Terry Sanders is a two-time Academy Award documentary filmmaker who has made over 70 films. Mr. Sanders” most notable film is “Maya Lin: A Strong Clear Vision” in which he won his second Academy Award. “Fighting For Life” is about the Iraq War and gives a behind-the-scenes look at military medicine. It is an intense look into our U.S. soldiers’ battle wounds, the treatment they receive, and their fight for life. He talks about what it has been like to win two Academy Awards, and also about his next film “Tokyo Rose”, a true-life story about Iva Ikuko Toguri, who was wrongly convicted of treason during World War II.
ASIANCE: What inspired this film Fighting for Life?
Terry: It started out with a phone call from the mother of a student at this school in Bethesda Maryland, which is called USU and it trains the doctors for the military and also for the public health service. And her son was going to this school and she was very aware that it was in danger of being closed because people didn’t know about it and the government thought it could save money by closing the school. But it was the only school of its kind. So she calls me and says, “You know, if people knew about the school they wouldn’t allow it to be closed and we need you to film.” So that was the start of it; it started out as a film to rescue the school from being closed but then with the war in Iraq happening it enlarged the scope and became a film about the war and about military medicine in the time of war. So I went through Germany, then to Iraq and then to the school. So it became like three stories: the school, the wounded, and the military doctors and nurses all woven together.
Click to watch “The Fighting for Life” Trailer
ASIANCE: I’ll get back to “Fighting For Life”, but I was wondering about how it relates to your Academy Award winning film (1995) about Maya Lin, who designed the Vietnam Veterans’ Memorial. Do you think there are young individuals today involved in memorial projects or Iraq War projects that you recognize?
Terry: That’s a good question. I’m sure there will be. But, just as with the Vietnam War it took time. It will happen. I just don’t think it’s so visible now. And even like with Maya- that evolved out of this course she was taking on War Memorials at Yale. There was this contest and the timing was amazing how it came up. So I think there are tides of events happening and at a certain point there will probably be another tide where we need a memorial. And hopefully great artists like Maya will emerge to do something.
ASIANCE: What did it feel like when you won your Academy Awards, each time?
Terry: Well, the first time I was just out of UCLA’s graduate program. And it was wonderful, like funny, almost. I remember going up. Rod Steiger and Edmond O’Brien handed my brother and me the Oscars. The Oscar was heavy. The first thing I felt was, “Oh my God this is heavy.” And then for some reason I was laughing, I just thought this has never happened before where a student film wins an Oscar. And I remember Walt Disney looking very puzzled because he had a film up that we beat. And he shook our hands, and I could tell he couldn’t quite understand. So, it was great. But there wasn’t a big group then. There wasn’t a huge party. We just went with my mother and our agent and had champagne or something at a restaurant.
The second time, with Maya Lin, I had been nominated like 5 or 6 times, so it was nice when they read off the award for feature documentary and they read the name. I remember it was John Travolta and Samuel Jackson… I didn’t hear it. I thought someone else had won so I didn’t get up for a moment or two, I guess I didn’t believe it would win, I don’t know. And then, Oh! It won, so. We went up and Freida (Lee Mock) gave a very nice acceptance and there wasn’t time for me to say anything. And then we went backstage and it was like, you’re different after. The minute before you win people look at you one way. The minute after, you’re the same person but people look at you differently. It’s kind of nice, you know, but you have to keep your perspective and you’re still the same person. You’ve just got this Oscar now.
It’s a lot of luck and timing, you know, I mean obviously you have to make a decent film but sometimes the best films don’t get the Oscar and you just count yourself lucky when you do. So we have at the house actually three Oscars now, one is in the so-called powder room when guests come in. There’s this big mirror there so when guests come in they can hold the Oscar and pretend like they’re making their speech.
ASIANCE: Was it hard to capture the emotional impact of the morbidity in the film Fighting For Life? What is your unique style of capturing that?
Terry: Well, real war is almost all emotion. It’s either fear, or horror, or boredom, or something. It’s very intense and that’s why I guess there are a lot of war films in fiction because it is very dramatic. But filming real war from the point of view of the doctors and nurses is something that really hadn’t been done before. The overall emotion is of shock from seeing wounds and seeing amputations, all that, it’s there and very hot emotion. But also, the emotions which the doctors and nurses have which are repressed because they have to do their work and they can’t be crying when they’re doing it-I was very aware at certain moments in the film to let those emotions come out of the people. There was this one doctor (woman), who cries as she talks about some of the patients that she’s had and then there’s the head nurse of the intensive care unit who also does cry. But it also has to be controlled you know, you don’t want crying all the time and so… the film is still all about emotion. Editing 150 hours down to the 89 minutes, everything that wasn’t emotional in some way -though there are lighter moments too, thank God there are a few laughs-but anything that wasn’t emotional was … taken away.
