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Exploring His World

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Not every Hollywood producer is given an opportunity to live out what would certainly be a common fantasy: traveling back to your own past. Many might choose to do so to correct some misstep that affected the rest of their lives. But what do you do if your past needs little correction? Why, then, travel back at all?

This in a sense is the question I put to Richard D. Zanuck. More than three decades ago Zanuck, then the 33-year-old production chief at 20th Century Fox, gave the green light to a project turned down by every other studio, a film version of Pierre Boulle’s novel “Les Planetes des Singes” (or as it was renamed, “Planet of the Apes”). Now the talking simians have come back huge in Tim Burton’s remake of the original, opening this past weekend with a whopping $68.5 million. Zanuck himself returns as the new film’s producer.

For the record:

12:00 AM, Aug. 02, 2001 FOR THE RECORD
Los Angeles Times Thursday August 2, 2001 Home Edition Part A Part A Page 2 A2 Desk 1 inches; 15 words Type of Material: Correction
Photo caption--Actor Charlton Heston’s first name was misspelled in a caption in Wednesday’s Calendar.

I talked with Zanuck Monday after the fantastic numbers had come in--the best non-holiday weekend opening ever. Was he surprised? “Well, we knew we had a hit, and the only surprise was that it surpassed everyone’s expectations,” he said. I wondered if he perceived a happy symmetry in the way the apes bookended his career.

“For me, having started the whole franchise, to complete the circle 33 years later is very satisfying; it’s very exhilarating,” he said.

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But what seemed like a sure thing from the vantage point of 2001 was in 1968 actually a very hard sell, and Zanuck had to convince the Fox board of directors that letting stockholders pick up the tab for “a picture in which Charlton Heston talks to apes” would be both good entertainment and good business.

As he had demonstrated in 1959’s “Compulsion” (his unorthodox choice for his debut as a producer) Richard D. Zanuck, like his father, Darryl F. Zanuck, had faith in his own judgment about what constituted a good story, even those that seemed unsuitable by Hollywood standards. But, Moses talking to monkeys?

Zanuck proposed that Fox would provide seed money for a short screen test, and if no one on the Fox board laughed when Heston debated Aristotelian concepts with a cinematic icon more venerated than he (Edward G. Robinson, in ape makeup for the screen test; Robinson had to drop out of the film for health reasons and he was replaced by Maurice Evans).

But even after passing this test, Zanuck was far from sure the film would be a hit. He told me his “basic fear” was that audiences would find it laughable. In February 1968 he previewed the film in Phoenix before “a real, not a specially selected audience.” In an industry that has embraced focus groups, Zanuck still prefers this classic-studio-era mode of testing.

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His showman’s instincts were vindicated; not only did Phoenix moviegoers take the talking apes seriously, they did something Zanuck had seen only two or three times in his 50-year career. As he recalled: “The audience milled around the lobby refusing to go home,” buzzing particularly about the ending in which Heston’s character, fleeing his ape captors, comes across the buried upper portion of the Statue of Liberty and realizes that he has been on another planet only in the sense that the world of the future represents an inversion of the power structure between man and ape.

The film was a box-office smash that led to four sequels and a TV series. It also gave (part of a) life to a raft of fans whose connection to the movie was so powerful that they dressed up as apes at movie premieres and science-fiction conventions. It was more than a hit film, it was a phenomenon.

But then in 1970, after completing the sequel, “Beneath the Planet of the Apes,” Zanuck experienced his own form of de-evolution: In a much publicized and humiliating episode, he was fired by his father (the Fox studio chief) from his post as head of production. Darryl F. Zanuck was himself fired soon after.

So, while this change of personnel signaled the abrupt end of one of Hollywood’s most fantastic careers, it marked the new phase of Richard Zanuck’s professional life. First in partnership with David Brown, and later working with his director-producer wife Lilli Fini Zanuck, the ex-studio executive went on to his own brilliant career as a producer (“Jaws,” “The Sting,” “Cocoon”), reaching one high with an Oscar for best picture for the 1989 film “Driving Miss Daisy.” A year later he received the Irving G. Thalberg Memorial Award given to a producer whose career work standards and output are exceptionally high.

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Surviving Hollywood

Today, at 66 Richard Zanuck is a man who, having survived the intrigues at Fox and Hollywood’s reversals of fortune, is, in the words of Stephen Sondheim, still here. He gives the impression of never being fazed or discouraged. During a phone interview the day the film opened amid a massive publicity blitz, I asked him to assess the original film’s place in his career. Why risk comparisons with the earlier version, and a younger self?

Though Zanuck had never done a remake, he was drawn to the project because he felt that the material still offered a good forum for “expressing a few sentiments using the upside-down world Boulle gave us in the original.”

Another, perhaps stronger reason he broke his own rule against remakes was his admiration for director Tim Burton. (Stories of possible “Planet” remakes with other directors had been floating around for years.)

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“When I read in the trades that Tim Burton was signed on, I was very interested.” How interested? “I was very tempted [to call Fox], and my hand was on the phone.”

But before he made that call, Fox Co-Chairman Tom Rothman called him. In the Hollywood shorthand for making deals, Rothman said to Zanuck: “I have two things to ask you: Tim Burton, ‘Planet of the Apes’?” Zanuck, versed in the dialogue, immediately knew the appropriate response: “I’m in.”

Zanuck said he liked Burton’s work (“Batman,” “Sleepy Hollow,” “Beetlejuice”) because of the director’s ability to translate imaginary and at-times whimsical worlds into concrete cinematic manifestations. “You put that subject in his hands,” said Zanuck, “and only good things could result.”

Like his father, Zanuck is a hands-on, creative producer, and he worked closely with Burton and the creative team. The new film, like many post-studio era works, is a pastiche that blends and affectionately mixes once stable genres: We are simultaneously or at different moments in a gladiator movie, with John Ford in Monument Valley, or on some alien terrain beloved of science fiction.

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And while the new film reflexively pays homage to the original through a variety of means--not the least of which is the presence of Heston (this time as an ape) in a crucial scene--the Burton film has its own distinct vision.

The art direction, costumes, decor and architecture here are markedly more sophisticated than anything in the original, and though like other Burton worlds, this too is off-kilter, it is just enough like our own world to make it compelling. (The film opened to mixed reviews, but Burton’s visual style was almost universally praised.)

With the film about to open, Zanuck was reflective about what had changed in the world of filmmaking in the years separating the two films.

“Audiences around the world today are looking more for an escape when they go into a theater,” Zanuck says, “in part because that’s what drives commercial culture but also because society itself has put so much pressure on people.” Zanuck points out that in blockbuster-driven Hollywood, it’s hard to avoid making “summer pictures” all year--despite the industry’s professed yearnings for quality films.

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In a city of showmen, few have understood what Zanuck learned from his father: that films do not always need a “serious” philosophical or political topic to get people thinking. As the original “Planet” proved, popular entertainment can be both entertaining and thought-provoking.

Given the apparent success of the new “Planet of the Apes,” I wondered if Zanuck had any other films he’d like to remake. At first he answered, “I don’t really think about remakes.” But I pushed him. “Is there nothing that might tempt you?”

“Well,” he mused “last summer I was thinking about [remaking] my first effort.” In “Compulsion,” which is based on a true story, Orson Welles plays a lawyer who convinced a jury not to hang a pair convicted of killing a young boy. It was an incredibly brave film to make in 1959 and in conjunction with “Apes” it suggests that just as there are different kinds of thrills to be had at the movies, there are varieties of risks producers can or are willing to take in a given era.


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