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From chauffeuring Jodie Foster to a late-night run-in with Brad Pitt, actors and directors look back at their first time at the film fest, which turns 40 this year

Robert Redford poses for a picture at the Sundance Film Festival in January 1994, in Utah. (Tom Smart/Liaison/Getty Images)

PARK CITY, Utah — The Sundance Film Festival, founded by Robert Redford, celebrates its 40th edition this month as a venue to discover new voices and talents in independent film. It’s where the Coen Brothers debuted “Blood Simple” in 1984, where Steven Soderbergh first made his name with Sex, Lies, and Videotape” in 1989. It’s where the world first saw Jennifer Lawrence in 2010’s “Winter’s Bone”; where Michael B. Jordan and director Ryan Coogler cemented their longtime collaboration with “Fruitvale Station” in 2013; where Jordan Peele brought the house down with his directorial debut, “Get Out,” in 2017; and where a little film named “CODA” first showed on Zoom in 2021 during the pandemic before taking home the best picture Oscar in 2022. In honor of this milestone year, The Washington Post spoke to filmmakers and actors about their first experiences at Sundance.

The following interviews have been edited for length and clarity.

Actor in 10 Sundance films, starting with “Speak” in 2004. This year she premiered two films, “Love Me” with Steven Yeun and “Love Lies Bleeding,” a lesbian romance-thriller.

I was 14. I had been working since I was 9. And I was somehow aware that this is where you want it to end up. This was the goal. It was for a movie called “Speak.” And I probably couldn’t even speak if spoken to. It was just a different time — you know when you’re a teenager and you’re like, “Who knows what’s coming out of my mouth?” It was 23 years ago. So I can talk now. I have words and I have a body and I know how to use it [laughs]. But I will say that being here and coming here over the years, finding your people, being accepted and not feeling like a weirdo for not being able to finish a sentence — that all helps.

Actor in 2014s “The Skeleton Twins,” a comedy-drama about suicide from director Craig Johnson.

[In 2009] I went there for a movie called “Adventureland.” Kristen Stewart was in that movie and it was during the “Twilight” craze and everywhere we went we were just mobbed by “Twilight” fans. … [it] was like “Night of the Living Dead.” It was just like arms coming through windows trying to grab you and stuff.

The weird thing also was going into the gifting suites. It didn’t feel very indie cinema. I was like, “Why don’t you take all this money and put it into a movie?” That’s all my first Sundance was, “Twilight” fans and then you’d go into a room and they’d be like, “You want some jeans?”

But “Skeleton Twins” was different because I was the lead of the movie with Kristen [Wiig] and Kristen couldn’t make the festival. So it was me and [director] Craig Johnson and I remember being unbelievably nervous the day of the screening, so nervous that I couldn’t sit through it. I literally left the theater. I went in, they introduced the movie, and then I went to a Starbucks and just sat there, because I was about to have a panic attack.

I’d never done drama. I was playing a gay man who was very out, so I was a little concerned that people would think it was too broad of a character, because people were so used to seeing me on “Saturday Night Live.” I was nervous that people wouldn’t accept me as an actor, only see me as a sketch performer. And then Maggie Carey, who I was married to at the time, texted me and said, “You know, you should really come back over here. It’s playing incredibly well.”

Steven Soderbergh

Director of “Sex, Lies, and Videotape,” winner of the 1989 Audience Award. He returned to the festival this year with the psychological thriller, “Presence,” starring Lucy Liu.

I think this was only year five of the festival and I brought the print with me. My first job was just to make sure that it was delivered into the right hands. And in the process of doing that, I met some volunteers that were working at the festival that seemed like kinfolk; they were all roughly my age or even younger, interested in independent movies, and I kind of immediately attached myself to them and ended up driving a van for a few days. I drove Jodie Foster at one point, who was very nice. I mean, I didn’t have anything to do except wait.

We had four screenings total as I recollect. The first one was about half full. And then as the festival went on, they became increasingly full. At that point, it was not a given that the title would stick. RCA Columbia were worried that it was not a commercial title, strangely. So after each screening, I would do a straw poll and ask people to raise their hands if they thought I should change the title. By the third screening, nobody was raising their hand.

We made it for $1.2 million and my hope, honestly, was that somebody would see the film and offer me another film. That was it. The home video rights weren’t available. It just seemed like a very remote possibility that we would get picked up by a theatrical distributor because those were the most valuable rights. Then the Tom McCarthy [Variety] review dropped. That’s what changed everything. Suddenly it’s a hot ticket.

It wasn’t one of those stay up all night and do the deal there [bidding wars]. Things happened a lot more slowly back in those days. Miramax over the course of the next few weeks made an offer of a million dollars, which to all of us just seemed preposterously high. It seemed like science fiction that somebody would offer that much money upfront.

