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PARK CITY, Utah (Reuters) - The curtain rose on the Sundance Film Festival Thursday night with a spotlight on what founder Robert Redford called a new generation of filmmakers typified by Martin McDonagh and his opening film "In Bruges."
Award-winning playwright McDonagh made his debut as a film director with the drama about two hit men holed up in the small town of Bruges, Belgium. He was one of 58 first-time directors at 2008's Sundance, the top event for U.S. independent film.
Redford, whose Sundance Institute for filmmaking backs the festival founded over 20 years ago, said more first-time directors were screening movies this year than at any time he could remember since the mid-1980s.
He added that many were like McDonagh -- artists in one field who had crossed over into moviemaking. Redford added that many of them represent a new generation, born after the baby boomers, who seemed intent on breaking new ground in cinema.
"This is a new group that is saying, 'we don't want to inherit anything before us,"' Redford told a gathering of reporters on opening day.
Festival director Geoffrey Gilmore said the film from Briton's McDonagh highlighted a move by Sundance in recent years to spotlight more international films.
For his part, McDonagh, 37, told Reuters he was "completely thrilled and horrified" at the prospect of premiering his movie in front of the notoriously fussy audiences at Sundance.
"I am turning a new page (in my career) and terrified about whether I have a good one," he said about "In Bruges."
But opening night audiences seemed to enjoy the film, laughing at its more comic dialogue and drawing deep breaths and sighs at its more painful and perilous moments.
"In Bruges" stars Colin Farrell and Brendan Gleeson as hit men who make a bad mistake and are sent to the historic town to cool their heels. Once there, they are forced to look at their lives and professions. Ralph Fiennes plays their boss.
McDonagh, who has won two Olivier Awards for plays "The Pillow Man" and "The Lieutenant of Inishmore," said many of his plays have featured dark comedy.
Gilmore noted that humor-laced dramas are a focal point of this year's festival.
McDonagh described "In Bruges" as being about "guilt and trying to be an honorable person," and in the end, "friendship" between the two hit men.
His film launched 10 days of moviegoing in which more than 120 feature films will screen at Sundance, held in Park City, a mountain town east of Salt Lake City where numerous Hollywood stars are expected to turn out.
Some of the more buzzed-about films heading into Sundance include "What Just Happened?" starring Robert De Niro and Sean Penn, "Sunshine Cleaning" with Amy Adams and Emily Blunt and "Be Kind Rewind" with Jack Black.
But as much as the stars shine bright at Sundance, Redford and Gilmore noted the festival is about finding new talent.
"We are a festival of discovery, and we remain that," Gilmore said.