Park City Utah: The Ideal Cinematic Backdrop for Sundance
I don’t ski (shocker... I know) and I’m not Mormon (Quick! someone grab a defibrillator) so Utah hasn’t necessarily been high on my travel priority list. Truth be told, my curiosity about Salt Lake City and Utah in general didn’t pique until I started watching HBO’s Big Love in 2006. Even though I was a huge fan, I took my “education” on fundamentalist Mormonism from a fictitious television show with a grain of salt. That being said, when Mitt Romney started his 2008 political campaign for the Republican Presidential nomination and more significantly (arguably) when Julie Stoffer from Brigham Young University was cast on The Real World: New Orleans circa 2010; Utah really got on my radar. So naturally, when the opportunity to go to Sundance for work arrived, I was doubly thrilled.
As a lover of independent film, it has always been a dream of mine to go to the Sundance Film Festival. Admittedly, once upon a time that dream involved me starring in a gritty drama written and directed by Hollywood’s next experimental genius for which I’d be contractually obligated to go and promote the project. I’d happily take the opportunity to discuss in interviews along the red carpet the challenges I faced in transforming myself into such an emotionally bankrupt human being. By then, I would have lost the 30 pounds I gained for the role, and lasered away any evidence left behind from not using zit cream or an exfoliant for 6 months of shooting. At the end of the festival, decked out in designer duds, I’d be all “shock and awe” while accepting my Sundance Breakout Star Award and later before falling asleep that night, I’d count visions of mini Oscars dancing in a halo around my head.
All joking aside, for the stars of Sundance this is not a dream, it’s their reality, and even though my dreams have shifted over the years, I couldn’t stop myself from getting carried away by the magic of film making—bearing witness to a creative energy that imbued the entire atmosphere.
Perhaps it was being 7,000 feet above sea level that made the beauty of Park City, Utah go straight to me head. Judging from the picturesque mountain cabins surrounded by evergreen and spruce trees laden with snow, I can easily understand why Forbes Traveler Magazine included Park City in its 2008 Top 20 list of “Prettiest Towns in America.” For this former New York City dweller now converted Los Angeleno, I couldn’t contain my childlike giddiness while watching snowflakes the size of quarters gently fall upon me—snowflakes that amounted to 70 inches over the course of my trip! Whatever the case, I completely understand why Park City serves as the ideal cinematic backdrop for Sundance, not to mention the training ground for the United States Ski Team as well as other winter sports enthusiast who consider Park City slopes to be some of the best in the world. The city even hosted portions of the 2002 Winter Olympics.
I’ve already mentioned the winter sports such as world-class skiing and snowboarding, but apparently Park City summers are not to be missed either. The slopes turn into the ideal mountain bike trails and water slides under the summer sun. People enjoy golfing and a surplus of gorgeous hiking trails in the fresh mountain air all year round. However, the major tourist attraction is the Sundance Film Festival.
Founded in 1978 by Robert Redford and Sterling Van Wagenen, the first festival featured such notable movie classics as A Streetcar Named Desire, Deliverance and Midnight Cowboy. With an expressed desire to bring the film industry to Utah, the festival was designed to promote independent American-made film separate from the Hollywood machine while facilitating healthy competition and dialogue amongst experts and unknown practitioners of the art. In nearly 40 years Sundance has become the largest independent film festival in the US. Now there is the Sundance Institute, the Sundance Movie Theater chain, the Sundance Store as well as the Sundance Television Channel. Filmmakers from all over the world submit their projects in hopes of becoming apart of this prestigious festival often going on to win Oscars and other highly regarded prizes. Not only do these thought-provoking and imaginative movies challenge conventional methods of filmmaking, they by in large shape our collective opinion of what quality cinema should be. Exceptional story telling with unlikely heroes and heroines attempting to reveal something new about humanity as a whole seems to be at the heart of every Sundance selection, and although some are more successful than others, the intention is ubiquitous.
