Robert Redford recalls Sundance Film Festival’s beginnings and history at 2019 event’s first screening

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Robert Redford says a few words at the opening news conference for the 2019 Sundance Film Festival at the Egyptian Theatre in Park CIty, Thursday, Jan. 24, 2019.

Park City • Before a wedding, people are always reminiscing, and Robert Redford is no different.

Redford opened the 2019 Sundance Film Festival’s first screening Thursday night — of the melodrama “After the Wedding” — by recalling the event’s early days.

Redford talked about how the Sundance Institute’s labs helped filmmakers develop their films, but “once that happened, they had nowhere to go,” he said to an audience at the Eccles Center Theatre in Park City. “They were getting lost in the wind.”

In 1985, the institute took over management of the U.S. Film Festival as a showcase for independent films. There was one theater in Park City, the Egyptian, and a handful of restaurants.

“There was nobody coming in,” Redford recalled. “I’m standing outside the theater, trying to hustle people in, and they’re wondering why I was there.”

The festival’s growth in 34 years can be credited not just to the filmmakers, Redford said, but to the audiences.

“I underestimated the fact that audiences would come to this place to see the work,” he said. “They were coming here to see films they could not see in the marketplace. You are part of the equation. Without you, we’re nothing.”

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Tre Ryder, on the red carpet for the premiere of the film "After the Wedding" at the Eccles Theatre. Thursday, Jan. 24, 2019.

“After the Wedding,” the first of 119 movies to unspool during the 11-day festival, is closer to the mainstream than some, having big names like Julianne Moore and Michelle Williams in the leads. Director Bart Freundlich, Moore’s husband, adapted the movie from a 2006 Danish film.

In this version, Williams plays Isabel, who runs a school for orphans in India. She travels to New York to cajole a rich businesswoman, Theresa (Moore’s character), to donate $2 million to keep the school afloat. Theresa delays her decision, inviting Isabel to attend the wedding of her daughter, Grace (Abby Quinn) — a young woman who has a closer connection to Isabel than either one knows.

The Danish version, directed by Susanne Bier (“Bird Box”), cast male leads, and Freundlich said making the gender switch was key to making it.

“I really couldn’t see remaking it unless there was some fort of reinvention,” Freundlich said. Besides, he said, Moore looked at it and pointed to her male counterpart and said, “I’d be interested in playing that role.”

The screening was held simultaneously at the Eccles and The Ray, and festival organizers made a bit of history with the first simulcast Q&A from two theaters.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Michelle Williams on the red carpet for the premiere of the film "After the Wedding" at the Eccles Theatre. Thursday, Jan. 24, 2019.

Moore explained why she loved making the movie. “I love any movie with a wedding in it,” she said. “I love weddings. I love relationships. I love children. … That all exists in the work. And we thought, ‘How do you enhance that?’”

Williams’ process for choosing to be in the film is more instinctual. “It’s always this connection that happens or doesn’t happen when you read a script,” she said. “You close it, and you either get a ‘yes’ or a ‘no.’”

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Julienne Moore on the red carpet for the premiere of the film "After the Wedding" at the Eccles Theatre. Thursday, Jan. 24, 2019.

Redford didn’t talk as much at the festival’s opening news conference. He only made a cameo appearance, in keeping with his recent decision to retire from film acting.

“I don’t think the festival needs a whole lot of introduction now,” Redford told reporters Thursday afternoon. “I think it runs on its own course. … I can move on to a different place.”

With that, and a quick shout-out to the festival’s purple-clad volunteers “who stand out there in the cold and rush people this way and that,” Redford exited the stage at Park City’s Egyptian Theatre.

That left Keri Putnam, executive director of the Redford-founded Sundance Institute, to introduce the festival’s six lead programmers to discuss the 119 films that will unspool over 11 days in the United States’ most prominent film festival.

Redford, 82, announced some time back that his performance in the crime caper “The Old Man and the Gun,” released last fall, would be his final movie role — and that he would continue to be active elsewhere, including in providing the guiding vision to Sundance Institute.

Putnam, speaking after the news conference, said Redford is still involved in programs such as Sundance’s Screenwriting Lab, held just before the festival. He’s also taking time to watch movies and meet filmmakers.

“He wants to enjoy this thing that he built,” Putnam said.

In her prepared remarks, Putnam set the tone for the festival as “a public square for independent voices. … We recognize that this sort of public square is in short supply right now.”

Looking at the commercial and digital media, Putnam said, “stories, content and information are being distributed with an eye toward views and clicks, rather than depth and risk. It’s commerce, not purpose, that’s driving most storytelling. … The commercial media environment devalues independent media, and we’re here to revalue it.”

The bulk of the news conference was a conversation among members of a friendly panel, led by the festival’s director, John Cooper. Joining him on stage were the festival’s new programming director, Kim Yutani, and senior programmers John Nein, Shari Frilot, David Courier and Caroline Libresco. There was no back-and-forth with the reporters in the audience, as festival organizers asked for questions to be pre-submitted online.

Cooper said he believes “this festival is more relevant in divided times than ever. The voices that come to the forefront in this festival are important.”

Many of the submissions, particularly in the documentaries, were conceived and began filming after President Donald Trump’s inauguration two years ago, and that could be seen in their ferocity, panelists said.

“Filmmakers are so emboldened by the current zeitgeist, and they want their voices heard,” Courier said. “It’s a scary time across the globe, with the rise of the [extreme] right. It’s a global rise of nationalism that’s being embraced by our own country. You could feel filmmakers becoming incensed.”

The films create a portrait of America that the programmers described as “unflinching,” “real” and “optimistic.”

“When stories are getting out and they’re deep, it’s optimistic, even if it feels troubled out there, I feel like we’re going to someplace better,” Cooper said.

The 2019 Sundance Film Festival runs through Sunday, Feb. 3, in Park City, Salt Lake City and the Sundance resort.