Independent’s Day: The Ultimate Insider’s Look at the Crazy World of Sundance (1998)

Independent’s Day: The Ultimate Insider’s Look at the Crazy World of Sundance is not designed for the average moviegoer. Its format and content appeal to indie fanatics, industry insiders, and aspiring filmmakers. They will appreciate this behind-the-scenes look at the independent film business set against the backdrop of the Sundance Film Festival.

Sundance may be as famous for its setting as for its films. While some attendees complain about the inconveniences of this frosty hamlet, Festival founder Robert Redford explains that he had a specific idyll in mind: “I wanted it to be in the winter. I like it when it snows,” he says. “I like the small, communal, intimate atmosphere that becomes kind of collegiate. That’s good for the filmmakers. I like the energy.”

Shot in 1996 and 1997, Independent’s Day is comprised of interviews with writers, actors, producers, directors and Festival officials. As subjects are identified only by name and profession, viewers might be left wondering about their affiliations with Sundance. During the DVD’s audio commentary — by director Marina Zenovich and editor Stephen Garrett — he notes that interviewees’ unfamiliarity “epitomizes, for me, Sundance. It is a discovery festival. These people are potentially going to be major, important directors, but you never really know. And others of them you never see again. But it’s a great equalizer, the Festival, for that very reason.”

Still, recognizable faces, such as those of Kevin Smith, Steven Soderbergh, and Bryan Singer, serve as reminders of the mainstream success that has befallen Sundance alumni. Their presence in the movie illustrates a question that tends to divide the independent film community: does the pursuit of distribution undermine the spirit of indie cinema? Geoffrey Gilmore, Sundance Programming Director, professes that the goal of the Festival isn’t to sell movies, but to provide filmmakers with opportunities to interact with their peers, get reactions to their work, and “grow” as artists.

Some participants, however, are evidently jaded by the Sundance process. Director Greg Mottola (The Daytrippers) says that he’s “a little weary of endless talk about independent vision.” He continues, “Let’s face it. It has been co-opted by these quasi-Hollywood distribution companies. It has become a label.” Even Redford admits that Sundance is, increasingly more about development deals and connections than art.

Such interests can’ help but affect the Festival’s atmosphere. Independent’s Day conveys the frantic mood of Park City during January, described by one resident as, “It’s the worst of L.A. and the worst of New York jammed into Park City.” Such sentiment indicates a palpable tension between the locals and the yearly onslaught of agents, celebrities, and assorted hangers-on. “Just Another Dance,” an earlier, shorter version of Independent’s Day included as one of the DVD’s extras, considers that, while Sundance used to be strictly about filmmakers and films, attendees now have a variety of agendas. “Just Another Dance” also looks at the antagonistic relationship between the founders of Slamdance (an alternate venue for Sundance shutouts) and Redford. According to Roger Ebert, Redford has called the ambitious offshoot “parasitic.”

Redford himself declined to be interviewed for Independent’s Day (his comments in the film are gleaned from Festival press conferences), a fact mentioned by director Marina Zenovich during her DVD commentary. The film also includes an extended interview with Soderbergh, whose sex, lies, and videotape essentially put Sundance on the map in 1989, in which he is less than enthusiastic about working with Redford. (The extras also include extended interviews with Singer, Neil LaBute, and Sydney Pollack.) Apparently, the Soderbergh-related footage was pared down; still, Independent’s Day sometimes seems like an homage to the Festival’s major success story, as when it spends too much time analyzing the distribution woes of The Daytrippers, which he produced.

At the same time, this focus on money demonstrates the film’s general interest in cultural and economic issues affecting independent filmmakers. Interviewees discuss financing problems, motivation, and inspiration as well as long-range goals. The barrage of talking heads is punctuated by titles to give the viewer some idea of what people are discussing, and the film would be incoherent without this minimal effort at cohesion. For the most part, the pacing is manic, which means that some potentially informative discussion regarding what it means to be “independent” is cut off. As the definitions continue to evolve, such irresolution may be fitting, if frustrating.