Sterling Van WagenenMarch 2014 • Interview by Candy Eash
Sterling Van Wagenen was the co-founder of the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah, and, in association with Robert Redford, he was the founding executive director of the Sundance Institute. He has directed four feature films and has produced over fourteen documentaries, feature films, and/or television series, including the Academy Award-winning Trip to Bountiful with Horton Foote. His work at Brigham Young University includes manager of the TV Group and Director of Content at BYU Broadcasting. From 1999 to 2004, he served as Director of the School of Film and Digital Media at the University of Central Florida. He has served on the media arts panels at both the National Endowment for the Humanities and the National Endowment for the Arts, twice chairing the Arts and Television Panel at the NEA. Currently, he is the Producer-in-Residence at the University of Utah, and a partner in Pearl Farm Entertainment, based in Los Angeles.
Will you share some of your history and how you decided to become a filmmaker?
I grew up as an only child in a rural area of Utah, so I spent a lot of time alone; movies were my passport into other worlds. As C.S. Lewis said of reading, “It helps you to know that you are not alone.” I attended Brigham Young University and had a double major in theatre and philosophy. Before I graduated, I took time off to work in L. A. as an assistant to a British director named Jonathan Miller. He was directing a production of Shakespeare’s Richard II at the L. A. Music Center. I also worked as a script reader for a talent agency. That was my first exposure to the world of Hollywood.
Who are some of your influences and what are a few of your favorite films?
My biggest influences were the three men I worked most closely with: Robert Redford, in starting the Sundance Institute; Jonathan Miller, as mentioned above; Horton Foote, the screenwriter (To Kill a Mockingbird, Tender Mercies). Horton and I made two films together (The Trip to Bountiful and Convicts).
A few favorite films are: Sansho the Bailiff (Kenji Mizoguchi, dir.), The Searchers (John Ford, dir.), I Know Where I’m Going (Michael Powell, dir.), To Live (Zhang Yimou, dir.), Tender Mercies (Bruce Beresford, dir.), Lawrence of Arabia (David Lean, dir.), A Man for All Seasons (Fred Zinneman, dir.), Psycho (Alfred Hitchcock, dir.).
Thirty years ago, you had the simple idea of creating a place where independent filmmakers could present their films. Since then, thousands of films have been shown, hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue have been generated, the Sundance Film Institute was launched, and the festival expanded into cable channels and across multiple continents–how do you feel about having helped to create the Sundance Film Festival? How have your views changed with respect to independent film and festivals over the last three decades?
When we started the festival, there was a purity about the original idea. Naïve, perhaps, but the intention was to give independent filmmakers a showcase, a way to present their work without unnecessary hype and Hollywood spin. The idea was for a festival that would be an alternative to Hollywood. Well, that changed with the increasing attention some early independent films got, such as Sex, Lies, and Videotape, by Steve Soderbergh. As careful as Redford was about limiting Hollywood involvement in the festival, when it became obvious that films like Soderbergh’s could make money, the (naïvely) pure idea began to unravel. In my memory, there was a certain sad inevitability to all of it. I think Redford saw that as well, and though he has complained often in interviews, Pandora is out of the box.
What were your goals in developing the Sundance Institute?
The core idea of the Institute was based on two models: the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center in Connecticut, and the visionary book Deschooling Society, by the Jesuit activist Ivan Illich.
The O’Neill Center is an experimental center where promising playwrights can bring their plays and submit them to readings and critiques by Broadway professionals. The idea is that the work would get better with tough but encouraging criticism by the best playwrights, directors, and actors working in the professional New York theater; but also that this work would take place outside the risks and demands of the marketplace. This is where the initial idea for the June Lab at the Sundance Institute came from.
Illich’s book postulated three conditions for learning (traditional school structures not being one of them): (1) open and free access to tools, (2) free association with peers working on the same or similar creative problems, and (3) the rigorous criticism of those he called “elders”; that is, those who have already mastered their craft and can encourage and direct the creative efforts of less experienced artists. We combined these two models when we set up the first June labs at Sundance in 1981.
Will you share a few of your thoughts on the benefits of festivals for filmmakers?
I have two: they are important (1) to help build an audience for the film, and (2) to expose the filmmaker to the realities of a viewing audience. The Sundance Film Festival helps with (1), and is useless for (2) because it has become such an artificial audience experience. Beyond that, it’s all about getting a distribution deal.
