They still come to Sundance, the performers do, even in a year like this one, a year when the festival faces an unusual danger: being overshadowed in its hometown.
For in less than a month, about 32 Winter Olympic events, one third of the total, will take place in town or nearby, and the signs, physical and psychological, are everywhere. Taped notices on local bathroom walls are as likely to be offers of Olympic tickets as fliers for films, the banner headline in the Park Record on the festival's opening night read "Workers Brace for February Commute," and KPCW, the town's radio station, frequently reminds listeners that "next month, Park City takes the world's stage."
That overshadowing takes monumental form right in front of the hotel that is the festival's headquarters, where the enormous giant slalom run, complete with empty stands and a silent scoreboard, looms over the building, for all intents and purposes a relic of some lost yet terrifying civilization like the ones imagined by fantasy writer H.P. Lovecraft.
None of this, however, matters much to actors who are here with their films, whether beginners such as Agnes Bruckner or world famous such as Robin Williams. Bruckner, all of 16, is a gifted young actress whose heartfelt performance made the coming-of-age drama "Blue Car" (unaccountably not in the competition) one of the festival's first successes, complete with a sale to Miramax.
"Oh my God, I've been just so emotional, it's been so exciting I've been crying all day," says Bruckner, who lives with her family in Burbank and is understandably elated. "For me, everything has just built up to this moment. I'm finally here, I've finally arrived."
With four Oscar nominations as an actor (and a victory for "Good Will Hunting"), Williams couldn't be more established, but he is almost as excited to be here: "I have seen the mountain," he says in one of his infinite accents. "It was good." And in some ways his new film, "One Hour Photo," written and directed by music video auteur Mark Romanek, represents as important a milestone in his career as Bruckner's does in hers.
Williams plays Sy Parrish, a photo booth operator at a local SavMart who becomes terrifyingly obsessed with a particular family. Not only does Sy have grotesque nightmares in which blood spurts from his eyes, he ends up acting in such a savage, sadistic way that Williams himself said, "This is a bizarre, creepy movie," when he came out to take a bow and answer questions at the premiere.
"Now," he added in his trademark style, "I have to come out and make people laugh, be an emotional sorbet."
Williams, whose interview mode ranges from the thoughtful to the wildly funny, is well aware that this kind of a role--perhaps his first chilly part since a cameo in Kenneth Branagh's 1991 "Dead Again"--is not what's expected from him after a spate of warmly sentimental films. His agent pursued the script "as a wild shot; I wasn't even on a list, no one's going to send this to me off the bat." He had lunch with Romanek, "who thought it was one of those token meetings.
"When I said I wanted to do it, he went, 'No!' I think it really shocked him."
If people are going to be shocked at Williams in a non-Patch Adams mode, they are going to have to get used to it. The actor has at least two similar films coming out: "Death to Smoochie," directed by Danny DeVito ("he's the darkest guy around; when I asked if he wanted me to lighten up he said 'No, no'") and "Insomnia," co-starring Al Pacino and directed by "Memento's" Christopher Nolan.
Though he's looked at things such as interview tapes with serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer to prepare for these roles, Williams is not the kind of actor who takes his parts home with him. "Once you have a family, the method stuff goes away very quickly. I did it on one movie, and it scared my kids. You can't say"--a lightening voice change here-- "'I'm going to my study. Don't mind the noises of an animal being sacrificed.'"
Though he joked at the premiere that he did "One Hour Photo" because "'Mister Rogers on Ice' was already taken," it was a combination of factors that led to this spate of darker material, starting with Williams' feeling that "for me the job is to play as many different characters as possible."
Williams is also aware that critics and audiences have not invariably applauded his choice of roles. "I know it's out there, there's been negative response to certain films. People will come up to you and say, 'If you ever make another movie like that, I'll hurt you.' This is interesting feedback. Does it make me deny the validity of what I've done? No. Does it make me want to look for other things? Yes.
"Going too much one way is not good. 'Goebbels: The Musical,' that I don't want to do, but the moment you start limiting yourself, it's bad news. I want to change the perception."
Perhaps the biggest factor in Williams' shift was a birthday. "Once I hit 50," he jokes, changing his voice, "I'm looking for characters. The romantic parts are over. Mr. Pitt, he gonna take it now." More seriously, he says that at 50 "you hit this phase where you look at stuff. The time is changing, you're on the clock now, it's like, 'This is it.' You want to maximize what you do."
One result of that is a determination "not to rush off and do things. If I have to wait for something, I'll wait. There have been times when I rushed into things. Sometimes it was pure greed, sometimes it was 'we'll make it better.' I don't believe 'we'll fix it' anymore. Don't ever go that way."
If Williams was gratified at the response "One Hour Photo" got, Bruckner, so unfamiliar with Sundance she "brought this suitcase full of all these fancy clothes because I thought it was going to be a red-carpet type of place" was even more so about "Blue Car." "People are clapping at the screenings. One night I got this ovation and when I got to the mike I was so blown away I was speechless," she says. "One of my friends is here with me and she started bawling, telling me how proud she is of me."
Unlike young actresses such as Claire Danes and Natalie Portman who've been at it most of their lives, Bruckner started taking acting lessons only "three or four years ago" at the suggestion of her mother, Nina Bruckner. At first, she says, "it was 'my mom put me into this,' then it was 'my mom and I are in this together,' now it's 'I'm doing this.' I just grew to love acting; I can't imagine not doing it."
"My mom has been my hero, my everything," Bruckner says with her usual emotion. "She always told me you have to be very, very strong to survive in this business, that 90% of the time you're going to be denied. She's been there by my side when I didn't get parts, she'd say, 'Agnes, we didn't get this job, but we'll get the next one.'"
Gradually, the parts started arriving, from a year-and-a-half stint on "The Bold and the Beautiful" to supporting parts in last year's "The Glass House" and Barbet Schroeder's forthcoming "Fool Proof," starring Sandra Bullock. But Bruckner's starring role in "Blue Car," strongly written and directed by Karen Moncrieff, where she plays a high school student from a broken home who pursues poetry seriously on the suggestion of a male teacher, is the biggest thing she's ever done and clearly a breakthrough performance.
"I had a lot of drama going on in my life, personal things I brought with me," says Bruckner, whose own parents separated a year and a half ago. . "I brought all this emotion with me, and it just worked, it just clicked."
It's not only her success at Sundance that Bruckner can't quite believe, it's her whole career. She especially remembers the day she signed with Paradigm Agency.
"I was sitting at the end of this long conference table and all these agents were looking at me. They said, 'We're going to sign you, you're going to be a star.' And I'm thinking 'Oh my God.' Since then, since I got the role on 'The Bold and the Beautiful,' I've been practicing what I'm going to say on the Jay Leno show."
Maybe now she'll get the chance.