A Sundance surprise: A documentary about Brett Kavanaugh’s road to the Supreme Court

Plus, folk-rock duo Indigo Girls hit the red carpet as the festival returned to Park City for in-person screenings.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Director Alexandria Bombach, center, poses with the members of Indigo Girls — Amy Ray, left, and Emily Saliers — on the red carpet at Park City's The Ray Theatre, before the premiere of the documentary about the folk-rock duo "It's Only Life After All," which Bombach directed. The film was one of the first movies to screen at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival, on Thursday, Jan. 19, 2023.

Park City • It was a big deal, the folk-rock duo Indigo Girls said, to premiere a documentary about them in Utah on the same day the Utah Legislature was debating legislation about transgender people.

The duo — Amy Ray and Emily Saliers — appeared on the red carpet at The Ray Theatre in Park City on Thursday, at one of the first screenings on the opening night of the 2023 Sundance Film Festival. They were on hand for the premiere of “It’s Only Life After All,” director Alexandria Bombach’s documentary about Ray and Saliers’ friendship, music and shared career.

The screening, one of a dozen scheduled Thursday in the festival’s “Day One” festivities, marked a kind of normality returning to Utah — as Sundance is being held in person for the first time in three years, after two years of online-only screenings because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Ray said the duo’s friend, Troy Wllliams at Equality Utah, keeps them up to date on what’s happening in Utah’s queer community. That’s how the band knew the Utah Senate on Thursday debated Senate Bill 16, which would block gender-affirming care to transgender minors. (The bill passed a preliminary vote, 22-7, in the Republican-dominated chamber. A final vote in the Senate is expected Friday; the bill would then go to the House.)

Ray called Utah’s queer community “amazing.”

Salt Lake City, Ray said, “exemplifies a lot of movement that people don’t even understand. I’ve always looked at Salt Lake as kind of the cutting edge of some things that can happen in a world that’s so faith-based as well as has a secular element.”

Bombach, the director of “It’s Only Life After All,” said “it was an honor to be making this film and it was really intimidating.” Bombach started on the film four years ago, after her last movie, a documentary about Yazidi refugees called “On Her Shoulders,” premiered at Sundance in 2018.

“I know a lot of people are fans,” Bombach said, adding that Indigo Girls “just mean so much to so many people ... I just wanted to do justice to what is an incredible story.”

Earlier Thursday, Sundance Institute CEO Joana Vicente declared Sundance back, and added that “film festivals are more important than ever.”

“It feels amazing,” Vicente said of being at her first in-person festival as CEO, a job she took in fall 2021. “There’s nothing like the magic of being together here in Park City.”

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Kim Yutani, Sundance Festival Director of Programming, says a few words, during the Sundance Scoop in Park City, on the opening day of the Sundance Film Festival, on Thursday, Jan. 19, 2023.

An explosive late addition

At a media event Thursday afternoon, programmers announced one more movie for the schedule: “Justice,” a documentary about the fight to put Brett Kavanaugh on the U.S. Supreme Court.

Sundance’s program director, Kim Yutani, said the film would focus on the sexual misconduct allegations made against Kavanaugh, and the investigation that followed.

It will screen just once during the festival, Friday at 8:30 p.m. at the Park Avenue Theatre (in the Hilton DoubleTree) in Park City.

“Justice” is the first documentary directed by Doug Liman, best known for such action films as “The Bourne Identity,” “Mr. and Mrs. Smith” and “Edge of Tomorrow.”

In a statement released by the Sundance Institute, Liman said, “it shouldn’t be this hard to have an open and honest conversation about whether or not a Justice on the Supreme Court assaulted numerous women as a young man.”

Liman said the movie’s research team, and “the brave souls who trusted us with their stories,” “picks up where where the FBI investigation into Brett Kavanaugh fell woefully short.”

Liman’s first movie, 1996′s “Swingers” with Jon Favreau and Vince Vaughn, was rejected by Sundance, and played the Slamdance Film Festival instead. Liman’s second movie, the drug-dealer comedy-drama “Go” with Katie Holmes and Sarah Polley, premiered at Sundance in 1999.

“Sundance gave me and countless other independent filmmakers our big breaks, so it’s especially meaningful for me to return with my first documentary,” Liman said in his statement.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Joana Vicente, Sundance Institute CEO, says a few words, during the Sundance Scoop in Park City, on the opening day of the Sundance Film Festival, on Thursday, Jan. 19, 2023.

Hybrid festival model

At the media event, called “Sundance Scoop,” Vicente acknowledged that Sundance was able to become more accessible over the pandemic by going virtual in its 2021 and 2022 editions — and that this year’s hybrid format, with in-person screenings for the festival’s full 11-day run, and online screenings starting Tuesday, will continue that model.

“We’re excited by the access that gives, and the accessibility that it gives,” Vicente said. When asked if the hybrid model would become permanent, Vicente laughed and said, “one festival at a time.” (The 2024 festival will be led by the festival’s new director, Eugene Hernandez, former director of the New York Film Festival and co-founder of the trade website IndieWire. Hernandez moderated Thursday’s “Sundancd Scoop” event.)

Vicente trumpeted the festival’s expansion in Salt Lake City — such as the addition of the Megaplex Theatres at The Gateway as a venue. The expansion will be something to watch, Vicente said, as the festival aims to attract younger, more diverse audiences.

“That’s the spirit of Sundance,” Vicente said. “We need to take risks, we put your best foot forward and together we’ll learn from this and continue to aspire to do better.”

Vicente acknowledged Sundance’s founder — actor, director and activist Robert Redford — and confirmed that he would not be attending the festival this year.

Vicente also acknowledged the deaths this week of movie producer Edward R. Pressman (“Wall Street,” “American Psycho”), and Ravi Srinivasan, a senior programmer at the Toronto International Film Festival (where Vicente worked before coming to Sundance).

Sundance’s programming team plowed through 16,000 submissions, representing 28 countries. From those submissions, programmers picked 111 feature films and 65 short films — which senior programmer John Nein cited for their urgent and personal storytelling.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) John Nein, Senior Programmer, Sundance Festival, says a few words, during the Sundance Scoop in Park City, on the opening day of the Sundance Film Festival, on Thursday, Jan. 19, 2023.

Yutani said she was surprised by how many biographical documentary submissions they received. “What we have in the program is again the range of stories,” she said, naming actors Brooke Shields and Michael J. Fox, and NBA superstar Stephen Curry as examples of biographical stories. Other documentaries in the program profile rock legend Little Richard and author Judy Blume.

The quiet before the rush

Before the first festival events kicked off Thursday, Park City’s Main Street was quiet — with trucks lining up outside businesses, and the city’s parking enforcement keeping an eye on them during their patrols.

Business operators — such as Rebecca Williams, the general manager of Java Cow Coffee & Ice Cream — weren’t sure what to make of this year’s festival, the first in Park City in three years.

“The [movie] business has changed,” said Williams, who has been in business on Main Street for 15 years. “People used to bring their whole team and be here to promote their films, their passion projects, to try and sell them. Now a lot of these movies are already sold and will be on Netflix within a month.”

The game of spotting celebrities who attend festival, and dealing with their diligent fans, has also changed, Williams said. “There’s so many new faces and people that aren’t [celebrities],” she said. “It’s a lot different than it used to be with influencers.”

The festival’s “Day One” screenings Thursday night were scheduled to feature 11 movies and one shorts program at five Park City venues. The festival gets underway in earnest Friday — with a full slate of films in Park City and at venues in Salt Lake City and the Sundance Mountain Resort — and runs through Sunday, Jan. 29. Festival screenings online run Tuesday through Jan. 29.