You’ve worked in many areas of film, from the typical views of filmmaking in producing and directing to the less-understood areas of broadcasting, teaching, and serving on panels and boards. Which aspects of film and filmmaking are your favorites? And what is it about these aspects that you love?
I love working with writers and actors. Those processes are the most creatively charged and rewarding.
What were your duties when you served on the panels for the National Endowment for the Humanities and the National Endowment for the Arts? Can you share a contribution from that time that you were grateful to help in making?
I served as both a panel member and on occasion as chair. The panels are all about reviewing all the grant applications that are submitted to the NEA/NEH, and making recommendations to the National Council on the Arts for funding. Pretty boring stuff, except that one gets an overview of a particular discipline from a national perspective—helps one see what’s going on across the country. A great learning experience.
The creative process is unique and personal. What is developing a story like for you?
There is a certain logic to creating a story, once one gets a fix on what it is the character wants, what his/her objective in the story is. Aristotle said (roughly), “Character is plot, and plot is character.”
The Witching of Ben Wagner was a made-for-TV movie. What is the difference between developing a film for television and developing one for theatrical release?
Television is a disposable medium. Making films for television is like buying a cheap, disposable paperback book: you read it and it falls apart, and you throw it away. Film, on the other hand, is like buying a beautiful leatherbound volume of a classic that you expect to read and keep in your library permanently.
Alan and Naomi and The Work and the Glory films were all adapted from books. In what ways is it easier and harder to develop a pre-existing story and bring a book to life?
It’s only harder for the original author of the book. The book is merely a launching pad for a film script; in the technical sense, a good film script should be a travesty of the book. Joe Wright’s wonderful film of Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina is a good example.
Though The Work and the Glory was adapted from a novel, the story is set in historical fact, with real individuals people revere. As a member of the Church, what were some of your happiest moments working on the series?
As I said above, my happiest moments were working with screenwriter Matt Whitaker. It was a terrific challenge to take Gerald Lund’s prose and turn it into scenes that held together in a smooth narrative. There is so much history that Elder Lund covered, it was a real struggle to get the books restructured into a form that could be told dramatically in a hundred minutes. I thought Matt did a heroic job. I also loved working with the actors on the set, especially Jonathan Scarfe who played Joseph Smith, Raphael Sbarge who played Parley Pratt, and Father and Mother Steed (Sam Hennings and Brenda Strong). They were all serious actors who wanted to explore their characters in rehearsal and on set when we were shooting. I love the exploration—not knowing quite where you are going, but having wonderful collaborators to help each other find our way. I love surprises.
As a producer, what was it like for you when Geraldine Page won the Academy Award for her performance in Trip to Bountiful?
Very satisfying. Ms. Page said to me when we screened the film for her in New York, “Mr. Van Wagenen, go get me an Oscar.” And we did.
You have been an instructor for many years—what facets of teaching do you enjoy most?
As I said above, I love the exploration with the students. Knowing that we are on a journey of discovery together. Making mistakes, hitting dead ends, and then seeing them break through to another level. That still seems wonderful to me.
How have filmmaking and teaching helped bring you closer to Christ?
They haven’t. It’s the other way round. One draws closer to the Savior through prayer, scripture study, service, and sacrifice, in order to bring that dimension to the teaching and filmmaking. “Seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness …” “After ye have obtained a hope in Christ …”
How has the gospel shaped you as a storyteller?
For me, the restored gospel is the lens through which I see everything. Even so, as Paul said, “we see through a glass darkly.” Even with the light of the gospel, we need appropriate humility as we approach subjects for stories, whether books, people, or in our own imagination. It’s the Holy Ghost that enlivens our minds, illuminates the dark places of the human heart, draws us towards the things of eternity. We don’t do that on our own, and not only Latter-day Saints do it. There have been many gifted, sensitive filmmakers the Spirit has moved. It’s always good for me to remember, when I get too sure of myself, that, as the Savior said, “The wind bloweth where it listeth, and thou hearest the sound thereof, but canst not tell whence it cometh, and whither it goeth: so is every one that is born of the Spirit” (John 3:8). We should always seek for the Spirit, but we don’t try to manage it.
What would you like to conquer next?