The Boomer List: Timothy Greenfield-Sanders
As the last baby boomer turns fifty this year, photographer/filmmaker Timothy Greenfield-Sand- ers brings us The Boomer List, a fascinating series of interviews with influential Americans
born between 1946 and 1964. From environmentalist Erin Brockovich (1960) to actor John Leguizamo (1964), from photographer David LaChapelle (1963) to writer Amy Tan (1952), these remarkable individuals recount their personal intersection with the historical movements they experienced firsthand. Following his highly successful Black List, Latino List, and Out
List, Greenfield-Sanders alternates the interviews with still portraits from his archives to create
a montage of movements, events, and people bursting with insight into the past and fresh ideas on where to take our country from here. •Availability: Premieres nationally on PBS’s American Masters series, September 23, 9-10:30 p.m. (check local listings). The portraits will be on display at the Newseum, Washington, D.C., from September 26, 2014, through June 30, 2105. A DVD
of the documentary, as well as a companion book of the portraits, will be available October 1. • Thanks to Natasha Padilla, WNET, for arranging this interview.•
DT: In addition to your subjects’ personal anecdotes and the images they conjure of a particular historical era, the film raises the question of what lies behind a portrait. As a portraitist in both still and documentary, can you address that issue?
TGS: When we look at a portrait and learn something about the person, we all read into it to some extent what we want to read into it. I’ve always felt that if the portrait could talk, it would certainly give you its take on what you’re seeing. The List series originally was a way to bring my portraits to life—talking portraits—and to keep a distinctive personal portrait style, a single light, clean backdrop, the focus on the person, and bring that into film. I started out as a filmmaker, so film was my first language before photography.
DT: The Boomer List follows from your previous work—Black List, Out List. How do you decide which list you want to do?
TGS: The Black List gave birth to The Latino List and then The Out List. Once we did the first Black List, there were screams for volume two and volume three, and other people were saying, “Where are the Latinos?”
And all of my gay friends were saying, “Where is the Out List?” I think they were a natural progression from the original film.
DT: How did you end up doing The Boomer List?
TGS: Myrna Blyth, the head of AARP, called me after seeing About Face, my supermodel film [about famous beauties who have reached “a certain age”]. She called to say congratulations, you don’t know me but I loved the film, it’s very much our demographic, I loved that you focused on the reinvention of these women.
DT: So Isabella Rossellini is a member of AARP?
TGS: Whether they have a card or not, they’re certainly the age group. Myrna and I started talking, and she said, “2014 is the year the last boomers turn fifty. Do you have any thoughts on that?” And I immediately said, “Why don’t we do a Boomer List?” The timing was perfect, and AARP got really excited about it. Because of the films I’d already made, they felt comfortable that I could do it.
DT: For The Out List, you did the interviews first and then made the photographs. Is that the way you usually work?
TGS: In most cases. If I’m doing a portrait, I like to spend a little time with the person beforehand. We sit and have coffee or eat something, and I’m kind of analyzing them and getting them comfortable and in the mood to do that portrait. By doing the interview first, not only am I learning more about the person but we’re also creat- ing that atmosphere. The hard thing in these situations is that I don’t have a lot of time. In some cases I did these portraits in two minutes. In some cases I had ten. Some of the interviewees had a car waiting to get to another appointment, and I literally said, “I’m doing six frames on you and that’s it.” That’s what I shot.
DT: Did you shoot the portraits immediately after the interview, in the same place?
TGS: Yes. In most cases it was in my studio. We would quickly move out the main light and the camera we’d used for the interview. The other stuff was already set up. We’d roll it into place, and I would take the portrait. It was a little chaotic, but I’ve been doing this for forty years. I know how to look at anybody’s face and tell imme- diately what I need to do. I can tell their best side, I can see what’s going to work. So much of what I’m able to do fast is because I can see what’s not going to work. You look at someone and you say, Well, arms folded always works, but I’ve done that ten times. How do I do something interesting and new that also feels correct for this person? I remember asking Colin Powell to put his hands in his pockets, and he said, “We don’t do that. We’re military men.”
DT: In the portraits on your website, Colin Powell’s portrait appears in The Black List and Politics. It was inter- esting that you treated the same person in different ways, depending on the series you were shooting.
TGS: The boomer list was an exciting group to do. When you’re doing a series, the hardest thing is to keep in mind what you’ve done with the other people. Let’s face it—the body can only go into so many poses that are going to be natural or interesting or not contrived, so how do you do nineteen portraits and keep them fresh and at the same time make it interesting?
DT: Was your primary focus on the portraits or the interviews?
TGS: I’m so crazy that I did it all. I directed and produced the movie. With these kinds of films, ninety percent is the logistics of getting the people here. The portraiture at the end is really fun for me. It was a little stressful because I didn’t have a lot of time, but I like the zen challenge of it. To take a portrait in six frames,
sometimes eight at the most, that’s what I do. And I kind of like that. Avedon once said that the reason he shoots large format is that it’s more difficult, and I agree with that. Anyone can shoot a thousand frames with a 5D and end up with something.
DT: I think that tends to generally be true for people who use large format. It makes them slow down, it makes them really work.
TGS: And think about what you’re actually shooting. You’re wasting a lot of money otherwise. It’s too expensive. With digital it doesn’t cost you anything. When you’re shooting an 8×10 sheet of film and you have to process it and proof it, then scan it to 650 megabytes, you’ve got to think about it.
DT: Someone spoke in the film about the mythology that surrounds this generation. Given that mythology, did you select your interviewees in order to reinforce or to break that mythology?
