By Lynn Venhaus

At the 27th Annual Sundance Film Festival, my two sons, Tim and Charlie, and I, were accepted as ushers for the fest. We had never been. They stayed for the duration, I was only there for a week. Tim called it the greatest time of his life — he saw 23 movies in 11 days, worked those screenings around his volunteer shifts. We look back on that time fondly. We were asked back – that doesn’t always happen, so we were grateful. But Charlie had moved to New York City two weeks after Sundance and began a career in advertising, and Tim returned to school to obtain a bachelor’s degree in cinema production. We’ve kept up with friends we made there, and are grateful we had that experience. I told Tim that I wanted to go back when he had a film accepted there — and that was a fun goal, but that dream died when he did, in 2018. I can go back as a film journalist. Just don’t know if I will. Here are my thoughts from that time — I wrote a blog for the Belleville News-Democrat website on that time, brought my laptop to the volunteer lounge to put my thoughts together every day. This is the first one. I hope I can find the others, but this is a good start that encapsulates the first few days.

DATELINE: SUNDANCE FILM FESTIVAL, DAY ONE

Opening Night, Jan. 20, 2011

Italian director and fellow Sundance rookie Roberta Torre sat next to me on the shuttle as we looped around snow-covered but well-manicured Park City, Utah, late Thursday night. Her first submission for the World Cinema Dramatic Competition, “Lost Kisses,” would screen Friday.

Her previous work – a musical on the Mafia – had been at Venice and Cannes, but as Sundance is synonymous with risk-taking and exciting emerging filmmakers, this satire focusing on a 13-year-old girl’s vision and a statue of the Blessed Virgin Mary is one of 115 features that will be screened during the 10-day festival. (Update: Her film was a Grand Jury Prize nominee).

Every January, this old silver mining town in the shadow of the Rockies becomes a mecca for movie lovers from around the globe and the epicenter of the entertainment business. Lives change overnight – filmmakers fortunate to strike a chord with a Hollywood mogul in the audience can depart with a multi-million deal. Ever hear of “Little Miss Sunshine” and “Reservoir Dogs”? Household names and unknowns with a dream vie to be the toast of the town.

But the ideals on which the festival began hold true today. Robert Redford, president and founder of the Sundance Institute, summed it up this way in our program:

I’ve always believed that our best chance to understand the world around us comes in the form of stories and, in particular, stories that represent a unique perspective and are told with an authentic voice. So my first and continued hope for the Sundance Film Festival is the same: to provide a vital platform for these kinds of stories and a community for these kinds of artists. And because a film is not complete until it finds its audience, the film lovers who join our community each January are key to making this platform vital.”

Then he told us to be careful crossing the streets.

The local newspaper referred to the fest as “controlled chaos” and residents say it’s their shot to ski without any lines at the three nearby resorts.

Charlie, Tim and Lynn Venhaus


But it’s unlike anything I’ve experienced. This year, my two sons and I are working as ushers.

We’re among the 1,670 volunteers who help make this the premier fest in the U.S. celebrating independent cinema. Upon our arrive from Salt Lake City, we were handed hats, scarves, gloves, water bottles, transit maps, grub stubs (free food at designated restaurants), movie ticket vouchers, credentials, and thick film guides.

Since our selection the first week of December, we’ve been training online, and now have the hands-on details.

Everyone has been so incredibly helpful and friendly, from helping us navigate the free bus routes to advice on drinking lots of water. And those who are in charge are supremely organized.  It’s a marvel to observe how it all comes together.

Besides a full-time year-round staff, the festival relies on volunteers for a multitude of tasks. Every fall, 3,000 apply, they fill the slots with returning volunteers first, then pick newbies for remaining slots.

We met interesting folks from around the world at our volunteer kick-off party – an Australian bartender, a student from Brazil, a Spanish filmmaker who’s on our theatre team, an aspiring actress from L.A., a Kentucky housewife, a bus driver from Canada, a Cornell grad who runs an event-planning business, an Oregon artist, and a former St. Louisan who never comes back.

Six of 10 volunteers are from Utah. They sure love their state. What’s not to love about the clean, crisp air and wide-open spaces with breathtakingly gorgeous views of the mountains? Park City is 800 feet higher elevation than Salt Lake City, so the weather pattern in the valley is totally separate.

We’re all here for various reasons but we have at least one thing in common: We love movies. To show their appreciation, the festival staff screened the comedy “Submarine” strictly for us volunteers Thursday night. We were jam-packed into the theater, and you could have heard a pin drop – everyone was enthralled. And most everyone stayed in their seats after applauding to read the credits.

The welcoming programmer spoke of the feeling of ‘community’ every year at the fest, and you sense a strong cool vibe too, but it is comparable to a summer camp or old home week – old friends connecting.

What a delightful movie to start the fest with (more on that later), but we will be hearing about this charming, clever coming-of-age tale. Remember the protagonist’s name: Craig Roberts.

The movies that create the biggest buzz here probably won’t arrive in St. Louis until the summer or fall – if past years are any indication.

Last year’s Sundance introduced St. Louisan Davis Guggenheim’s “Waiting for Superman,” which is now considered a leading contender in the Oscar category for best documentary.

And the dramatic jury prize winner “Winter’s Bone” has received numerous nominations and year-end critics’ awards.

