Winston Aldworth gets starstruck when visiting Utah's coolest film festival.

We've had one Rihanna sighting, someone from our group bagged entrance to Maggie Gyllenhaal's annual cocktail party, Taika Waititi is giving a talk across town and another of our group is pretty sure that Leonardo DiCaprio was in a darkened SUV that just sauntered down the main street of Park City. How sure? Really? "He always comes here. I read it somewhere."

This street in a small, but highly moneyed Utah ski resort is no stranger to celebrity sightings. From our barside perch on the main drag, Park City and Deer Valley ski resorts are a few minutes away — they're among the fanciest ski spots in North America. The dry powder snow is legendary, and dotted throughout the skifields are billionaires' holiday pads. The boutique shopfronts display fancy, expensive winter wear and the restaurants serve fancy food.

Of any time of the year, we visited during the busiest, when those billionaires' holiday pads are full and that food is at its fanciest. We've arrived during the Sundance Film Festival, a celebration — and starting point — for independent filmmaking and creativity over the past four decades.

Advertisement

My own brushes with celebrity were of the lesser-light variety: On a crowded footpath, I squeezed past John David Washington (son of Denzel), whom we'd just seen in the excellent Monsters and Men; and after a screening of the fox-clever American Animals I bagged a selfie with a couple of the actors. It's not cool to fawn over famous folk, but you can't help but be swept along in the festival's fun, buzzy atmosphere. You can probably still smell the fame on me.

Taika Waititi. Photos / Getty Images
Taika Waititi. Photos / Getty Images

The crowd at the screenings is a mixture of out-of-towners, industry folk and local film buffs. In one screening in Salt Lake City, I sit next to a local woman who talks me through me her planning notebook, a detailed exposition of first choices, back-up options and hard-to-get treats. "Every year, I take a fortnight off, and this is what I do," she says.

"We're so lucky to have this — these are the best films; the smartest ones!"
Smart, indeed. Her scheduling will never be troubled by the latest offering from the Marvel cinematic whatever. Big studios and production chains are shunned at Sundance.

(Though, weirdly, the new media companies that are disrupting the industry to shreds were hosting parties all over the place.)

I can't imagine many film festivals could match Sundance's snowy charms. I skied with friends in the morning at Park City, then walked into town and watched a movie before walking back to ski a few more runs in the afternoon. Where else could powder-nut and film buff combine one of North America's premier skifields with one of the world's top film festivals?

This state is full of fabulous surprises. In Mormon-heavy Utah, we find superb IPAs and, at Publik Coffee Roasters in Salt Lake City, the best coffee I've ever had in America — which is damning with faint praise, so let me say: a coffee better than most served in Auckland.

The film festival started life in 1979 at Sundance Resort, a gorgeous ranch and skifield 45-minutes south of Park City, along highway 189. The festival may have indy roots, but celebrity stardust has long been in the air. Robert Redford and others keen to promote uniquely American film-making started the thing at the resort he still owns. He'd named the place after his character in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.

Today, Sundance Resort is a postcard-perfect setting, still hosting a few screenings and talks as part of the film festival that each year bears its name. As the chin-scratching film crowd slide into a small theatre, skiers head for the slopes. The chairlifts are right next door.

Advertisement

In a row of early-settlerish looking cabins off to one side, artisans tinker away. The glass is blown, ceramics are spun and jewellery is strung out. The works they make are beautiful and you'll have a hard time not buying some gorgeous reminder of Sundance. A celebration of independent creativity.

Maggie Gyllenhaal. Photo / Getty Images
Maggie Gyllenhaal. Photo / Getty Images

Checklist

GETTING THERE

United Airlines

flies daily from Auckland to Salt Lake City, via San Francisco.

ACCOMMODATION

Zermatt Resort

, in the Heber Valley, is an affordable alternative to Park City.

DETAILS

Next year's

Sundance Film Festival

runs from January 24-February 3.

ONLINE

visitutah.com