On Saturday afternoon, I was sitting in the filmmaker’s lounge having coffee and a salad preparing to go see the film A Lot in Common. While writing another story, I couldn’t help but overhear a conversation at the table. I heard the words New York, my grandmother, mention of her estate, their relationship and I was pretty intrigued. I was on my way to watch a film about a grandmother and her grandson and here this man sitting across from me was speaking about his similar story. I intercepted the conversation and set up a time to meet that evening to find out more.
Peter Sanders is the director and producer of the film Altina. He is an award winning documentary filmmaker. Altina is making its world premiere at the Sarasota Film Festival with screenings this Sunday at 2:45pm and Monday at 5:45pm. A very intriguing man who has so much history in his family that the hour we spent barely touched the surface. There are several more layers to peel back, for now here is what I thought you should know.
My one-on-one interview with Peter Sanders about his film Altina
Why did you choose Sarasota to premiere your film?
The film is a about a spectacular artist who started out age one in NYC from age one. She was an artist, painter, sculptor living all the decades of this last century. She’s like the Forest Gump of the women’s liberation movement connected to all these incredible people. Her art was very valuable to look at and her spirit was very important because she had many marriages, lots of lovers, a lot of sex and a fantastic eye for things. She was also very difficult to be around.
I feel Sarasota had all the same qualities my grandmother Altina Schinasi lived for. It’s a great town because it has openness to it; it’s a liberating town. The female spirit is very strong and has a lot of independence to it. There a lot of people who are interested in creativity and the arts here. It’s almost like a mirror of the places she lived.
How did you find out about Sarasota?
I knew there were great art and artists here. It’s an older crowd. My grandmother’s life really took off at age 50 and up. She was married at age 83 for the fourth time to a 42-year-old artist from Cuba. I felt Sarasota has a lot of older people who love and support the arts. I figured they would relate to watch an 83-year-old woman who acted like she’s 43.
What is the demographic for your film?
The perfect age is 45 and up. I am sure there are young minds that would be very uplifted to see it. But they are going to see archived footage that I own and dug up from every relative that shows inside the mansion that her father built in the 1900s. It’s the largest mansion in NYC and she was born there. They’ll see archival footage of the lifestyle on Park Avenue in the 1910s and 1920s. She invented the harlequin glasses in the 1930s and every woman in America wore them. She went on to do all these artful projects that were a part of history. She made a movie about Martin Luther King, Jr. She married a man who was one of the think tank people for the cold war launching. She also married a man who was 40 years younger than her who was a refugee. She was just so different from most women that I ever met. She always made it about you and loved to know what you were doing. She found other people interesting, she didn’t find herself interesting. She was the most upbeat person I’ve known and she was an atheist.
What would your grandmother say today about your film?
She would criticize a few things because she’s never going to give anybody an A+. Overall she would think it would be a wonderful tribute to her life. That someone like me really took the time to dissect her friendships, relationships with her men and her art and put it into context with how we all lived during this time.
How long has it been since your grandmother passed?
She passed away 13 years ago.
Was she someone who inspired you?
I feared her more because she had money and she could change my life with her money. I think there was admiration and fear wound in to one. I was very proud she was my grandmother. I felt she couldn’t really show me or tell me who she really was deep down inside. So the movie was important to find out through other people.
What did you find out through other people that surprised you?
She was harder on her relatives than her friends. She was a lot more generous than I knew. She put a dozen or so people through college. She gave her money to a lot of causes, animals, adopted children and the arts.
She loved what she did but never took herself seriously as an artist. She never felt her art was as good as others thought it was.
What obstacles did you incur in making this film?
Dealing with my executive producer; my sister who had a different view than my grandmother than I did because she was older than me and spent more time with her.
Are your parents still alive?
My father, Dennis Sanders, passed away in 1987. He was an Oscar-winning director. My mother is alive and very able. She’s still publishing books on music. She was just last year the head curator at the Tucson Museum of Music.
What would you like to see happen with this film?
I would like it to have one week in New York and one week in LA on a theatrical release. The greatest goal is to have a couple broadcasts on a cable station. Bravo, PBS or American Experience would be ideal.
Who would want to watch your film?
It’s a women’s movie without a doubt. Anyone who is in the art world would be interested, a writer or actor or anyone with a liberal mind. It’s a whimsical non-judgmental way to live. She never had an agenda, everyday was like, what am I going to do today.
Did you always want to be a filmmaker?
My father, uncle, aunt and grandmother all have won six academy awards for directing feature films and documentaries since I was born. My father discovered Robert Redford, George Hamilton and put them in their first movies and many other stars as well. I always grew up wanting to do something bigger than life because my father did that, he made movies with John Wayne, Elvis Presley about social change; World War II, Cold War, Vietnam the Korean War. Life is one of these things that you have to go big you have to take big chances.
I always wanted to be a movie director when I was a little guy. In my early to late teens I thought it was too complicated to be a director, it’s like being Oz, like God must only handpick these people and say you can be in charge of 8,000 things with eighty people your in charge of and you know how to guide the ship and your the daddy of the ship. Growing up I thought I couldn’t be the daddy of the ship I was too much of a child so, I chose acting.
