As she welcomed the crowd that filled two auditoriums in the Crossroads Plaza Cinemas Thursday evening, Leigh von der Esch suggested that "prior to our uniting in celebration (there should be) a moment of silence."

It was the opening-night event of the 13th annual Sundance Film Festival, but the executive director of the Utah Film Commission knew what was weighing heavily on everyone's mind.Is there anyone who has not had war foremost in their thoughts since Wednesday night?

Similarly, Holly Hunter, the star of the opening-night film, "Once Around," began a press conference before the screening by saying she felt a bit awkward. "Everybody here feels awkward about being here while Tel Aviv is being attacked by Iraq. I can hardly think about this movie at this particular moment."

And so it was throughout the evening for those who helped kick off the festival, along with the 10th anniversary of the Sundance Institute. Champagne and food were consumed heartily at receptions in the Salt Lake Art Center before and after the screening, but the atmosphere was a bit less jovial than in previous years. And everywhere the conversation repeatedly turned back to Operation Desert Storm and the accompanying news coverage.

Still, following the show-business axiom, the show did go on.

Hunter was the star of the evening, especially since Robert Redford did not arrive until much later. (He was flying in from New York City to mingle with guests at the post-screening reception.)

The director of "Once Around," Lasse Hallstrom, and the film's producers, Amy Robinson and Griffin Dunne, were in attendance, however. (Co-star Danny Aiello had to cancel at the last minute.)

Hunter said the script for "Once Around," a project that went through the Sundance Institute and was written by first-time screenwriter Malia Scotch Marmo, immediately impressed her. Though Hunter has a natural Southern accent, she said she liked the challenge of learning to speak as a Bostonian for the film. "I didn't want (the movie) to be relocated to the South," she said. "It wasn't difficult. It was time-consuming but great fun."

Of the "Once Around" script, she said "Good writing is hard to come by. This one was a definite standout."

The Swedish Hallstrom, whose film "My Life As a Dog" was nominated for an Oscar, said his first experience working in the United States was most enjoyable and he hopes to make another American film soon.

The soft-spoken Hallstrom said Richard Dreyfuss, who co-stars in "Once Around" as a loud, overbearing salesman Hunter falls for, much to the chagrin of her family, was "fearless" in approaching this difficult character. "I was sort of the coward. At times I couldn't understand (the character). So I held back, and Richard was the bold one. We shot it both ways - the bolder version and my Swedish coward version. We went with the bolder version most of the time."

In addition to co-producing with Robinson, Dunne has acted in many films and has a small role in "Once Around" as Hunter's boyfriend, a less than lovable character. "I didn't want to want to play this snake, this worm," Dunne said, claiming Hallstrom talked him into it. But Hallstrom said, "I'd seen his work. (Casting him) made perfect sense." Robinson carried the joke further: "He was the perfect actor for the role. We felt he could bring a lot to the role."

In Redford's absence, the crowds at the Crossroads Cinemas were greeted by von der Esch, Robinson and Sundance Institute president Gary Beer.

The festival began in earnest Friday with films in Park City, as well as screenings at the Cineplex Odeon Trolley Corners Theaters in Salt Lake City.