John Cooper’s Sundance Legacy

January 22, 2020
The Festival Director of the Sundance Film Festival looks back on the highlights of his tenure at the world’s leading showcase of independent filmmaking.

After 30 years of working at the Sundance Film Festival, including the last 11 years as Festival Director, John Cooper is calling it quits, moving to an ‘emeritus director’ role created just for him to usher in a new guard.

How has the festival changed?

It’s changed a lot. In my first year, I worked at the Institute with sex, lies and videotape, and we’ve seen a whole industry build and shift and twist and turn to meet the needs of filmmakers working outside the studio system. I’ve seen whole companies be created around this and a new wave of filmmaking and of course the whole world has changed as well. We’ve brought a lot of attention to documentary films. We started first with American filmmakers and for around 20 years have included international films. Hopefully, we’ve brought together a community that’s strong and sustainable and that we remain a place of discovery. Our original mandate was to show works by first-time and second-time filmmakers but now it’s about sustaining a place for filmmakers in the independent realm.

Like who?

Like Miranda July and Benh Zeitlin who are back this year [with Kajilionaire and Wendy respectively].

So, what is your legacy?

The truth of the legacy is being flexible, and I think my strength too, is listening to what the filmmakers need to be successful. We try to meet that in the way we structure the festival, the categories, the films, what we put in competition in order to create a way for them to have the biggest bang for their experience at Sundance.

In 2019, Michael Jackson and Harvey Weinstein were subjects of fascinating documentaries, and this year you have documentaries about Jamal Khashoggi, Hillary Clinton and Taylor Swift.

You’re talking of films about famous, influential people and that’s even a sub- category, but the films don’t get in just because they are about famous people. They get in because they’re taking who these people are to a new level.

Like Sundance, Netflix and the streaming services have helped elevate the status of documentaries.

Streaming services are a place that everyone can access. I don’t know how many people tell me that’s what they do in their home, watch documentaries online. I think one of the legacies of Sundance is that we’ve helped with the cultivation of documentaries that are entertaining and more cinematic in how they approach their subjects. Way back when I started, television had straight-up 55-minute documentaries and now people are thinking of it as an artform, adapting so many techniques to pump up the story, like including animation, better music and different ways of storytelling.

This year, Australia has Relic in the Midnight section though there are far fewer Australian entries than in the programme last year.

Australia tends to have a dark side to their filmmaking and over the years we’ve chosen quite a few very scary Australian films. Australia has been interesting because way back when I programmed short films, Australia was my main go-to country, also New Zealand because the government agencies there were so good not only at nurturing the work but at helping the films get into festivals. It ebbs and flows for each country and depends on the timing of things. We’ve always been a great supporter of Australian films going way back to Shine and Jane Campion bringing Sweetie to the festival. Australia has always been good on the inclusion front with such diversity in their films and filmmakers.

Relic

What are your favourite films this year?

More than my favourite films, it’s more what I’m excited to share. It’s more my curiosity about how certain films are going to play, like the Benh Zeitlin film and Four Good Days by Rodrigo Garcia.

Garcia made Mother and Son starring Naomi Watts and Albert Nobbs with Glenn Close.

He is such a special filmmaker, particularly when he works with women. Now he has Glenn Close again in an amazing role and Mila Kunis as her daughter in a very tricky story about a girl who is addicted and the parent who has tried everything, to be so strong with tough love to survive herself and hopefully save her daughter. Glenn Close is so great in this movie, as always though, she doesn’t always get recognised. This is her movie. Also curious for me is The Glorias, the Gloria Steinem story that takes her away from being a feminist icon and you learn who she was and where she came from. I love the story, the failures and the craziness, some of it in a Playboy Club. She’s played by Julianne Moore and three other actresses at different times in her life.

Then there’s the documentary Crip Camp.

Barack and Michelle Obama executive-produced that film. [Crip Camp explores the revolution that blossomed in a ramshackle, unorthodox summer camp for teenagers with disabilities in the early 1970s, transforming their lives and igniting a landmark movement.]

I tend to forget those things. You realise what affect this camp had on our world in a phenomenal way. The documentary Boys State is one of those where you don’t know what it’s like on paper but it’s so much fun to watch. There’s also a phenomenal doc in the World Cinema Section called The Painter and the Thief, which is an unbelievable story told unbelievably well. It was one of my favourite films to watch in my many, many, many days of watching films. There are ones that just pop.

Watching films in Sundance is different than at other festivals. It’s like a lucky dip, because you never know what you will see.

Cannes for example rides the auteur thing. It’s kind of the next film by [a regular attendee] and that’s an easy choice. You can’t do that in Sundance because there are always new people coming up. You have to judge each film on its merits and sometimes they make it and sometimes they don’t. It’s a hard road to take and hard for us sometimes to say no to filmmakers who have been part of the family.

Festival Director John Cooper and Sundance Institute Executive Director Keri Putnam at the Day One Press Conference of the 2017 Sundance Film Festival. © 2017 Sundance Institute | Photo by Stephen Speckman.

Where is Sundance headed without you and Robert Redford?

We’re old guys so it’s going to go some place good! That’s part of the reason this is my last festival. I wanted to build in a transitional phase and it’s kind of because of my responsibility to Redford and my love of him and everything he’s created that I wanted to make sure I didn’t just disappear. I wanted to make sure I was there. I’ve been there so long and have so much institutional knowledge, so for good or bad, I can be helpful. I don’t want there to be any glitch in the importance of Sundance moving forward. I have an amazing staff, and some have changed over the past years, but the programmers are world class and I’m always impressed by their academic knowledge and passion for what they’re doing.

