The Grandson also rises: Dean Zanuck takes an indie path with Robert Duvall starrer 'Get Low'

In the film business, the word Zanuck still translates as something akin to “Open Sesame,” and it has opened doors for a third generation of filmmakers, admitting 37-year-old Dean F. Zanuck, who just formed Zanuck Independent, a movie company that stresses strong and/or unusual story values.

First out of the hopper, fresh from a dizzying round of film-festival showcases, is the Sony Pictures Classics release Get Low, a singular fable about a crusty old galoot who throws himself “a funeral party” so he can attend it.

Granddaddy—Darryl F. Zanuck (1902-1979)—would have been delighted. Darryl entered films when they were still silently flickering, writing fur-raising scrapes and escapes for Rin Tin Tin. The industry and inventiveness which he displayed at that eventually paved the way for him to become chairman and co-founder of 20th Century-Fox, where he ruled the roost, preaching story-above-all, even star-power. After another Z (Paramount’s Adolph Zukor), his was the second-longest reign of studio power in Hollywood history, and his attention to the construction and details of scripts was legendary. (See Rudy Behlmer’s tome, Memo from Darryl F. Zanuck.)

Darryl’s son and Dean’s dad, Richard D. Zanuck, entered the family business in 1959, following the story-first precept with Compulsion, a solidly told facsimile of the Leopold-Loeb case. Half a century of worthy yarns followed that, among them Jaws, Cocoon, The Verdict and the Oscar-winning Driving Miss Daisy.

“‘Story Is the King’—that’s something that my dad passed on to me, just as his father passed it down to him,” notes Dean. “The story was always sitting at the top of the list. We’ve lost sight of that. The business is not necessarily about that anymore.”

The unconscionably clever Get Low should be a handy reminder. It came to his attention thanks to the aforementioned family name—but in an unexpected way.

“My wife is a real-estate agent, and she was showing properties to a young literary manager who recognized the name and asked to meet me. He told me about a client who was writing a story about a man who had a funeral while he was still alive.

“This is actually based on a small slice of historical trivia. Not much is known about it. There’s an AP article and a few other pieces. It happened in 1936 in Kingston, in eastern Tennessee. There were rumors of this and that, but no one knew if it was a novelty act of vanity. This was the strong jumping-off point that anchored the story.”

The eccentric who came up with the idea of funeral fun was a Tennessee recluse named Felix Breazeale (changed to Felix Bush in the film). Scott Seeke, who is credited with Chris Provenzano with the story that Provenzano and C. Gaby Mitchell finessed into a charming screenplay, heard about Felix from his own father-in-law, who is related to the undertaker’s assistant in the film (played by Lucas Black).

“The story is what immediately caught my attention,” Zanuck says. “In this day and age of superheroes and explosions all over the screen, you don’t come across original stories anymore, and that immediately stood out. Then, beyond that, there was some wonderful, subtle, nuanced writing. It had a nice balance of wit and warmth.

“It’s hard to compare this to anything else. That’s one of its greatest strengths, but it also means it’s a challenge. Often I think it’s a completely different film, but in truth I guess it’s like the films my dad had such great success with—like Driving Miss Daisy, also shot in Georgia. It had a lot of humor, it was sort of an unusual story about this old woman and her chauffeur, and by the time you got to the end, it was very touching and very moving how their relationship had developed over the course of the film.

“Most of Get Low is fictionalized,” Zanuck concedes, “but that event is not. We kept the name of the funeral home. We invented the romantic angle. There were rumors of murder and jail and going into hiding, but nothing that corroborated in hard fact.”

Consequently, the scripters had to conjure up a secret guilt that would drive a person into self-exile for 38 years and then bring him back to life and the living for his one last party. He arranges on the local radio show to have a lottery for his 300 acres to assure they will show up and relay the myths about him that they’ve heard.

Zanuck acquired the property in 2001 and soon discovered the property was a little too original for its own good. It took nine years to make—but only 24 days to shoot.

“You’re sitting there, banging your head, banging your head, trying to get this thing off the ground—it took forever. Then you get the money, and it’s wooosh! You have been living with this for so long, then suddenly you’re into it. You have a short preproduction, you have a very short shooting schedule, and then you’re done.

“We filmed Get Low in and around Atlanta, Georgia, in 24 days—it was a 23-day schedule, but we had a snowstorm. The first day of the funeral party sequence when we asked all our extras to come, it snowed—in March, outside of Atlanta, which is very rare—but we dealt with it. We were all over the place. The main street was a place called Crawfordville, a depressed little town. It hadn’t been affected by time too much. We didn’t have a big budget—$7.5 million. Everyone took cuts and made sacrifices because they believed in the material. They really cared. It wasn’t about a paycheck.”

Get Low was cast with all first-choices, Zanuck is pleased to report, but then the roles were so specifically drawn, there wasn’t much wiggle room in the casting.

