Back in Hollywood, he saw the film biz morphing toward the high-tech-blockbuster era with the rise of Spielberg, De Palma, Lucas, and other modern film wizards. "I realized that a lot of the films were dependent on special effects. Gradually what was missing for me was story, and I thought, 'I can't give that up.' "
So Redford started the Sundance Film Festival, which muddled along until Steven Soderbergh's sex, lies, and videotape was bought by Harvey Weinstein at Miramax in 1989. It was simultaneously the start of something great and a death blow for Redford's original idea for the festival. Weinstein's company did as much if not more than Redford in establishing indie filmmaking as a real force in the 1990s, but Redford saw it differently.
"Harvey wanted to be a Hollywood mogul," says Redford. "He's got a real merchant mentality; he would start to pick stuff. And then Hollywood came. When the actors started to come, the paparazzi came, and once the paparazzi came, then fashion came, and suddenly you had Paris Hilton," says Redford. "I felt at a certain point that we were being engulfed."
He paints the Sundance changes as beyond his control, which is hard to believe since he is still the festival's godfather. Though he no longer handles its day-to-day operations, he's still the face of the festival and has considerable influence on the films and the corporate sponsors who fund it, to say nothing of Sundance's general direction.
Between his environmental causes, Sundance, and his directing, acting had become an afterthought. He tried to hire others to run Sundance and its assorted business, but that was a disaster, resulting in his nearly having to declare bankruptcy in 2003.
"It was mostly my fault," he says. "It almost became an empire without my managing it, because I was off doing what I wanted to do, which was make my own films. It made me a bit of an absentee owner for Sundance, so advantages were taken in my absence, and when I hit the skids I realized I was in really deep financial shit."
While Redford says he never took a part for the money, it's hard to see his 1990s roles as a billionaire in 'Indecent Proposal' or as a news director in the frothy 'Up Close and Personal' as anything but a paycheck. (Redford told folks he played a tough-minded newsman instead of middle-aged eye candy.) He became increasingly frustrated, struggling with his aging status in the marketplace, seeing the latest new thing's face on billboards and wondering why he wasn't getting those parts.
But Redford wasn't 30 anymore; his options were narrowing. Not coincidentally, the previous quarter century marked the decline of his partnership with Sydney Pollack, whom he met at 26 on War Hunt, his first film. Pollack had directed Redford classics like 'Jeremiah Johnson,' 'The Way We Were,' and 'Three Days of the Condor,' but Redford sensed that his winning a best director Oscar for his first film rankled his old pal. While the two remained friends – Redford sat next to his widow at Pollack's 2008 funeral – they were unable to fix the professional damage done by Out of Africa, Pollack's own Oscar-winning film, in which Redford played a big-game hunter. The two argued over the character.
"I was beginning to feel that I was being used as a symbol," Redford said at Telluride, "rather than a person who had a job and feelings of his own."
It didn't help that Redford's performance was panned while Pollack and co-star Meryl Streep were winning Oscars. The two would work again only one more time.
"Sydney got bored with directing – he wanted to become a mogul," Redford tells me, dropping the M-word again. For Redford, it is the ultimate creative slur.
Redford kept directing films, but after 1990s success with 'A River Runs Through It,' 'The Horse Whisperer,' and 'Quiz Show,' he lost his touch. Since then, his 2000s productions have been bloodless cinematic sermons – often featuring Redford as liberal sage – that failed with the critics and at the box office.
"I think I did it to myself in a way," says Redford. It's time to head back down the hill, to his beloved Sundance, where he'll then catch a flight to his dreaded hometown for meetings. "What I didn't want to do," he continues, "was repeat success. I wanted to move to new things and maybe create new opportunities for other people, other actors and directors. If that worked, add on to that and add on to this. And next thing I knew, there were so many add-ons in my life that I had gotten further and further away from what I loved doing and the way I started, which was acting."