Sundance’s John Cooper On Exit From Festival Perch, Robert Redford, Inclusion & Film That Blew His Mind

Dominic Patten

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“There’s not enough praise or admiration we can give Cooper,” proclaimed Robert Redford of exiting festival director John Cooper on the opening night of Sundance 2020 last night.

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In fact, followed by a standing ovation from the well-heeled and talent packed crowd at the annual Artist at the Table dinner, the SFF founder’s clearly heartfelt remarks weren’t the first time that Redford praised 30-year Sundance vet Cooper that day. On stage at the packed Eccles Theatre before opening night film Crip Camp screened, the Oscar winner offered “much love” to his long-time right-hand man. “At some point, the festival became his,” Redford added in what are surely to be the first of many tributes over what will be Cooper’s last festival as the head honcho.

After 11 years as festival director and Redford’s public foil, Cooper announced his upcoming exit back in June last year. No replacement has been unveiled yet, but whoever gets the gig is going to be stepping into some pretty big shoes.

With Redford having pulled back as the public face of the festival last year, Sundance eschewed its traditional opening day press conference yesterday, and sent out pre-recorded videos from Cooper (as you can see below), Sundance Institute chief Keri Putnam and festival programmer Kim Yutani.


However, Cooper sat down with me to discuss his exit, his relationship with Redford, some high points and low points and what is next for the indie film man.

DEADLINE: Clearly this last Sundance for you after over a decade as director is going to be a long goodbye from Redford and others, but what are you going to miss the most about the gig as a day-to-day job?

COOPER: That’s a big one. I think the biggest thing I’m going to miss is the selection of film process, my staff, that is so passionate and intelligent and so pure to this notion we have that really supports not just these artists in particular, but that support this notion of independent cinema and how important it is to culture. I’m going to miss that intensity of us putting together a selection, you know?

I’m going to miss the audiences too, actually. I think we’ve built such a loyal group of supporters and people that arrive every year. I always make a joke. It’s like I’m a wedding planner right now. It’s a 10-day wedding, and it’s big, and there are so many people, but when the audiences arrive, they revive you.

DEADLINE: How so?

COOPER: They’re excited and fresh. They’re really looking forward because I think they’ve come to realize that Sundance…and I’m reluctant to tout our own horn, but it’s like, but it is a kickoff to a certain moment in culture every year I think. It’s funny that we’re closer and closer than ever to the Oscars and the Spirit Awards and the Golden Globes. We’re all packed together, but they’re wrapping things up, whereas we’re looking to the future. I think our audience knows that, expects that and appreciates that.

DEADLINE: The industry has changed so rapidly and radically over your tenure. Now we see both the 2020 opening night films Crip Camp and the Taylor Swift documentary already set up at Netflix. How have you weathered the shifts for Sundance, being such an indie guy at heart?

COOPER: Well, let’s be honest, there’s a bar that’s being set every year, and I think the amount of talent that we’re seeing is what keeps you on track. So, yes, you have to respond, you have to be flexible, and you have to be nimble. But you have to respond to what the filmmakers need and not what people are just creating hysteria over, as well.

DEADLINE: You sound like you are channeling Redford there …

COOPER: (LAUGHS) Yeah, look, our job is to remain true and let the rest settle itself, and I do get that from Redford. You know, Redford is kind of that whatever guy, here’s what we do.

Truth is he’s really allowed me to not turn into a worrier, in fact. When you work with Redford, you can never be the worrier because he will do that for you. He has turned me into the cockeyed optimist every year. I feel a responsibility to him, though. You know, it’s like I feel like, oh my god, am I the last keeper of the torch that is pure sometimes?

DEADLINE: Over the years, the two of you seem to love to rib each other in public like at the opening day press conferences you used to have or on-stage at the Eccles introducing a film. What has it been like behind the scenes for you guys?

COOPER: Well, he’s given me some incredible opportunities, and always has trusted me, which I deeply appreciate.

The one thing I will say I always knew about him is you cannot lie to him, and you can’t ever be untruthful to him. You always have to tell him the truth, what you’re worried about, what you’re doing. He respects that because he has a really fine eye for inauthenticity, if that makes sense. Which, to me, makes him somebody who can direct Ordinary People. I think it’s that same skill set, you know?

DEADLINE: So, looking forward, as Sundance continues its search for your replacement, what will John Cooper be doing in January 2021 as the next festival kicks off?

COOPER: Oh, I’ll be around.

I have projects that are coming up. Some haven’t even been announced yet, but there’s still work to be done and that I’m excited to do. It’s just I’ll be able to do it better because I’m out of the day-to-day of the planning of this event and how it grows.

I was thinking about what we started off talking about, what’d I miss and I mean, one of the most glorious moments for me was when we created the Ignite Program, which is for 18 to 25-year-old filmmakers. That’s real for me, and I’ll probably see that through to a next level.

DEADLINE: There’s been no announcement of who will be taking over, but how will the handover work?

