Total Recall

Total Recall: Directors Who Made A Splash At Sundance

We look at 10 prominent filmmakers who got a big boost in Park City.

by | January 21, 2009 | Comments

This week, the Sundance Film Festival is in full swing. With that in mind, we decided to take a look at some of the prominent directors who’ve gotten some major breaks at America’s most important showcase for independent film. The snowy climes of Park City, UT, may seem to be an odd incubator for independent film, but Robert Redford’s brainchild remains one of the key places to get a first look at some of film’s most important voices.


The Coen brothers

The mid-1980s were a time of high-concept action pictures; “independent film” was practically a dirty word in the movie biz. But once in a while, a specialty picture would come along and announce that its makers were talents ready for the big time. Blood Simple was such a film; Joel and Ethan Coen’s debut was a highly original noir/crime thriller that proved there was a market for strong, original material from the underground, and took home the Grand Jury Prize at the 1985 Utah/U.S. Film Festival (rechristened Sundance in 1991), a key early accolade in the brothers’ illustrious career.


Jim Jarmusch

If the Coen brothers’ twisted take on crime cinema proved that indies could breathe new life into old genres, Jim Jarmusch’s Stranger Than Paradise showed that a film with a low budget could still aspire to the realm of high art. Stranger Than Paradise tells the deceptively simple tale of two New York scenesters and a young Hungarian woman on vacation; though this minimalist black and white film utilized single, static shots, and had the feel of a European arthouse flick, the only thing dry about Stranger Than Paradise was its wit. In addition to picking up a Special Jury Prize at Sundance, it inspired a number of independently-minded directors, and kicked off Jarmusch’s eccentric career; even the director’s relatively mainstream fare (Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai, Broken Flowers) was light years away from conventional.

Steven Soderbergh

By the late-1980s, Sundance had earned a reputation as a showcase for bright, original talent, but few of its entries entered the national consciousness. Steven Soderbergh’s sex, lies, and videotape changed that. Set in Baton Rouge, LA, the film details the troubled marriage of an upscale couple (Peter Gallagher and Andie MacDowell) — a bond that becomes more tenuous when an uninhibited old friend (James Spader) reenters their lives. sex, lies, and videotape won Sundance’s first Audience Award, and, with a big push from Miramax, became one of indie film’s first breakout hits. Ironically, though the film helped to put both Soderbergh and Sundance on the map, the director would have a falling out with Robert Redford; Soderbergh is now associated with Slamdance, another Park City festival that screens films by first-time filmmakers.


Richard Linklater

Many budding artists have a revelatory “I can do this too” moment; for Kevin Smith, and lots of other indie filmmakers, Slacker was the film that inspired them to make a movie. Richard Linklater’s second film was decidedly short on plot, but it resoundingly proved that long stretches of conversation could be thrilling; Slacker‘s collection of misfits and eccentrics proved irresistible to a new generation of independent directors — and freethinkers. Nominated for a Grand Jury Prize at Sundance in 1991, Slacker was a calling-card for one of American film’s most interesting voices — and the result has been such faves as School of Rock, Dazed and Confused, and Before Sunrise.

Quentin Tarantino

In its early years, Sundance was known for intimate character studies and quirky tales of Americana; profane, gun-toting diamond thieves weren’t generally considered acceptable fodder. So when Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs screened at the 1992 festival, it elicited some particularly strong reactions; some praised the director as a brilliant wunderkind, while others were repulsed by the film’s (sometimes gleeful) violence. The mixed reaction was ironic, since Reservoir Dogs was a Sundance film through-and through; Tarantino had work shopped the film at the institute’s labs. The result was a movie that helped to expand the definition of what an independent film could be.


Robert Rodriguez

Robert Rodriguez epitomizes the Sundance success story. His first feature, El Mariachi, was shot for an unheard-of $7,000 (Rodriguez helped finance the movie by participating in an experimental test for a cholesterol drug), and it continues to embody the festival’s against-all-odds spirit. Rodriguez has maintained an independent streak ever since; even his high-profile projects, like Once Upon a Time in Mexico and Sin City, were largely shot in his home base of Austin, and, like El Mariachi, have an infectious energy and remarkable look and feel despite costing much less than most films made in Hollywood.

