford this afternoon in Park City during a conversation alongside new Sundance Film Festival Director John Cooper and journalists sitting in the audience at the Egyptian Theatre. The hour-plus chat jumped from "going back to Sundance's roots," the regime change at the festival, Haiti, alternative distribution, ambush marketing and the ever present discussion of Sundance's role in independent film, but Redford appeared more relaxed and even told an impromptu story about dodging paparazzo Ron Galella on the set of one of his movies in New York back in the 70s.
Galella is the subject of Leon Gast's doc competition film, "Smash His Camera." The actor/director also reflected on his time in moviemaking, creating Sundance and how the U.S. has influenced his creative choices. But creativity remains the forefront passion.
"My films are all about America - my country fascinates me. That's who I am," Redford said, "[And] the festival is enormously pleasing and there's some legacy there I guess, but the most satisfying thing is actually 'doing it.'"
Both Redford and John Cooper paid tribute to this year's crop of filmmakers with Redford saying that despite the ongoing upheaval in the business of independent film, he believes it is alive and well and will continue to thrive in the future. "The fact is, what's alive and well are fresh ideas from new voices from around the world. I do believe we have the best films and documentaries from all over the world."
Certainly mindful of the fact that Sundance has recently been a gauge of how successfully independent film is perceived in the marketplace, Redford offered his own prognosis for the coming years.
"I believe the future is with self-distribution, but self-distribution isn't easy of course, but [the Internet] will continue to bring new opportunities. Marketing is very expensive, but there too, I think online will bring opportunities."
Plugging Sundance's new section for "low budget fare," John Cooper touted NEXT, saying it's in line with Redford's vision to give a place for new and emerging filmmakers, and said Sundance itself was a perfect reprieve as awards season reaches its zenith. "I always think of Sundance as the 'great independent pause' between the Golden Globes and the Academy Awards," he said. "We thought it was time to carve out a special place for these [lower budget] films just as four years ago we [created a space] for work in the New Frontier section, which is a whole other realm of what filmmakers are doing." The New Frontier on Main is a collection of installations and performances reflecting the evolution of multimedia and visual artists. Cooper also gave kudos to another initiative this year, the inaugural Sundance Film Festival USA program, which spotlight films from Sundance's 2010 line up in eight cities.
"This is a chance to send Sundance filmmakers across America to participate in a dialogue," Cooper said. "It's a chance to give attention to art house theaters, and also a chance to give attention to filmmakers here at Sundance."
While devoting attention to this year's festival and its new programs, Redford and Cooper paid tribute and reflected on the past, with Redford complimenting Coopers predecessor, Geoff Gilmore, who left Sundance a month after last year's edition wrapped to lead Tribeca Enterprises (the sister organization of the Tribeca Film Festival) after 19 years at Sundance.
"Geoff did an amazing job. He's passionate, articulate and a lover of film... It was just time for renewal, and it all happened with Geoff's own need to move on."
Redford said that he only wants Sundance to continue as long as it can "create a benefit for independent filmmakers," adding, "If we can't [do that] we shouldn't keep going. I felt we were flatlining a few years ago..."
"I look to the filmmaking community to move forward," added Cooper who also said that he believes audiences look for a range of work from the blockbuster to niche stories for their entertainment. "I have the belief that people want both things. They want 'Avatar,' but they also want something like 'Precious,' or 'An Education,' and we didn't have anything to do with it, but 'A Single Man.'"
"I'm very optimistic in the power of independent film to survive. It's always been hard, it's always been a struggle and Hollywood is a business," Cooper added, "But there's always been some crossover, and then it's dollars and cents..."
As the formal conversation ended, Redford skipped the usual on stage posing for photographers and went into the audience at The Egyptian, heading straight for critic Robert Ebert, sitting near the aisle in about the fifth row of the theater, alongside his wife Chaz. Ebert, slowed by a recent battle with illness, has enthusiastically returned to the festival this year.
While a crowd gathered in the theater to snap pics of the duo, Redford chatted with Ebert, saying, "Thank you for all you've done for us here..."