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With ‘Hidden,’ Richard Zanuck kept working until the end

In the mid-1970s, an accomplished producer named Richard Zanuck decided to guide a young director, a man who hadn’t had much luck in Hollywood, on a new genre movie. The filmmaker was one Steven Spielberg, and the movie was “Jaws.” It ended up working out pretty well.

It’s hard not to think of that dynamic when one hears about “Hidden,” a horror-thriller about to begin production that will, as a result of Friday’s sudden death of Zanuck, have the distinction (and perhaps pressure) of being the producer’s final project.

A hot script from first-time filmmaker brothers named Matt and Ross Duffer, the movie looked likely to face the struggles of so many well-regarded scripts with little pedigree when Warner Bros. bought it in late 2011. The film, about a family that takes refuge in a shelter after a mysterious outbreak, had the producing involvement of Mason Novick, a manager-producer who counts “Juno” among his credits. But it did not come with the big star or director generally needed to push a movie through the Hollywood pipeline these days.

But in January the studio asked Zanuck to come aboard and produce “Hidden.” After reading, and liking, the script, he agreed. The idea was for Zanuck to offer a similar level of expertise as he did as a producer nearly 40 years ago to Spielberg on a different low-budget genre movie. Pretty soon the project had heat. Young stars Alexander Skarsgard (“True Blood”) and Andrea Riseborough (“W.E.”) had joined, and Warner Bros. was ready to make the film with a new genre label called Primal Pictures. The movie was greenlit and given a summer start date in Vancouver.

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“This was ‘Jaws.’ I mean, not literally, and I obviously don’t want to compare,” Novick, 37, said, “But it’s two young filmmakers, and we said, ‘Let’s make it cheap with cool young people.’ A lot of us are up and coming -- and then we have someone like Dick.”

That tragically changed Friday when Zanuck, who was in good health and had been actively involved with the project even in recent days, died of a heart attack at age 77.

Novick described a producer who had input on everything from casting to storytelling, and was planning on flying up to the Canadian set Monday as the movie prepared to move into production in the coming weeks. Zanuck was also able to manage relationships with talent and studios, long considered a particular skill of his.

“The amount of respect he got from agents and everyone else — let’s just say it was night and day [compared to me],” Novick laughed. “The agents would yell at me. They would never yell at Dick.”

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The Duffers had a nickname for Zanuck. “We called him The Hammer, because if we had a problem, he’d crush it within 24 hours,” Ross Duffer told 24 Frames. They would also be serenaded with Zanuck stories -- about Orson Welles, about Spielberg, even about JFK. Matt Duffer described dinners at the Zanuck home that went late into the night until “his wife kicked us out.”

Roy Lee, a principal at Primal and another producer on the film, told my colleague Nicole Sperling that Zanuck was planning on being on the set in Vancouver the entire length of the 34-day shoot. “Having his sage advice would be a great guiding hand for the production,” he said. “He’d just seen it all. Every obstacle that comes up, he knew how to handle it.”

Novick allowed that there may be a slight delay as memorials and other issues are sorted through, but that the production will pretty much move according to plan.

The filmmakers realize it’s an odd position to be in, having their first movie be a legend’s last. But they said they feel their film is a chance to honor Zanuck’s dedication, to this production and the filmmaking process in general.

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“It was clear he genuinely loved movies and that he wasn’t jaded at all,” said Matt Duffer. “Two days ago we were stuck on a script idea, and he called us up in the morning. It was only yesterday morning, which seems hard to believe. He said, ‘Guys, I’ve been up since late last night and I’ve come up with a long list of solutions.’ He didn’t have to do that. He had nothing to prove. But he was thinking about the project constantly. That was just the way he was.”

RELATED:

Richard D. Zanuck: Six movies that changed the world

PHOTOS: Notable deaths of 2012

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Richard Zanuck, legendary Hollywood producer, dies at 77

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‘Dark Shadows’: Tim Burton and Richard D. Zanuck form a family

Follow me on Twitter at https://twitter.com/ZeitchikLAT

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