TGS: I tried to have touchstones of the generation; of course I had to talk about Vietnam, civil rights, women’s rights, gay rights, the environment, business, computers, in very complicated ways. That generation dealt with so many of those big moments, so I was looking for people who could speak to that. At the same time, it was a very hard thing to balance, because once you’ve picked someone from a particular year, you’ve eliminated everyone else from that year and all those professions. If you pick Billy Joel, that’s your musician, and you’ve locked out everybody else in his year. And there are so many great people. It was much harder than The Black List or the other lists, because that was really based on achievement and a kind of a balance of men and women. With The Latino List there was another factor of balancing Mexican, Puerto Rican, Cuban. The Out List had its issues, but The Boomer List was supercomplicated. I’ve said it was like doing a Rubik’s Cube in the dark.
DT: That’s a great image. I really liked the way that national themes like the ones you just mentioned were brought out in the context of personal stories, like [Latina astronaut and director of the Johnson Space Center] Ellen Ochoa’s anecdote about Mexicans in her high school not being able to use the pool until the day before the cleaners came, or [Vietnam vet and author] Tim O’Brien’s story about his platoon singing, “Hey, Jude” in a rice paddy in Vietnam.
TGS: Some people gave us so much depth that it was hard to cut their interview down. Tim O’Brien’s is a long one, but I couldn’t cut that story out. And I thought Rosie [O’Donnell] was just fabulous.
DT: Very moving. Why did you decide not to include the questions in the interviews?
TGS: None of the List films do. It goes back to my portraiture come to life. It’s really my subjects talking. You don’t need to hear the question. We have a kind of complicated setup where they’re looking in the camera. They’re seeing the interviewer on a kind of teleprompter, and they’re in a dark room with the light on them, and it’s a very tense way to interview someone.
DT: So you weren’t doing the interviews?
TGS: I did some of them, but on this film, different people did them for different reasons. In The Latino List, Ma- ria Hinojosa did them with Sandra Guzman. In The Out List, Sam McConnell, a producer friend of mine who’s gay, wanted to do them, and I think he was the right person to do them. In this case, it was more about who on our team felt they wanted to do it. Sometimes I preferred not to do it, because I could then butt in as the director and say, “What about this?” I could see it from above.
DT: One of my favorite moments in the film was when Samuel Jackson says, “Going to jail is not a rite of passage for black people. I read. I write. I conjugate.”
TGS: Amazing, right? And then he laughs, that wonderful laugh.
DT: I also loved the moment when Billy Joel was talking about being embarrased by his mother saying, “I’m Bil- ly Joel’s mother” and he would say, “Oh, Mom, come on.” I mean, we’ve all had that “Oh, Mom” moment.
TGS: I just adored that. It humanized him so well.
DT: You started out in film. Why did you move to still photography?
TGS: I was in graduate school at AFI, the American Film Institute. The school needed someone to take portraits for the archive, and no one wanted to do it—all my classmates had become very famous directors and producers. I raised my hand and said I’d do it, so I started to photograph the visiting dignitaries who came to the school. What I mean by that is we would watch every film by Hitchcock for three weeks, and then Hitchcock would come and sit with the twenty-five of us. Hitchcock said to me, “Your light’s in the wrong place.” I said, “Well, I really don’t know what I’m doing,” and he said, “Come to the studio. I’ll introduce you to the lighting people.” With Bette Davis, I leaned down to shoot her and she said, “What the fuck are you doing shooting from below? You never shoot from below.” I said, “I really don’t know what I’m doing,” and she said, “Can you drive a car?” I said sure, and she said, “I need a driver. Pick me up tomorrow and I’ll teach you about photography.” I drove her around for a week and we talked about [George] Hurrell, and she told me about why she’s lit a certain way. We’d have Bloody Marys at ten thirty in the morning, and I started to fall in love with portraiture. I learned at the feet of the greatest film producers, directors, and actors in Hollywood. By the time I had finished my degree, I really loved photograpy, and right around that point I bought an 11×14 view camera. I switched from 35mm to 11×14, and when I moved back to New York, I brought the camera and started shooting portraits with it. That sort of started my career.
DT: Let’s go back to Boomer List for one minute. I want to talk about your final interview with historian [and HistoryMakers founder] Julieanna Richardson. Can you talk about that interview in particular? I don’t want to call it a performance, but she was tremendously moving.
TGS: She was amazing. We already had someone for 1954, but we were having such trouble with this woman that I just said, “Let’s move on. This is not going to work out.” So I called up my friend Bethann Hardison, who was in About Face, and asked if there was someone in this age range who was interesting and I hadn’t thought about. And she said, “Julieanna Richardson. She’s incredible. You’re going to love her.” On Bethann’s word, we brought Julieanna to New York. We were just astounded. It’s one of the best interviews, and I end the film with it because it’s so profound—very emotional but also so uplifting. Her life story. Harvard. Black pride. Everything she touches on.
DT: Is there anything you’d like to add?
TGS: I’m very proud of The Boomer List. It was hard to know if it would even work. The other films relied on a sense of identity and struggle and achievement, and here it’s a broader world. Are you really going to be interest- ed in these famous people and their struggles? I think you are; we brought out a side of each person that I think is special and different and unexpected.
DT: Did you know their stories going in?
DT: Did you know their stories going in?
TGS: In some cases, like Tommy [Hilfiger], I did. All of a sudden, he was on a billboard in Times Square, and I remember thinking, Who the fuck is this guy? I remember it so well. Everyone in New York was talking about it, but today nobody knows that story. It’s an amazing Horatio Alger story, at the same time it’s Mad Men, and advertising, and branding. It touches on a lot of very current issues.
DT: I think that’s the success of the film.
TGS: It has an important sense of history, but it’s also very relatable. If you’re young, you can watch it and learn a lot of things you don’t know.
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