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A Family Film Reveals Forgotten Lore: An Interview With Producer/Director Joe Saunders

BY: Marjorie Galas, Editor

Six years ago, William “Joe” Saunders began creating a loving video portrait of his grandfather that was meant to be shared with his family. Within a few days, he realized he had unearthed a piece of history that had to be shared the world.

“I know he had an association with Merle Haggard, but I didn’t know anything about the extent of his contributions,” said Saunders. “As the story unfolded, I was shocked there was no coverage, no significant information on this musical revolution in our history.”

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Billy Mize and the Bakersfield Sound” chronicles the evolution of the Bakersfield, California country music scene and the impact Mize had on its perpetuity. Cutting between Mize’s personal history and the history of country music in the United States, the documentary is built off a series of interviews, archival footage, and historical facts. Saunders used Mize’s twenty year struggle to reclaim his voice after a massive stroke rendered him speechless as a parallel vehicle to the musical style Mize and his fellow musicians created in Bakersfield, and Mize’s tireless efforts to promote the music from his home base while his contemporaries rose to fame touring the country.

“Billy Mize and the Bakersfield Sound” marks a continual reuniting with non-fiction and documentary content that Saunders has tried multiple times to pull away from. His first foray with the genre came shortly after graduating SMU. About to relocate to Los Angeles to pursue a career in narrative filmmaking, Saunders plans were interrupted when his internship at the NFL Networks blossomed into a full time producing gig.

“An NFL Films editor became ill and they were on a really tight schedule. I had been doing some editing so they knew I was familiar with what was needed,” said Saunders. “They loved what I did and I got offered the job. I couldn’t pass it up. It’s a great job if you love football.”

Saunders love of production and sports resulted in producing and editing stand-alone specials including editing a segment in “3 Games to Glory: Patriots Post Season 2002” and producing “Big Charlie’s” for which Saunders received an Emmy. However, he longed to pursue his passion for narrative filmmaking. After receiving an MFA in directing from Columbia University, Saunders began hitting the festival circuit. His thesis film, “Dash Cunning,” a comic short he wrote and directed, won numerous awards including the 20th Century Fox/Farrelly Brothers Award for Outstanding Achievement in Comedy. His first narrative feature, “Sweet Little Lies,” won both the Audience Award and “Best of Fest” award at the 2011 Dances with Films Festival. In the last few years, however, Saunders split his time between directing and editing television segments for a variety of networks while he focused on completing the unexpected, family-centric documentary he stumbled upon.

With no budget prepared for “Billy Mize and the Bakersfield Sound,” Saunders called upon fellow classmates and Columbia alums to assist him. Co-producers Justin Begnaud (producer, A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night) and Alexander Greer (actor, Scandal) and cinematographer Michael Louis Hill (editor, X-Men: Days of Future Past) were amongst the classmates who donated their time.

“We had worked on shorts together, and I think the idea of getting to do what they wanted allowed for a symbiotic, creative relationship,” said Saunders. “I reached out to them because I thought they’d see what I saw; the content had the ability to connect with the audience. I wouldn’t have been able to do it without them, I am lucky to be surrounded by so many good people.”

During the research period, Saunders was shocked to discover only one book had been written on the Bakersfield sound, Fortunately, his grandfather’s worn but well-updated address book contained the names and contact information for the bulk of musicians and professionals he’d worked with over the years. Saunders not only connected with the majority of musicians featured in the film through these contacts, but also acquired archival material used in the documentary, including contributions made by Buck Owens’ estate, through his grandfather’s contacts. Having difficulty sidestepping the representatives of country music greats Merle Haggard, Ray Price and Willie Nelson, Saunders received an anonymous tip on a concert where the three would be performing. He flew to the concert, snuck backstage, directly approached the men and secured interviews. For the few musicians he was unsuccessful in reaching, such as Dwight Yokum, Saunders hopes they’ll have a chance to see the finished project and lend support.

Saunders has received financial support from officials and businesses in Bakersfield including Mayor Harvey Hall, Cynthia Lake, Kirschemann Farms and the Kern Arts Council.  At this juncture, in order to seek distribution deals, he is seeking financial support primarily for clearances and licensing fees. A number of film clips and songs used in the film fall under fair use and posed no problems for festival screenings. Saunders’ goal is to present the film to a much broader audience.

“The master tracks and rights to his original music are not owned by Billy,” said Saunders. “I’ve been speaking with lawyers, the price tags are scary and getting the licenses is so stressful.”

In addition to focusing on securing funds for the distribution of “Billy Mize and the Bakersfield Sound,” Saunders has been working on two unannounced documentaries; one highlighting the foster care system, and another that renown documentary director Alex Gibney is attached to as a producer. “It’s got so many cinematic qualities, it makes it feel more like a narrative film than a documentary,” states Saunders. As he moves ahead in his career, he is thankful for the valuable lessons he learned not only about his grandfather’s history, but about the filmmaking process while working on “Billy Maze and the Bakersfield Sound.” In addition to wishing he could have interviewed his grandfather last in the process, he discovered how valuable his own instincts are.

“I learned you have to trust your instincts. I had a finished version a year and a half ago, but I knew in my heart it wasn’t done,” said Saunders. “I had a successful screening at Film Independent but the programmer said to me ‘It’s not done.” It confirmed I was right, and gave me the creative energy to get excited and see the possibilities of what it could be.”

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