Many groundbreaking LGBT-themed films, such as Longtime Companion, Paris Is Burning, and The Living End, first garnered attention after screening at the Sundance Film Festival, which begins today in Park City, Utah. Organized with the assistance of superstar Robert Redford, who still serves as Sundance president, to attract filmmakers to Utah, the festival is now a coveted place to launch new films and for independent filmmakers to seek distribution. John Cooper, who has also served as programming director for Los Angeles’s Outfest, has watched firsthand as LGBT cinema came of age. Since 1989, Cooper has been instrumental in the success and worldwide recognition of the annual cinematic showcase each January. Cooper tells The Advocate about witnessing the changing mainstream reaction to queer cinema, notable gay films to seek out at this year’s festival, and how Redford supports LGBT films.
The Advocate: What was the first gay-themed film you remember seeing?
John Cooper: I vividly remember Making Love, but I was already in high school. Before that I saw a made-for-TV movie called called Alexander: The Other Side of Dawn, which was a sequel Dawn: Portrait of a Runaway, about a teenage runaway that starred Eve Plumb, and there was a sequel. I remember there was a scene on the beach and they were playing football and the sexuality was just up-front. Maybe it was just me. [Laughs] I also remember watching The Children’s Hour with Shirley MacLaine and Audrey Hepburn. My mother let me watch pretty much whatever I wanted on television. There was a lot of hidden subtext in films in those days.
You've been with Sundance since 1989. How have you seen reaction to LGBT films change over the years?
It shocked me when Longtime Companion won the audience award. I expected a lot of people to walk out, but it became a big hit. And that was in 1990. It connected with people emotionally. I think the strength of LGBT films is if they connect emotionally with audiences, then the sexual orientation of the characters doesn’t matter.
What are some of the LGBT-themed films that were first shown at Sundance?
The Times of Harvey Milk and Parting Glances. My first year there it was Longtime Companion. My second year there was Poison, Swoon,Orlando, Silverlake Life, The Living End. I’m pretty sure we showed every Gregg Araki movie at Sundance. That was one of the first AIDS-themed films I saw.
And it helped launch the new queer cinema movement.
Yes, Ruby Rich! She actually said that at a Sundance panel. She said it in such a provocative way that we just started calling it that. It was a very organic thing that happened.
Were LGBT films seen as a novelty before that?
Maybe a little in the beginning. One thing we insisted on doing is never making gay films into a sidebar. We decided to treat LGBT films just like all the others. It was absolutely the right choice.
As a gay man, do you feel an obligation to showcase a particular number of LGBT-themed films, regardless of quality?
I have no agenda about programming. I’d be done if I had an agenda. We talk about that with the programmers. You have to stay really clean. You don’t help anyone if you show films that aren’t good enough. That’s not to say that every film at Sundance is perfect.
During particular years, do you find common themes among LGBT films submitted to the festival?
Oh, sure. There were the coming-out stories. There are films about the first time having sex with boys, the first time having sex with girls. For a while people were wondering if we were stuck in our teen years and if there were other stories we could tell. Then we switched it up with Hedwig and the Angry Inch and The Delta. Then there were films that explored the dark side like Swoon and Frisk, which was a very unpopular movie at the time. I had to stand on the stage and take the slings and arrows of that film. I had to say that there was a filmmaker out there who made it and it wasn’t for me to decide if it was wrong. You just show it and let the audience decide. It became a battle among people in the audience. I was glad to be out of that fray and just let them fight with each other. I find that a success.
What was the impact of the Queer Lounge, which had a presence at Sundance from 2004 until 2010?
For me, it was always a little odd the way it was positioned as “finally a safe place for gay people at Sundance.” I was like, “Come on, people, it’s never been unsafe.” They should have just said it’s a place with free drinks. They were trying to sell it as this haven that didn’t exist in a world that was cruel. There was a queer party every year at Sundance that became famous as the party you waited for. You couldn’t even get into it if you weren’t gay. In the early years people actually came out to the industry by attending that party. I’d see people there and think, Oh, my God! That big executive from that company is gay? I had no idea. I was probably very naive. But Sundance has always had this fun gayness to it.
Does Robert Redford see all the films that are shown there?
He doesn’t see them beforehand like we do, but he tries to see them at the festival. Throughout the year I talk to him about films he’s caught up with, but he’s not part of the programming process at all.
I’m curious what he thinks of a film like Frisk or Paris Is Burning.
He’s always been completely supportive. He’s such a free spirit. He’s from the rebel generation. He’s always said we can show anything as long as it’s good. He’s never political about it. There was one time I told him about a film and it was kind of tense — I think it was Frisk — and he said, “Well, you’ve got to show that film.” He’s a good person to have at the helm. He’s very clear and knows the general guidelines for being successful artistically and culturally, which is to not back down and not pull punches. He would never not support something I did, regardless of how crazy I get. And I have gotten crazy a few times. We get push-back from weird, strange organizations. When I was at Outfest I used to get death threats through the fax machine.
Have the people who complain or protest actually seen the films they're angry about?
No, they never see the films, they’ve just heard about them. That’s what’s sad. I would love to have a dialogue about the film. They sometimes pick on the film that’s sweet and innocuous. I always think, Really? After all the films I’ve shown you’re catching me on this one? Come on!
Which films do you think will resonate with LGBT audiences this year?
There are films that will resonate with females, gay and straight, because there are a lot of women directors. That’s something that’s been growing over the years. There are a lot of women in big strong leading roles carrying in the films. Among straight-up gay films, there’s Ira Sachs’s Keep the Lights On.Young & Wild is a very sexually driven film set in an evangelical family in Chile, I think. Among documentaries, How to Survive a Plague is incredible. Meet Me at the Zoo will have a lot of energy because of Chris Crocker. [Laughs] There’s apparently nothing else to do in that small town except date Chris Crocker.
For more information on the festival, click here, and for more on the LGBT films at Sundance, click here.