“Don’t Say No Until I Finish Talking,” a portrait of the life and career of studio chief and producer Richard D. Zanuck, scion of Fox’s Darryl F. Zanuck, will premiere on May 8 on Turner Classic Movies. Produced by TCM and Amblin Television, the 90-minute film features interviews with many of the filmmakers Zanuck worked with including Clint Eastwood, William Friedkin, Ron Howard, Steven Spielberg and Tim Burton. I talk with writer-director Laurent Bouzereau. (TOH! Zanuck obit here.)
Cari Beauchamp: What brought you to the subject of Richard Zanuck?
Laurent Bouzereau: It goes back to my longtime relationship with Amblin Television and Turner Classic Movies and the ongoing series we have done together about different genres of film. We were always chatting about what else we can do? And so the topic turned to doing a feature length documentary on a studio head who was still relevant today. And so Zanuck was a no-brainer. He constantly reinvented himself and was always working with new directors. He was born into the business and started working in it at a very young age. He went through the era of the moguls, transitioned into the new Hollywood of the 70s and went on to make a half dozen films with Tim Burton. It helped that Steven Spielberg thought it was a great idea and of course it was nice because Dick was still alive.
Do you see Dick Zanuck as your narrator?
Yes. I have always made a conscious effort not to have a third party narrator. I want to erase myself as much as possible. I write the script as I conduct interviews so that at the next one, I know what I am looking for. I try to constantly be a step ahead so when I get into a room with a new subject, I know how to guide them. The end result may not feel as definitive, but to me the film was always going to be Dick Zanuck by Dick Zanuck.
You open the film telling about his father, studio mogul Darryl Zanuck, founder of 20th Century Fox.
Dick was very much his own person, but his father was very important to him. Like Dick with his own sons, their relationship was forged by working together. Dick started working at the studio at a very young age, striking sets and doing every kind of job before producing his first film, “Compulsion,” at the age of 24. His father told him, “I am the baggage you carry,” and he knew it was always going to be hard on his son to have such a successful father. When your last name is Zanuck, you are carrying the torch and being scrutinized harder because of it. Yes, you get a foot in the door, but they also can’t wait to press harder on the door when they close it on you. You get your calls returned, but if you don’t deliver the goods, it catches up to you. Dick understood all that.
It doesn’t seem as if Dick Zanuck was intimidated by much. For example, it didn’t phase him that projects such as ‘The Planet of the Apes’ and ‘The French Connection’ had already been turned down by other studios.
Dick often told me, ‘I am really thinking from the gut. If I think it’s going to be successful, I am going with it.’ For instance, he said that he didn’t know how they were going to go about making ‘Jaws,’ but he knew the story was incredible. Story was essential to him. ‘Trust your initial reaction,’ was another phrase he repeated often. He had a gut feeling that Spielberg should direct ‘Jaws,’ even after Lew Wasserman told him he needed a more experienced director. After all, the only film Steven had made then was ‘Sugarland Express’ and that was not a hit. But Dick was convinced that ‘Jaws’ had to be told through a young person’s eyes and he never wavered from his support of Steven.
Was he hands-on when it came to marketing?
He was heavily involved, big time. He was involved in designing the posters. He said he and David [producing partner David Brown] just came up with the lines they used. I remember as a young boy in France, he was the first producer I knew what he looked like. I had a picture of him with all this ‘Jaws’ memorabilia and I thought producing must be so much fun, you get to be surrounded by toys.
Does Zanuck stand out because he took responsibility for his failures?
Yes. I remember seeing ‘The Island’ as a young man and I was so disappointed in it. Dick also didn’t believe in sending other people in to do what you know you should do. He was the one to tell William Wyler that he didn’t think he was right to direct ‘The Sound of Music.’ Wyler wanted a big scene at the end with tanks coming in and Zanuck said, ‘No, it’s not that kind of movie.’ Then there was another time when Kurosawa was directing Japanese segments of ‘Tora! Tora! Tora!’ and, well let’s just say, it wasn’t helpful to the production. So Dick flew to Japan to fire him. He wasn’t going to send someone else to do the dirty work.
Tell me about his producing partnership with New Yorker David Brown.
David was the more literary side of the team. He had great connections to the publishing world, which is how they got all this incredible material, and to the world of theater. They were two very different personality types, but they meshed so well together. I think it was one of the most perfect relationships, especially when you look at the other duos that have existed in the film business. Their business relationship changed over the years, but they talked every day until the day David died.
How did Lili Zanuck enter into the partnership?
It was a very organic evolution. It came at a time when David wanted to slow down a bit when it came to his involvement and Lili was a very strong partner for Dick. I think Dick realized Lili was getting bored and he knew that his two other marriages had failed because he lived in one world and they lived in another. Bringing Lili into his world seemed like a natural and they had a very successful marriage because of it.
Lili has become a very close friend. I was on my way to see him when I got the phone call telling me he died. I have seen her through this horrendous ordeal of losing her husband…I have so much respect her, what she has brought to the industry and her vision.
There are many complementary things said about Zanuck in the film, but I think the one that really stands out is Lili’s: “In a business full of sharks, there is no blood on his hands.”
He was a gentleman and a class act with a very dry sense of humor. He was always interested in what you were up to and he wanted to know what’s going on and was not self absorbed. The only time he ever got angry with me was when we had lunch or dinner together and I would reach for my wallet. At least once, I wanted to treat him, but no.
What was his biggest gift to you?
The biggest was to give me a chance to tell his story. And that he was able to see the film before he died. So many people have said to me that he was the one who made them want to stay in the business and he continues to inspire people. Aside from the great movies he made, his story shows what a producer can be, especially at a time when a film can list 20 producers. The film is a tribute to Dick, but also to the profession.