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TCM Film Festival: Producer Richard Zanuck's Life Remembered

Richard Zanuck Laurent Bouzereau - P 2013
Courtesy of TCM Film Festival
Laurent Bouzereau, Richard Zanuck

Laurent Bouzereau's "Don't Say No Until I Finish Talking" recounts how the son of a Hollywood mogul re-invented himself to produce such awards-winning films as "The Sting," "Jaws" and "Driving Miss Daisy."

On July 10 of last year, producer Richard Zanuck sat down at his home in Beverly Hills to watch a final cut of Laurent Bouzereau’s new documentary Don’t Say No Until I Finish Talking: The Story of Richard D. Zanuck. Although Bouzereau had been working with Zanuck on the film for the better part of a year, the Oscar-winning producer had insisted along the way that he didn’t want to know what any of Bouzereau’s interview subjects were saying about him.

After watching the film, which documents his nearly 60-year-career in Hollywood, Zanuck called Bouzereau to deliver his verdict. “He was so excited,” Bouzereau recalls. “He told me I’d done such a good job. He was very genuine. He said, ‘I’ll send a letter to the producers that you worked with to let them know. Let’s have a celebration.’”

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The two made a date to have lunch together on July 13. But that morning, as Bouzereau was getting ready, he received a call from Zanuck’s assistant with the news that Zanuck had died, unexpectedly, of a heart attack that morning. "I couldn’t believe it," Bouzereau says. The documentary, as Steven Spielberg, who served as its executive producer, would later say, was in effect the last film that Zanuck ever saw.

While there were plenty of tributes to Zanuck, the son of Hollywood mogul Darryl F. Zanuck, who had forged his own, award-winning career, in the wake of his death, Bouzereau’s film, which will be officially unveiled at the TCM Classic Film Festival in Hollywood on Sunday and then go on to play on the Turner Classic Movies channel May 8, pays a final, comprehensive tribute to a remarkable career. It includes vintage home movies; tells of how as a young boy, Zanuck had the run of the Twentieth Century Fox lot over which his father presided; follows his rise to become head of production at the studio while still in his twenties only to be fired by his father in 1970 when the studio hit hard times; relates how he re-invented himself as one of the industry’s preeminent producers, first partnered with David Brown and then with his wife Lili Fini Zanuck; and tells some of the stories behind his many successes from The Sting to Jaws, Cocoon, Driving Miss Daisy and, most recently, his six films with Tim Burton.

“The thing that I found incredible, and which I hope comes across in the film, is how relevant Dick stayed over all those years,” says Bouzereau. “It’s one thing to have huge success, which he did on a number of occasions. It’s something else to remain relevant and to have longevity in the business. How many people had amazing success in the ‘70s, who in 2012 were still at the top of their game? It’s so hard in an artistic film that’s always evolving.”

Bouzereau, who has spent much of his career filming “making-of” documentaries, first for laser discs and then for DVDs, first met Zanuck nearly twenty years ago when he was shooting footage on the making of Jaws. When executives at Turner Classic Movies and Spielberg’s Amblin suggested to him that he make a feature-length film about an industry legend for the cable network’s A Night at the Movies series, he quickly suggested Zanuck, a choice that Spielberg immediately endorsed.

Bouzereau then met with Zanuck at his home to propose the idea and recalls that Zanuck told him he’d been trying to write a book, offering several chapters to read, but after they talked for five or six hours, decided, “I think you convinced me that it’s not a book, it’s a movie.”

Over the course of the year during which they worked on the project, Zanuck and Bouzereau developed a real rapport. As a kid in France, the documentarian had begun collecting movie memorabilia and remembered, in particular, a photo he had seen of Zanuck surrounded by Jaws memorabilia. “He liked the fact I knew so much about his career,” Bouzereau says. “I was curious about where he came from, how he grew up.”

Zanuck eventually sat for a half-dozen interviews, candidly admitting his flaws as well as his strengths. “What surprised me,” says Bouzereau, “was how, on the one hand, he had the confidence to know what he was meant to do, for example when his father said, ‘Who should I hire to run Fox?’, and he said, ‘Me.’ But he was not cocky. He was someone who earned it, someone who had the knowledge. And yet when he was fired by his own dad, I said to him, ‘It must have been horrible. The phone calls must have gone to nothing.’ He said, 'Yes, I went for long walks on the beach.’ But he got back up, and how. I think he can be proud, he did it on his own, he did it his way. That’s why we open the film with his dad saying, ‘You’re going to have to overcome the burden of your birth.'”

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The documentary’s title is a twist on the title of Darryl Zanuck’s autobiography, Don’t Say Yes Until I Finish Talking. As a producer, Richard Zanuck found himself on the opposite side of the table, often having to convince executives to trust him that a movie about, say, octogenarians who have a close encounter, could prove commercially viable. Hence: Don’t Say No Until I Finish Talking.

“At his funeral,” Bouzereau recounts, “Clint Eastwood spoke and said that Dick took so many changes with films that we take for granted today – Cocoon or Jaws or Driving Miss Daisy or The French Connection. Today they are classics, but at the time they were made, you go ahead and pitch Cocoon to a studio and say this is a movie about old people who jump in a pool of alien water that makes them feel young. It reminded us that Dick took chances. With Dick’s father, people would say yes to anything before he had to finish the sentence. Dick had it the other way. He had to fight for every film that he made.”