Chattering Class

At the Sundance Film Festival, John Cooper is your inside guy

The Sundance Film Festival is one of the foremost showcases of new independent movies in America. John Cooper has been involved with the festival for 24 years and is now its director — making him one of the most influential guys in independent film.


Brendan Francis Newnam: So I’ve gathered some facts about the festival and I was going to present them to you and have you comment on them. It’ll be kind of like an audio Rorschach test. Are you game?

John Cooper: Yes.

Brendan Francis Newnam: So here’s the first fact. The 1978 festival featured films such as “Deliverance,” “Midnight Cowboy,” “Mean Streets” and a “Streetcar Named Desire.”

John Cooper: That’s before we were involved. It used to be the USA Film Festival before we took it over. In the early years it was mainly about regional film-making  which was a concept back then. There were going to be filmmakers that stayed in their states and in their hometowns and made films, but hey all started drifting to either New York or L.A. or Austin, so that sort of went the wayside. It just really became about independent film as that sort of movement began to kick off. That really didn’t start until “Sex, Lies, and Videotape” which was in 1989.

Brendan Francis Newnam: For those who don’t know “Sex, Lies and Videotape” was an independent film made by Steven Soderbergh which won the competition and then that movie went on to make tons of money and kind of sparked the independent movie fever of the 90s.

Another fact: the move from to late summer to mid-winter, because I guess originally the festival was in late summer, was reportedly done on the advice of Hollywood director Sidney Pollack who suggested that running a film festival in a ski resort during winter would draw more attention from Hollywood.

John Cooper: Probably that’s a little bit true. Sidney Pollack was a big guiding force in all that we did at Sundance. He’s a great friend of Robert Redford as well. I think we were looking for anything to draw people there. There was this notion I think we actually thought maybe we could get things cheaper. It was a time when they were trying to draw tourist trade to the town.

Redford claims now that he really likes the hardness of everything. And it is hard doing a festival in the middle of a snowstorm. You never know what you’re going to get, but that’s not the most fun thing every year. He thinks it is keeping the hangers-on and the weak people out and only the truly serious independent filmmakers will come. For him, I think it sort of maintains the integrity of the festival.

Brendan Francis Newnam: Here’s a fact that goes to the integrity of the festival. Directors who have received their big break at Sundance include Kevin Smith, Quentin Tarantino, David O. Russell, Paul Thomas Anderson, the list goes on and on and on. What is the secret to your success?

John Cooper: The secret is really having this platform that works to be able to support them at this time. They all did come through. They were all kids. You weren’t actually ever sure who was going to have the sticking power, who was going to have the big career. David O. Russell himself was a driver for us at one of the festivals.

Brendan Francis Newnam: Wait, he literally was a driver?

John Cooper: First he was a volunteer at the festival and then he made a few short films. A lot of rising stars come through the shorts. Shorts are very big. The making of short films as a stepping stone to a bigger career has always been a part of Sundance.

I started the shorts program when they handed me a box of films and told me, “Put something together out of this if you can.” I think that year was Alexander Payne’s film and I think a David O. Russell film was in that mix.

Brendan Francis Newnam: That was my bag of tricks with the fun facts but I have a couple questions. The festival’s going to start, everyone’s excited, there’s films, the hot chocolate’s flowing but you, John Cooper, are in high gear. What are some things on your daily agenda that the average person might not think about?

John Cooper: I spend a lot of time in a car, running around. We introduce all the filmmakers and run all the Q-and-A sessions. So I’m standing backstage in a lot of magical moments with filmmakers before they go on to introduce their film for the first time. It’s a sweet moment.

Brendan Francis Newnam: Does one stand out in particular?

John Cooper: I remember Paul Thomas Anderson at the festival. He was all of like 120 lbs or something. I remember backstage with Miranda July. There’s just a lot of them and it’s just me and that filmmaker generally. We don’t really talk a lot we just have our little private moment.

Brendan Francis Newnam: Is there one word or name — I know you can’t play favorites because you’re the director — but on the other side of this festival give me something that’s going to be buzzing.

John Cooper: Let me give you two names: Naomi Watts and Robin Wright. They’re in a film called “Two Mothers” and I find it a fascinating film. I think that they’re going to pop, because it’s amazing performance by those two women.