Success Challenges the Sundance Mission The Sundance Film Festival has grown — in size and in reputation. Now the challenge is to remain a haven for independent films. Host Alison Stewart checks in with the festival's director in Park City, Utah, thanks to member station KCPW.
NPR logo

Success Challenges the Sundance Mission

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
Success Challenges the Sundance Mission

Success Challenges the Sundance Mission

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript


And Rachel, of course, we're not in the same room today because I'm at KCPW.


I know. It's weird. We're kind of operating blind. I can't see you.

STEWART: A little bit. The folks here at KCPW have been really great. They're hosting us for a couple of days as I'm out here covering the Sundance Film Festival. And it's funny, you know, when you hear about the Sundance Film Festival - tons of parties and perhaps celebrities in the streets and movies making a big splash. But you have to remember - and they want you to remember -and everywhere you go, people keep reminding you, this is about film. This is about independent film. That's the way this festival started, and that's why we'd like to keep it that way.

And then the press conference yesterday was really interesting. They talked about the first film festival only screened 20 films. This festival has 122 films being screened…


STEWART: …from over 8,000 submissions. Can you imagine? The festival director, Geoff Gilmore - he's kind of a gate keeper. He and his team choose what will be shown during these 10 days. Now, he is nostalgic about the festival. He is proud of the festival. He is protective. As we found out during an interview yesterday, in the basement of the Egyptian theater with the likes of Quentin Tarantino and the Coen brothers, one screened films as young filmmakers.

Here is our conversation with Geoff Gilmore.

All right. We're in the basement of the theater where the press conference - or the opening day press conference just happened for the Sundance Film Festival. We're with Geoff Gilmore, who is the director of the festival. A little unusual interviewing circumstance.

Mr. GOEFFREY GILMORE (Director, Sundance Film Festival): We're actually, though, in the theater that was the traditional place for the Sundance Film Festival competition premieres for years. So this room - this actually - this whole building is infused with the ghosts of past, you know, independent filmmakers. I mean, you could go back to every single one of them and they'll tell you about their Egyptian experience.

And the theater is so small that you get this huge overcrowding happen, or people would crush and run to the lobby. And trust me, when you get the big guys trying to crush their way through the lobby, that's exactly what it felt like, you know?

STEWART: You've been director for 19 years. When you walk into this theater, describing the history that you just described to us, what do you feel when you walk in here?

Mr. GILMORE: Sometimes nostalgia, you know? But oftentimes, I mean, nothing's changed. You know, I think the independent world has evolved so much that sometimes people talk about a past that never existed. And they talk about a kind of - a different time when things were - what - less crowded or less impacted by outside events. And a lot of people complain about that barely, you know, and argue that the festival was not doing what it needed to do in terms of fighting this ability for independents.

We've lived at a world that's really transformed American film culture, American film industry. And I think that the way in which we've helped manage that and that give profile to it is something that I take a lot of pride in. I mean, I think we've expanded what the possibilities are, and that's something that we're excited about. So I come back to this theater and I remember a lot of different screenings and a lot of excitement on stage.

STEWART: Have your goals had to change and evolve as the film festival has?

Mr. GILMORE: I don't think our goals have changed very much. Our goals are always - we're a filmmaker-oriented festival. We're always here to try to give profile to those filmmakers. We're a discovery festival. We have always been about that discovery. But do we reflect a broader spectrum of work now than we did, let's say, 20 years ago? And the answer is of course. You know, you don't want to penalize people for success.

The idea that we shouldn't showcase work that somehow represents a more mainstream aspect of the independent arena would be foolish, I think. And in some ways, that aspect of the American independent arena is what brings disability to the other aspect of it.

Now, sometimes people will argue and say, well, no, it overshadows it. Well, it does and it doesn't. You know, years ago, there were major actors in some of these films and they didn't get any visibility whatsoever. The goals for films in terms of the market place have changed. And for us, that's something that hasn't affected what we do. We haven't become more market-driven. We haven't become more mainstream. We've just become a platform that has a broader spectrum. And that breadth is something that's reflected in that independent film community, not an agenda that we have established, but coming out of that independent film community.