COOPER: (LAUGHS) I have a huge bunch of institutional knowledge, too, that you just forget you know from all the years. With a lot of people having switched out over the years, there’s fewer and fewer of us who have that. So, I really wanted to make sure that I was around to be there for anything that the new director needs. I’m committed to that. Hopefully it’s nothing, you know, but you never know

Still, hopefully it’s going to be the smoothest thing ever, and I’m always a builder, so I’m hoping they’re going to build some new things. I want to hear what their ideas are. You know, I’m not at all precious in where we are right now. I think it is a good time to relook at everything, and that’s something that I didn’t know if I had the energy for any longer.

DEADLINE: Is that a big part of why you decided to exit stage left after this year?

COOPER: Kind of, yeah. You know, I’ve been doing it for 30 years. So, yeah, let somebody fresh in here. Let somebody else wake up in the middle of the night and jot down things in the notebook on the nightstand table.

DEADLINE: Speaking of new voices, so to speak, Sundance has made a significant push in recent years for representation and inclusion. This year, in the U.S. Dramatic competition category, as one example, 47% of the directors are women, 5% are members of the LGBTQ community and 53% are people of color. With those impressive but always can be better stats, what do you think is the real state of opening up Sundance and Hollywood right now?

COOPER: I think it’s two levels.

I think it’s the support of any group that’s considered part of the inclusion that needs to be included. Make sure that they’re aware of the possibility of what they could do, and that if they make the good film, that there’s a place for them at Sundance. It’s important that they’re competing on real levels.

Then there’s the other side, which is supporting and making sure that they get the financial opportunities. On the other side of that, there’s this natural thing that’s happening where we are also looking for original and fresh films.

DEADLINE: That’s the Sundance mantra …

COOPER: We just didn’t call it inclusion back then. We just called it independent filmmakers. Those aren’t always coming from the same story being regurgitated over and over, which was coming from what I would call the almost privileged filmmakers. Instead, there was this natural thing that we’re drawn to these stories. The Farewell, which was here last year, is a perfect example of that. That is a well-made movie, but it’s also a fresh idea that excites you as an audience because you’re seeing something new.

DEADLINE: In that mention of Lulu Wang’s film, how do you see the Sundance alum network as being something that new filmmakers can partake in and learn from?

COOPER: Good point, and when you’re talking about what I’m going to be doing, that’s kind of part of what my new job is going to be, too. Creating opportunities through the alumni. It’s something that, I will admit, we’ve never been really good at because we weren’t like a college. You know, we didn’t have this alumni program, but yeah, we’ve built a family. You know, sometimes it’s a big dysfunctional family, but it’s fine for that family to give back.

DEADLINE: Well, you aren’t exactly making it sound like the easiest move …

COOPER: No, but I know that I can do that because I stood on stage with half of these people. I pushed them on stage some of the times, you know. I really wanted to use my knowledge of them to create more through our alumni and through the community. Like, put our money where our mouth is. Build something that is nurturing the family forward, and anybody can get into this family. You know, that’s kind of what the game is right now.

DEADLINE: Looking at the games of the past, you are once again hosting a panel this year talking about the movies that really affected you, I think Tessa Thompson and Tom McCarthy are going to be there. So, I’m going to ask you now, after 30 years at Sundance, 11 years as director, what is the Sundance movie that blew John Cooper’s mind?

COOPER: You know, the very first movie I saw for Sundance in my role as a programmer was Paris Is Burning. I was at the IFP market, and I didn’t realize it blew my mind because I thought that’s how the job was going to be. You’re like, oh my god. I’ve just stumbled into the best job ever, but that definitely was one of them, because I was so ill prepared for the size of the voices that I was going to be meeting over the next 30 years.

That was definitely one, but I must say, you know, I always come back to Beasts of the Southern Wild.

That movie just spoke to me in a way. You know that’s one of the few movies I’ve ever watched again at Sundance

DEADLINE: Really?

COOPER: Yeah, I had seen such a rough cut of it when it was submitted but the final day of the 2012 festival, after it won all of its awards, I sat and watched the film. I think it’s the only time I’ve ever done that all this time.

I was very proud that this kind of crazy film was so powerful and that people accepted it. I felt like we had built not only a possibility for that filmmaker to think like that, but also for the audiences to accept it. It comes from both sides, and we’d worked hard on that. So, it was like a fruition

DEADLINE: So, is this last festival as director going to blow your mind too?

COOPER: You know, it’s going to be a very emotional festival for me and I am a crier, just letting you know.

So, it’s going to be difficult, but I’m really up for the fun of this festival. I’m also up for having a good time, because I think sometimes we make the festival important, but it really is, it’s a good time too. That’s something I want to keep people coming back to.

At the same time, my staff and I are looking at changes for the future, for me clearly and the festival. And I’m not shying away from that as what we’re going into this. It’s not like an end of something and the beginning of something. It’s a continuation of something. Sundance is a good idea, and it’s not my idea. It belongs to everybody. That’s how I’ve always thought of it. This festival isn’t my festival. It’s everybody’s festival, and we’re trying to keep everybody in the game with us, and that’s been the game of my career here.

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