Sterling Van Wagenen (left) directs actors in “The Work and the Glory: American Zion,” which was released in October.
By Jeanette W. Bennett
Although you’ve never seen him in a film, Sterling Van Wagenen is one of the most recognizable people in Utah cinema. And his lengthy resume matches the distinguished sound of his name.
For starters, he co-founded the Sundance Institute and Sundance Film Festival with Robert Redford more than 20 years ago, and along the way he has directed and produced dozens of award-winning feature films, TV movies and documentaries.
In fact, he debuted as a producer in 1985 with “A Trip to Bountiful,” which picked up an Academy Award for Best Actress and a Golden Globe nomination. His work can regularly be seen on the Discovery Channel, PBS and silver screens around the world.
But the glitz and glamour is simply a necessary evil for Sterling, who is comfortable in jeans, simple walking shoes and non-name-brand shirts.
Sterling moves and talks quickly, and you get the sense that this guy never stops solving problems, thinking and studying.
As we talked, he kept bringing up the names of directors from around the world. He’s not a name-dropper — he’s simply a student of the art of filmmaking. He’s also been on the teaching end of the industry, with stints at BYU and the University of Central Florida.
With his well-rounded background, friendly nature (he hugged several Vineyard Distribution employees before and after our interview) and love for the storyline, he was the perfect fit to direct the second movie in “The Work and the Glory” film series, which portrays the popular LDS historical fiction series by Gerald Lund of Alpine.
Here is a portion of the interview Sterling did — after much prodding, I might add — with Utah Valley Magazine.
Director Sterling Van Wagenen is building a home in Woodland Hill.
Jeanette Bennett, Editor of Utah Valley Magazine: Had you read the “Work and the Glory” series before you worked on the film?
Sterling Van Wagenen: No, I had not.
UV: We’re probably the only two Utahns who haven’t read them.
Sterling: Shame on us.
UV: Now that you’ve become familiar with the story, was it difficult to pick which parts to include?
Sterling: That was our biggest challenge. Books deal with a very broad horizon and a lot of characters. And, as is true with most adaptations, we had to simplify the books. You can make the film complex in other ways, but you have to reduce the number of characters and simplify the storyline. This was heartbreaking for Gerald Lund, who very much wanted to see all the characters. But if you try to make a film as complex as a book, you diffuse the emotion.
UV: Is there a particular character you identify with?
Sterling: I love most, if not all, of the characters. And it’s impossible to separate the characters from the actors. I thought we had an unusually strong cohort of female actors in the film. Brenda Strong, who plays Mary Ann Steed, is a very fine actress. The young lady who plays Lydia — Sera Bastien — is also a very fine young actress.
UV: What scenes are you the most proud of?
Sterling: There are certainly scenes that anchor the film and provide the juice to keep the story going. There is a scene in the first half hour where the Steed family is in a bit of an uproar because Nathan and his wife decide to go to Kirtland where the saints are gathering. There’s another scene where Joseph Smith makes the decision to form Zion’s Camp, and this scene has an impact on everyone else in the film.
UV: Today is exactly one month before the premiere. What emotions do you have 30 days before a movie comes out?
Sterling: Right now I feel a lot of anxiety about getting the film finished in time. I was with the composer yesterday, and he’s rushing because we’re starting the final sound and music mix right now. So there is anxiety about making the deadline, but in a way I’m already looking past this movie and starting to engage emotionally with the next movie.
UV: Do you look forward to the premiere?
Sterling: I was involved with the creation of the Sundance Film Festival, and the truth is that I’ve had my fill of movie premieres. Some people love them, but unfortunately — or fortunately — I’m not one of them. But they are necessary for everyone who has been involved with the film — particularly for the actors and the financiers. They want to see their work acknowledged in a public way.
UV: What’s it like to watch people watch your film?
Sterling: It’s agony, so I usually do not sit there in the theater. There is a great story about George Lucas … someone asked him about the audience reaction. He said, “How would I know? I was outside throwing up in the gutter.” I can relate to that. You do your best given the constraints you have, and at the end of the day you don’t know how an audience is going to respond.
UV: What makes a good director?
Sterling: There are lots of metaphors about directors. Stan Kubrick (creator of “A.I.” and “Eyes Wide Shut”) compares directing to being a general who is fighting a battle. David Lean, who directed “Lawrence of Arabia,” says directing is like being an orchestra conductor working with individual elements of talent. I am extraordinarily conscious that films are not made by a single person — it is a group effort. Directing is about managing creative personalities.
UV: What do you think of the movie industry here in Utah?
Sterling: There is a lot happening, and that is very good. Not just from an economic point of view, but from a cultural perspective. It’s one thing to seduce Hollywood film companies to shoot here — that is good economically. But the thing that has been difficult for states around the country is trying to figure out how to encourage their own indigenous talent. In Utah, we are doing well at creating our own film projects.
UV: Do you enjoy going to movie theaters?
Sterling: Yes, I owe my career to a wasted childhood. I’ve always been obsessed with movies. Some weeks I can get in one movie a day.
