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AFTER 4-YEAR PREGNANCY, FILM LABELED ‘HEALTHY’

Times Staff Writer

Even by the plodding standards of the movie business, “Cocoon’s” metamorphosis from unpublished novel to film took a long four years.

Lili Fini Zanuck should know.

Standing at the very back of the Gotham Theater in Manhattan, wearing Reebok workout sneakers, khaki pants and a pale blue buttoned-down shirt, Zanuck, 31, says that producing her first movie seemed like giving birth. “I feel like it was a great pregnancy and I know the child is healthy,” she said. “My big apprehension now is will the grandparents like it?”

Lili Zanuck came across the unpublished manuscript by novelist David Saperstein in 1980 and instantly fell in love with the story. She convinced her boss and husband, Richard Zanuck, to option “Cocoon” for 12 months for about $7,500--a pittance for the producers of “Jaws” who had purchased the movie rights to “The Island” for $2.1 million.

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At the time, Zanuck and partner David Brown were busy preparing “The Verdict” for 20th Century Fox and “Cocoon” was a low priority. A first draft was finally delivered in late 1981, but Fox executives then in power--the first of three administrations to oversee “Cocoon"--were not impressed with the first attempt.

Still determined, Lili Zanuck signed screenwriter Tom Benedek to do a complete rewrite. But in late 1982, two weeks before Benedek was to turn in the script, the Zanuck-Brown company was escorted off the lot by security guards after heated disagreements with then-chairman Alan Hirschfield. As Zanuck-Brown tidied up details of their departure (they were taking their projects to Warner Bros. for a new deal), Zanuck quietly asked husband Richard if he should mention “Cocoon,” which was technically still a Fox production in development. “Dick said to me, ‘I’m not about to waste time with “Cocoon” when we’re being escorted off this lot,’ ” she recalls. “We just assumed they (Fox) would read the new draft and tell us it’s not for them.”

Wrong. Shortly after Zanuck-Brown left the lot, new studio President Joe Wizan replaced Sherry Lansing. Wizan read the new script and raved about it. Within four weeks Zanuck and Brown, who had yet to unpack at Warners, postponed that deal and were on their way back to Fox with a new production deal and a green light for “Cocoon.”

“It just proves that a good screenplay will mend all wounds,” says the 50-year-old Richard Zanuck, a former president of Fox. “Fox was the last place we thought this movie would be made.”

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But there was one more problem that had to be worked out: Bob Zemeckis, then a promising young director, had been signed to direct and was just finishing up “Romancing the Stone” for Fox. Incredibly, Fox production executives had problems with a rough cut of “Romancing the Stone.” Though the Zanucks were not allowed to see the movie, Richard Zanuck says he was told in no uncertain terms that either Zemeckis had to go or the picture wouldn’t.

For Richard Zanuck, it was one of the most difficult firings he has ever had to make. “We were given a choice,” he explained. “ ‘Cocoon’ would go forward, absolute green light, if Bob were not the director. If we wanted to wait, we took our chances. It was awful.” The irony was that “Romancing the Stone” went on to become Fox’s biggest hit of 1984 ($36 million in domestic revenues, according to a spokesman for the studio).

In early 1984, Ron Howard agreed to direct “Cocoon” and from then on the picture started to roll. Midway through production, however, in July of 1984, Wizan was ousted and replaced by Larry Gordon. Soon after, Barry Diller rounded out the team as the new chairman of Fox. At that point, “Cocoon” was in a happy kind of limbo: “They (Gordon and Diller) inherited the project and they were in a position that if it worked, wonderful, and if it didn’t, it wasn’t their picture,” says Howard.

As it turned out, Diller and Gordon both liked the movie. At an early screening for Fox executives, Howard reports that Diller told the nervous film makers: “This is a wonderful break for us to have this picture. You should be proud of yourselves.” When “Cocoon” opens on June 21 they’ll know whether Diller was being polite or prescient.

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For Lili Zanuck, the June 21 premiere will mark the end of a long and satisfying struggle. Seven years ago she quit her research job at the World Bank in Washington and packed everything she could fit into her car to move to California. She knew no one in the movie business, but while working at the Carnation Co. in office management, she was introduced to producer Richard Zanuck on a blind date.

“He asked me if I was happy at my work and when I told him no, he asked me what I’d rather be doing,” Zanuck recalled. “I told him, ‘Your job.’ ” Four months later they were married and soon after she came to work for the Zanuck-Brown Co.

“Cocoon” marks the first time producers Zanuck and Brown have shared credit in the more than a dozen movies they’ve produced. “Maybe that’s why ‘Cocoon’ took so long to get made,” jokes Lili, the newest member of the team.

And whatever happened to David Saperstein, author of the novel “Cocoon”? Now that the movie is coming out, the book is finally being published (in paperback, by Berkeley).

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And wait, there’s more. In the great Hollywood tradition, Saperstein has just finished directing his first movie, which he also wrote, “Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday,” a drama.

“How do you like that?” asks Richard Zanuck. “Here’s a guy who couldn’t even get his book published and now he’s directing a movie.”

Another day, another larva in Hollywood.


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