Magazine article Variety

Before Sundance

Magazine article Variety

Before Sundance

Article excerpt

In 1991, 21-year-old Ethan Hawke was shivering in the woods of Park City, Utah, playing a sergeant in the small World War II drama "A Midnight Clear," when thousands of people suddenly invaded town.

"That was the first time I'd ever heard of the Sundance Film Festival," says Hawke today. "I thought, 'Aw, this will never work.'"

The indie film revolution hadn't happened, but it was about to. That week, while Hawke strapped on a helmet and tromped through the slush, Richard Linklater premiered an experiment called "Slacker." "Some wacky kid made a punk rock movie that beat the system," says Hawke. "It was an event. You had to see it."

Hawke was inspired to direct. "I was suspicious of my ability to sustain an acting career," he admits. So he spent his "Dead Poets Society" salary shooting his first short, a 21-minute romance named "Straight to One," and submitted it to the 1994 Sundance, now that he knew what it was. "Straight to One" got in - as did his other movie that year, the Ben Stiller-directed "Reality Bites." Hawke had to dash from the scrappy shorts section to wave at his big premiere. Afterward, he and friend Steve Zahn rode up a ski lift to stare at the limitless horizon. "It was an awesome moment," says Hawke. "My whole life as an actor was changing for the better.

"At that time, I was Captain Snow Actor," laughs Hawke, the guy then best known for retching tears into the ice outside "Dead Poets Society's" Welton Academy and nearly freezing to death in "White Fang," "A Midnight Clear" and, of course, the cannibal survival pic "Alive." Now, being in the Utah snow meant he was one of the cool kids of indie film - though "I'm sure they were making 'Alive' jokes behind my back."

No matter. The next year, "Before Sunrise" opened Sundance, hailing the Hawke and Linklater partnership that would help define the festival's next two decades with such films as "Waking Life," "Boyhood" and the "Before" trilogy.

Today, Hawke's a Sundance veteran. (Variety is honoring him with its Indie Impact Award on at a private dinner Jan. 20 with his cast at the AT&T/DirectTV space on Main and Heber.) Or rather, a Sundance survivor.

One festival, he and horror producer Jason Blum jumped into a car to do snow donuts. Hawke wasn't wearing a coat or shoes, and neither man had a cellphone. They drove out to a middle-of-nowhere field, spun around a few times, and got stuck. "At first it was funny," says Hawke. There were "Alive" jokes. …

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