Utah Film and the Sundance Film Festival
Cover photo: (L-R) Benedict Wong, Bill Skarsgard, Tony Hale, Director Edson Oda, Arianna Ortiz, Zazie Beetz, David Rysdahl, and Winston Duke from the Nine Days premiere at Eccles Theatre in Park City, Utah on January 27, 2020. Photo by Getty Images.
In 1978, a film festival took place in the state of Utah that was created by Utah Film Commissioner, John Earle, along with Robert Redford’s company at the time, Wildwood. Initially called the Utah/US Film Festival, it was hosted at Trolley Square in Salt Lake City in the middle of the summer. Can you believe that?!?! To keep up with the changing times, the festival was renamed the US Film and Video Festival in 1981 and an executive decision was made to move the festival to January and its now-home in Park City. As legend would have it, we can all thank the late, great Sydney Pollack for it. In 1985, Robert Redford’s Sundance Institute took over management and launched the US Film Festival presented by Sundance Institute. Fast forward to 1991 when the festival took on the name the Sundance Film Festival and the rest is Utah film history!
Sundance Film Festival has not only become a staple event in the film industry but it has become one of Utah’s biggest draws for winter tourism. Of course, the Greatest Snow on Earth® might have something to do with that, as well. We will miss seeing our out-of-town crowd in person this year, but we can’t wait to share more film memories in Utah with you, once we can.
This year’s Sundance Film Festival will look much like last year’s as it takes place entirely virtually from January 20th – January 30th, but one thing is always certain, there’s never a shortage of good films! Did you know there have been 40+ films with Utah ties that have screened at the festival? Here’s a look back at past made-in-Utah films that have premiered at the Sundance Film Festival and were supported by the Utah Film Commission.
Don Verdean is a film starring Sam Rockwell, Amy Ryan, and Will Forte, about a questionable character working as a self-styled “biblical archaeologist” who advances his cause by creating phony religious artifacts. Directed by Jared Hess and co-written by himself and his wife, Jerusha Hess. The husband-and-wife filmmaker duo have crafted their own comedy-genre with films like; Napoleon Dynamite (2004), Nacho Libre (2006), and Gentlemen Broncos (2009). They began filming Don Verdean in 2014 and filmed in familiar spots like; Tooele City, the First Congregational Church on Foothill in Salt Lake City, and biblical scenes were shot in and around Kanab.
In Football We Trust
Documentary, Family, Sport
In Football We Trust was filmed over four years as filmmakers, Tony Vainuku and Erika Cohn, track the journeys of four talented Polynesian high school football players as they strive toward their lifelong, and potentially life-changing, goal of professional recruitment. Erika Cohn is a Peabody and Emmy Award-winning director/producer, and Utah native. Most recently, she released her film, Belly of the Beast, which was also supported by the Utah Film Commission.
Comedy, Horror, Sci-Fi
Snatchers is based on a 2015 short film, which became a web micro-series that premiered at Sundance Film Festival in 2017, eventually turning into the feature film form it has today. The film follows a high school student, Sara, as she loses her virginity to her boyfriend, Skyler. When she wakes up pregnant, she visits the clinic with her best friend, Hayley, where she gives birth to an alien creature. Filming took place in and around Salt Lake City in places like; Westminster College, The Gateway, and Redman Movies & Stories.
Crime, Drama, Mystery
Wind River is a film starring Jeremy Renner, Kelsey Asbille, and Elizabeth Olsen, about a veteran hunter who helps an FBI agent investigate the murder of a young woman on a Native American Reservation. Principal photography began on March 12, 2016, in Oakley, Echo, Thousand Peaks Ranch, Snowbird Ski Resort, Park City, and the Utah Film Studios. The film is the third installment of Taylor Sheridan’s trilogy of “the modern-day American frontier”, after Sicario (2015), and Hell or High Water (2016). Sheridan has stated he was inspired to write this film because he learned of the “thousands of actual stories just like it”, in reference to the high number of Indigenous women who are victims of sexual assault and/or murder. This film was also Sheridan’s intro to filmmaking in Utah and was a catalyst for bringing seasons 1-3 of the Paramount series, Yellowstone.
Brigsby Bear follows the story of James, a man who lives in an underground bunker with his parents, Ted and April, who have convinced him the outside world is a dangerous place. James spends his time in his bedroom watching the children’s show, Brigsby Bear, when his life is suddenly shaken up by a police raid and the revelation that Ted and April are not his real parents. The film was co-written by Kyle Mooney and Kevin Costello, and directed by Dave McCary. Production began in Utah in July 2016 in locations like; Stansbury Island, areas near Smith and Morehouse Reservoir, the Tower Theatre, and the Memorial Courthouse in Farmington.
