Pete Hammond

After four days of pristine presentations of certified vintage (mostly) classic movies, the TCM Classic Film Festival saved its only new film for the last day Sunday with the official world premiere of the documentary Don’t Say No Until I Finish Talking: The Story Of Richard D. Zanuck. The 90-minute doc begins airing on TCM next month, and it’s not only a must for anyone interested in the extraordinary career of Zanuck, but as a primer on survival in the dog-eat-dog movie industry.

Even though the  Egyptian Theatre screening was a “world premiere”, the film actually was first seen in early October at Zanuck’s memorial service at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. (Zanuck died July 13 of a sudden heart attack at age 77). As his widow and co-Oscar-winning producer Lili Fini Zanuck (Driving Miss Daisy, Cocoon) told me before Sunday’s screening, “When it was time to do the memorial I was so grateful to have this footage. There’s just nothing that could come close. There’s no montage I could have come up with or people speaking — you never would have wanted people speaking for some 90-odd minutes. And I felt so fortunate that night at the Academy to have this incredible documentary. It is not that it just follows Dick’s life, it’s that it is incredibly inspiring to people… After the memorial some people came up to me and said ‘Oh I wish I knew Dick this way’, and I said ‘You would never know Dick this way’. He wasn’t that kind of person. He didn’t see himself as a role model of any kind I think. He was just doing his best , and in his youth he was sort of rough and tumble. He would have gotten a big kick out of people finding him inspiring.”

Actually the old saying is you will see your life pass before your eyes just before you die. Although it certainly wasn’t planned that way when this doc was conceived, in Zanuck’s case that turned out to be true. According to filmmaker Laurent Bouzereau, Zanuck didn’t want to see any of the film until it was finished — and so he saw the final cut on July 10th, just three days before his unexpected passing. He was thrilled with it, immediately writing a letter of gratitude to the producers and Bouzereau. “I was getting ready to have a celebratory lunch with him on July 13th when I got word of his passing”, Bouzereau said. “It was obviously devastating but it’s incredible to know that he got to see it. This was very important to him because he thought this film would be in lieu of writing his own autobiography. When it was shown at his memorial, Steven Spielberg (who served as executive producer) gave a speech and said in essence that this could have been the last movie Dick Zanuck ever saw. He got to see his life story”. Bouzereau added that Spielberg said, ‘Leave it to Dick Zanuck to have a premiere at his own memorial’.

The film — which was well received Sunday from a crowd that also included his sons Dean and Harrison, grandson and other family members — is effective in chronicling Zanuck’s remarkable six-decade career that started at 20th Century Fox, where he worked with, replaced, and was even fired by his legendary father Darryl F. Zanuck. It covers his brief stint at Warner Bros, his highly successful producing partnership with David Brown (Jaws, The Sting) which earned both the Thalberg Award, and his own The Zanuck Co co-producing (with Lili) the Best Picture winner of 1989 Driving Miss Daisy among many others.

Among those interviewed in the film are his family members, Spielberg, Clint Eastwood, Sherry Lansing, Tim Burton, Larry Gordon, Ron Howard, William Friedkin, Tom Rothman, Stacey Snider, and Johnny Depp, who starred in many Burton-directed films that Zanuck produced in his later years. “If you want to be a producer in this business, and do it right, I would study Richard Zanuck,” Depp says in the film, which is largely composed of extensive interviews and narration by Zanuck himself detailing his successes, failures and a personal side of the family man that was rarely seen. Particularly interesting are the stories of his life at Fox and the relationship with his father. He talks about literally shutting down the studio for four months with only the janitorial staff left until he was able to re-open and get it going again. Among the films he  shepherded there were huge hits like The Sound Of Music, Planet Of The Apes, Butch Cassidy And The Sundance Kid, MASH, Valley Of The Dolls (he tells the story of being forced to fire Judy Garland on the third day of shooting), and The French Connection as well as movies that sealed his fate like the string of musical flops he commissioned. He then takes us through the post-Fox years, the discovery of Spielberg, the making of Jaws and Daisy among others (he was so “humiliated” by every studio’s constant rejection of the latter he turned the film over to his wife because he said he couldn’t take it anymore. The rest is history).

Ultimately the TCM film is an honest, fascinating and poignant look at a career in movies that becomes a fascinating document of the industry itself during those years. “This is a cutthroat business and Dick doesn’t have any blood on his hands. You don’t find anyone who says, ‘Dick screwed me over’, ” Lili Fini Zanuck told the crowd.

In this business that is perhaps the ultimate testament. Don’t Say No Until I Finish Talking (which is his own answer to his father’s oft-repeated line, ‘Don’t Say Yes Until I Finish Talking’) airs on TCM beginning May 8.

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