Robert Redford recently did something not so unusual for him. He hung out with his pal Paul Newman.
But what was different: He did it for a documentary to air on Sundance Channel, the cable network he founded but seldom appears on.
As the season finale of “Iconoclasts,” this hour-long portrait sticks to the format of the five that came before. It brings together a pair of innovators from different creative fields for one to serve as an admiring guide into the world of the other. Like chef Mario Batali on rocker Michael Stipe. Actress Renee Zellweger on correspondent Christiane Amanpour.
Or Redford on Newman beyond his role as screen legend. It premieres 10 p.m. ET Thursday (with additional play dates).
“It was never going to be ‘The Paul and Bob Show,”’ says Redford, who also executive-produced the series. “Instead, the idea of me presenting a friend who was also a colleague to speak about what inspired him — his salad-dressing company, his racing interests, his camp for children — those were areas that I thought were worthy of attention.
“And I thought maybe some day he can turn around and present me, and let me talk about Sundance,” says Redford, adding an affectionate gibe — “which he probably won’t do.”
Redford, who at 68 still looks terrific — a craggier version of the golden boy in jeans and denim shirt whose reign as superstar began four decades ago — will be on TV in another capacity this month. He will be saluted (along with Tony Bennett, Suzanne Farrell, Julie Harris and Tina Turner) on “The 28th Annual Kennedy Center Honors,” which, taped a couple of weeks ago, airs Dec. 27 at 9 p.m. ET on CBS.
Looking to the futureBut, sitting down with a reporter not long ago, he makes clear that his sights are fixed on 2006, when his Sundance mission will mark a couple of gratifying milestones: a decade for Sundance Channel, and a nice, round quarter-century for the Sundance Institute, the nonprofit organization dedicated to developing artists of independent vision and exhibiting their work.
“Sundance was started as a mechanism for the discovery of new voices and new talent,” Redford explains in an easy, confiding manner. It was his response to concern in the late 1970s that movies were narrowing their focus: too commercially driven, too beholden to the youth market.
Even then, at the height of his star power (with hits like “Three Days of the Condor,” “All the President’s Men” and his Oscar-winning directing debut for “Ordinary People”) he recognized that, all too soon, there might not be a call for the kind of films he liked to make. Or, for that matter, liked to see.
“When I started Sundance it was just to be a lab to give filmmakers a place to come and work, set on a small part of 5,000 acres of land I had bought in Utah to preserve,” he says.
Innovative films emerged there, just as he had hoped: “Putting art against nature produces something really positive.”
But what then? How would anybody see them? A Sundance film festival seemed the answer, and in 1985 it began in Park City, Utah.
“The first years, no one came,” says Redford, flashing a grin at the memory. “I was literally standing in the street hawking it like a circus barker: ‘Come on in and see the show!’
“But when films that came out of the festival started to succeed — ‘sex, lies and videotape’ and others — Sundance suddenly became a scene: The merchants came, then they brought the stars in to promote the films. Then the paparazzi came. Then the fashion people. All these tiers started to build out,” competing for attention and sometimes clashing with the festival’s original purpose.
At risk of falling victim to its own success, the festival confronted a new challenge: “I realized we’ve got a lot of work to do here, reminding people that nothing’s changed from Day One.”
There has been no change in the mission, Redford stresses. Just new ways to pursue it.
In 1996, Sundance Channel (a for-profit venture now partnered with NBC Universal and Showtime Networks) signed on under Redford’s creative direction. His concept: “To duplicate for TV the experience I saw working for those 10 days each winter.”
From Jan. 20 to 29, Sundance Channel’s schedule will include daily reports from the 2006 Sundance Film Festival as well as other related fare.
But the channel is more than a festival adjunct. Or a movie channel. As a commercial-free network with 23.1 million subscribers, it targets an audience much broader than film fanatics, with eclectic offerings beyond its uncut feature films and documentaries.
“The viewers we are going after see themselves as independent thinkers, and as some combination of creative and thought leaders,” says Sundance Channel president Larry Aidem. “Our programming delivers on that.”
Redford sees television as playing “a huge role in our future.” And the Internet, too? “Absolutely.”
Even so, he retains a fundamental faith in the communal viewing experience. After stumbling a few years ago with an attempt to establish a chain of cinemas, Sundance will soon be opening theaters across the country: a national, year-round outreach by the Sundance Festival.
Redford believes that, by offering creative, exploratory work to its audience, any Sundance outlet (theaters, TV or even the Sundance Catalog, where handmade art and crafts can be purchased) cross-pollinates rather than cannibalizes. It furthers the mission on multiple fronts.
“Years ago, I had an idea so clear in my head,” he says — “like a perfectly drawn picture of what it would look like, feel like, sound like. And you want it right then! But things don’t work that way. Particularly when you’re trying something new.”
That’s one sample of Redford’s hard-won wisdom. Another: “How much of my time this was going to take. I wanted to see Sundance through, and make sure it wasn’t corrupted or derailed. But my own work did suffer in the last two decades. Whereas in the ’70s I would make sometimes three films in a year, and was having a wonderful time, I made just three or four films in the entire 1980s.”
He has picked up the pace a bit since then, but, now, as the institute observes its 25th anniversary he’s poised to throw himself back into acting. No fewer than three films are in development, including one that would reunite him on-screen with his co-star from “The Sting,” the 80-year-old Newman, and another, a Jackie Robinson biopic, in which he would play baseball executive Branch Rickey.
No surprise, then, if he feels it’s just a bit premature to get that Kennedy Center life-achievement award.
“You’re flattered, you’re honored. But there’s a lot to be done yet. Retirement’s not an option for me, never would be,” insists this ageless golden boy. “It’s too early to be bronzed.”