And when the, you know, academy this year nominates what would probably be four independent films, you know, four of those nominations - that's the heritage that we feel we had a very direct place in helping established.

STEWART: Did you ever have conversations with the people who are the insiders in this film festival - when a couple of years ago, you thought, okay, we've been inundated with some of the page-six people and, my gosh, Paris Hilton's here. What does this mean for us? And should it mean anything or should we just ignore it - or do we need to address this?

Mr. GILMORE: Exactly. And we've had conversations about it incessantly, you know? We never thought of talking about it. And I think we get to the point where - we don't want to become defensive about something that I think has nothing to do with us. The fact that certain people find certain celebrities who want to find a platform to showcase themselves - that has nothing to do with Sundance. It's a free country, as they say, you know? I can't tell people I can't come to town. But, on the other hand, I don't promote it.

I, you know - I know a lot of film festival directors come up to me and say, god, we wish we could have all these people come to town like you guys do. And somehow, we are forced to look at (unintelligible) other end like, oh my god, we've got too many people coming to town. What are we going to do? Well, it's a reflection of the fact that I think we really don't focus on that. We don't sit here trying to program films that are vehicles for major actors because that's our purpose in life, no. We program films that we think work.

STEWART: Mm-hmm.

Mr. GILMORE: And some of them have an aesthetic that's more mainstream; some of them don't. The fact of the matter is I think we've had a pretty good track record in helping - I think, again, extend that sense of the possible and helping that independent film really evolve.

You know, I'm not someone who is imbued with the idea that art film is to be (unintelligible). I grew up with a much greater knowledge about a range of different kind of filmmaking than almost anybody I know who works in this business. And I can't tell you here sitting that I think that, you know, the kind of European (unintelligible) represent to me the zenith of accomplishment.

So I kind of see this as a world that's evolved, that helps established that. We have art at this festival. We have, you know, visibility for documentary and politics. We have personal storytelling. We have a range of different thing. It's not just eclecticism that we're striving for. We're really trying to say, hey, look, that's what reflects the full spectrum of independent filmmaking.

STEWART: So what was the last big major splashy picture that you saw - that you loved?

Mr. GILMORE: Splashy or one that has a lot of visibility that's outside this festival, you mean that?


Mr. GILMORE: I mean, if I say that I think "No Country for Old Men" by the Coen brothers is extraordinary, it's true. And I also think Paul Anderson's "There will be Blood" are extraordinary films. And I wish them all the success this year. I mean, I think they reflect what I think the accomplishments of American film culture are. It's not - these aren't guys that you talk about when you talk about Hollywood. These are guys that you talk about when you talk about a thing outside of Hollywood. And look what they have been able to accomplish. It's marvelous. And that, to me, is I think very special in terms of what the impact of the American independent arena has been.

STEWART: As the director of the festival, how many films do you have to watch over the course of the year? How many would you get?

Mr. GILMORE: Eight - 900. And people will always say, well, how does that possible and (unintelligible) in calculations. And I say, you have no idea. I mean, I watch - there are series of times when I'm watching the films from dawn to dusk and late dusk. And we do it in different shifts. I travel. I travel incessantly. And yet, it's the only way for me to cover as much of this process of submission that we have. I don't do it by myself. I do it with a terrific staff and a great director of programming in John Cooper. And yet, ultimately, the decisions - the person who decides what gets in this festival is me.

STEWART: Tell me about your choice of the opening night film?

Mr. GILMORE: "In Bruges." "In Bruges" is - it's a film about place. It's a film with a political sensibility. It's a film about perversity and morality at the same time. And it's really a special work.

(Soundbite of movie, "In Bruges")

Mr. RALPH FIENNES (Actor): (As Harry): I suppose you go.

Mr. COLIN FARRELL (Actor) (As Ray): Yet.