Did your parents encourage your career?
No, I wouldn’t say so. At the age of 18-19 I became an actor. At 19 I went to NY from Texas. I wanted to get the actor thing out of the way. I was serious I wanted to be the next Marlin Brando. My mom is a doctor of musicology. She writes a book every two or three years. My family is very intellectual. It scares you into if you’re going to do something really creative like being an actor, you have to be really prepared and take it seriously. If I was going to be a doctor, I brought the same intensity to acting.
When I was in my 20s I put the Dow Jones up on my wall and listed every company with the Dow Jones. From IBM which was the biggest company to the dinkiest company. I would make it equivalent of me as a brand, as a corporation. What’s my value on the street now it was $5, then $20, $50, $300.
How did you equate your value?
By becoming SAG, commercials, national exposure, agent, plays, shows like sex in the city… things that make you feel like you’re onto something. Reality hit after 10 years and I realized I will only be a C or D level actor. Commercial world sees it one way and you see it another. I let go of a dream, it wasn’t painful. I tried my best and suffered a lot not getting to where I wanted to go. It was time to do something big and bold again.
911 came in 2001 and I was in NY and I lost my best friend, there was something specific about that death and the entire city in pain, that’s when I laid the seeds for what I am going to do for the rest of my life. I could see it taste it and knew I could conquer it. I had enough experience as an actor and person to feel creatively and artistically and commercially that I was going to start making documentaries.
In the process of being an actor, people indirectly become a writer, director or producer because they are so involved. Did that happen to you?
Surprisingly no, I’m a people person. I am more interested in the human condition. I was never a techie and never really wanted to know how you light a camera, or how you push this button, or why this camera is better. My desire was more in conquering woman, or agents, getting the audience to like me as an actor or artist and improving myself as an overall renaissance person. The camera was too cold for me, it’ can’t talk to me, hug me back, a dog can, a child can, a girlfriend or friend can. Those are the things I react to best. After the death of my buddy I picked up a camera and just started shooting stories. Kind of like 60 minutes. I sent them off to about 100 news stations. I landed a job as a NBC news anchor in Helena, Montana. I went off put my dues in and learned how to be in front of a camera and got another job in Shreveport as an NBC anchor another year or so. I built up my journalistic aspect and fine tuned.
My big moment was in 2004. I didn’t want to do local news the rest of my life. You work 9 hours straight and only put together about 1:20 story and 7 percent of the population see it and tomorrow it’s gone.
A film is actually something that can change you in your inner character. In every movie I make, people changes their lives. In 2004 I did an interview with the President of Argentina. There was a young man who just found his identity and one of 500 children who didn’t know he was kidnapped by the military. I stayed with him on and off for 3-4 years and I interviewed him and the military. I was the first journalist to live with the military and live with the disappeared children and make a movie called; The Disappeared.
It was shown in 60 countries, Bravo, on History Networks and the President of Argentina gave me a plaque and the United Nations rewarded me with a human rights ceremony. Because it was so well researched and I was able to live inside the two worlds and no one ever has done that. It’s so polarized about the people who know what happened (the military) and don’t want to talk about it and the people who lost over 30K relatives and can never get the truth or find those 500K children and there never going to admit to each other anything and my film is right in the middle.
Why were you granted access?
I said I was an America from Argentina and I wanted to have the truth. I wanted to make the most balanced movie. I collected about 5-10 very important people and then everyone else wanted to grant me access.
This is the movie that shaped my character as a person. It was the most influential thing I have ever done in my life and the most difficult thing. I lived for 5 years in danger with military people that could have kidnapped me or killed me. I left my screening in Buenos Aries because I got a death threat from someone who came up to me and said they wanted to kill me. I left that night. It was sad, I had worked so hard.
I went to journalism school at NYU during The Disappear. It gave me a lot of confidence to conquer my aloneness with a camera. When you’re filming things get rough and cheap and you have to MacGyver and are quick on your feet. By having that experience and learning it on my own, it tied it all together. I finished that movie in 2007/2008.
Did you film that on your own? You had no crew?
I had no crew, one man crew. I did have a great editor, Francis Ford Copula’s editor. I had nine thousand hours of tape. My first cut was one hundred hours long and then it became 9 hours long. I spent 6 months editing 2 hours and another 6 months editing 100 down to 9 hours. It’s a great education. Anyone who wants to become a filmmaker, really edit it, shoot it and produce it yourself and then distribute it. Then you learn every aspect and you can’t be naive and therefore you can never say you have a reason to fail. It makes you more humble as a person. Acting is me, me, me driven and filmmaking is a ‘we’ driven thing. You are proud that you are the head ‘we.’ You need great people surrounding you.
2008/09 – was going to do a film on teen race car drivers. The money fell through.
My sister said I should make a movie about Altina our grandmother. I’ll fund it and you go shoot it she said. We shot the movie in 2 months. We had about 35 interviews and about 10 are in the movie. The editing was the hard part, it took about 6 -10 months of hard work everyday and it came together finally.
What’s the nicest thing someone has done for you?
My grandmother gave me an education. She purchased my education for me, it’s my biggest weapon. Without that you suffer in life. School is really important. Education is everything.