So, what is Redford’s legacy with Sundance?

Redford’s legacy is already celebrated but I wanted to make sure that we remained true to his original vision. The world always wants us to change it, to worry about things we shouldn’t be concerned about, the financial structures around cinema, the ever-changing face of distribution from cable TV to streaming platforms. With all the chatter around that, you have to keep doing what you do as there’s still a hunger for stories that are fresh and original and over the years, I’ve watched that hunger grow. That’s why it’s easy to have a lot of inclusion in the festival, stories that are on the edge stylistically and aesthetically.

Sundance Institute Executive Director Keri Putnam, Festival Director John Cooper and President and Founder of Sundance Institute Robert Redford at the Day One Press Conference of the 2017 Sundance Film Festival. © 2017 Sundance Institute | Photo by Spencer C. Amonwatvorakul.

Will you have a big send off? Maybe they will throw you in the snow!

Oh, something’s being arranged.

Who is taking over?

No decision has been made but there are finalists for it. I was there 20 years before I got the job and although there’s a perception of glamour, the reality of the workload is something else. I love the job but when you’re watching eight films a day for six weeks, see how much you love it!

In recent years, I’ve got into observing what the festival is, what the audience needs, what adds energy, the experience I want people to have. I want them to have fun, I want films that can entertain and to balance that with films that can create discussions about big issues. You want people to watch more films so you can create an industry around that.

So, your approach has changed over the years?

I’ve changed a lot. When you’re young, you’re on a committee and you’re fighting for films you love, but when you’re the head you have to listen and read the passion in the room and work out which films are going to work in a full slate. But I love it. Sometimes I wonder if I wasn’t doing this what else would I do? It’s either this or wedding planner. [chuckles]

That’s such a gay thing to say. You’re now living in San Francisco with your partner.

I’m up in the wine country in Sonoma County. I live in a little town called Sebastopol and I have some chickens and a big garden, and I wanted that too. All of a sudden, I was looking at what kind of life I wanted. I’ve been a city type and my partner got a job in a hospital up here and we’re very entrenched now. I commute to Los Angeles once a week and of course will spend a couple of weeks at the festival in Park City.

Has your being a gay man influenced the Sundance programming?

It has, but I can’t take so much of the credit. It was a little difficult for me at first because there’s this organic thing that’s happening in gay films, as in films from different cultures. For a while, it seemed like if I had to watch another coming-out film of young people dealing with themselves being gay, I’d say “I’m tired now. What else have we got?” The filmmakers change with it. Definitely, we were not afraid of anything early on. We were bold. I think we didn’t know any better. If it was a good film, we just showed it. I know we showed some controversial stuff and some sexually graphic documentaries on big subjects. It’s a great thing living in America as you have that freedom. I’ve gotten hate mail, all that stuff, but you just keep going. In some ways, I’m naïve to it and don’t care. I guess it’s not necessarily bravery, sometimes I think it’s stupidity, but it serves me well. I think keeping the blinders on and looking ahead is just fine.

Is there a special moment from your years at the festival you will take away?

I just started thinking about this stuff and I was thinking about the incredible influential women I’ve met who are a little on the older side. I’m so proud that I met Shirley MacLaine and Joan Rivers and Anna Wintour, who demanded that I was the only person who could interview her on the stage. With Catherine O’Hara, an actress I love, I just got completely speechless and gaga before going to the stage with her. Then there are the premieres of films like The Station Agent – a miraculous moment – and Napoleon Dynamite. One of the big ones for me was Whiplash, a Day One premiere. [Opening film]

I was there.

I had a lot of opposition for that film to take that slot. If you were in that audience, you saw that the film played amazingly that night. That moment sold that film and launched Damien Chazelle’s career. I’ve seen that a lot with Paul Thomas Anderson, Alexander Payne and Quentin Tarantino – that moment where a filmmaker goes from a creative type to a person who’s going to have a career is exciting. You can almost feel the colours in the room change; like you see a different person. I said to Damien Chazelle backstage: “Your life’s going to change”. He just kind of laughed at me and was like, “Ok we’ll see”. Lisa Cholodenko came back to me and said, where would she be without Sundance believing in her? That belief in a young talent can be so influential and inspiring and it’s a great experience for us as well.

Cholodenko has been quiet in recent years, though she worked on the fabulous Netflix series Unbelievable (for which Toni Collette has received extensive awards attention).

I was thinking about Lisa, that she’d perhaps disappeared because of endless projects that can’t get made. Then Unbelievable came out and I was like, “Oh Lisa’s doing well”. I’m so dumb with this stuff sometimes. It’s an amazing series on something we don’t often talk about (obtaining rape convictions rape). Even filmmakers like Ryan Coogler, who went to Hollywood to make Black Panther, retain that independent spirit. They don’t become this commercial guy. They take what is great about them and making bigger movies, but better movies you can compare to the movies you could easily find in the studio system in the ‘70s.

Taika Waititi is another example. Jojo Rabbit isn’t really a studio movie.

Let’s pretend it is, so it makes more money. I love that movie. The moments I’ve spent with Taika have been life changing. He’s such a kook but so talented and shocks me every single time. I remember back to his shorts. I wonder where the short filmmakers we’re hanging out with now will be in ten years’ time? That really is a legacy, the careers and the work people put out going on from Sundance. That’s the true strength of what we do.

The 2020 Sundance Film Festival is on January 23 – February 2, 2020

Main Photo Credit: John Cooper, Director of the Sundance Film Festival. © 2016 by Mark Leibowitz.

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