Producers steps out of dad's shadow

In these tough times for independent film, producers have to use every tool in their box to get films made. Rounding up investors from Georgia to Poland, shooting quickly and efficiently. And if you happen to be a third-generation showbiz scion, well, all the better.

“Get Low” producer Dean Zanuck — the 37-year-old son of Richard and grandson of Darryl — took a chance in tackling a period piece requiring older actors. But after enthusiastic reception at the Toronto Film Fest last year, the $7.5 million drama will be released by Sony Classics on July 30 as a summer counterprogrammer.

Starring Robert Duvall as a recluse who organizes his own funeral while he’s still alive, “Get Low” also stars Sissy Spacek, Bill Murray, Lucas Black and Bill Cobbs. Set in the 1930s and loosely based on a true story, the film, penned by Chris Provenzano and C. Gaby Mitchell, was sold at Toronto last fall and has since been an official selection at Sundance, SXSW and Tribeca.

The pic is directed by first-time feature helmer Aaron Schneider, who won an Oscar for his 2003 short “Two Soldiers.” It took Zanuck eight years to bring “Low” to the screen, starting when his wife, who works in real estate, met Provenzano’s agent while the latter was house hunting.

“I had no experience working in the independent world,” admits Zanuck, known as being particularly low-key and affable. “I showed the script to all the usual buyers and it was always the same reaction: ‘It’s a good script, but we need to see the finished product.’ A project like this — an American period piece with a first-time director — is dying off in the studio world.”

Zanuck stepped into indie world after more than a decade of working at the Zanuck Co., where he was a producer on “Road to Perdition,” and production exec on such pics as “Deep Impact,” “Planet of the Apes,” “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory,” “Rules of Engagement” and “Sweeney Todd.”

“My dad’s a studio guy,” he says simply.

Zanuck is particularly grateful to Duvall, Spacek and Murray for committing to playing the leads while he attempted to raise funds over several years.

He wound up getting the coin from a quintet of investors — two from Germany, onefrom Poland, one from Georgia and one from Los Angeles. The backers were impressed enough that they didn’t require Zanuck to bond the film.

“The investors were truly passive investors and very supportive,” Zanuck recalls. “It was a true independent experience, and I told Aaron that he shouldn’t expect this on every film.”

In typical down-to-the-wire indie fashion, Black was signed to play the assistant to Murray’s undertaker a mere 36 hours before cameras rolled.

“It was all very non-Hollywood,” Zanuck admits. The shoot took place in Georgia over 24 days early last year with one day added for the funeral scene because of snow. Zanuck still shakes his head with amazement that Duvall’s speech — the climax of the film, in which he reveals why he’s remained a hermit — was shot in a single take, as was Spacek’s reaction to the speech.

Zanuck started as a production assistant on several of the Zanuck films, including “Wild Bill” and “Mulholland Falls” then worked as a personal assistant for Brian Grazer during “Apollo 13″ before joining the Zanuck Co. as a VP in 1995.

His first full-fledged production effort was “Road to Perdition,” in which he discovered the graphic novel and worked with his father to co-produce the film, starring Tom Hanks and Paul Newman, with Sam Mendes directing.

“With ‘Road,’ it was all about themes of loss, family and reconciliation,” Zanuck recalls. “So ‘Get Low’ was very similar in that sense.”

Now, with “Get Low” in hand, he’s ramping up Zanuck Independent and has set a second pic, “Voice From the Stone,” a horror-thriller set in Tuscany and directed by Hideo Nakata (who helmed the two “Ring” pics) that will begin filming in the fall.

“I have a lot of equity contacts now and we’ve got a bit of momentum for awhile,” he adds. “I think ‘Get Low’ gives us some credibility and shows that I’m not just riding on my father’s coattails.”

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