John Cooper, fourth from right, with cast and crew of Breathe In, a 2013 Sundance Film Festival premiere. Photo by Francie Aufdemorte.
The Sundance Film Festival is celebrating 30 years of launching indie film careers—think Wes Anderson, Christopher Nolan and Kevin Smith. For the anniversary, they are giving you the chance to scroll through three decades of Sundance splendor to find facts and stories from past fests.
The film fest’s director John Cooper has been there nearly the entire time.
Signing on 25 years ago, he has seen plenty of ups and downs, achievements and straight up fails. But if you ask him, that’s ok.
Recently, he sat down for a round-table interview to cover a bunch of topics, including why failure is an essential part of the creative process and what this year's festival is doing about it.
Sundance is promoting failure this year?
“We took Monday (Jan. 20, 2014) and called it Free Fail Day. We split things up and decided all the panels we do that day—let’s just make everything about failure . . . The craziest one is the Fail Safe workshops. We’re going to create workshops where people are expected to fail.”
Workshops include high kicks with the Radio City Rockettes and a chef cookoff with culinary wunderkind Flynn McGarry.
So, why the focus on failure?
“Really, it’s just about acknowledging failure as vital. I still think in America, we’re a little afraid of failure. We always talk about ‘Nike—Just do it’ or ‘If you try it, you will succeed.’ It’s never just ‘Don’t be afraid to fail.’ I think all of our filmmakers have to be not afraid to fail.”
After 25 years with the fest, how have things changed?
“I think the biggest change I did was look at the categories and say ‘Are they representing the films being made?’ and I didn’t think they were. We felt that for a couple years, so that’s why we created the Next section. It seems like those Next films weren’t making it into the festival because there was no place . . . and they got lost.”
Cooper is also responsible for introducing the Documentary Premieres section. He says the film festival is also holding more big events for certain films, instead of just showing them as they would any other entry. Event films have included Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth (2006) and Rory Kennedy’s Ethel (2012).
Please explain the Next section of films.
“We finally decided we don’t know what it is. It decides of us. A good question to ask next year is how Next changes each time. This year, there are more, bigger actors in it. Last year, there were all these movies with not one major name. But now, you have Catherine Keener in a really interesting film (War Story), which could have played in Competition, but it was just called out to be in Next. Jenny Slate is a comedian in a film (Obvious Child), and Jason Schwartzman is in one of the films (Listen Up Philip), too. These films are usually just on the edge somehow. They have a very forward thinking way to make a movie, but it’s almost like they’re experimenting with something.”
Do you think any films this year will go on to make big societal changes?
“I think Fed Up is going to make a change. It’s all about childhood obesity, and it’s very complete. When we look for these films, we look for very complete—here’s all of the problem in a real way. That one, it changed our staff. We try not to eat as much sugar as we were in our office . . . Captivated, the story of Pamela Smart, is very comprehensive. In the ‘90s, a school teacher was dating one of her students and hired these young men to kill her husband, supposedly. To Die For (a film inspired by the case) came out before her trial . . . and it was the first time a [murder] trial was televised. So, it’s a look at how us knowing too much about a subject changes a fair trial.”
Recently, Manohla Dargis of The New York Times wrote an editorial saying too many films are flooding the theaters, and it isn’t good for filmmakers or filmgoers. What’s your response?
“She did a survey, actually, of all of us. It actually asked about that in the survey, and when she asked that question I said, ‘I don’t know, are there too many art galleries?’ Don’t you think in the end she was basically saying ‘There’s too many movies, because I have to review them all?’ It’s like ‘Go get another job, or change the policy where you’re working.’ I don’t know how to solve that problem.”
What’s going on with Native American film at Sundance?
“It’s the 20th year of the Native program, and they’re changing that program a lot. If Sundance is anything, we’re flexible and we try to be responsive. I think what Bird Runningwater, who runs the program, was faced with is the community wasn’t growing fast enough to create product . . . So, they’re actually going to start producing short films with them. It needs more than just the nurturing part in making a better story; it needs a deeper dive to get the product made.”
The Sundance Film Festival runs through Jan. 26. Click here for info.