Getting tickets can be a rather complicated process involving package deals, credentials, and time slots for selecting which movies you want to see. Make sure you don’t miss your 30-minute window for selecting or you might not get the movies you want. In the event that you do miss your time, don’t despair, there are waiting lists and plenty of people selling extra tickets on the line. Because the environment is so fast paced and schedules are always changing, I saw this happen time and time again. I even sold tickets myself.
There are incredible documentaries, shorts and feature-link films to choose from with Q&A’s immediately following the screenings. I thoroughly enjoyed the 5 films I was able to get tickets for including the incomparable Patti Cake$ starring Australian actress Danielle MacDonald who plays a plus-sized white rapper from the dregs of New Jersey. In Brook Barnes New York Times review, the director of Sundance John Cooper said, “Not since Jennifer Lawrence have I seen a star like this.” I was also moved by the documentary Quest, which chronicled the lives of a South Philadelphia family for 10 years who experienced great hardship and tragedy. Despite their circumstances they found purpose in healing their community through music. I had the rare opportunity to thank the family who was present for the Q&A for granting us access into their lives and sharing their intimate struggles. It’s those opportunities that make the festival so uniquely special.
Over the years Sundance has become much more than strictly a film festival. Between the virtual reality cafes providing people with the chance to experience the latest entertainment technology to the ASCAP Music Cafe where nearly 30 well known artists give concerts throughout the day, there is so much to do and see outside of the screenings. While grabbing a coffee in between films, I happened to step into the Music Cafe while R. LUM. R was performing. His striking falsetto gave the captive audience goose bumps while he simultaneously warmed us with the acoustic sounds of his guitar. Throw in panel discussions, gifting suites (if you got it like that) and parties sponsored by major networks and magazines and before you know it, a diverse Sundance experience has materialized superseding your original expectations.
Park City has some fabulous resorts and hotels to choose from like the two ski resorts I mentioned above, or the charming Washington School House Hotel and Stein Eriksen Lodge. The only problem is, during Sundance these luxury boutique hotels are either sold out months in advance or the price is jacked up because…well… they can. I don’t mind paying for a luxurious slumber, however, on principal when faced with an inflated premium, I tend to taste blood in my mouth whenever the credit card swipes. No one likes to be taken advantage of, so if you plan ahead you can really find affordable cabins and condos just a few miles away from all the action. Sure it’s more convenient to stay at Marriot’s Summit Watch which is right on Main Street especially if you don’t have a car to get around in, but with surprisingly reliable Uber service and cabs, mobility isn’t really an issue. We found a lovely two-bedroom condo 6 miles away from Main Street. Planning ahead not only saved us 1000s, it also provided respite from the hustle and bustle of the main drag.
One would think the blistering cold and crowds of people trying to navigate the same slushy streets in a 4-block radius would foster discord. I found that it was quite the opposite. It’s as if everyone got the memo, that you’re going to be cold, it’s going to be crowded and you’re going to have to wait in long lines. The best part of this reality was getting to strike up conversations with interesting people from all over the world. Aside from discussing the films one might have seen, people also share recommendations for restaurants. Thanks to locals and Sundance veterans who know Park City well, my dining experiences were expertly curated!
1. Bistro 412-This American bistro with French twists here and there, had me squealing oo la la after devouring the baked Brie appetizer, Moroccan beef stew and bison burger topped with house made pastrami. It was the perfect spot for lunch.
2.The Foundry Grill-Located in the Sundance Mountain Resort (owned by Robert Redford) where many of the first Sundance screenings took place, this rustic cabin-style restaurant defines cozy mountain elegance. I had some of the best shrimp and grits of my life, which was a surprise for this born and raised North Carolinian. The lamb shank was also a fan favorite amongst my dinner companions.