Bryan Singer

The 1993 Sundance Film Festival was a heady time for future X-Men and Superman Returns director Bryan Singer. Not only did he pick up the Grand Jury Prize for his low-budget thriller Public Access, but the germ for his breakout hit, The Usual Suspects, originated when he and co-scripter Christopher McQuarrie discussed McQuarrie’s loose idea for the story. Public Access is the tale of a drifter who decides to host a cable show in the seemingly idyllic town of Brewster; the show quickly becomes a one-stop shop for citizen discontent, and it becomes clear there are sinister undercurrents just below the surface.


Kevin Smith

The world of indie film is full of outsized personalities, but few made a bigger splash on the scene than Kevin Smith. His debut, the micro-budgeted Clerks, was filmed at the convenience store where Smith toiled, and he captured the speech patterns and daily rhythms of over-educated, underemployed slackers with remarkable clarity. Smith picked up a Filmmakers Trophy for his effort — pretty impressive for a spiritedly profane black and white feature financed by maxing out his credit cards.

Wes Anderson

The Sundance shorts program has spawned a number of talented filmmakers; few, however, have made as big a splash as Wes Anderson. Bottle Rocket began life as a 13-minute short, and follows Dignan (Owen Wilson) and Anthony (Luke Wilson) as they execute a not-so-daring robbery. The short caught the attention of James L. Brooks, who discovered that Owen Wilson and Anderson had written the script for a feature. Though the full-length version would not screen at Sundance (to Anderson’s disappointment), it proved to be a cult favorite, and set the tone for Anderson’s eccentric later work, most notably Rushmore and The Royal Tenenbaums.


Christopher Nolan

Park City has been good to The Dark Knight‘s helmer. His first feature, Following, was an award-winner at Slamdance in 1999. Two years later, with Memento, Nolan proved he was ready for the big time. This non-linear tale of a man searching for his wife’s killers while battling a strange type of amnesia picked up a Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award at Sundance in 2001. However, despite warm feelings, a number of distributors passed on the film, concerned it was too confusing to be embraced by audiences. The film’s production company, Newmarket, decided to distribute the film itself, and the result was an immediate cult hit — one that generated feverish debate and made Nolan a director to watch.


Check out the rest of our Total Recall archives here.

Finally, here’s an excerpt from a documentary about the Sundance Labs, which has cultivated a number of innovative filmmakers:

