Before Sundance London returns to the UK in June, Film4 site editor Michael Leader talks to Festival Director John Cooper and Director Of Programming Trevor Groth about the festival’s programme, enduring reputation, and new home in Central London…
Sundance is a festival that is so defined by its setting, and the small-town vibe of Park City. Yet this year, Sundance London has relocated to Picturehouse Central, which is less than five minutes walk from some of London’s busiest tourist spots. Do you think that will have an effect on how the festival plays out?
Trevor Groth – I think the venue is so perfect for doing a festival, because what we love about the festival in Park City is not just the screening and watching of films, but also the conversations after the screenings. And I think having a venue like Picturehouse is so conducive to hanging out and socialising, and it’s got such great social spaces, so people can keep talking about films with the filmmakers, with the programmers, afterwards. I think that’s going to be a really dynamic element of the festival.
John Cooper – We have a lot of trust in the UK audience from our experience there. They’re so intelligent – we’ve had lots of comments from our filmmakers, saying how great the Q&As were. So I’m not so worried about the audiences finding us. I’m hoping to draw some of the energy off the street and into the venue.
Tell me about the thinking behind this year’s programme. Previous editions of Sundance London had a larger programme, but this year it’s more focused on the core selection of 11 feature premieres…
Trevor Groth – We love the lineup. We feel it does represent the range of voices that Sundance is all about, from the narrative films – it has first-time directors and it has established filmmakers like Todd Solondz and James Schamus. And documentaries as well, which have always played a crucial role in the festival. We even have our Grand Jury prize-winning film, Weiner, there, and our Directing prize-winning film there, Life, Animated. Even though there’s just the 11 feature films, I think if you look at all that they represent, and everything we’re doing around the festival, including the panels, I think it will be a full weekend that really does capture what Sundance is all about.
Speaking of ‘what Sundance is all about’, the festival has such a reputation, and it has become a descriptive term in its own right. Yet it’s hard to pin down quite what that means.
John Cooper – It’s funny. When you were saying that, I took it as such a compliment, because that’s what I strive for. As director of the festival, I strive for this impression that can’t always be quantified, in a way, because it’s coming from the artists. We have seen such an evolution in the past 5 years of independent film, and most in the advancement of craft, and the craft of screenwriting, and people using modern techniques to tell their stories. That’s all adding up to what we are. We follow the artists, basically. And they lead us in such great ways. And you know who started that, who put that idea in my head when I started here 27 years ago – it was Redford. That’s what he always believed, that we were there to be flexible and responsive to the independent film community.
How do you stay flexible as a festival?
John Cooper – By being responsive to the artist, but also keeping a clear head and not getting sidetracked from your goal and your mission to discover talent. Because everybody wants to take you in a lot of different directions that may be more commercially driven for a brief amount of time, and we always have to keep coming back to it. The industry really likes that we do this, they really like coming to the festival to have a fresh approach to their own industry.
What are the hardest and easiest parts of your job?
John Cooper – Staying open. We have to find 120 features a year that you have to love, and you have to keep your heart and your mind open for so many different kinds of styles. The job is staying open and responsive – which, I know it doesn’t sound hard, but it takes constant diligence. And the easiest… For me it’s standing back stage at Park City, and it’s just me and the filmmaker backstage, and I know that after two hours their life is going to change. They don’t trust it, they’ve just made a movie, they’re nervous, they’re fidgety, they’re all over the place. But that talk I have with them, about what’s going to happen, is where the soft spot is, for me. It’s what makes it all worth it.
Sundance London runs 2nd – 5th June. Read the full programme and book tickets here.