3.Handle- The best in show goes to Handle. It checked all the boxes for modern fine dining. Sleek minimalistic ambience serving organic and locally sourced ingredients with out-of-the-box cocktail creations and excellent service. However, checking all of those boxes means absolutely nothing if the chef can’t do something extraordinary in the kitchen. Lucky for Park City, chef Briar Handly knows what he’s doing. Every course of our prefixed meal was incredible. I had the duck liver mousse with sweet potato donuts and a berry gelee topped with pistachios for my first course. I moved on to the smoked Idaho trout with pepper jelly, lavash and ricotta for my second. My third course was the rigatoni in a bison short rib Bolognese. I ate it in the time it took my friend to go to the restroom and come back. I couldn’t help it. However I did help myself to her ribs smothered in chipotle orange barbeque sauce laid over a bed of traditional grits. The meal felt like a religious experience once dessert came. I had the best caramel pudding of my life. With a dollop of mascarpone cream and homemade Chex streusel, I’m not ashamed to say that when my spoon could no longer collect the remnants of pudding, I raked the jar with my finger—and I’d do it again! When I said earlier that Park City has restaurants so mouthwatering they are worth the trip alone, I was referring to Handle. Scoring a TBOT 9.7, it is by far my favorite restaurant in Park City.
Honorable mentions: Tupelo and 350 Main Street.
Due to my work and screening schedules, I didn’t find much time to shop. Besides with gifting suites and free swag from Sundance corporate sponsors, I was fortunate to have the shopping essentially come to me! Sundance teams up with vendors who give out good quality products to the masses. My favorite was a Sundance S’well bottle I got to add to my existing collection. In the process I also made the pledge to do my part in ending the use of plastic water bottles. In 2016 Americans discarded 50 million plastic water bottles alone.
Park City has some lovely shops along Main Street. You’ll find recognizable designer brands as well as local boutiques carrying an assortment of luxury products. My friend got a fantastic leather jacket from Olive and Tweed while I lamented over a hammered silver and gold combination ring that wouldn’t fit on any of my fingers. Although I was very impressed by the selection at the Sundance Store (the brick and mortar of the Sundance catalogue) I struck out again with a bracelet that wouldn’t fit over my knuckles. My favorite find was this home décor and interior design boutique on Main Street called Root’d. Their home accessories and furnishings were all top-of-the-line in quality and design aesthetic.
The Sundance Mountain Resort is a lovely piece of property. It’s tucked away in a maze of gorgeous evergreens and thick ice sickles hang from the rooftops. There is a fine dining restaurant called The Tree Room that has a large live tree growing out of the floor in the center of the dining room. A library with an inviting grand fireplace is just to the left of this main dinning area. A long hallway that separates the two restaurants has pictures hanging on its walls from the early days of the festival with detailed text explaining the history. While a dear friend and I were reading the walls and taking pictures inside the beautiful library, we decided to go look at the large tree. Scanning the dining room I stop at the far corner table and ask the hostess to confirm whom I thought I spotted. When I asked is that Robert Redford sitting over there, she quietly nodded yes. When you’ve lived in New York, London and Los Angeles you’ve gotten used to seeing celebrities—it’s really rare to be star struck. But even I will admit, having just read his quotes on the walls in the hallway; having spent a week at the most reputable film festival in the country that he created, it felt like a real “pinch-me” moment to see the ultimate Sundance celebrity having dinner just a few feet away—Mr. Sundance himself. Not a bad sighting for my first festival.
The Cold: Okay, yes it’s cold and you should definitely prepare for it. Get your long johns; get your heavy down jackets with the fur-lined hoods and water resistant material for sure. However, be prepared for that annoying reality of having too much on when you get indoors. The heat is on and if you’re in a big chunky sweater with no layer underneath to strip down to besides your thermals, you’ll be roasting by the time the opening credits role. So layers are good, but don’t go crazy unless you know you’ll be walking around outside a lot and not staying indoors much. Too often my forehead was glistening with sweat while I performed a sweater to flannel to undershirt strip tease.
The most important thing you’ll want to spring for are warm winter snow boots! Those you will most certainly need. The fashionista leather booties that complete the outfit on the streets of New York City or Los Angeles, will look cute but you’ll loose all feeling in your toes and ruin them in the process! Salty slush and leather do not mix.
Get to the screenings early. The Sundance volunteers and program operators do not mess around! If you’re not there at least 15 minutes early you potentially forfeit your seat. It doesn’t matter if you are holding a ticket in your hand or not, once they start the waiting list, it’s over and there’s absolutely no late seating!