Except for a brief two-year sojourn in suburban Virginia, I pretty much lived in Park City, Utah my entire life until leaving for college at age 18. Even then I only went as far as Salt Lake, which meant that all the advantages of home were safely within reach—laundry, food, TV and of course, the Sundance Film Festival.
Obviously if you’re a young film lover growing in Park City during the go-go 1990s, there are going to be certain advantages. From celeb sightings to gift bags to open bar premiere parties, Sundance provided plenty of opportunities for sloppy teenage adventuring.
Also, every now and then I managed to watch a movie or two. There are too many good times to count, but below please find my top five favorite memories from those days.
PEAK FESTIVAL IS ACHIEVED IN THE MID-90s
When Sundance began, it wasn’t even called “Sundance.” It was the US Film Festival, and primarily showcased regional movies about the American West. That meant a lot of stoic cattle ranchers in denim outerwear silently contemplating their own wounded dignity while gazing forlornly at Wyoming sunsets.
But then Steven Soderbergh happened. Then Quentin Tarantino. Then Kevin Smith. As the Miramax Age descended on Park City, it was suddenly apparent that there was serious money to be made with this whole “indie movie” thing—leading to an explosion of not just films, but of film festivals.
First there was Slamdance, Sundance’s punk rock little sister who set up shop at the top of Main Street, playing films that were obscure and esoteric even by Sundance standards. Once Slamdance opened the floodgates, the ‘90s saw an avalanche of “-dance” suffixed upstart festivals begin—and in most cases, quickly flame out.
During this period there were film festivals crammed into every odd nook and cranny across the Wasatch front, including one (name lost to history) that operated solely out of the back of an 18-person passenger van driving up and down Main.
My own personal favorite was Tromadance, mounted by legendary/infamous schlock film studio Troma and its CEO Lloyd Kaufman, which operated out of an abandoned storage basement underneath the TCBY yogurt shop.
Things are still crazy in Utah at the end of January each year, but it’s unlikely we’ll ever see an explosion like that again. But I’ve got the passenger van on standby—just in case.
ICE CREAM PARTY WITH TAMMY FAYE AND RUPAUL
One of the most talked about documentaries at the 2000 festival was Film Independent Board Member Randy Barbato and Fenton Bailey’s The Eyes of Tammy Faye—about controversial eye shadow enthusiast and disgraced televangelist Tammy Faye Bakker and narrated by a pre-Drag Race RuPaul.
I never actually saw Eyes, even though I heard it was good. But I did work at Cows Ice Creamery, which was rented out by the Eyes team for a promotional ice cream social, which led to the curious site of 17-year-old me serving up lime sherbet and rum raison to none other than Tammy Faye Bakker-Messner herself.
Tammy Faye died in 2007 but at the time she was in good spirits: a pint-sized tornado of pure, uncut Southern charm. RuPaul was there too, out of drag and sporting a pistachio-colored business suit and feather-adorned fedora. Both were exceedingly polite, taking pictures with our staff and asking us if we played any sports at school.
Then just as soon as it had begun, the event was over. We lowered the velvet rope (which our excitable manager purchased especially for that day and which was never used again), nudged our fiberglass heifer mascot back into place and went about our normal routine.
JARED LETO EXITS THROUGH THE GIFT SHOP
The year was 2010 and as a Sundance volunteer (shout out to my Main Box Office Info Booth peeps!) I was taking advantage of the festival’s labyrinthine waitlist privileges to catch a late sneak-premiere of graffiti artist Banksy’s Exit Through the Gift Shop.
I’d been aware of the Banksy phenomenon for a while, but there was no precedent for how this mysterious art world trickster might present his distinctive brand of satire though the medium of filmmaking. For all I knew, the Library Theater auditorium would be locked shut and flooded with artificial fart smells, turning we—the pretentious Sundance festival-going public—into unwitting players is some grant performance art prank.
Luckily, my four-plus hours of frigid waiting and bladder-testing pee withholding paid off. Ticket in hand, I entered and took my seat. Then I noticed that the handsome dude with the ridiculous haircut sitting in front of me looked familiar.
Hmm. Curious, I studied the handsome gentleman’s profile. Who the hell was this? Then, in a flash, it came to me—Jared Leto! I looked to either side. Turns out the ersatz Frozen Embryo was sitting with the rest of his current musical outfit, 30 Seconds to Mars.
“Cool,” I thought even though I had no strong opinion about 30 Seconds to Mars. Then, the Sundance programmer came out, read sticker-encrusted welcome letter from Banksy him-or-herself and started the movie for us—its first-ever audience.
And there I was, grateful for the experience, comfortably surrounded by my fellow graffiti-loving celebrities.
THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT: WHAT THE HELL IS THIS, EVEN?
The year is 1999 and I’m at the Library Theater. I’m here for something called The Blair Witch Project, and because I’m an intense young fellow I snag a seat right in the front row.
I didn’t look too closely at the Festival program beforehand, so I’m not sure if Blair Witch is a documentary or a narrative feature or what. But I definitely don’t know that it’s a horror movie for some reason—even thought the word “witch” is right there in the title.
The movie starts. It looks bad, like someone threw a Handicam into a bog and jabbed at it with sticks. But here in the waning days of the Clinton administration, it’s not uncommon for indie docs to look this rough. And that’s what I’m watching, right? A documentary?
I mean, what else would it be? It said it was a documentary after all, and this is January of 1999, before “found footage” is commonplace a genre—before reality TV exists as part of our everyday media vocabulary. And way before Blair Witch is the cultural phenomenon it will eventually become, parodied to death and drained of shock.
So I’m convinced that what I’m seeing is real, and it’s creepy as hell. But then, it begins to dawn on me. Rapidly, the magic trick unspools at minute through the accumulation of far-fetched incident and—ahem—aggressively non-professional acting performances.
But even then, the recognition of the magic trick in and of itself was delightful. And by delightful, I of course mean utterly terrifying.
THE ECCLES CENTER PROXIMITY EFFECT
If you’ve ever been to Sundance, then you know that the Eccles Theater is the Festival’s premiere screening venue, a two-tiered 1259-seat behemoth decked out with state-of-the-art sound and projection. Eccles was also my high school auditorium, sharing a wall with the PCHS hallway that my locker grid occupied most of high school.
That particular hallway has since been flattened and rebuilt, so I don’t know its current geography, but I do know that in the late ‘90s the only thing separating a movie-loving truant such as myself from the Festival was a single fire door near the band room.
Simply speaking, it was like taking celluloid-shaped candy from a baby. While my fellow Miners were baking under the hot fluorescent lights of Mr. Krenkel’s AP Civics class, I was planted in my usual front-row mezzanine seat enjoying world premieres of films including Girlfight, American Movie, Chuck & Buck, Dark Days and many more.
Even when not cutting class it’s a surreal to hear The Tao of Steve bleeding through the walls at 9am while hanging up my jacket, or see Rose McGowan on MTV promoting Jawbreaker while standing in front of my friend Scott’s locker, the drawstring from his PCHS lacrosse hoodie peeking out from the slats behind her.
But whether you’re a longtime Park City resident, filmmaker, movie lover or all three (like me!) it’s hard to deny—Sundance is a unique environment where just about anything can happen and where a lifelong passion for independent film can take root and blossom.
Are you a Sundance veteran? Is this your first year? Either way let us know about your favorite memories are by leaving a comment below.
Matt Warren / Film Independent Digital Content Manager