MM: When did distributors start coming to see the movies?
RR: Right after sex, lies, and videotape. But there was a chain of events that almost sunk us. The mainstream that had been following the youth market was not making the kinds of films that some actors wanted to be a part of, so those actors began to gravitate toward independent film, where the money was less, but the satisfaction was more. They started coming up to Sundance with their films, and when they came the paparazzi came. And then the merchants came to sell their wares and put out swag.
I felt bad at what I saw happening, because if we were going to be judged by that profile, I thought we’d have a problem. Then the media started saying that Sundance had lost its way, but it wasn’t us, it was the surrounding parts. Who we were never changed, but there was nothing I could do about it. We didn’t own Park City and you couldn’t blame the merchants. When the economy turned, suddenly those marketers couldn’t come. We went through a rough patch. Now I think we’re in a better place.
MM: What can we expect for the festival in 2011?
RR: We want to keep it loose, informal and about the filmmakers. Last year, we spread it out and opened four movies at the same time—in one theater we showed a documentary, in another a short, etc., so people were forced to take their pick. It worked out quite well, so we’re taking the same approach. We’re also taking advantage of the digital world again. Last year, we were able to digitally co-screen certain films in eight cities, so while they were playing at Sundance they also were playing in Chicago, Boston, Nashville and other place. We want to branch out, but always keep the same feeling.
MM: There’s been a lot of branching out.
RR: The branching out is tired to one fundamental issue and that is that the Sundance Institute is nonprofit. All through the ’80s, I really had a hard time juggling the Institute. I had to give up part of my career to keep it going and it was hard to raise money. We improved our fundraising, but we couldn’t get an endowment. If we could start a business that had the same mission, to discover new artists and give them opportunities, while creating opportunities for the consumer at the same time, that would be of value. So we started the Sundance Catalog and the Sundance Cinemas.
MM: You describe the cinemas as a chain of “community experiences.”
RR: I remember years ago sitting in a theater where they were previewing a film I’d directed. I realized that doors were opening and shutting, people were talking and the trailer was loud and blasting. I thought, “Look what’s happening to the filmgoing experience.” It used to be you went and had a whole cultural experience—with cartoons, shorts, newsreels and no trailers. What if we brought that back with Sundance product, where we could show a variety of films in a center with a bar, a restaurant and a film library? Where the whole community could gather for a community experience? They’ve been very successful.
MM: Do you remember the first movie you ever saw in a theater?
RR: I do! It was Fantasia and I remember being blown away by it.
MM: Having had so much success acting why did you decide to direct?
RR: For a couple of reasons: One was that I’d acted and produced, but I waned to have complete control. I wanted to do a small film about the society I was living in and take full responsibility for it. Ordinary People was turned down everywhere. To my good fortune, Barry Diller at Paramount let me do it. Nobody bothered me, nobody came around. Another reason was that I had been an artist and shifted to acing and wondered if I should have left art. By directing, I realized I could put the two together: I could “design” the film. Suddenly, I got very excited.
MM: Were you nervous about directing?
RR: No. I was testing my own way and was all fired up, because I was left so alone.
MM: How did it feel to win the Best Director Oscar your first time out?
RR: Well, I was not expecting it. But success can be a double-edged sword. I was very much aware of that, that you shouldn’t get too taken in by it or you can retard your willingness to try new things.
MM: Has your directing style evolved over the years?
RR: I don’t think so, although I have learned the value of silence and to pay attention to the details. The detailed moments can tell a story all their own.
MM: You’ve starred in some of the movies you’ve directed. Is it difficult directing yourself?
RR: There’s always the issue of doubt. For me it was hard the first time I did it in The Horse Whisperer. I never like seeing myself on screen. I don’t like to look back [laughs]. I think it probably has to do with when I was a kid; I was a smartass, and when I went out with my buddies to the movies and tried to impress the girls, I’d yell at the screen. Now I’m on the screen.
You always find something you can improve upon. For that reason, once I’ve done the work, it’s over. Whether I’ve directed or starred in it, I have to move on so I don’t get stuck overanalyzing. I want to keep going by instinct.
MM: Is directing as all-consuming as people say?
RR: Absolutely! It takes up every waking—and sometimes sleeping—moment of your life. You have no time for anything else. It’s really a committed exercise and you are totally occupied by it every minute.
MM: Do you work with the same team from film to film?
RR: When I first started directing, I thought it was my duty to keep working with new people and have new collaborations and I liked that idea. Now, after directing several films, I’m more conscious about where I’ve enjoyed myself and with whom—which editor, production designer, script writer, etc.—and thinking maybe I’d like to work with them again.
MM: Do you have any advice for aspiring directors?
RR: No, I don’t like to give it.
MM: What about having a sense of humor?
RR: Always have a sense of humor. Even if it’s a subtle one. The only thing I’d ever say is that you’d better want it more than anything.
MM: You’ve talked about telling the “stories beneath the stories.” Can you explain this?
RR: I studied in Europe and while I was there I became aware of the many values in my life by the way other people saw them. When I came back, I focused on this country from another point of view. One of the things I remember being told while growing up was, “It’s not whether you win or lose; it’s how you play the game.” I realized that was a lie.
In this country, everything is about whether you’ve won, and I saw a ton of material about this for film—that there were good stories beneath the stories we’ve been told about this country.
I wanted to do a trilogy about a person striving for victory and questioning life. That started with Downhill Racer, then The Candidate. Jeremiah Johnson looked at the period preceding the cowboys. With All the President’s Men, everybody knew about Nixon and Watergate, but did they know about the two guys who brought down the highest guy in office through sheer hard work that shattered the status quo, the illusion? The last film I did, The Conspirator, is a story about the Lincoln assassination that nobody knows.
MM: How did this story come to your attention?
RR: Through the writer. He had been digging deep into the archives for years and came up with this story about the first woman tried in a military tribunal. It’s an independent film and I couldn’t have asked for a better cast. Those actors committed for very little money.