Producer Sarah Pillsbury was most prolific as part of the Sanford/Pillsbury production team, working alongside Midge Sanford in a pairing well-known for their acclaimed and popular character-driven independents. Before the beginning of her association with Sanford, Pillsbury worked on documentaries, starting her career as associate producer of the 1976 Oscar-nominated white supremacist documentary "The California Reich". She produced the Ron Ellis live action Academy Award-winning short "Board and Care" (1979) before meeting up with Midge Sanford in 1980. After raising capital, they formed Sanford/Pillsbury Productions in 1982, a company that has consistently released high-caliber independent films, working with directors including John Sayles, Susan Seidelman and Jonathan Kaplan. In 1995, the producing team signed a first look development deal with DreamWorks SKG, leading to their involvement in the 1999 releases "The Love Letter" and "The Joyriders".
Pillsbury and Sanford marked their joint feature producing debut with 1985's "Desperately Seeking Susan", a successful cult favorite partially due to the presence of co-star Madonna. Susan Seidelman's vision of Leora Barish's screenplay captured a diverse audience, the New York City downtown atmosphere interesting a group that may not have otherwise been compelled by the bored housewife (played by Rosanna Arquette) looking for a new life.
The dark teen drama "River's Edge" (1987) marked Pillsbury's next producing venture. Teaming up again with Sanford, the producers ran into difficulties finding a director to take on the fascinating but potentially controversial project. The story of the strangely apathetic reaction of a group of teenagers who find the body of their friend who was murdered by another, "River's Edge" was quite unlike other 80s films geared toward young people. Finally director Tim Hunter signed on to direct Neil Jimenez's script and created a moving and non-exploitative portrait of wasted youth, providing Keanu Reeves with his breakthrough screen role.
While "Eight Men Out" was the third feature produced by Pillsbury and Sanford, it was the first script they set to develop, having optioned it shortly after beginning their partnership. The project, the story of the notorious 1919 Black Sox scandal, was halted at every turn, studios citing that the unheroic sports tale with no standout star wouldn't find an audience. Finally greenlighted by Orion Pictures, the John Sayles film was released to critical praise in 1988. Strong performances by a deftly assembled cast, including John Cusack, D.B. Sweeney and David Strathairn, raised the movie's watchability, even for those uninterested in baseball.
Director Jonathan Kaplan's "Immediate Family" marked the first time that Pillsbury and Sanford would be approached to produce a film they had not initiated themselves. A 1989 drama dealing with an infertile couple (Glenn Close and James Woods, in rare likable form) who seek to adopt an unborn child from a young couple played by Mary Stuart Masterson (in a first-rate performance) and Kevin Dillon, Kaplan felt that as women and mothers, Pillsbury and Sanford would be suitable producers for this delicate and dynamic subject. Although engaging and entertaining, the film didn't generate as much interest as the producers' previous efforts. "Love Field", a 1992 drama set just after the assassination of President Kennedy was Pillsbury and Sanford's second collaboration with the director. A charming story of interracial romance in the 60s, "Love Field" followed a Southern woman who idolizes and adopts the dress of Jacqueline Kennedy and her travel to the president's funeral. Along the way she meets up with a northern black man (Dennis Haysbert) who is on the lam after kidnapping his abused daughter. Jocelyn Morehouse's "How to Make An American Quilt" (1995) was a more successful venture for the producing team, as audiences were drawn to the star-studded cast (i.e., Winona Ryder, Anne Bancroft and Ellen Burstyn). A life-affirming drama featuring frequent flashback scenes, "How to Make an American Quilt" made up for some of its predictability with its genuine warmth and strong performances. 1998's "The Tic Code" starred Gregory Hines as a saxophonist who meets up with a young jazz enthusiast (Christopher George Marquette), who like himself is afflicted with Tourette's Syndrome. A very original film with inspiring performances, "The Tic Code" served as an interesting, if not terribly successful, entry in Pillsbury and Sanford's producing credits.
In addition to Pillsbury and Sanford's many feature credits, they also produced some notable films for television, including the 1993 Emmy-winning drama "And the Band Played On". An HBO original picture featuring an audience grabbing star packed cast, "And the Band Played On" told of an important chapter in contemporary United States history by tracing the discovery and management of the AIDS epidemic. The film served a great public service, awakening Americans to the little-known political posturing surrounding the medical research communities in the early years of the crisis. By employing a cast featuring dozens of sought-after actors, and developing a well-made and moving and personal film, Pillsbury and Sanford ensured that this production would reach a much larger audience, thereby educating even more people. Additional TV work has included the fascinating docudrama "Seeds of Tragedy" (Fox, 1991), the chronicle of a coca seedling from harvest to cocaine processing to its incarnation on the streets of Los Angeles which manages to do a compelling job of showing the effects the seed has on all those it touches. 1994's "The Counterfeit Contessa" (Fox) proved that Pillsbury and Sanford could excel with lighter fare as well, with an amusing tale of a Brooklyn woman (Tea Leoni) mistaken for an Italian countess.