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 call 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
The Sanders siblings have been making films from the mid-fifties on and
gathering awards ever since. But let’s concentrate on Mr. Terry.
He was producer/director of “Screenwriters: Word into Image” (1982), six
one- hour interviews with the likes of William Goldman, Robert Towne, and
Paul Mazursky (Emmy nomination for Outstanding Informational Series).
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
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
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
iW: It was pretty much an all-out flop back then.
Sanders: Yeah, even though it didn’t cost that much either. That crushed
Charles’ spirit. If there’s one thing you have to have in the movie
business, it’s resiliency to survive not succeeding once in a while. Or
maybe a lot of times. But he wasn’t able to. He never directed another
film. He did a lot of acting, Charles Laughton, after that, but it broke
his spirit as far as directing. Prior to that he directed stage. He
directed “The Caine Mutiny Court Martial.”
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: As you were making “Into the Future” on the vulnerability of digital
records, did you get to wondering about the preservation of your own films?
Or is there no correlation?
Sanders: Well, I recognized with own work that I have been very derelict. First
of all, the films that I did 20 years ago in color are purple now. That’s
because Eastman Kodak wasn’t thinking of long term preservation. And the
videos . . . I actually have some reel-to-reel videos that are barely
playable. You can’t play them. The material backing is flaking off, and the
machines . . . There are only one or two in the city.
But it’s a major concern. I’m like everybody else. You have to pay
attention. You have to migrate your electronically recorded films to newer
formats. So now we’re basically migrating to digital beta cam which seems
to be a pretty good format for the next 5 years anyway. But anything
important, you have to keep migrating.
I was motivated to do this film because when I read the popular books on the
lays of the subject like Bill Gates’”The Road Ahead” and Nicholas
Negroponte’s “Being Digital,” there were hundreds and hundreds of pages,
but not a single sentence devoted to preservation.
I look at this documentary as being in the tradition, not to be pompous, of
Rachel Carson’s “Silent Spring” where she was writing about something that
nobody cared about when she wrote the book. But she turned out to be very
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
iW: Certain documentarians, like say Errol Morris, are looking for subjects
that are flashy. Is that the way to get more money or build a career.
You’ve seem to have remained around quite awhile with just solid,
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