Recalling the Past (and the Future) with Terry Sanders
by Brandon Judell
PBS Channels this week are showcasing the documentary “Into the Future: On the Preservation of Knowledge in the Electronic Age.” If you believe films are having a hard time not decomposing, you might think twice about those computer and tape records containing your most beloved creative thoughts. Paper lasts for decades. Engraved rocks for centuries. Word Perfect for . . .?
The director/writer/producer of these 56 minutes of stern warning is one Terry Sanders, who has quite a reputation in the industry, one that bypassed me until now. When film historian and Professor at the School of Visual Arts Eugene Stavis heard I spoke to Terry, he immediately exclaimed, “Oh, yes. The Sanders Brothers!” as others might easily note “The Marx Brothers.”
The Sanders siblings have been making films from the mid-fifties on and gathering awards ever since. Terry was producer/director of “Screenwriters: Word into Image” (1982), six one-hour interviews with the likes of William Goldman, Robert Towne, and Paul Mazursky. Additionally, he was producer/director of “Portrait of Zubin Mehta“, “The Legend of Marilyn Monroe” and “In Pursuit of Peace,” plus cameraman for the Lotte Lenya-narrated “Interregnum/George Grosz,” “Jung Sai/Chinese Americans” and Fred Zinneman’s “Off the Highway.” He also produced the Oscar-winning “Maya Lin: A Strong Clear Vision” and was Oscar-nominated last in 1995 for his own effort “Never Give Up: The 20th Century Odyssey of Herbert Zipper.” And the list goes on and on.
We could continue but out of fear that these digital notes might soon prove unreadable if we don’t move it, on with the interview.
indieWIRE: You started out on “The Night Of The Hunter” (1955)?
Terry Sanders: That was my first job in the motion picture industry. I directed the second unit. Charles Laughton was the director. He had seen the film that my brother and I had made, “A Time Out of War” which was a civil war short story. It was shot along a river, and I photographed it as well as co produced it. And so he liked the river footage and therefore he was glad to have me go back and film the scenes along the Ohio River with the children floating down and various shots of a double for Robert Mitchum riding horseback and so forth. Yeah, so that was my first job.
iW: That’s a pretty good beginning to a career.
Sanders: It was. And after then that, “A Time Out of War” won the Oscar for Best Dramatic Short Film. That was a fantastic beginning. It was like too fast.
iW: Then you wrote the screenplay adaptation of Norman Mailer’s “The Naked and the Dead” directed by Raoul Walsh.
Sanders: Yeah, my brother and I have the sole credit but between you and me, it was ruined. It went to their writers. Originally, Charles Laughton was going to direct “The Naked and the Dead,” and we were working with Charles. Then what happened was — these are footnotes to film history here — “The Night of the Hunter,” which is today a classic, at that time was not a financial success.
iW: Now what broke your spirit and pushed you into the documentary field — or was that just a move fostered by an over abundance of intelligence?
Sanders: That’s a good question. I did with my brother two independent feature films. One an adaptation of “Crime and Punishment” shot in Venice, California which introduced George Hamilton. “Crime and Punishment — USA” (1958) it was called. Then “War Hunt” (1961) which introduced Robert Redford and was named one of the ten best films of the year. It was a Korean War antiwar story.
But what pushed me into documentaries I guess were two things. One, at that time, it was really tough doing independent films unlike today. And the union situation . . . I’m all for unions but the union situation at that time . . . the Teamsters drivers were getting paid more than I was as producer and co- director. I mean for low-budget films, it was financially terrible to work at that level. Also I had always loved documentaries any way. So David Wolper was starting out about right that time. This was in the early sixties, and I switched over to doing documentaries, first with him and then on my own.
iW: With your documentaries, you were the first to grab on to certain subjects like the deterioration of books and now on the dangers of keeping records digitally, but have any of your works been controversial, and if so, have you ever gotten into trouble?
Sanders: I think the fiction film called “War Hunt,” which was a very powerful antiwar story, when it was released overseas like in Italy, they said, “If we had made this, we’d be in jail.” It was a very, very strong antiwar film. It was about a soldier in the Korean war, a U.S. soldier who was psychotic and went out and killed behind enemy lines at night with a knife. And when the cease fire comes, he still continues to go out because he doesn’t recognize the cease fire. The message, without having to say it, is that war is a psychotic endeavor and if you’re crazy, your craziness won’t be seen. It will be invisible. That was controversial in a way, certainly with the army which didn’t give us any cooperation.
I would say though most of the documentaries that I do are not particularly controversial.
iW: Certain documentarians are looking for subjects that are flashy. Is that the way to get more money or build a career? You seem to have remained around quite awhile with just solid, intelligent choices.
Sanders: Well, thank you. I’ve been lucky. It’s like you’re in a boat and you’re navigating from island to island, the films being the islands. You always hope to reach an island before you run out of food and water. One thing leads to another.
An example: It just so happened that Lillian Gish was an actress in “The Night of the Hunter.” Years later I went to her to do a biography on her which won the prime time Emmy that year. You sort of connect. If you build up chips or good will on one project, you can make it pay off on another project.