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
While not “autobiographical”, everything in the film is based on
personal experiences, relationships, characters and memories from my
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?”
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, 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.
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.
few words about the shoot as such, and the on-set atmosphere?
The production of
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.
you can tell us about audience and critical reception of Liza,
Liza, Skies are Grey?
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, 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
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,
Feeling lucky ?
any of my partnershops yourself
for more, better results ?
The links below
will take you
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
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,
Anything else you're dying to tell us
that I've merely forgotten to ask?
No, enjoyed the questions!
Thanks for the