Mr. FIENNES: (As Harry) Well, what are we going to do? We can't stand here all night.

Unidentified Woman #1: (As Character) Why don't you both put your guns down? Go home.

Mr. FIENNES: (As Harry) Well, that'd be stupid. This is a shootout.

Mr. FARRELL: (As Ray) Harry, I've got an idea.

Mr. FIENNES: (As Harry) What?

Mr. FARRELL: (As Ray) My room faces Central Canal, right? We're going to go back to my room, jump into the canal and see if I could swim to the other side and escape.

Mr. FIENNES: (As Harry) Right.

Mr. FARRELL: (As Ray): If you go outside around the corner, you can shoot me from there and try and get me. That way we leave this lady and her baby (unintelligible) entire thing.

Mr. FIENNES: (As Harry): Do you completely promise you'll jump into the canal? I don't want to run out there and come back in 10 minutes and find you (bleep) hard in the cabinet.

Mr. FARRELL: (As Ray): I completely promise, Harry.

Mr. FARRELL (Actor): (As Ray): So hang on, I'll go outside, then I go which way, right or left?

Mr. GILMORE: It wasn't even a second choice for me. I saw this film, you know, about a month before we had to finalize our decision and that was it. And I knew it was it, and the fact that so much of festival then built on some of the similar themes that personally driven artist coming from different fields, debut filmmakers - it was just perfect. I laugh my head off at this film.

And I have watched it by myself, and it's hard to know how comedies are going to be playing when you don't watch them with audiences. But this one, I thought, really played enormously well. And I certainly knew Martin McDonagh. I mean I knew his plays. I knew the short. I didn't really anticipate this being what it was. And I laugh at it and I think it's terrific.

STEWART: There was a lot of discussion about diversity of the films. There are different kinds of films you can see at the festival - documentary, short - 81 shorts have been mentioned - yet, they're all at the same festival. So even though it's a diverse group, they all must have some common element and string. What is that that they're here?

Mr. GILMORE: They do and they don't. I mean, one of the things I will tell you is that it's not the Jeff Gilmore Film Festival. It's the Sundance Film Festival. And one of the things you learn in this business is how to be a professional about it. You don't just program your own taste and sensibility. You listen to your staff. You listen to other people. We've got a very eclectic and thoughtful staff. That's what's reflected in the work. So it does reflect that diversity. It does reflect that difference of opinion. We don't sit there as a, you know, a group of six people, saying, God, we're all in agreement here and now we'll play it. We fight like cats and dogs. And it's because of that sensibility that conflictory sensibility that this festival is, I think, as eclectic and broad ranging as it is.

STEWART: I'm going to push you on this, though, because I know that there's a story when I hear it's an NPR story, but an NPR story can be about Benazir Bhutto, but it could also be about some kid in this basement who DJs.

Mr. GILMORE: The thing that I want to make sure is that when I go out into the world - and I don't mean just the American world - I mean the international world - that I don't want people self-centering themselves and saying, well, this isn't really a Sundance film. I wanted them to be able to come back and say, what makes this film a possibility for us. Would we not necessarily focus on showing "Austin Powers"? Yeah, often times, there's a need of. It's not the world that we live in. On the other hand, are there works that every year surprise people that they're at Sundance? Yeah. That's what this festival is about. And that surprises them and I take great pride.

STEWART: Jeff Gilmore, thank you. Have a good couple of weeks.

Mr. GILMORE: I look forward to talking to you again. Bye-bye.

MARTIN: Interesting conversation, Alison.

STEWART: Yeah. He was an interesting guy. And for people who are interested in that film, "In Bruges," it's about these two hit men who - their boss tells them to go cool their jets. They need to just get out of sights. They end up in this old medieval city in Belgium and they try to sort of blend in and they don't do a great job of blending in. It stars Colin Farrell, by the way.

MARTIN: Uh-huh. Well, thank you for that. That was really interesting.


Copyright © 2008 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.