As independent as they come
The story is pretty good. Solid plot lines, intrigue, big-name stars, but also a cast of unknowns, beautiful locations, deaths, Oscars, Emmys, politics, sex, lots of sex, and plenty of rock and roll. Drugs are a given. It expands over decades and is shot eventually on locations around the world – France, London, Jordan, Turkey. But it centers on a small mountain town, an old silver-mining town trying to find its way as snow becomes the currency for growth.
The characters are just that. People with accents and international flair, and also homegrown ambitious young adults from Idaho and Montana. And many displaced Californians who live full- and part-time in the tiny mountain town. You see all things you would expect from a good story – tension, desire, resolution and even evolution. You laugh, you cry, it is better than "Cats" because it is a story you have lived, if only as an extra.
The amazing and true story of Jill Miller may never be told, but this week in a farewell party, a small group of old-time friends and co-workers gathered for a sweet sendoff to the woman who worked behind the scenes, mostly, to transform a ragtag group of volunteers who produced an annual film festival into an internationally recognized giant, known the world over by one word – Sundance.
The redhead with the quiet, well-mannered, well-contained but useful temper started out helping with the organization just as it was being rescued by Robert Redford and rebranded. It began with a couple of guys in the Utah State Film office as the U.S. Film Festival. And after years of struggling they were ready to call it a wrap. Redford had grown passionate about the event, which showcased independent film, the place where his restless soul was most at home. He agreed to bring it into the fold with the project he had started a few years earlier, The Sundance Institute, which served as a kind of camp for filmmakers and writers and dreamers of all genres. And tying the two together seemed, in hindsight, ridiculously ambitious, and yet somehow the perfect marriage.
No one saw the thing blowing up the way it did. But the festival grew quickly and soon the broken equipment wouldn’t make do and too many people came to town and it appeared Sundance was going to be the hero that rode off into the sunset.
At the same time Park City had voted in a bond election to create a real high school auditorium with 800 seats to serve also as a joint-use facility for the community. It too was an ambitious idea for a town of less than 5,000 people in the early ’90s. I was involved in trying to help fundraise for that building and I like to think it was my brilliant grant writing that persuaded the Eccles Family to donate the million-dollar naming gift to add a balcony to the proposed space and make improvements that would create a state-of-the-art facility. But the truth is a better story. The festival had simply outgrown Park City at that point and without a venue, like the one the Eccles Center became, it was going to leave town. Someone had a bold idea: have Redford pitch the Eccles Foundation for the grant. I have it on good authority Jill was the idea planter. So, yes, the festival stayed and the community was able to create the multi-use space known as The Eccles Center. And we have Sundance and Jill to thank for that.
Jill led by being fiscally tenacious and creative all at once. She kept her head down and never stood in the spotlight unless shoved there. She made long-lasting friendships in a world known for back stabbing and artifice. She never answered the siren call of working in Hollywood or Canada or Cannes or any number of places that wanted her sensible and incredible talents. She spent years structuring a deal so Sundance could move from dreadful offices in a cold building on the wrong side of Salt Lake City. With the generosity and vision of local developer Rory Murphy, she created a festival home here. The Silver Star project is now a shining example of mixed use and the anchor of the Sundance Film Festival.
She hired smart people and gave them room to grow. She saw international film as a calling card in developing countries to learn how to tell their own powerful stories. She started traveling to places like Jordan and Turkey and even Dubai to see which countries would be a good fit to welcome the Film Forward project. And in the past few years, we watched two significant changes in her life. She and her husband Michael built a modest but smartly designed home in Torrey, a beautiful area in the middle of nowhere Utah. And her husband left his job as a principal at Rowland Hall for a job working on creating schools in Africa.
It should have come as no surprise when she announced her leaving earlier this fall, yet it did. She had decided after creating a powerful, competent, accountable team, she could and should explore her own next chapter, which she has not announced yet.
Her sendoff this week was a gathering of a tribe that she never would claim was of her own making … but it was: City officials who patched together deals to keep the festival here and vibrant. Reporters and supporters and staff from Utah and Los Angeles she had nurtured and mentored.
Jill is leaving at that high point sailors love to reference – with the wind in her sails. We hope to receive postcards from the edge of her new life, but for now we are grateful she passed this way. Very grateful, this Sunday in the Park …
Teri Orr is a former editor of The Park Record. She is the director of the organization that provides programming for the George S. and Dolores Doré Eccles Center for the Performing Arts.
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