PARK CITY, Utah — The 2020 edition of the Sundance Film Festival marks John Cooper’s 30th year at the event. Since 2009 he has held the position of festival director, but after this year’s fest he will be stepping down.
From humble beginnings — in his first year at Sundance, he helped move film prints around Park City in the back of someone else’s hatchback and then had to hand-write shipping labels to return them all — he ascended to the top of the organization.
During that time, much has changed about the ways in which movies are exhibited, but for all the ways in which Sundance is defined by change and responding to the times, Cooper has ensured that some things about the festival remained the same. For one, the festival’s core mission of exposing new and undiscovered talent — from Ryan Coogler to Dee Rees, Damien Chazelle and Cathy Yan — has never changed.
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Asked what he wanted his legacy at the festival to be, he had this to say:
“I want them to think that I was part of making something important, but I also want them to think that I was part of making a team that did that. More of a general than a sniper. Like a great sniper probably has a certain pride in what they can shoot at, but I liked the notion of leading people to a place and leading audiences to a place [that] is so much better. Our audience is so much better at accepting difference in films.
“And I also want to be thought of as somebody that created an event and had a personality and wasn’t afraid to show it. I know that I’m goofy. I know that I will cry in front of audiences this time. But I like that Sundance didn’t go to a very classic, almost uptight academic festival-y attitude, that we kept our attitude. I think that’s it — I want to be a part of something that kept the attitude and brought people along.”
As he prepares for the next phase in his Sundance career in the newly created role of emeritus director, Cooper recalled some of his most memorable movies and moments from his years with the festival.
They’re not always just the movies [that you remember], but they’re moments. Because the movies, I remember a lot of them, but that’s almost a boring way to think. It’s like, “Wow, that incident!” I think about “The Station Agent,” that was the first time I did a cartwheel onstage. I used to do a cartwheel for one film a year after “Station Agent.” I think I did it for about five or six years, maybe eight times. I can’t remember. But I remember doing that just because I knew so many people involved in that film. I knew Patty Clarkson, I knew Bobby Cannavale. I knew the director, who [went on to do] “Spotlight,” Tom McCarthy, and Mary Jane Skalski is a producer who I really loved. And I just thought: I’m going to do something crazy, because I don’t know what else to say. And I turned the cartwheel and then I made it my thing. Until I was like 51 and then it’s like, “I’ve got to stop doing this. It’s going to get embarrassing, you know, I’ll snap my wrist and limp off stage.”
I remember [Damien Chazelle’s] “Whiplash” opening night was a film that I really had to fight a lot of opposing views on letting it play on Day One. And I needed that film. I wanted it because I wanted to change the kind of concept of what that [opening night] screening was. And then when the audiences just erupted after that film, it was very satisfying.
Maybe this was my age — maybe because I’m gay, I admit it — but, the ladies of Sundance — I’ve been taken with so many that were the older, classic women that have passed through Sundance. When I think about Sissy Spacek and Joan Rivers and Anna Wintour — who insisted that only the director of the festival could do the Q&A with her, so I had to rush over there to do it. Sitting on a hotel bed with Tammy Faye Bakker watching the 1937 Shirley Temple “Heidi.” And these are just weird things that happened. Jane Fonda, Mary J. Blige and even Catherine O’Hara, who I adore and I’m such a super crazy fan for. I bent a knee and kissed her hand. Like, what the hell am I doing?
And Shirley MacLaine, I was getting ready to take her onstage and she said, “Just hit me with a spotlight and stay with me. And tell the guys up in the booth.” We don’t have a spotlight, but it was just like, “OK ...” [and] making a fake phone call just for her. This is the stuff you do. I’ve always joked that there’s a lot of P.T. Barnum in what I do. And then there’s just those classic people that I always love coming back to Sundance, you know — Patty Clarkson, Parker Posey, either of the Gyllenhaals, Glenn Close, Viola Davis — I got a lot of pleasure out of them and meeting them and being backstage with them.
One big one ... just knowing Roger Ebert. It’s something that I got to do that a lot of people didn’t and never will. And it was so special, and what he did for filmmakers too. And then there’s, you know, just the other stuff, like sitting in the green room with Bono for like nearly 45 minutes where it’s me and him and no one else. And I don’t know hardly anything about him. So that was good and bad. And Carole King, we had that film about her [“Troubadours”], and then she did a small concert where I actually watched her sing with my hand on the piano. It’s just magical moments that I have been given in this job.
Then there’s the bad ones too. Like this special secret screening of “The Big Lebowski,” which nobody knew about. And me and my friend from [distributor] Gramercy, we forgot to get the print to Park City cause it was so secret, it wasn’t on any list. And it was about three hours before the screening and the projectionist called, “Where’s that special film? It’s not here yet.” So we had to make a lot of calls, got somebody to run around L.A., get the print, put it on a private plane, fly it to Heber [Valley Airport] and made it up the hill and onto the screen like a half hour late. And I blamed it on the lines outside, the waiting list or something. And the Coen brothers were there, who are so hard to get to show up for things. That was horrible, that was my worst moment at Sundance ever. But then it turned out to be a good story.
There’s my other thing, embarrassing [moments] — like crying during the introduction of “Call Me by Your Name.” I don’t know why, I got up there and I remembered the amazing scene, the monologue from the father to the son. That scene. And I started thinking about, “How can I kind of talk about that without giving it away?” And I just kinda got a little mental. Anyway, thank God the director Luca [Guadagnino], he thought it was sweet. I am sort of all over the place in my kookiness sometimes, I know that.