Two-time Academy Award winning director-writer-producer Terry Sanders has accumulated a long and eclectic resume in his six decades in the film industry. From directing 1966’s “The Legend of Marilyn Monroe” to producing 1994’s “Maya Lin: A Clear Strong Vision,” Sanders has brought much to the history of American documentary filmmaking. His latest film, which he co-wrote, directed and produced, is “Fighting For Life,” which follows American military doctors, nurses and medics on the front lines of the Iraq War. Sanders talked to indieWIRE about the film, which is opening in New York this Friday, March 7, before expanding across the United States throughout the rest of the month.
Please tell us about yourself… What initially attracted you to filmmaking, and how has that interest evolved during your career?
What attracted me early to filmmaking was a basic love of photography, writing and movie-going and the fact that when I grew up in L.A. in the 40’s and 50’s, movies were “in the air.” With my school friends, we used to scale the fences of 20th Century Fox studios and roam the sets of sound stages.
I was one of the very early film school students, attending UCLA with my older brother, Denis, when there were only two other film schools in the whole country — USC and NYU.
UCLA provided excellent technical instruction in movie-making and also instilled a love and respect for the pioneers and the history of film. It also provided equipment and complete creative freedom if you could scrape together enough money to make a film. While at UCLA. my brother and I produced and directed a short documentary on narcotics, “Subject: Narcotics,” with the L.A. County Sheriff’s Narcotics Detail, and then, in 35mm film (“the professional stuff”), we made “A Time Out of War,” an American Civil War dramatic short which became the first student film in the history of the world to win an Oscar.
My first job out of film school was to direct the 2nd unit of “Night of the Hunter” for director Charles Laughton and then I took various screenwriting jobs because studios in those days weren’t ready yet for young film school graduates to make a whole feature film. Denis and I went on to independently produce and direct two features: “Crime and Punishment, a modern adaptation of the Dostoievski novel, and “War Hunt” a Korean War story which introduced Robert Redford to movies.
After 10 years of working in dramatic films, I got into directing, writing and producing documentaries (including “The Legend of Marilyn Monroe“) with David Wolper and then formed my own company, making over 70 films and picking up another Oscar (“Maya Lin“) and several more nominations, and forming with my partner, Freida Lee Mock, the non-profit production company American Film Foundation based in Santa Monica.
Are there other aspects of filmmaking (either on the creative side or industry side etc.) that you would still like to explore?
There are many films I’m looking forward to making including the dramatic feature “Tokyo Rose.”
Please talk about how the initial idea for “Fighting for Life” came about.
“Fighting for Life” began as a project to save a school. The mom of a student at USU, the unique medical school in Bethesda, Maryland, that trains doctors and nurses for the military and the Public Health Service contacted me. She said the school needed a film to “put it on the map” so people would know about it, and not allow it to be closed for cost-cutting reasons. After visiting USU, I was very impressed, and agreed to embark on the film. But then the Iraq War intervened and over the 3 year production period, the scope of the film grew until it became an odyssey into the world of military medicine in a time of war.
Please elaborate a bit on your approach to making the film…
The challenge of “Fighting for Life” was to make an apolitical film, which would not preach to any choir, but would capture the essence and the reality of military medicine in a time of war. Everything in the film is real — unstaged and unrehearsed and filmed in HDV entirely in available light — no movie lights — by two of the best documentary cameramen in the world, Erik Daarstad and Buddy Squires.
What were some of the biggest challenges you faced in either developing the project or making and securing distribution?
Access to the entire world of military medicine, including combat hospitals in Iraq while retaining absolute creative control, was very important. Also, structuring and weaving together the three story strands: the school, doctors and nurses at war, and the stories of the wounded, was the great challenge of the editing process.
For the theatrical release, Mark Cuban and Todd Wagner‘s innovative Truly Indie distribution company, a sister company of Landmark Theatres, came along at just the right time.
How did the financing for the film come together?
“Fighting for Life” was independently funded over a 3 year period by over 100 individuals, foundations and corporations who believed that this was a film that needed to be made. There is no Defense Department or USU funding in the film. Tammy Alvarez, the “mom” who initially brought the idea of the film to me, raised almost all the funds single-handedly.
What are some of the creative influences that have had the biggest impact on you?
The most useful teaching I ever absorbed in film school and something I keep coming back to is: “The important action isn’t on the screen. The important action is in the mind of the audience.”
What is your next project?
Besides the dramatic feature “Tokyo Rose” which will star Martin Sheen as the courageous defense lawyer who came to the aid of an innocent girl pitted against the overwhelming power of Government, I recently bought the rights to a wonderful science fiction story by Ray Bradbury.
What is your definition of “independent film,” and has that changed at all since you first started working?
To me, “independent film,” if it has any meaning at all, means that creative control resides with the filmmaker.
What general advice would you impart to emerging filmmakers?
Protect your honorably earned screen credits, own the copyrights of your films if at all possible, and never give up.
Will you please share with us an achievement from your career so far that you are most proud of?
Constantly exploring new territory and surviving. Understanding that it’s a bumpy road and that you’ve got to be able to absorb defeats when they come and then, “bounce back.”