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SUNDANCE FESTIVAL

It's Thrilling to Be Here, Really

Whether you're newcomer Agnes Bruckner or veteran Robin Williams, the excitement of having your film screened is palpable.

January 16, 2002|KENNETH TURAN | TIMES FILM CRITIC

PARK CITY, Utah — They still come to Sundance, the performers do, even in a year like this one, a year when the festival faces an unusual danger: being overshadowed in its hometown.

For in less than a month, about 32 Winter Olympic events, one third of the total, will take place in town or nearby, and the signs, physical and psychological, are everywhere. Taped notices on local bathroom walls are as likely to be offers of Olympic tickets as fliers for films, the banner headline in the Park Record on the festival's opening night read "Workers Brace for February Commute," and KPCW, the town's radio station, frequently reminds listeners that "next month, Park City takes the world's stage."

That overshadowing takes monumental form right in front of the hotel that is the festival's headquarters, where the enormous giant slalom run, complete with empty stands and a silent scoreboard, looms over the building, for all intents and purposes a relic of some lost yet terrifying civilization like the ones imagined by fantasy writer H.P. Lovecraft.

None of this, however, matters much to actors who are here with their films, whether beginners such as Agnes Bruckner or world famous such as Robin Williams. Bruckner, all of 16, is a gifted young actress whose heartfelt performance made the coming-of-age drama "Blue Car" (unaccountably not in the competition) one of the festival's first successes, complete with a sale to Miramax.

"Oh my God, I've been just so emotional, it's been so exciting I've been crying all day," says Bruckner, who lives with her family in Burbank and is understandably elated. "For me, everything has just built up to this moment. I'm finally here, I've finally arrived."

With four Oscar nominations as an actor (and a victory for "Good Will Hunting"), Williams couldn't be more established, but he is almost as excited to be here: "I have seen the mountain," he says in one of his infinite accents. "It was good." And in some ways his new film, "One Hour Photo," written and directed by music video auteur Mark Romanek, represents as important a milestone in his career as Bruckner's does in hers.

Williams plays Sy Parrish, a photo booth operator at a local SavMart who becomes terrifyingly obsessed with a particular family. Not only does Sy have grotesque nightmares in which blood spurts from his eyes, he ends up acting in such a savage, sadistic way that Williams himself said, "This is a bizarre, creepy movie," when he came out to take a bow and answer questions at the premiere.

"Now," he added in his trademark style, "I have to come out and make people laugh, be an emotional sorbet."

Williams, whose interview mode ranges from the thoughtful to the wildly funny, is well aware that this kind of a role--perhaps his first chilly part since a cameo in Kenneth Branagh's 1991 "Dead Again"--is not what's expected from him after a spate of warmly sentimental films. His agent pursued the script "as a wild shot; I wasn't even on a list, no one's going to send this to me off the bat." He had lunch with Romanek, "who thought it was one of those token meetings.

"When I said I wanted to do it, he went, 'No!' I think it really shocked him."

If people are going to be shocked at Williams in a non-Patch Adams mode, they are going to have to get used to it. The actor has at least two similar films coming out: "Death to Smoochie," directed by Danny DeVito ("he's the darkest guy around; when I asked if he wanted me to lighten up he said 'No, no'") and "Insomnia," co-starring Al Pacino and directed by "Memento's" Christopher Nolan.

Though he's looked at things such as interview tapes with serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer to prepare for these roles, Williams is not the kind of actor who takes his parts home with him. "Once you have a family, the method stuff goes away very quickly. I did it on one movie, and it scared my kids. You can't say"--a lightening voice change here-- "'I'm going to my study. Don't mind the noises of an animal being sacrificed.'"

Though he joked at the premiere that he did "One Hour Photo" because "'Mister Rogers on Ice' was already taken," it was a combination of factors that led to this spate of darker material, starting with Williams' feeling that "for me the job is to play as many different characters as possible."

Williams is also aware that critics and audiences have not invariably applauded his choice of roles. "I know it's out there, there's been negative response to certain films. People will come up to you and say, 'If you ever make another movie like that, I'll hurt you.' This is interesting feedback. Does it make me deny the validity of what I've done? No. Does it make me want to look for other things? Yes.

"Going too much one way is not good. 'Goebbels: The Musical,' that I don't want to do, but the moment you start limiting yourself, it's bad news. I want to change the perception."

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