ASIANCE: What is the purpose of showing the cadaver’s arm close up in the military medical class scene and other themes of amputations and graphic injuries?
Terry: You’re talking about in the anatomy dissection lab with the arm? Yes, well, the arm as a theme is all the way through. Also, in one scene, in the lecture room at the school they show a damaged arm from war and how they were able to transplant the muscle so they could use the arm and then later on in Iraq you see the soldier with his thumb blown off, and later in the naval hospital you see wounded arms healing.
So, throughout the film these things connect up, like when military doctors go to visit the Civil War battlefields and they show old pictures of piles of feet that were amputated during that war, it relates to today. It’s like, connections. I felt in this film, wounds of the arms and legs are going to be much more accessible to the audience because you can look at your hand or you can feel your arm; whereas if it’s something in your chest or your stomach or so forth it’s less visceral. But, by losing your thumb or your hand getting mangled, losing your arm for that matter, I find myself, when I see the film imagining what it would be like to have a stump instead of an arm or have no legs. It’s hard.
ASIANCE: In the film there was the story about Crystal, a young woman soldier who lost her foot; can you touch on the subject of women in war today, especially the Iraq War?
Terry: I think there are more and more women who do choose to go into the service; the army or air force as a career. Often they’re from smaller communities, where there isn’t a lot of opportunity and they see this as a way of traveling and seeing the world, learning, and developing skills. And more and more women are doing it. They’re not supposed to be combatants. They’re not supposed to be directly involved in fighting, but they are. In Crystal’s case she was driving in a convoy. So obviously the convoy is being attacked or shot at by IED’s, these explosive devices. It’s very, very dangerous. In Crystal’s case, as she said in the film, she knew she would go to Iraq but had no idea she would get wounded. She was a very unusual girl I felt, I mean; it’s a real strength of character. I couldn’t do that. I would have so much imagination about getting wounded or killed that it would hamper me. In her case, she did her job and wasn’t thinking about it.
Women are all throughout the services. The head of the hospital I think at Madison was Colonel Cornem, a woman who graduated from USU. Actually that’s when we started making the film because she was head of that hospital going on rotation to another assignment, and we wanted to film while she was there instead of another hospital. So many women are in the positions of leadership, particularly in the military medical world.
ASIANCE: Crystal’s story seemed to contain much vulnerability, as we haven’t seen many women amputated in war until recent times. It brings me to my next question – how do you see veterans from the Iraq War treated differently or similar to veterans of previous wars?
Terry: I think there’s a great danger as in previous wars, or if we go on 10 or 15 years they will be forgotten. People’s memories are so short. I mean, already right now most people aren’t even aware of the wounded at all. But even those who are aware are not going to be thinking about it at all in 10 or 15 years. But these young soldiers who are wounded or lost a leg or whatever at 19, in 15 years from now will only be 34. So, I think on one hand the technology is good, there are better prosthetics and better treatments and all kinds of things. But they’re still costly and there has to be recognition of the costs and allocation of the costs and that’s going to be a big fight for years. Veteran’s Administration has to be funded properly so it can do its work. And that’s going to be a big battle for Congress. But that’s one reason for making the film; to tell people not to forget the wounded, you know?
ASIANCE: Your next film “Tokyo Rose”, I know you can’t tell too much but can you talk about it a little?
Terry: Well, it’s a project that I’ve been dedicated to for at least five years now. There was actually a book called They Called Her Tokyo Rose written by Rex Gunn and I knew him. He had been a reporter at her trial in San Francisco in 1949. And I met him at UCLA in the 50’s. About 6 years ago or so, the screenplay came to me that was based on that book. It was a screenplay that needed a lot of work. I bought the book and spent a year re-writing the screenplay. I went to Tokyo and did research for the film. I’ve got Martin Sheen to play the lawyer who defended her. It’s an important story and Iva Toguri went to UCLA when I went to UCLA and she was absolutely and unjustly prosecuted as a traitor. I absolutely wanted to make this film. I have wanted to make this film because, again, it’s a film that needs to be made. People think she was a traitor or something or a spy but that’s totally wrong. She was an American Hero. She was very patriotic. She was ultimately pardoned and people don’t know that. So it’s important to make this film for her name but also Japanese American pride because they were treated horribly on the West Coast particularly. Also, the Irish-American San Francisco lawyer has never been honored properly. He was a great fighter for many Japanese Americans who interned and were going to be shipped back to Japan even though they were American.
ASIANCE: How can young people be most inspired by your work?
Terry: Get your friends to go see it. March 7th, the Quad Theater and after! And I’ll be there, that Friday and Saturday. See films more than once to really get the messages.
Fighting For Life premiers March 7th in New York City at the Quad Cinema and on March 21 in L.A. as well as other dates around the country. Check out the film’s website: www.fightingforlifethemovie.com