09/19/2014 06:07 pm ET Updated Nov 19, 2014

The Boomer List : A Portrait of a Generation: An Interview With Timothy Greenfield-Sanders

What do Samuel L. Jackson, Steve Wozniak, Kim Cattrall and Tommy Hilfiger have in common? They all made "The Boomer List."

On Tues. Sept. 23, PBS will air as part of its award-winning "American Masters" series, "The Boomer List," a portrait of a generation directed by photographer Timothy Greenfield-Sanders. As with his previous films, "The Black List," "The Latino List" and "The Out List," "The Boomer List" focuses on singular individuals who speak directly to the camera about their journeys, the challenges they faced, and what they've learned. Taken together, they are testament to one generation's attempts to find and define itself.

"The Boomer List" features 19 accomplished individuals, each born in one of the Boomer years from 1946-1964: Tim O'Brien; Deepak Chopra; Jackson; Billy Joel; Wozniak; Hilfiger; Amy Tan; Eve Ensler; HistoryMakers founder Julieanna Richardson; Maria Shriver; Cattrall; IBM CEO Virginia Rometty; Johnson Space Center Director Ellen Ochoa; Ronnie Lott; Erin Brockovich; AIDS activist Peter Staley; Rosie O'Donnell; David LaChapelle; and John Leguizamo.

Greenfield-Sanders spoke about compiling the list, hating the term "Baby Boomer" and name-dropping Tennessee Williams to Marlon Brando.

Q: What inspired you to create 'The Boomer List?'
Timothy Greenfield-Sanders: This is the year that the last Baby Boomers turn 50 and that seemed like a perfect hook to do something.

Q: There has been some pushback in recent years against Baby Boomers as self-absorbed. Was your intent to in some way take back the narrative?
TGS: I'm a Boomer myself, but I never liked the term and I don't use it in the film. I went out of my way not to use it. If someone did use it, I interrupted and asked, 'Could you just say 'generation'?" My work has always been about people of accomplishment, from 'The Black List' to 'The Latino List' and 'The out List.' Even in my porn star film that aired on HBO ('Thinking XXX'), they were the best at what they did. (The Baby Boomer years) were a period of tremendous accomplishment, and I looked at this group as a concise way to examine it and to highlight (through their diverse perspectives) what I thought were some of the touchstones of the era: Civil rights, gay rights, the environment, Vietnam, AIDS, technology and feminism.

Q: Your previous films have aired on HBO. This is airing on PBS. Did they approach you?
TGS: It was my inspiration. I brought it to PBS. I felt 'American Masters' was the perfect platform to expand the franchise. In the arts and beyond, these are all American masters.

Q: You set yourself some strict ground rules for compiling the Boomer List. It must have been daunting to come up with these particular 19 subjects.
TGS: Impossible (laughs). I put very severe restrictions on myself I wanted to have an equal balance of men and women. I wanted diversity and I wanted to have a range of professions. That meant that once I picked Billy Joel, I couldn't have another musician. On top of that was this nightmare of the year restriction.

Q: And then there's the logistics.
TGS: It was hard. I wanted to get bold-faced names. Fortunately, some of the people I know and some of them it turned out knew me and that was great. Steve Wozniak was a fan of my work. Who knew? And yet he turned it down at first. I wrote him a letter. I said, 'Please do this. Give me one hour. We'll come to you, we'll make it easy. He arrived on a Segway.

Q: There are no politicians.
TGS: That was conscious. Because it's PBS, if you're going to have a Republican you have to have a Democrat. That would have taken up two slots. I just decided f*** it. I would have made one exception. We tried for Bill Clinton and George Bush. Both were born in 1946. But we couldn't get them. But I think it's a complex and interesting balance (of subjects).

Q: Could you talk about your technique in creating these visual portraits? Is there an interviewer in the room?
TGS: I have a technique I first employed with 'The Black List.' It's an elaborate rig where the subject sits on the set looking into a camera and sees on a teleprompter the face of the interviewer in another room. They talk to each other and that way you get the subject looking directly into the camera. After a few minutes it becomes almost like a therapy session. It's a little bit distracting if the interviewer is right there. They might look at the person rather than in the camera. It works much better this way where they keep their focus at the camera.

Q: Your earlier films used this format, but were there any surprises for you in the making of this film?
TGS: You never know what people are going to say. You never know how articulate they are going to be. A lot of these people I had never met, so it's kind of like tossing the dice. Who knew that Erin Brockovich would be as fabulous as she turned out to be? She was just great. I know Sam Jackson; He's been to my studio. I interviewed his wife for 'The Black List.' But he gave us a brilliant hour. He was so 'on' that day.

Q: Taken together, what portrait emerges from The Boomer List" of this generation?
TGS: I think it gives a very wide view of the accomplishments of this generation. There is a lot here. And I think what's also nice is that within that, it touches on important moments in our culture.

Q: As a fellow Boomer, let's talk about your memories of some of those. Did you watch the Beatles on "The Ed Sullivan Show?"
TGS: I did. I was 12. I'm sure I loved the Beatles, but I don't think they were as huge a thing for me. I was more influenced by Lou Reed and the Velvet Underground. I grew up in Miami, Florida. I started listening to FM and rock and roll and discovered the Velvets. That led me to Andy Warhol and the scene in New York. I started reading the Village Voice and I wound up at Columbia University.

Q: Did you watch 'Ed Sullivan' as a family?
TGSL No, my parents didn't believe much in television. I certainly loved 'Gilligan's Island,' 'Get Smart,' "Maverick' and Burke's Law.' I loved that show; amazing. So I guess I watched a certain amount, but my parents didn't like us watching too much. A television wasn't the center of our living room. And I became more interested in old films, which led to my interest in becoming a filmmaker.

Q: The quintessential Boomer question: Where were you....?
TGS: I was in sixth grade. I was going to a birthday party (that day) for my brother's friend at the Seaquarium. (On the way) I kept saying to his mom to keep the radio on (to hear news reports), but she didn't want to have it on. It was upsetting to everyone. President Kennedy drove past our school the year before. We were allowed to stand outside in the playground as he drove by.

Q: The moon landing?
TGS: I was painting my room black that day. My parents were in Europe on vacation and I was home alone. I was in to the underground scene at that time, and I thought, 'Why have white walls when you can have black walls?' My parents didn't mind. They thought it was fine.

Q: Woodstock?
TGS: I almost went. A good friend of mine went. I ended up going to Key West instead for a trip out to Dry Tortugas. I brought fish back and had dinner with Tennessee Williams.

Q: Wait; what?
TGS: My uncle was a friend of his. I came back with some snapper and he said to bring it for dinner because Tennessee was coming over. I think that beats Woodstock. (Years later) I was hoping to get Marlon Brando to pose for a photograph and I said something stupid that he was the world's greatest actor. He said, 'That's such crap.' I said, 'I grew up believing that because that's what Tennessee Williams told me.' There was a pause and he said, 'Well, maybe I can talk to you tomorrow.' It didn't happen but I was able to drop that name on him. It was kind of great.

Q: What's next for you?
TGS: Aside from directing and producing these 'List' films, I photograph everyone and these large format portraits go to museums around the country. I have a show coming up in Washington D.C. at the Newseum, a nine month exhibition on Baby Boomers being funded by AARP. It will have all 19 portraits and a timeline of Boomerdom.

Q: Any further thoughts on 'The Boomer List?'
TGS: I would just say I'm very proud of the film. I think it really works. This has potential to be very popular.

Q: It's about Baby Boomers and it's on PBS. This will be Pledge Break fodder for years!
TGS: That would be very rewarding.

A version of this story originally appeared on