The sense that the festival is the next river of gold didn’t really take hold until the movie came out and performed and won the Palme d’Or [at Cannes]. But there was a big energy difference in 1990 [at Sundance the next year]. It was manic. You could feel a wave coming in independent film. People were hungry to see something that felt made by hand. And so we just got caught in that desire.

Director of 2001′s ″Hedwig and the Angry Inch,” based on his stage show of the same name.

The first time I went was ’92. It was the year after [Todd Haynes’s] “Poison” and [Jennie Livingston’s] “Paris Is Burning.” I was a young actor-writer and hadn’t made anything, really, but I was like, “Oh my god, Year of the Queers.” Independent queer films were ascendant and I was very impressed with Gus Van Sant and Derek Jarman, who were the fathers of it, and the next generation was of course Todd and [producer] Christine Vachon. My friend Mickey Cottrell, who just passed, was a publicist and an actor and he had a queer party in an old church. It was the coolest place in town.

And I remember Brad Pitt was there, but he didn’t want to go in. And he was sitting on the fence outside and I was like, “Brad, you’re on the fence! Literally!” I’d met him before. That was before he was famous. He’d done “Johnny Suede” and “Thelma & Louise,” but he was great already. And he was a nice guy. But it was a very queer party, and it was a little bit scary. … Anyway, it was the best party in the world. Mickey Cottrell was like Truman Capote, but not a writer. He was a connecter, like, “Meet these people. You’re gonna work together.”

And I ran into Christine Vachon at that party and handed her a picture and résumé, which was not cool. She blinked and took it and then later she produced “Hedwig.” So I guess I did the right thing.

Director of “The Farewell” (2019), about an American woman (Awkwafina) on a fraught trip to visit her grandmother in China. Wang recently directed the Prime Video series “Expats” starring Nicole Kidman, which comes out on Jan. 26.

The day we premiered I was scared, mainly because it was the first time my parents were seeing the film. Normally we’re very close, but I really intentionally kept them separate from my process. [Screening a film] literally feels like showing your diary to the world and then also to your parents at the same time. I just like, Ughhh! It was really out of body.

It premiered Friday afternoon. I’m sitting with my parents, giant theater. Totally full, line out the door. And I’d been creating in obscurity and isolation for a very long time. I introduced the film. I pointed out that my mom and dad were in the theater. And then I had them bring the lights up and had the whole audience do a selfie with me where I got them to say “eggplant,” which is what they say in Chinese. Then the movie screened and afterward there was a standing ovation and then I think someone screamed, “What did you think, Mom and Dad?” And my Dad went, “Not bad” [laughs].

The bidding war was crazy. They took me to this mansion — I think it was the WME mansion [William Morris Endeavor, one of the biggest agencies in Hollywood]. I walked in and there was a private chef. And they were like, “I can make anything that you want. Omelet? Stir fry?” And there were chairs set up in a circle, like an AA meeting. I sat down and then people started coming in to pitch us. And then it sold [to A24] for $6 million.

I had told my producers that it wasn’t about the money. I just wanted to make sure that it was marketed in the right way because, at the time, there had been so few Asian American films in media and I felt it was important that this felt like a very American film, and that it wasn’t pigeonholed into being a cultural identity film or subtitled foreign film.

Director of 2000s “Love & Basketball,” which launched the career of Sanaa Lathan. Since then, she’s directed “The Secret Life of Bees” and “The Woman King,” and become the first Black woman to direct a major comic book film with 2020′s “The Old Guard.”

Right out of college, I got a job on “A Different World,” which was my favorite show, and I wrote for TV for five years, but the whole time, I had this idea for “Love & Basketball” in my head. I quit TV to write the script and every single studio and every single production company turned it down. I had a list on my fridge of all of them, just crossing them off every day. I was very fortunate — it was two days after the last company said no, in 1997 — that Sundance called and said that they’d heard about the script and asked if I wanted to come in for an interview. And that literally changed the trajectory of my life. To be invited to the Screenwriters Lab and then be invited to the Directors Lab, to further developing the script and my vision, and then they put a reading on and got a casting director and hired folks for me. And it was from that reading that’s Spike Lee’s company came onboard.

This was a love story with Black characters. And that was something the industry was absolutely not making or believing had any value. And it was a story about a young woman who was an athlete. Certainly not a ton of movies about that as well. It was interesting also to get feedback from a couple places that it was “too soft.” At that time, “Boyz n the Hood” and “Menace II Society” had come out. This was showing a different part of our life and our community. It was gut-wrenching to be told that this type of life that I was showing didn’t feel truthful, it felt soft and strange.

