The Sunday Conversation: Dean Zanuck

Dean Zanuck, 37, a third-generation scion of the Hollywood producing dynasty, strikes out on his own with the quirky “Get Low,” the first film from his new company, Zanuck Independent. Directed by first-time feature film director Aaron Schneider, who won an Oscar for his short “Two Soldiers,” the movie opens Friday in L.A. and New York.

The headline on an earlier version of this article misspelled Dean Zanuck’s last name as Zanuc.

How did “Get Low” come about?

It came about a decade ago. My wife was showing houses to a young lit manager and I got to know him, and he told me this story he was working on with his writer client. It’s based on an event that took place in the 1930s in Kingston, Tenn., where a man named Felix Breazeale threw a funeral for himself while he was still alive and over 12,000 people showed up, and it was covered by the AP and Life magazine.

What about the story appealed to you?

It’s original, and in today’s film world, that’s hard to come by. Everyone’s chasing remakes or reimaginations or TV shows in the movies. This just struck me as very unusual, but that was just the entry point, and when you got to know this character — the one portrayed by Robert Duvall and his plight — it connected on a much deeper level with the themes of reconciliation and guilt and forgiveness.

How did you get your stars? Did you know them personally?

I didn’t know any of them personally. Robert Duvall was the first actor that came to mind. There aren’t that many actors in that age range that can carry a film like this role demanded. To be honest, these kind of roles aren’t hanging off trees for older leading men. He was interested, but it was one of those cases where “when you have the money we’ll work it out.” I’d bump into him at the Palm eating there with my dad, I’d have one near-miss story after the next. “Oh, we have the Russians now.…" Thank God he had the patience to stay with us. We weren’t asking for a lot of money — seven [million dollars] — but it didn’t matter with the myopic, narrow minds of what’s getting made; it slowly but surely became very clear it was private equity or bust. We needed to find rich people who believed in us and believed in the story.

Forgive the question, but did it help being a Zanuck to find rich people?

Bobby Duvall would always joke, “If this Zanuck kid can’t raise $7 million, what are we doing?” I’d spent the majority of my career, all of it prior to “Get Low,” in the studio landscape, working under my dad (Richard D. Zanuck) and then alongside my dad, so I knew how to operate in that environment. Going out door to door raising $7 million wasn’t part of my repertoire. I had to figure it out on the fly, but I didn’t ask my dad for any help. It was important for me to steer clear of that.

You’ve been quoted as saying you were hoping “Get Low” would prove you weren’t riding on your family’s coattails. Is that the flip side of coming from a Hollywood family, that people make that assumption?

It’s not a concern. There are pros and cons. I’d rather have the last name than not. It wasn’t until I graduated college and I was a set PA [production assistant] on one of my dad’s films that that was really the first big step in. It was “Wild Bill.” It became pretty clear to me that expectations were low of what I could handle in whatever capacity. Because I was a must-hire, the boss’ ne’er-do-well son who’s preventing some kid who wants to be there from getting a job. So I would always try to shake that preconception by not only doing anything and everything, I’d work overtime, and people got it that I wasn’t just hanging around with no real purpose trying to look good.

Back to the film, how did you get Bill Murray, who plays the funeral director?

We never in our wildest dreams thought that Bill Murray would find his way into our film. He’s such an elusive individual, and he doesn’t have a manager or an agent. He’s only got a lawyer. So I called his lawyer and said, “So how does one get into the Bill Murray business?” And he said, “They don’t.… What I tell people is, ‘Send me a one-page synopsis of the script, I’ll send it to Bill, you’ll never hear back.’” I sent it over to the lawyer and thought nothing of it.

About three weeks later I was coming home from what would be our lead investor’s home. My assistant said we got an interesting message from Bill Murray. So we all huddled around and played it over and over and it was definitely Bill. “Hi, this is Bill Murray. I’m interested in ‘Get Low.’ Is it still available? Could you please send me the screenplay?” And he left a P.O. box, no phone number. Of course we scrambled, got a script, sent it over to the P.O. box.

And then another three weeks went by, and Bill called. I couldn’t believe it. We talked about golf, baseball, family. Then we finally got around to talking about “Get Low.” Looking back at it, that was when he committed to the film, even though there was a lot of drama afterwards, like, will he show up? Because the communication with him is always cryptic at best, if there’s any communication at all.

You’re a man of great faith. Was there prep work he needed to be part of that he didn’t appear for?

No, he’s an absolute professional. He actually showed up at 5 or 6 in the morning, before anyone was even at the production office to let him in, and then he got his wardrobe fitting — it was all a day or two before the production. Then he walked in to do the camera test. And here comes Bill Murray and everyone was just looking at him and he goes, “Was there an over/under on whether or not I would show?”