Tag Cloud

critic resources Creative Arts Emmys OWN Image Comics dexter popular NBC The Academy indie Discovery Channel miniseries Trophy Talk Sundance Now robots ABC Family aapi Fox News directors Trailer Kids & Family Britbox Funimation Apple TV+ cinemax Musicals comedies Extras USA docudrama science fiction monster movies vampires The Purge theme song suspense Winter TV TLC teaser cancelled television TV movies natural history Black Mirror screen actors guild 72 Emmy Awards Dark Horse Comics Tags: Comedy Video Games serial killer zero dark thirty hidden camera DC Universe 4/20 93rd Oscars archives Paramount james bond high school San Diego Comic-Con Infographic Universal Summer Watching Series OneApp ITV foreign docuseries TCA Binge Guide Rocky Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt Superheroes live action action-comedy Columbia Pictures Esquire DC streaming service Turner reviews kaiju FXX AMC Ovation Polls and Games live event Pop australia El Rey Star Wars Hulu Epix crime drama dogs MSNBC 2020 based on movie Mindy Kaling what to watch justice league sopranos binge marvel comics MCU CBS All Access 78th Annual Golden Globe Awards emmy awards anime Rock screenings nbcuniversal Exclusive Video 2019 Chernobyl HFPA Paramount Plus Black History Month Lucasfilm space Sci-Fi movie adaptation Spike marvel cinematic universe Hallmark elevated horror VICE BBC One New York Comic Con Horror 2016 series Sneak Peek PaleyFest Warner Bros. IMDb TV The CW Election TV renewals Tomatazos Disney streaming service Academy Awards chucky posters 79th Golden Globes Awards DGA Women's History Month MTV Opinion canceled TV shows laika PlayStation gangster mockumentary Comedy trailers twilight CNN leaderboard Premiere Dates biopic scene in color 90s wonder woman Hear Us Out Martial Arts IFC joker movies anthology video period drama adventure target IFC Films Crunchyroll superhero talk show comic Nickelodeon Netflix Christmas movies sequels all-time ID Nominations new york hispanic American Society of Cinematographers Alien Cartoon Network Hollywood Foreign Press Association ESPN pirates of the caribbean die hard cooking Travel Channel 2021 Prime Video singing competition cancelled TCA 2017 crime thriller genre spanish language President Pirates Superheroe versus batman true crime TV Land Marvel Studios king kong Netflix TCA Winter 2020 news Lifetime Christmas movies child's play 24 frames Television Academy spy thriller 20th Century Fox rt labs critics edition deadpool social media Lionsgate Pride Month Christmas Tubi blaxploitation venice dragons south america finale scorecard TV One boxoffice Disney thriller Vudu documentary Disney Channel YouTube police drama dreamworks strong female leads ABC WGN Amazon Pixar nfl comic book movies DirecTV ratings cancelled TV shows concert name the review Nat Geo comic books Masterpiece Character Guide Mary Poppins Returns Apple TV Plus Film japanese fast and furious HBO Go Instagram Live cartoon Arrowverse Song of Ice and Fire Photos YouTube Red National Geographic video on demand royal family documentaries PBS ghosts BAFTA diversity scary YA Tarantino Fall TV Turner Classic Movies Rocketman 2015 2018 spanish fresh Elton John television Star Trek kong ABC Signature worst spain CBS Classic Film Bravo jamie lee curtis new zealand Pet Sematary travel Shudder Tokyo Olympics witnail cults indiana jones criterion quibi free movies Comedy Central Holiday biography Super Bowl golden globes E3 Interview Mudbound boxing Adult Swim Awards satire Red Carpet films Oscars Animation legend book adaptation TCA Awards worst movies Amazon Studios Brie Larson TruTV Paramount Network Television Critics Association Country Hallmark Christmas movies X-Men Marvel Pop TV FX on Hulu remakes Year in Review mob asian-american Podcast supernatural football transformers Pacific Islander werewolf casting spider-man LGBTQ rom-coms stand-up comedy Captain marvel Family blockbusters Western cops breaking bad black comedy YouTube Premium superman book 1990s Mary poppins TCM TNT women BBC disaster Neflix The Arrangement Baby Yoda art house slasher Peacock classics slashers game of thrones Amazon Prime Video toy story doctor who Fargo sitcom spider-verse crime rt labs festivals war BBC America 2017 halloween BET new star wars movies NBA Universal Pictures Ellie Kemper GoT Ghostbusters Cannes heist movie Box Office mutant Sony Pictures japan blockbuster cancelled TV series 73rd Emmy Awards rotten movies we love Mystery GIFs SXSW romantic comedy streaming movies Lifetime Certified Fresh Endgame renewed TV shows french Teen psycho Avengers A24 sequel halloween tv First Look Acorn TV USA Network spinoff Shondaland critics cats hist Emmys dark debate feel good Valentine's Day 71st Emmy Awards Chilling Adventures of Sabrina Action Cosplay prank rotten APB Spectrum Originals zombies A&E Sundance Reality Competition young adult The Walt Disney Company stop motion trophy Walt Disney Pictures mission: impossible Spring TV christmas movies hollywood GLAAD unscripted nature Broadway Musical 45 Countdown composers Mary Tyler Moore comics comic book movie sag awards Crackle olympics Starz dc crossover jurassic park political drama tv talk TV Disney Plus The Witch facebook RT21 TBS Legendary TIFF hispanic heritage month telelvision dceu canceled lord of the rings franchise Fantasy Schedule LGBT dramedy game show Stephen King green book mcc HBO Max Toys Thanksgiving golden globe awards Calendar discovery sports Emmy Nominations Best and Worst latino independent Comics on TV rt archives Showtime parents Logo History streaming razzies Disney+ Disney Plus CMT aliens stoner Set visit Comic-Con@Home 2021 Film Festival Rom-Com Fox Searchlight RT History black VH1 WarnerMedia king arthur toronto zombie SDCC HBO best reboot children's TV a nightmare on elm street kids obituary Anna Paquin Apple romance Awards Tour Quiz historical drama scary movies Heroines Comic Book harry potter cars Music Grammys Freeform psychological thriller E! vs. Reality ViacomCBS Winners revenge NYCC Trivia CW Seed richard e. Grant FX adenture AMC Plus Marathons Food Network First Reviews Syfy Writers Guild of America Biopics universal monsters 007 godzilla international The Walking Dead festival animated award winner VOD Amazon Prime Sundance TV saw Marvel Television DC Comics Wes Anderson basketball italian medical drama See It Skip It know your critic Drama 21st Century Fox 99% comiccon Tumblr SundanceTV BET Awards technology politics FOX Holidays