Joe Saunders - who goes by "Joe" but is named William after his grandfather Billy Mize, the country music personality and star of Billy Mize and the Bakersfield Sound - didn't exactly realize who his grandfather was while growing up. He knew he'd sung with Merle Haggard and that he was a country musician, but he didn't know how significant it all was.
"You never Googled him?" I ask, sitting across from the quietly handsome filmmaker at the Los Angeles Film Festival's filmmaker lounge.
"We didn't have the Internet when I was growing up," he says.
Fair point. The initial conversation with his mother (Karen, Mize's oldest daughter) happened in 2001, right around when Google was becoming a verb. And while Saunders was making sports documentaries at ESPN Films in Philadelphia, his mother was helping out her dad by cleaning and organizing a bit.
"She came across all these photos and reels," recounts Saunders. "Not VHS reels. Like huge master reels from the 1970s, and reel-to-reel audio tapes and this wealth of material."
There, Billy Mize and the Bakersfield Sound was conceived - A story about a charming man, stridently handsome, with a golden voice whose contributions to country music helped shape the industry, but tragedy and circumstance prevented him from rising to the top. Soon after Saunders started digging in more and figuring out just how significant his grandfather was, he met someone who knew Mize.
"He was a country music buff and he knew all about Billy Mize, Merle Haggard and Buck Owens," he says, "and it got me to talk to more people surrounding Billy's life - like my grandmother for one - and the story just kept getting deeper and more interesting. Then the cultural relevance came out of it - this California country-swing battling Nashville for country music prominence - you can make a whole documentary on that on it's own. Someone should. It was almost me, but I had to keep fighting it to put more Billy in there."
The cultural significance coupled with the fact that as a filmmaker, Saunders is very drawn to beats in stories that can be reversals or twists or turns, and surprise endings. "Billy's life is full of those," he adds. "I immediately saw the dramatic qualities and possibilities of telling that story, and I knew I had to make this film."
Saunders dramatic possibilities and potential as a storyteller formed not despite his tendencies to get grounded as a kid, but rather in spite of them. As a child, he happened to get in trouble a lot and would be sent to his room - alone - but not entirely. He-Man, GI Joes and M.A.S.K character toys would keep him company. But Saunders didn't realize his behaving badly was helping to nourish his artistic talent until Toy Story came out.
"Andy was me," he smirks. I mixed and matched my toys and it could get really elaborate. I'd string yarn all over my room in these big intricate cross-sections and swing toys down to save other toys." From this, filmmaking and writing becomes obvious as an adult.
Six years later, at the premiere here at LA Film Fest, Saunders got his catharsis.
"This has been such a long process and such a slow process," he reveals. "I'd only work on it when I had the money to pay people, so there was never this one moment of pure discovery. It was more of an evolution. The premiere was such a great moment to be able to show the final film to the family members and strangers alike. Even though Billy wasn't able to attend, it was great to have my grandmother and mom there. Billy played to crowds his entire life, so appreciation and applause don't entice him anymore. But he is very proud of me and although he doesn't say much, he never hesitates to tell me that."
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