"Oh, sure, I remember it like it was yesterday... it was a blast, man," Richard Linklater says, his Texas drawl drawing out that last part for a long time. He's talking about bringing his debut film-a funky, near-unclassifiable chronicle of Lone Star boho kooks and freaks called Slacker-that would end up becoming a touchstone for modern indie cinema.
"I remember that Todd Haynes—who was there that year (1991) with Poison—Caveh Zavedi (A Little Stiff), and I were like the weird 'avant-garde' guys in the house. The funny thing about Slacker and Sundance, though, is I'd submitted a really rough cut the year before we actually played there—and it got rejected. So I finished it and showed it in a few places, like Seattle; it was actually playing theatrically in Austin.
The growth of the specialty market and Sundance really go hand in hand.
When Orion Classics picked it up, we blew it up from 16mm to 35mm and then sort of 're-premiered' the new print at Sundance. It was a second time around for that movie… It had already been a local phenomenon. But the way Sundance works, it became like a big coming-out party. That was where everybody saw it; to play there was a huge stamp of approval."
Linklater may not have been one of the young, hungry American filmmakers who became an overnight sensation because of the Park City festival. ("I never had that 'aha!' discovery moment that others had there," he says.) But he'll be the first person to tell you how important the festival was to both him and a generation of like-minded DIY mavericks in terms of giving a burgeoning revolution a home base. "You have to understand: they kind of created this whole world we're living in," the director proclaims.
"I mean, the whole wave only worked because everyone was into it. I think if it hadn't been this mixture of people being burned out on Hollywood's domination of the marketplace and the sort of stories that were being told—from regional films to just really out-there stuff—I don't know that American independent film would have become what it did. But the growth of specialty-market films and Sundance really go hand in hand. Nobody talked about it at the time, but looking back, I do think that that period—the early 1990s—was the heyday for American independent movies. We really have a handful of distributors and Sundance to thank for that."
Despite the rhapsodizing about that Golden Age, however, Linklater is the first person to elbow the idea that the festival has turned its back on the ideals on which its built its foundation. "Right, the 'sell-out' notion," he says, chuckling. "When I went there in 1991, right after the whole sex, lies and videotape phenomenon, people were already saying that: 'Oh, there's agents here now… Ooooh! People want to buy movies… bad!' It's always been a hilarious, ongoing argument that never seems to end. 'Oh, you've turned your back on your indie days because you made a movie for $2 million dollars and it has slightly more distribution now!' It's like, just shut up and make your second movie, man! So a few films got sold. Good for them!"
My best experience was in 1999; that was the year I was on the Dramatic Feature jury. I got to see four movies a day for ten days straight!
Over the years, Linklater has returned a number of times to the festival, showing new works and marveling at how the supportive atmosphere he found in '91 has continued. "I went back in 1995 with Before Sunrise and in 1996 with SubUrbia," he says. "Both of which ended up being chosen as Opening Night films, which was really flattering. I remember thinking, 'Wow, I went from having this off little movie to coming back a few years later, with two movies that are kicking everything off.' My greatest Sundance moment, though, was in 2001, when I got to go back with two films in one year: Waking Life, which was a premiere, and Tape. That was wild.
"We had just finished Tape a few days before, we were showing it at a sold-out screening at the Eccles, it was being projected digitally so the movie looked amazing. I loved that experience! That kinda felt like my Sundance discovery moment; it got us off to a great start with that film. I mean, I know I was somebody who people sort of 'knew' at that point, but they programmed a stream-of-consciousness animated movie and a lo-fi character drama that takes place in one room. That's why I never buy this 'Sundance has sold-out' noise; it's like, what are you talking about? Looking at the diversity of movies they're showing there!"
If it hadn't been this mixture of people being burned out on Hollywood's domination of the marketplace and the sort of stories that were being told—from regional films to just really out-there stuff—I don't know that American independent film would have become what it did.
So 2001 must have been his highlight year, right? "Actually, this sounds kind of corny," Linklater says. "But my best experience was in 1999; that was the year I was on the Dramatic Feature jury. I got to see four movies a day for ten days straight! In addition to the eighteen movies I saw that were in competition, I just gorged on a bunch of other things: documentaries, premieres, everything. You really get to see the breadth of what's available there when you do that. It was intense, but incredibly fun. Plus, you're surrounded by people who are passionate about cinema: critics, programmers, moviemakers. That sort of atmosphere really gets your juices flowing."
As for the Institute itself, Linklater says he's only been to a few of the producers labs and never went through the stem-to-stern process of workshopping a movie there. "But I've had so many friends that have gone and benefited from it," he says. "It's been a real positive thing for so many people; you get these first-time filmmakers in there who are just starting to the learn the basics, and you've got a mentor there concentrating on helping you make a good movie.
"People get a lot out of it. Quentin (Tarantino) still refers to his lab experience, where he workshopped Reservoir Dogs. He just mentioned it recently, in fact: I was at this Q&A with him for Inglourious Basterds and someone asked him a question, which made him think of something someone had told at that lab about the art of storytelling... I mean, that was a number of years ago and he's still applying those things in his work today. Can you believe that?"