How film production works in Hollywood and Indie feature films, a conversation with Dean Zanuck

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Dean-zanuckWhen it comes to movies, most of us "pay no attention to the man behind the curtain." We follow the stars and often directors, but rarely does the producer of a film get to be in the spotlight.

But in many ways, the producer of a film is the one person most central to the creation— from choosing a screenplay, to hiring key personnel, to facilitating the millions of details large and small required to successfully coordinate a large number of creatives and technicians. Behind the scenes is a fascinating world where creativity, skill, structure and logistics all must work together to create the finished product. As an artist who's interested in how things are done, I've long wanted to see what I could learn from a film producer that might also apply to making and promoting other forms of art.

Dean Zanuck was the perfect guy to ask. With deep experience in both the studio system and the independent space, I felt that Dean gave a much more complete picture of the realities, process and passion of producing a major film. As the third generation of one of Hollywood's most successful and well know families, he grew up within the traditional Hollywood system, eventually working 13 years as Vice-President of Development at The Zanuck Company. But for his most recent film, Get Low, Dean chose to make his own name as an independent producer working without the net that a studio provides— the "army and infrastructure of people that deal with the nooks and crannies, all the trench-work and heavy-lifting."

We also talked about Dean's focus on original stories and narrative, and the idea of producing a career in the arts as though it were a Hollywood film.

Dean Zanuck represents the third generation of one of Hollywood's most illustrious film families.  His grandfather was the legendary Darryl F. Zanuck, co-founder and chairman of 20th Century Fox and his father is the Oscar winning producer Richard D. Zanuck. Dean Zanuck's first producing effort was Road to Perdition, directed by Sam Mendes, starring Tom Hanks, Paul Newman and Jude Law, which was nominated for six Academy Awards, winning one.

His most recent film is Get Low, a drama about a man who staged his own funeral while still alive. Get Low stars Robert Duvall, Bill Murray and Sissy Spacek is currently playing in theaters nationwide.  Zanuck acquired the script seven years ago, developed the material, raised the financing and brought on the director, Aaron Schneider, and secured the stellar cast. Filming took place in small rural areas outside of Atlanta, Georgia earlier this year.

A native of California, Zanuck grew up in Los Angeles and attended Harvard High School and during his summer breaks worked in the ICM mailroom.  Following graduation from the University of Colorado where he majored in History, he learned every aspect of production working in various production capacities on the films Clean Slate, Wild Bill and Mulholland Falls and was a personal assistant to producer Brian Grazer during the production of Apollo 13.  He joined the The Zanuck Company in 1995 as Vice-President of Development.

At The Zanuck Company, he oversaw production on the blockbusters Deep Impact, Planet of the Apes, and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.  Zanuck also served as a production executive on the critically acclaimed films True Crime, starring/directed by Clint Eastwood, Rules of Engagement starring Tommy Lee Jones and Samuel L. Jackson and Big Fish, starring Ewan McGregor and Sweeney Todd, starring Johnny Depp.

While at the Zanuck Company, Zanuck produced the aforementioned Oscar nominated, Road to Perdition as well as co-produced Reign of Fire, starring Matthew McConaughey, Christian Bale and Gerald Butler.

After thirteen years running development at The Zanuck Company, Zanuck formed Zanuck Independent in September 2008 and Get Low will represent the company's debut film. Zanuck has already completed production on another unique thriller and has several other projects in various stages of development.

Learn More about Dean Zanuck

  1. Follow Dean on Facebook.
  2. Sony Pictures Classics: Get Low.
  3. Follow Get Low on Facebook.

Further Resources:

  1. Film Journal International News: The Grandson also rises: Dean Zanuck takes an indie path
  2. IMDB: Dean Zanuck, Get Low
  3. IMDB: Richard D. Zanuck
  4. IMDB: Darryl F. Zanuck

Show Highlights: Excerpts From the Conversation

Once the transcription is completed I'll include some of the best portions here.

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I'm best known as an artist and designer. Relaxing makes me tense, so I tend to put in a lot of hours on diverse projects.

On the way to a successful art career I've been a poet and writer, a tech geek, a print and web designer, illustrator, industrial designer, musician, teacher, actor, set designer and even a paid guru once.

It's all the same thing in the end— I wake up most days thinking about how I want to change, fix or improve some aspect of the world. And after a couple cups of coffee I get started on it.

My specialty is impossibility remediation: if it can't be done, I'm on it.

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