The major (and minor) celebrities supposedly arrive on the weekend, and Main Street becomes this wall-to-wall place to be seen.

And if that’s not enough excitement, trying to spot James Franco or Demi Moore, the Westboro Church based in Topeka, Kansas, plans to protest Kevin Smith’s new horror film “Red State,” starring John Goodman, on Saturday afternoon.

A ruggedly handsome lad working at the lodge where volunteers got their groove on Wednesday night told me: “Get ready for an incredible journey.”

Toto, I don’t think we’re in Kansas anymore.

By Lynn Venhaus
Actor-filmmaker-founder of Sundance Film Institute Robert Redford turned 85 today! (Aug. 18).

He has been a major part of my film-going life, first as an actor, then making smart movies, and then deciding storytelling would be his life’s work through honoring independent films in Utah.

“Storytellers broaden our minds: engage, provoke, inspire, and ultimately, connect us,” he once said.

He has changed the film industry and changed lives.

Early on, he broke the mold in Hollywood and carved out a career on his own terms, living far from the celebrity life in Utah, raising a family and becoming an environmental activist.

He turned the perception of a ‘golden boy’ into an exploration of culture and society’s roles/expectations. (His movie, “Quiz Show” is rarely mentioned, but go back, and what he says about the American Dream — great work by Ralph Fiennes and John Turturro).

My sister Julie and I rushed to every one of his film openings in the 1970s after “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” (when I was in high school), then hit after hit — “The Sting,” “The Way We Were,” “Three Days of the Condor,” “The Candidate” and “Jeremiah Johnson,” among them.

He was born to play the tortured hero Jay in “The Great Gatsby,” starring opposite Mia Farrow in the 1974 adaptation that did not measure up to expectations.

My boys used to give me DVDs of his work for Mother’s Days (and paired “The Natural” one time with “Serial Mom” — yep, that’s my John Waters’ loving son Tim’s idea of humor).

Hubbell Gardiner in “The Way We Were”

He gave us the definitive investigative journalism movie “All the President’s Men,” one of my all-time favorites and inspirations, explaining how the press changed the course of history in our country’s politics.

For his only competitive Oscar, he turned the bestselling book “Ordinary People” into an honest and painful study on families and grief in 1980.

I watched it again a couple months ago, and wow, does it resonate. Mary Tyler Moore, Donald Sutherland and Timothy Hutton turn in some of their finest work. I will argue its value to anyone who wants to fight me on this.

His intelligence behind the baby blues, his sharp observations on human behavior — obvious early on in a remarkable filmography.

He only works sparingly in front of the camera these days, but I think he still has it – particularly in “The Old Man and the Gun” with Sissy Spacek,” “A Walk in the Woods” with Nick Nolte, and his solo tour de force “All is Lost.”

Robert Redford and Paul Newman

He has never been afraid to be a flawed anti-hero (“Downhill Racer”) or an all-out bad guy (spoiler alert: “Captain America: The Winter Soldier.”)

The on-screen pairings have been high points — so memorable as Denys with Meryl Streep in “Out of Africa.”

A good move was working with Brad Pitt in “Spy Game,” and he coaxed a career-best performance (at the time) from Pitt in “A River Runs Through It,” which he directed and narrated.

Of course, the pinnacle was his work with Paul Newman, and thus, the buddy movie was born.

And three films with Jane Fonda, They both started out on stage in the late 1950s and worked early together on film when he reprised his role as Paul in “Barefoot in the Park.” Then, reunited in “The Electric Horseman” in 1979 and “Our Souls at Night” in 2017.

In the Natalie Wood documentary, “What Remains Behind,” he is one of the commentators and remained a close friend, after they made two films together (“Inside Daisy Clover” and “This Property is Condemned” in the ’60s), before he exploded as a superstar. She, in turn, showed up in a cameo in “The Candidate.”

Roy Hobbs in “The Natural”

For a while in the 1990s, he experienced a screen ‘renaissance’ — “The Horse Whisperer,” “Indecent Proposal,” “Up Close and Personal” and “Sneakers.”

He will always be Hubbell Gardiner and Roy Hobbs to me, masterful screen portraits of complicated guys.

Cases in point:
Hubbell’s college writing: “In a way he was like the country he lived in — everything came to easily to him. But at least he knew it.

“Roy in hospital: “God, I love baseball.”
“There goes Roy Hobbs, the best there ever was in this game.”

Meryl’s Karen in “Out of Africa”: “When the gods want to punish you, they answer your prayers.”

And this:(Robert Redford) “You’ve ruined it for me, you know.”(Meryl Streep) “Ruined what?”(Robert Redford) “Being alone.”

You see all these being said, don’t you?

And of course, the “Be a Beacon” speech in “Sneakers.”
https://youtu.be/2q2iQC-4wbA

What great timing!

Thank you, Mr. Redford, for the memories and your lasting impact.

(On a Related Note: In January 2011, my two sons and I made the cut to be volunteer ushers at the Sundance Film Festival. It was a highlight of my life, and sharing it with my movie-loving boys was very special. Tim described it as the greatest two weeks of his life, and he saw something like 23-24 movies in 11 days).

Charlie, Lynn and Tim Venhaus, Sundance 2011