Best known for her work alongside Sarah Pillsbury as the production team of Sanford/Pillsbury, Midge Sanford has proven a successful producer of independents, seeking out and developing films with both critical and popular appeal. A former elementary school teacher, she joined New American Cinema in 1978 as a story analyst. After moving up to story editor, and eventually associate producer, Sanford met up with Sarah Pillsbury and the two became partners in 1980, with an option on "Eight Men Out" (a film that would not be completed and released for eight years). In 1982 they formed their production company and over the years have emerged as one of the leading independent production teams, working on compelling character-driven projects. In 1995 they secured a first look deal with DreamWorks SKG that led to the 1999 releases "The Love Letter" and "The Joyriders".
"Desperately Seeking Susan" (1985) marked Sanford's feature producing debut, and also her collaborative debut with partner Pillsbury. A box office success and continuing cult favorite, the film helped to launch the careers of co-star Madonna and leading man Aidan Quinn. By hiring Susan Seidelman to direct and employing an urban underground setting, Sanford and Pillsbury succeeded in giving this tale of bored suburban housewife Roberta Glass (Rosanna Arquette) an appeal beyond that of a traditional "women's film".
Next up for the producers was the dark and uncompromising "River's Edge" (1987), a jolting story of apathetic teens who don't contact authorities when they are faced with the body of a friend murdered by a fellow friend. Sanford and Pillsbury courageously took on Neil Jimenez's exceptional script, a far cry from the John Hughes brand of teen fare popular in the mid-1980s. After declines by several directors who were moved by the work but unwilling to take on such a potentially controversial project, the producers were able to win director Tim Hunter. Subtle and moving, the resulting realistic film featured unforgettable performances by Keanu Reeves (in his breakthrough role) and Crispin Glover.
In 1988, Sanford and Pillsbury's first optioned screenplay was finally released. The troubled "Eight Men Out" suffered for eight years in development, with the producers unable to find sufficient support. Unattractive because of its ensemble cast with no real stand out starring role, its non-heroic sports theme and its 1919 setting, the producers nevertheless continued to push for the project. The resulting John Sayles film, chronicling the Black Sox scandal that rocked the early days of baseball, was finally released to moderate popular success and critical raves. With an ensemble featuring John Cusack, David Strathairn and D.B. Sweeney, the producers assembled a cast with talent that would ensure impeccable performances, but without the superstar status that would bring in big box office numbers.
Sanford and Pillsbury teamed up with director Jonathan Kaplan on two fresh and touching dramas, 1989's "Immediate Family" and 1992's "Love Field". "Immediate Family" marked the first time the producers didn't initiate a project, rather they were approached by Kaplan who was looking for the insight into the delicate subject of infertility that he felt the women, as mothers, could provide. While lacking the buzz and acclaim that their previous productions had garnered, "Immediate Family" emerged as an engaging and well-cast film, featuring a stand-out performance by Mary Stuart Masterson as a young pregnant woman willing to give her baby to an older couple incapable of having children (Glenn Close and James Woods, both in uncharacteristically sympathetic roles). Kevin Dillon rounded out the cast as Masterson's boyfriend, struggling with his own maturation into a responsible man. "Love Field" responsibly and touchingly handled the issue of interracial romance in the early 60s, set against the backdrop of a post-Kennedy assassination America. The curious but charming film starred Michelle Pfeiffer as a Southern woman on her way to the president's funeral who is entranced by and imitative of Jacqueline Kennedy's style, and Dennis Haysbert as a northern black man on the run after abducting his daughter from an abusive situation. Their performances were solid and compelling (Pfeiffer was nominated for an Oscar) and the characters' budding romance was sensitively approached.
Sanford and Pillsbury's work on Jocelyn Morehouse's "How to Make an American Quilt" (1995) followed the producers' tradition of making a small scale character driven film with a strong cast. Featuring a host of notable actresses including Winona Ryder, Ellen Burstyn and Anne Bancroft, "How to Make and American Quilt" was sweet and poignant if predictable, and well-served by the superb performances of its cast, emerging as a sleeper hit. In 1998, the producers worked on the smaller "The Tic Code", starring Gregory Hines and Polly Draper. The story of a jazz saxophonist with Tourette's Syndrome, this original piece featured Hines giving an inspired performance as the afflicted musician, who meets Miles, a young jazz enthusiast with the same ailment. The storyline between Hines and Draper (as Miles' mother) is especially appealing, and Christopher George Marquette offered an impressive performance as the wise beyond his years Miles.
The Emmy-winning "And the Band Played On" (HBO, 1993) was one of the most significant production for the Sanford/Pillsbury team. The film traced the history of the AIDS epidemic in the United States both intelligently and sensitively, accurately portraying the social climate regarding the disease and introducing the little known but fascinating behind the scenes medical politics. By employing a cast featuring dozens of big name stars, the producers ensured an audience of viewers who may not have bothered with the film otherwise, thereby furthering AIDS education while tuning out a finely acted, well-made film. Other television projects of note include the producers' gripping 1991 docudrama "Seeds of Tragedy" (Fox), following a coca seedling as it is harvested and processed into cocaine and sold on the streets of Los Angeles, and showing its effect on the lives it encounters. An exceptional concept delivered with style, "Seeds of Tragedy" was an especially involving television movie. On the lighter side, 1994's "The Counterfeit Contessa" was an amusing mistaken identity tale, starring Tea Leoni as a woman from Brooklyn, New York believed to be a countess from Italy.