Deidra & Laney Rob A Train
Comedy, Crime, Drama
Deidra & Laney Rob A Train follows two sisters who turn to train robbing in order to support their family after their mother ends up in jail. Written by Shelby Farrell, directed by Sydney Freeland, and starring Ashleigh Murray and Rachel Crow. Production began in June 2016 and filmed around Ogden, Heber City, and Salt Lake City. Film locations include; Judge Memorial High School, Peery’s Egyptian Theatre, Ogden’s own Best Burger (RIP). The production also utilized the Heber Valley Railroad for all of the train scenes.
Deidra & Laney Rob A Train premiered on January 23, 2017 at the Sundance Film Festival. You can watch the film on Netflix.
Drama, Horror, Mystery
Hereditary is a film written and directed by Ari Aster, in his directorial debut, and stars Toni Collette, Alex Wolff, Milly Shapiro, and Gabriel Byrne. The film was a critical and commercial success, becoming A24’s highest-grossing film worldwide, which still tracks! The film follows the Graham family as they grieve the loss of their matriarch. After her death, her daughter and grandchildren begin to unravel cryptic and increasingly terrifying secrets about their ancestry. Production began filming in April 2017 and they shot mostly around Salt Lake City and Park City. While the exterior of the Graham house is located in Park City, in order to achieve the dollhouse effects, the interiors were built on soundstages at Utah Film Studios, also utilizing the studio’s parking lot for the storefront scene. You may recognize iconic shots from the film like; Larkin Sunset Garden Cemetery in Sandy, West High School, and the Avenues.
Comedy, Drama, Western
Damsel began filming in June 2016 and shot entirely in Summit County, utilizing locations such as; Thousand Peaks Ranch and Roger’s Western Town. The film follows an affluent pioneer, Samuel Alabaster circa 1870, as he ventures across the American frontier to marry the love of his life, Penelope. As his group traverses the west, the once-simple journey grows treacherous, blurring the lines between hero, villain, and damsel. The film stars Robert Pattinson, Mia Wasikowska, and David Zellner.
Nine Days is about a reclusive man who conducts interviews with human souls for a chance to be born. It is the first feature film written and directed by Sundance Institute Screenwriters Lab alum, Edson Oda. The inspiration for the film came from the untimely death of Oda’s uncle, and a longing to reconnect and understand his life and death. The film began shooting in July 2019 and used locations like; Bonneville Salt Flats, Saltair, Liberty Park, and areas around Salt Lake City, and West Valley City. Most impressively, they constructed a house facade set on top of Knolls Recreation Area, giving the film its ethereal feel. The film stars Winston Duke, Zazie Beetz, Benedict Wong, Tony Hale, and Bill Skarsgård.
Nine Days premiered on January 27, 2020 at the Sundance Film Festival. The film was acquired by Sony Pictures Classics and released theatrically in Summer 2021.
Four best friends on the brink of starting middle school, realize their lives are about to change forever. So on the last weekend of summer, they set out to make the most of it. The film was directed by James Ponsoldt and written by Benjamin Percy and James Ponsoldt. It stars Lake Bell, Megan Mullally, Ashley Madekwe, Eden Grace Redfield, Madalen Mills, Sanai Victoria, Lia Barnett, and Sarah Cooper.
Summering premiered on January 22, 2022 at the Sundance Film Festival.
Hear more from the cast & crew of the following films about their experiences filming in Utah.
The Story Is Utah | Wind River
The Story Is Utah | Brigsby Bear
The Story Is Utah | Nine Days
The Story Is Utah | Summering
The Utah Film Commission’s Motion Picture Incentive Program was established in 2014, but as we know, plenty of great films have utilized Utah’s beautiful landscape since well before then. Here are a few other filmed-in-Utah premieres that screened in years past at the Sundance Film Festival.
Promised Land (1988)
Plan 10 From Outer Space (1995)
Out of the Past (1998)
SLC Punk! (1999)
The Beaver Trilogy (2001)
Pipe Dreams (2003)
Napoleon Dynamite (2004)
Adventures of Power (2008)
The Crash Reel (2013)
Quiet Heroes (2018)
One Child Nation (2019)
The Killing of Two Lovers (2020)
Allie Russell is the Marketing Coordinator for the Utah Film Commission. For any press and media inquiries, contact the Utah Film Commission at firstname.lastname@example.org.