Robert Duvall, as Felix, has the best role any 79-year-old actor could wish for and makes the most of it, delivering a valedictory, Oscar-worthy performance. “Bobby was an obvious thought,” Zanuck admits. “As soon as you read that material, you think of him. First of all, there are very few actors in that age range who can even slide in on that creative level. He’s the superior actor of that generation. He stood by us and, as the film developed, there were times when we felt maybe this was never going to happen, but when it came time to actually go out and do it, he was there.”
Similarly, Sissy Spacek was the logical choice to play the widow who provokes a wisp of romantic interest for Duvall. “This is another Southern acting icon, and you think to yourself, ‘Well, they must have done films together.’ They did one—a studio film called Four Christmases—but they weren’t in any scenes together! It was an ensemble plot about families, and they were never actually onscreen together, so this will be the first time you see them actually acting against one another.”

Not so expected, but just as perfectly placed, is Bill Murray in the role of a buck-chasing funeral-home director who engineers and exploits the “living funeral.” Scenes seem to have been keyed to his sardonic, off-center sense of humor.

He’s worth all the trouble Zanuck went through to land him.

“Bill doesn’t do things in a conventional way,” he says, starting out in understatement. “Beyond his lawyer, he doesn’t have an agent or manager, which makes it difficult to even start. I decided, really on a lark, to call up his lawyer and just ask, point blank, ‘How does one get into the Bill Murray business?’ He said, ‘Well, they don’t. What I tell people is ‘Send me a one-page synopsis of the story.’ I’ll send it to Bill, and you’ll never hear back.’ Not the rosiest of pictures. After we hung up, I didn’t immediately send anything. It took me about two or three weeks to finally say, ‘Let’s go get Bill,’ so we sent Bill’s lawyer a synopsis. Another two or three weeks later, there was a message on the answering machine from Bill, asking to see the screenplay and giving us an address.”

Zanuck’s biggest gamble was on first-time director Aaron Schneider, a second-unit director who previously had helmed an Oscar-winning short in 2004, Two Soldiers, based on a Faulkner short story about a brother who goes off to war and another who stays behind and ends up with a family. And the director’s background as a cinematographer accounts for the film’s lush, richly detailed period look.

Zanuck also got Schneider to edit the film. “That was not necessarily by design,” he allows. “It was pretty much a result of just not even having enough money to hire an editor. He edited it in his apartment. I said, ‘I want you to keep this editing equipment. You’re only going to get paid the minimum here.’ I don’t know if he would want to do it again, but it was important for him to do it on this picture.

“You learn a lot about yourself just spending nine years getting there,” Zanuck says of his maiden voyage into independent filmmaking. “When you’re calling the shots, you learn about every single aspect of the business—whereas at a studio, you have a whole army and infrastructure of people that deal with the nooks and crannies, all the trench-work and heavy-lifting. I like this independent space. I don’t think many big studio producers would know what to do. This is a whole other world.”

Of course, Dean Zanuck was schooled the old-fashioned studio way at The Zanuck Company, spending 13 years there running development before forming Zanuck Independent with his second official outing as a producer. His first was Road to Perdition, which he unearthed as a property and brought to his father for production. He would have you believe that big step was a fluke: “It was pretty much like throwing darts at the phone book—again, another one of those random things. I met this young, obscure literary manager, and he pitched me a lot of things. One of them—how he described it, for whatever reason—reminded me of my dad’s Sugarland Express. There was a road element in it, and I said, ‘Go ahead and send it.’ It was a graphic novel—which has become very popular now. He sent it over to me, and I just fell in love with it. I literally read it on a Saturday in one sitting and said to my now-wife, ‘Something very special is going to happen with this. I just know it.’ And within a matter of three weeks, Spielberg had read it and loved it, and it began moving at a fast clip.” The result, directed by Sam Mendes, scored six Oscar nominations and one win.

The big trick for Zanuck Independent, of course, will be to find another property as offbeat and story-driven as Get Low. They don’t come in bunches, like bananas.

“My next film is going to be a project called Voice from the Stone. It’s based on an award-winning Italian pulp novel—sort of a psychological horror thriller. It’s more genre than most of the things I’m working on, but it’s not Saw. If I had to compare it to something, it would be like The Others. It’s kind of a ghost story, very atmospheric.

“I would honestly like to make my career—I don’t know if it’s possible—without ever doing a remake. You never know what’s going to come across the desk. There’s nothing I wouldn’t do, and there’s nothing I’m looking to do. It sort of happens in that moment when you’re reading it. You get that connection where you say, ‘Okay, this is something that I’m prepared to spend a decade of my life trying to get made.’”

Contrary to the cliché, what Dean Zanuck really wants to do is produce—not direct. “It’s crossed my mind, but I come from a family of producers, so I’ll stick with that.”

With a name like Zanuck, he should—plus, he’s bringing new honor to it.