When Stephen Frears arrives in Salt Lake City on Friday for a quick, one-night stopover, it will be his first time in town - but not his first time in the state. The Oscar-nominated British director of "Dangerous Liaisons" occasionally makes side trips to Monument Valley to recharge his creative batteries.

"I think it's a wonderful countryside there along the border," Frears said in a telephone interview. "I went there when I had four days off" while shooting "The Grifters.""The Grifters," starring John Cusack, Anjelica Huston and Annette Bening, is a sordid, darkly comic tale of con artists and has been highly praised by national critics. It is the Friday night premiere film as the Sundance Film Festival begins its 10-day Park City run.

Technically, the 13th annual festival begins Thursday evening with the premiere of "Once Around" in Salt Lake City, with two of that film's stars, Holly Hunter and Danny Aiello, in attendance. But the festival really begins in earnest with the move to Park City.

Both Frears and Cusack will be at the Friday screening to introduce "The Grifters." For Cusack this is a return trip - the young actor has been to the festival several times before.

But for Frears, it's a new experience - and coming to a film festival that celebrates American independent film seems appropriate, since "The Grifters" is his first American film and he had complete artistic independence.

"They (the film's financial backers) were great," Frears said. "There was no pressure at all to compromise the story," which is quite cynical and has a very dark ending.

"I think they would be foolish to change the ending. And people (the audience) appreciate it."

Frears said Cusack wanted to do it because he is a fan of Jim Thompson, whose book of the same title was the basis for the film. "John tried to buy it at one time," Frears said. "I didn't know that, of course. He was on the list of people coming to see me, and I liked him very much and I thought he'd be great." Frears added that at the time he was not familiar with Cusack's work, which includes "The Sure Thing," "Say Anything" and "Eight Men Out," among others.

As for casting the role of Cusack's mother in "The Grifters," Frears said Anjelica Huston was first on his list. "She was the first person I thought of and the last person I cast. I always knew she would play it on very high notes, with a sort of fierceness and fullness."

The irony of casting Annette Bening as the hooker who links up with Cusack and tries to get him involved in more dangerous cons isn't lost on Frears. Bening played the Glenn Close role in "Valmont," which was Milos Forman's version of "Dangerous Liaisons."

"I'd met (Bening) when I was casting `Liaisons,' " Frears said, "and they kept saying she was a very good actress, but I'd already cast Michelle (Pfeiffer)."

He said that for "The Grifters" he had thought of Melanie Griffith, but "it would simply have been about something else. The truth is there are many ways of making this film, many possibilities. It required a certain sort of courage."

FESTIVAL SCHEDULE

FRIDAY

Egyptian: "The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp," 10 a.m.; "Sure Fire," 1 p.m.; "Twenty-One," 4 p.m.; "The Grifters," 7 p.m.; "Iron Maze," 10 p.m.; "Swan Lake-The Zone," midnight.

Holiday I: "Bicycle Sighs," 10 a.m.; "Absolutely Positive," 1 p.m.; "To Sleep, So As to Dream," 4 p.m.; "Legends," 7 p.m.; "Poison," 10 p.m.

Holiday II: "Come Back to the Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean," 10:15 a.m.; "In the Shadow of the Stars," 4:15 p.m.; "Daughters of the Dust," 7:15 p.m.; "Zazie," 10:15 p.m.

Holiday III: "Takeover," 10:30 a.m.; "Broken Meat," 1:30 p.m.; "Coney Island," 4:30 p.m.; "Stop Short," 7:30 p.m.; " Maria's Story," 10:30 p.m.

Prospector: "The Juniper Tree," 10 a.m.; "End of the Night," 1 p.m.; "McCabe and Mrs. Miller," 4 p.m.; "Hangin' with the Homeboys," 7 p.m.; "Short Wave," 10 p.m.

Sundance: No screenings.

Trolley Corners: "The Thief of Bagdad," 6 p.m.; "Little Noises," 8:30 p.m.