UV: That’s a great week! Are you able to relax when you watch a movie?
Sterling: Sometimes I can watch a movie like everyone else watches it. Other times I pay attention to the structure of the film and how all of the pieces fit together. It depends on the film — and also what I’m in a panic about in a given moment.
UV: What was your first job?
Sterling: My first professional job was in the theater — it wasn’t in film at all. I dropped out of college for a year and worked as an assistant director to Jonathan Miller at the L.A. Music Center. Jonathan is very flamboyant. He is also a doctor and knows the history of medicine. Every day I’d pick him up for work and drive him to the theater in my Volkswagen. He would give me a list of books to read, as well as films to study. That was a great experience for me.
UV: Some say that age and experience are a plus in the film industry. Is that true?
Sterling: Theoretically that’s true. There are two different views on that. There is still a premium paid by the mainstream Hollywood industry for young directors. And by young I mean under 40. By the same token, there are certainly some very talented directors who are still working at an old age. Robert Altman, who is in his 80s, directed a recent film. I produced two films with Horton Foote, who turns 90 next year, and he is still working.
UV: What does it feel like to be in the director’s chair after a 12-year hiatus?
Sterling: This experience has reminded me that I know a lot of things that I didn’t remember that I knew. When you make a movie, you start with tremendous excitement and optimism. And then by the end, you’re just glad you survived the day.
UV: What have been the turning points in your life?
Sterling: Certainly the whole association with Bob Redford and the festival, which lasted a decade for me. The Jonathan Miller experience was a huge turning point for me. The first film I produced was “A Trip to Bountiful.” It was a gift in my life to work with Horton Foote on that project. Another huge turning point was in 1992 when I went to work for BYU Broadcasting and turned my attention to documentary work. I had only done one documentary before BYU, and there I did several projects, including four films in the Middle East. It altered my perspective in major ways — in identifiable ways.
UV: Are you still friends with Robert Redford?
Sterling: Yes. A few years ago, Bob got asked to speak at the BYU law school. I got a call at 11 p.m. from Bob, and he wanted me to find everything Brigham Young ever said about the environment. It was striking to find the depth of respect and passion Brigham Young had for the environment. He had a lot to say about the tendency we all have to sell our heritage. We do not seem to have lost that tendency. One of the tragedies, in terms of our LDS culture, is that we’ve betrayed our values. Our sense of space is shrinking gradually.
UV: That’s hard to hear.
Sterling: Yes, it is. We don’t like to hear that, but it appears to be true.
UV: What particular works are you the most proud of?
Sterling: Certainly “A Trip to Bountiful.” We got lucky with the film. It was the first time I produced a film and we won an Academy Award. In the early ’80s I did a documentary on the life and work of Hugh Nibley. I spent a year with him, and we went to Egypt and France together. That project still means a lot to me.
UV: You have worked with a varied group of people!
Sterling: That’s the best part of all of this. I have gained a lot of respect and regard for many people.
UV: What are the best movies you’ve seen this year?
Sterling: I can’t even remember what I’ve seen this year. I’ve been underwater with these films since December. My favorite films are usually ones no one has ever heard of.
UV: What do you listen to as you drive?
Sterling: I’m an NPR addict. I also like classical music.
UV: How does fatherhood fit with a career in film?
Sterling: It takes its toll. When I was with Sundance I traveled a lot, and I rotated trips with my children. It gave me one-on-one time with the kids, which was very valuable. At one point we had four children under the age of 5. And I was gone a lot trying to raise money and put together a board for Sundance.
UV: What do you love about living in Utah?
Sterling: I’ve always had a strong sense of place. Even though for various time periods I’ve lived in other parts of the world, I always get pulled back to Utah. Maybe it’s the smell of the sage as the storm blows across the western desert. I love the mountains, and I love the change of seasons.
UV: What do you think is the best kept secret in Utah?
Sterling: Sundance is not a best kept secret anymore, unfortunately. I love that it is still possible to get in a car at 5 in the afternoon and by 10 o’clock at night, you can be at the Kaiparowits Plateau watching the moon rise and not see another human being anywhere. It is possible to find solitude in Utah.
UV: How can people wade through the negative media out there?
Sterling: Our sensibilities are not fixed. It really is possible to focus on and refine ourselves emotionally and psychologically. It is possible to have an educated sensibility. There are some hard questions and some easy questions to ask when it comes to choosing media. The swearing, sex and violence are easy to identify. The harder part to determine is the premise of a given movie. What are the cultural underpinnings? What does it say in terms of who we are as a people? Does it essentially have dark and trivial things to say?
UV: Do you blame the media or the audience for the plethora of bad films?
Sterling: It is absolutely the filmmakers’ responsibility to look at what they are making and to look at how they present human beings. But it is also the responsibility of the audience to support the right kinds of films. One reason so many lousy movies are made is that so many people are willing to pay to see lousy movies. And what I’m talking about has very little to do with ratings.
Sterling Van Wagenen gives direction to the actor portraying Joseph Smith.