Dialogue: Richard D. Zanuck

<i>Variety spoke with the late producer in May about the biz, Tim Burton and how to pitch.</i>

Oscar-winning producer Richard Zanuck dies

Although Richard D. Zanuck has spent more than five decades in the movie business, the Oscar-winning producer is only interested in looking ahead — specifically toward the May 11 release of his sixth film with Tim Burton, “Dark Shadows.” “The rules may have changed, but if we want to stay in the business, we have to consider these the good old days,” he says. Zanuck recently sat down in his Beverly Hills home with Christy Grosz to discuss the film that surprised him the most, the unpredictability of box office and the resilience that being a producer requires.

CG: Is there a secret to producing you learned early on that would benefit young producers?

RZ: You have to be able to take rejection. You have to really be able to look in the mirror and ask yourself, “How many doors have to be slammed in my face?” Because if you’re not up to that, you’ll get eaten up.

With “Driving Miss Daisy,” we were turned down by every studio, sometimes two or three times. We would plead the case, but when you start talking about an old lady and a black chauffeur, you can just see the executive’s eyes roll in the back of his head. That took four years. “Cocoon” was about eight years. And the picture that we ended up calling “Deep Impact” was a story that David Brown and I had been working on for 18 years. We hadn’t been working on it all that time. We just put it away. Then suddenly we thought maybe we should go back and present that idea. The secret is, don’t give up. If it’s a great idea, it somehow will break through.

CG: When you’re pitching ideas, is that stubborn persistence also a factor?

RZ: If I’m pitching, I’m not running for the door: I’m staying in my seat; let them run for the door. When I have a piece of material, much like casting a picture, I try to match the studio head (with) the property. I think, “This will touch so and so. This will excite somebody over there.” I’m trying to narrow down the chances of being eliminated.

CG: Do you think there are misconceptions about what a producer does?

RZ: I think there’s been a devaluation of the concept. Maybe too many people have used the term “producer” when they weren’t qualified. That’s what the Producers Guild has been fighting for years. I was the chairman of the producers’ branch of the Academy for about 10 years, and we were constantly trying to find ways to prevent this proliferation of credits. A producer should contribute from the very beginning until the very end, in all aspects. I’m there at the set every day, on every shot. Not that the director, particularly Tim (Burton), needs me, but just in case. There are producers who don’t even watch the dailies, who have some contact with the project and get their name slapped on there. That’s what we’ve been trying to get rid of.

CG: How the role of the producer changed over the years?

RZ: I grew up in that era of moguls. Each studio at that time had a staff of producers who worked exclusively for them. They all reported to the studio head, but they were really in charge of the movie from beginning to end. Directors in those days were not nearly as powerful — they came in, directed, and sometimes would go right to another picture, not even go through the editing process. It was up to the editorial department and the producer. It wasn’t all coordinated through the eyes of a director.

CG: Is there any way you can predict something like “Alice in Wonderland” making a billion dollars?

RZ: If anybody could predict those things, they wouldn’t be working. They’d be enjoying life by the pool. “Alice” had wonderful ingredients, but a billion dollars is a big number to hit. As it was growing and we were releasing in more territories and we were getting these unbelievable numbers, we’d ask ourselves, “Why?” It’s one of those things you don’t understand. But it was a story that had been around for 160 years. It was so well known, but you still can’t really figure it.

CG: Are there movies that have surprised you?

RZ: When I was head of (Fox), it was “Valley of the Dolls.” I used to preview in San Francisco a lot. We’d take a small jet out of the Santa Monica Airport and fly up there, have dinner at Ernie’s, and then preview and then fly back. We thought we had made a good picture, corny but something that audiences would really enjoy. And the (reaction) cards were unbelievably bad. It was just terrifying. On the way back, I was afraid the director, Mark Robson, was going to jump out of the plane, he was so beside himself. But we released it a few weeks later, and it became a big, big hit.

Mostly, it doesn’t work that way. When a preview’s bad, it’s going to play bad. I still get an awful feeling before a preview, nervousness and anxiety. That’s just how I am. You spend a year working on something, and you’re using somebody else’s money, and you want it to be successful.

CG: “Dark Shadows” puts you together with Tim Burton for the sixth film in a row. What about that collaboration works so well?

RZ: This would be a dream come true for any producer. I’ve worked with so many top directors — William Wyler and George Cukor and Franklin Schaffner and Vincente Minnelli — and each one is brilliant in their own right. But Tim is the only real artist, literally an artist, of the group. His creative genius is to combine the physical image with some emotional values, and people don’t give him enough credit. Working with Tim, it’s like I was in the early days with (Steven) Spielberg. I try to free them up as much as I can. I want that mind to be uncluttered, so it can work on the picture.

Studios think a director just walks on set and things happen, but (directors) have to do endless weeks, months of homework if they’re any good. Most agents and studios know that they have to go through me if they want something answered. I’ll only bring the important things to Tim.

Between set-ups, Tim will pick out a spot about 50 feet long and pace. I’ve never seen him sit down. One time we put one of those pedometers (on him) at the beginning of the picture, and it was amazing how many miles (it registered) — he could have walked around the world. (Sometimes) I’ll walk and pace along with him. I’ll say, “I know you’re doing your laundry list, but we have to have an answer on this or that.” I think it’s part of his way of thinking, but also keeping people at bay.

But it’s an amazing collaboration for me at this point of my life. Not that I wouldn’t have gone on (producing) without meeting Tim, but it’s made it so much more fascinating. It’s really been a wonderful part to a long, long career.

Richard D. Zanuck: At a glance

  • Made producing debut in 1959 with Richard Fleischer’s “Compulsion,” which screened in competition at Cannes. The pic took acting prizes at the fest for Orson Welles, Dean Stockwell and Bradford Dillman.
  • Named prexy of Twentieth Century Fox in 1962 at age 28.
  • Formed the Zanuck/Brown Co. in 1971, which, with partner David Brown, produced such hits as “Jaws,” “The Sting” and “Cocoon.”
  • In 1991, Zanuck and Brown were honored with the Irving G. Thalberg Memorial Award by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. Zanuck’s father, Darryl F. Zanuck, had been given the Thalberg honor in 1944.

Nominated for Oscar’s best picture:

“Jaws ,” 1975

“The Verdict,” 1982

“Driving Miss Daisy,” 1989 (winner)

Number of films produced with director Tim Burton: 6

“Dark Shadows,” 2012

“Alice in Wonderland,” 2010

“Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street,” 2007

“Charlie and the Chocolate Factory,” 2005

“Big Fish,” 2003

“Planet of the Apes,” 2001