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An Interview with Terry Sanders, Director of Liza, Liza, Skies are Grey

by Mike Haberfelner

August 2020

Films directed by Terry Sanders on (re)Search my Trash

 

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Your new movie Liza, Liza, Skies are Grey - in a few words, what is it about?

 

It’s about two teenagers in the ‘60s trying to make sense of a confusing and treacherous world who decide to escape up the California coast to discover for themselves what life and love is all about.

 

What were your sources of inspiration when writing Liza, Liza, Skies are Grey, and is any of the film based on personal experiences?

 

While not “autobiographical”, everything in the film is based on personal experiences, relationships, characters and memories from my younger years.

 

Having actually lived through the 1960s, what made you want to revisit them for your movie?

 

Believe it or not, I actually wrote the screenplay in 1969 and almost made it then. The newly formed American Film Institute (AFI) under George Stevens jr was going to fund it under a deal they had with the studios which, unfortunately, fell through. I put the screenplay on the shelf, and 50 years later, my filmmaker daughter, Jessica Sanders, read it and said, “Dad, why don’t you make this?”

 

Filming a period piece, what are the challenges on both the production and directorial side of things?

 

On the production side, the challenges of making a period film on a micro budget are enormous. The ordinary ‘60s automobiles which could have been filmed for nothing in 1966 suddenly became “vintage” vehicles which, if not borrowed for free, could cost $800 a day to rent. The name of the game was finding locations which basically hadn’t changed since the ‘60s. They exist, but take diligent searching. Digital technology was a great help. With the click of a mouse, we could change the yellow highway lines of today to the white lines of the ‘60s, we could return the iconic Hollywood sign to its ‘60s state of disrepair; we could erase from walls contemporary electric light switches and we could eliminate from backgrounds multi-story buildings which hadn’t yet been built.

 

What can you tell us about your directorial approach to your story at hand?

 

I wanted to shoot Liza, Liza, Skies are Grey as if I were able to go back in time to 1966 and follow, with a small, very skillful crew, two real kids on an actual motorcycle trip up the coast. I knew that for 15 year old Liza, I wanted to discover an actual 15 year old actress who could embody the character. I’d seen too many coming-of-age films where teenagers were played by actors in their 20’s, and for both Liza and Brett, I wanted to cast actors who were age appropriate. The important thing was to find actors who naturally, without my having to “direct” them, fit the parts. Both Mikey Madison and Sean H. Scully [Sean H. Scully interview - click here] were perfect. They brought a lot of themselves to the roles and contributed many ideas and suggestions.

 

I was also very fortunate in having the collaboration of Erik Daarstad, my great long-time documentary cinematographer who had worked with me on over 30 films. With Erik, I was able to work quickly, film using the natural beauty of available light and to mostly complete scenes in only two or three takes.

 

Prior to Liza, Liza, Skies are Grey, you've mostly made documentaries - so why go into fictional filmaking with this one, and how does shooting fiction compare to shooting fact?

 

Fictional films as well as documentaries are in my roots. At UCLA film school, with my older brother, Denis, we made the Civil War dramatic short, A Time Out of War, which won first prize at the Venice Film Festival and the Academy Awards, the first student film to win an Oscar. My first job out of UCLA was directing the 2nd unit of Night of the Hunter for director Charles Laughton. After that, Denis and I made two fiction films, Crime and Punishment, USA and War Hunt, which introduced Robert Redford. In the 60s I started producing and directing for David Wolper, and then started my own documentary company. In the U.S., once you become established in either fiction films or documentaries, it’s hard to switch back and forth. And also, I love the creative freedom and absolute creative control I have in documentaries. It’s worth more than money. But I’m always drawn back to my fiction roots.

 

Do talk about Liza, Liza, Skies are Grey's key cast, and why exactly these people?

 

All the actors were cast through extensive auditions which I found to be a very wonderful and creative process for me as writer/director. You see the characters materialize off the pages of the script into fascinating people. You find actors who look and talk like the characters you’ve imagined, and you also find out, very importantly, if they can understand and accept your notes and make adjustments.

 

A few words about the shoot as such, and the on-set atmosphere?

 

The production of Liza, Liza, Skies are Grey was one of the most challenging, but also the most fun and enjoyable film experiences of my life. Everyone on our crew of 25 was enthusiastic and dedicated to the project. The film was made under the Screen Actors Guild low budget contract and no one in the cast or crew got paid any more or less than anyone else. Because we worked very efficiently, the hours were seldom very long. One “secret” to a happy set — good hot meals every day and first class well maintained port-a-potties.

 

Anything you can tell us about audience and critical reception of Liza, Liza, Skies are Grey?

 

When Liza, Liza, Skies are Grey first came out I had several test screenings in theaters. The audience response was always extremely positive. Oddly, however, aside from motorcycle film festivals, festivals generally shied away from the film. When it opened in theaters in New York and Los Angeles to qualify it for the Oscars, many reviews were dismissive and disappointing, something that surprised me.

 

Any future projects you'd like to share?

 

I just completed a portrait film of a World War II combat Marine and great humanitarian judge, 9th CIRCUIT COWBOY: The Long, Good Fight of Judge Harry Pregerson. I’m looking for a release nationwide in the fall.

 

What got you into filmmaking in the first place, and documentary filmmaking at that, and did you recieve any formal training on the subject?

 

I got into still photography at age 11. My father, an industrial designer and architect in New York, was an avid home movie enthusiast. He also loved movies and would early on take me and my brother to see the latest foreign films and experimental movies at the Museum of Modern Art. When I turned 18, my brother and I spent a summer in Mexico City. We had a $50 16mm wind-up Victor camera, two photo flood lights, a book on filmmaking by the Russian filmmaker Pudovkin, and another book How to Make Movies.’ We made a short documentary on the National Lottery of Mexico. The whole experience taught us that while we loved making movies, we better go to school and learn how to make them. UCLA film school was the perfect solution.

 

What can you tell us about your filmwork prior to Liza, Liza, Skies are Grey?

 

I’ve made about 70 films prior to Liza, Liza, Skies are Grey, mostly documentaries including the Oscar-winning Maya Lin: A Strong Clear Vision and the Prime Time Emmy-winner Lillian Gish: The Actors Life for Me.

 

You've been working in the business for quite some time - so how has the filmworld changed over the years, for better or worse?

 

The technology, both image-capturing and editing, are hugely better, and opportunities for young people are far greater. The challenge remains the same: finding a great story and telling it in the best possible way.

 

How would you describe yourself as a director?

 

Experienced but open to learning something new on every film.

 

Filmmakers who inspire you?

 

DeSica, Chaplin, Carol Reed, Hitchcock, Truffaut, Godard, Clouzot, Kurasawa.

 

Your favourite movies?

 

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Bicycle Thieves, The Third Man, Lady Vanishes, Day For Night, To Be or Not To Be, The Wages of Fear.

 

... and of course, films you really deplore?

 

Films that way over-use music to push them along and tell the audience what to feel and when to feel it.

 

Your/your movie's website, social media, whatever else?

 

LIZALIZAMOVIE.COM

 

Anything else you're dying to tell us that I've merely forgotten to ask?

 

No, enjoyed the questions!

 

Thanks for the interview!

 

© by Mike Haberfelner


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Thanks for watching !!!



 

 

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On the same day
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A Killer Conversation

produced by and starring
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directed by
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written by
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starring
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Rudy Barrow

out now on DVD