Sundance: Fest Director on Oscar-Caliber Films, the Abundance of Comedies and Hot-Button Docs

John Cooper
Copyright Mark Leibowitz

Festival director John Cooper smiles on the street outside the Mahindra Global Filmmaking Award Reception.

John Cooper is prepared for Scientology and controversy and is looking for "a wild ride ... the intensity and emotional extremes of these films is great."

A version of this story first appeared in the Jan. 30 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

"I don't do the midnight movie or 8:30 a.m. introductions anymore. I make more room for sleep," says John Cooper, 58, who nevertheless expects to hit the ground running as he raises the curtain on the sixth Sundance Film Festival since he was named director in 2009. "But I can't slow down when I'm in the trenches," he says of the 11-day event, which is sure to present its share of surprises as well as controversy.

Best picture Oscar nominees Boyhood and Whiplash debuted at last year's Sundance. Are there Oscar players this year?

I just never think like that. After the festival, when you've seen how things play, is when it enters my psyche. I knew Whiplash was going to be really popular, but I didn't know just how many people were going to respond to it. I'm still talking to people who have seen it more than one time. That doesn't happen very often. 

Why did you pick the comedy The Bronze as an opening night film?

The Bronze is very funny. I know the short synopsis doesn't read like the comedy that it is. I knew I wanted something that was sort of intense, and it's a celebratory night so you want something that's going to feel exciting and engaging. The Bronze does that but in a different way than [last year's opener] Whiplash. It's a very broad comedy, but still the jokes keep coming. I found it very satisfying when I watched it back when we put the program together, and that's something that I keep coming back to. And there's a lot of comedy in the festival, so I felt confident it wasn't a red herring.

Why do you think there are so many comedies and comedians this year?

Comedies have been bubbling up for a while. When I look at it, why not comedians? They are such good observers of human nature, good at telling us why we are who we are. And they are not branching into it in normal ways. Look at Sarah Silverman playing a very dramatic role [in I Smile Back]. Kristen Wiig is in more in dramatic roles in this festival as well. Bobcat Goldthwait is behind the camera with a very personal and harrowing story, [Call Me Lucky], about a friend of his who was a comedian who was very influential. I think they have something to add to the community of independent film.

You've also programmed lots of hot-button documentaries. Have you heard from Scientologists about Alex Gibney's Going Clear?

Not as of yet, but we're always prepared. We've been doing this for a number of years, and we have our ear to the ground. Documentaries, in general, are the hardest to program because the quality over the last few years has risen so much. Our biggest arguments in the programming room is around the quality of the documentaries. What we're really drawn to, and what's engaging everybody, is the notion of story in documentary and how that engages around an issue. That is the new trend in documentaries that I think is really amazing — going from the informational to the cinematic in their approach to the subject. [Documentary filmmakers] really think about how the audience responds, not just to the information but to how it's presented.

Why have you spread out some of the high-profile films beyond the first weekend?

We had to extend. In the old days, you put films that already had distribution in the Premieres section, but so many of the Premieres are now also looking for sales, so we had to push the rollout into Tuesday. A lot of people will have to change travel plans, but I think it's best for everyone. I have been watching the work that Cannes has done. It made me change my plans at Cannes. I used to be there for the first couple of days and then get out of town. Now I stay longer in Cannes, and I watch more movies, and in the end I am happier with that.

A few years back, Sundance started to move into year-round programming. Have you done as much of that as you wanted to do?

I would say we haven't done as much as I've wanted to do, and my staff would say I've done too much. It's been a great learning curve. Our program in London went for three years, and we're now exploring our options for Sundance London. It was quite successful for us, and we learned a lot about taking American films outside our borders. Next Fest in Los Angeles was particularly fun because we went out on a limb this year going downtown to the Ace Theatre, tying many of the screenings to live music performances, and really drawing in a younger audience. That felt good to us. We very quickly put together a Sundance Film Festival in Hong Kong last year, which we're hoping to grow. We've never had a good relationship base in Asia. So I'm really happy to be in Hong Kong, making natural in-roads into China.

How about the festival's home base in Utah. Do you think you've had an influence on the culture of the state?

I came from the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis, where there's a whole pocket of theater-literate people. And I feel that in Salt Lake City, you can now go there any time of the year and audiences are so film-literate and accepting of the broadest range of subjects. They're not afraid of taking chances on our New Frontier films, international films. 

More than 4,000 films were submitted to Sundance to year. Do you ever feel that the new technology has made it too easy for someone to make a film, that the bar for entry is too low?

I don't mind. I think sometimes we make too much of a big deal of the notion of failure. I think it's all a learning experience. Not every movie you make is great, but at least you're doing it. That's the good side of it. It's only people like me who have to suffer the slings and arrows and get through it all. But basically, the quality of independent film is on the rise. Partly from technology, but partly because the filmmakers themselves — as they sort of form this movement or community — are setting a bar that gets higher and higher each year. They talk about Beasts of the Southern Wild. They talk about most recent filmmakers. They are looking to other independent filmmakers to set the bar. Back in the day, they were looking at the French New Wave and lots of films from Europe. But now they are really looking at each other. And they're staying in the independent game as well. 

Do you hear a lot from buyers before the festival looking for tips about the movies you've selected? 

Not so much from buyers. But our programming season now starts much earlier. We start watching films in June, and we accept films as early as June and July now, since [producers and filmmakers] have started to learn the value of a Sundance premiere and what it can do for a film. But the buyers are content with letting us do our work and helping them with their process.

Assuming that Robert Redford may step away from the festival in the future, have you begun to take on a bigger role as the public face of the festival?

It's pretty much the same as it's been. He's always been there for opening night. All Is Lost was a wonderful film for him last year. It reinvented him in a way that felt fresh and very independent. He does what he does really well. I'm always so impressed by his clarity in not just how he presents the festival but in how he guides us through challenges. He'll say, "Just keep your eye on the prize, and all will be OK." That's his mantra to me, and I'm happy to hear it.

So what are you personally looking forward to at this year's festival?

I'm really excited as we get closer to it, because it is going to be such a wild ride. The emotional extremes and the intensity of these films is great. Over the years, that's what keeps people so revved up during the festival. So I'm looking to have a good time around that. And the documentaries should be pushing buttons. I'm also excited about the Robert Redford-George Lucas panel. That's something I've wanted to do for a long time, so I'm glad it came together. It's kicking off the Art of Film weekend, the second weekend, where we're trying to put a lot more attention and spotlight on the craft of filmmaking. That's been fun to put together.