If not for Sundance, “Love & Basketball” would not exist. It certainly set the tone for my career and announced to the world who I was as a filmmaker.

Director of 1991s “Slacker” as well as “Dazed and Confused,” “Boyhood” and “Hit Man,” starring Glen Powell, which is being spotlighted at this year’s festival and premiering on Netflix this year.

The question on everyone’s mind back in ’91, what everyone was talking and soul-searching about was, “Has Sundance become too commercial? Too industry? This place is crawling with agents, etc. Is Sundance losing its indie spirit or purpose?”

“Slacker” had played successfully at a few festivals. But not having a distributor and thinking we never would, we opened it in Austin ourselves, to a huge box office. Orion Classics acquired it for national distribution sometime right after, pulled it from distribution, and decided to relaunch it at the next Sundance, in our new blown-up-to-35mm version, hopefully new and improved enough to get their attention — [Sundance had] rejected it the year before.

I’d seen “Slacker” plenty of times with an audience at that point and was strangely confident in the audience response … insert slipping on a banana peel right here! The Iraq War had started just a few days before, the footage on TV was grim, and there was a bit of a pall over everything — we were at war. So the audience suddenly didn’t think all the edgy dialogue about terrorism and violence was very funny. The tone of that moment was off and it was now almost unnerving. The first question I took from the audience after was about the short that preceded the film. It was that kind of screening. A funny thing happened, though, as the festival wore on and with the additional screenings — it somehow quickly turned around from bummer to buzz. People got excited about it cinematically.

It was certainly a special moment in time, maybe for internal reasons as much as anything else. We were one of the weird films, we didn’t win any awards or have a big sale, we weren’t anyone’s headline, but the film landed, it registered, it made its mark.

Director of “Middle of Nowhere” (2012), which won the directing prize while DuVernay was still running her own publicity company. Now the founder of Array, an organization dedicated to championing and releasing the work of diverse filmmakers. Her latest film, “Origin,” is in theaters.

I’d been to Sundance five or six times as a publicist for filmmakers before I finally got in for “Middle of Nowhere.” I’d been applying all that time [and then I] got in and won best director. It was deeply meaningful to me. But also, I was sober about the experience. I didn’t have extraordinary expectations of what that would do for me as a Black woman director.

[The first screening] was at the Library and I cherish it because my father was there. He’s since passed away. I was nauseous the whole time. I thought, I’m gonna lose it right here. I was so, so nervous. I mean, like breaking out in hives nervous. We got a standing ovation, lots of love, beautiful reviews. No real offers on the movie. I’d gone in with the decision that I would release it through Affirm, which is now Array, using Black community models and collective distribution.

You have to remember at that time, there were very few Black folk on the mountain. It’s different now. So, people didn’t really care. It was the year of “Beasts of the Southern Wild” and that was kind of taking all the air. So it was a quiet triumph. For me, it was proof that my voice was worthy of being seen and continuing.

It was just as I thought [afterward]. There was nothing that came after it. The story is Colin Trevorrow who won best screenplay [for “Safety Not Guaranteed”] got offered “Jurassic World.” And I was very grateful to be offered an episode of “Scandal.” It was a huge show at the time. But the contrast in the opportunity between his award-winning work and my award-winning work was stark.

Director of the documentary short “Music By Prudence,” which won an Oscar in 2009, making him the first Black director to win an Academy Award. His first narrative feature, “Cassandro,” starring Gael Garcia Bernal as a gay Mexican wrestler, premiered at Sundance in 2023 and is streaming on Prime Video.

It was 1994 and I came with my friend Mary Harron who had a film called “I Shot Andy Warhol.” I didn’t know anything about the film world. But I was in my 20s, and Mary was like, ‘Hey, you want to come? My film’s in competition at Sundance.’ It was amazing. Back then, you’d go to these house parties and take your shoes off. It was so much more low-key.

We would do schemes, like how to get into parties as someone. So you’d take [business] cards from people on the shuttle bus and then pretend you’re them at the door. I’m from a small town outside Philadelphia and I remember going to a CAA party and it was all these cool indie celebrities having sex and doing drugs. I was like, “Oh my god.”

I was a deer in the headlights because I was like, “This is an incredible world.” It’s all these really incredibly creative people who are doing what they want to do and I was not doing what I want to do. I was working as a TV journalist.

So Sundance really changed my life because it made me want to be an independent filmmaker. I [eventually] quit my job and went to Africa with a camera to make my first film, “Music by Prudence,” and then Sheila Nevins of HBO saw it. She’s like, “This film is gonna win the Oscar. It’s amazing.” She bought it. And she was right. I won and that launched my career. And it’s all because I slept on a couch at Sundance!


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