6 Filmmaking Tips From Producing Titan Saul Zaentz

By  · Published on May 16th, 2014

United Artists

This post is in partnership with Cadillac

Cadillac and the Producers Guild of America recently launched Make Your Mark, a short film competition with the late Oscar-winning producer Saul Zaentz as its spiritual center. In celebration of Zaentz, contestants are being asked to draw thematic inspiration from his work. Fittingly, the 30-second Cadillac spot featuring the grand prize winner’s film will air during the 2015 Academy Awards.

At almost every turn in his career as a producer, Saul Zaentz tilted against convention. He wasn’t an outright rebel or provocateur (although he’d work hand in hand with some). It’s more like he was a man who saw what was popular in its time and chose to do something something else. In the 70s, it was One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. In the 80s, it was the weirdness of Amadeus and the mature determination of Mosquito Coast. In the 90s, it was The English Patient, and he rounded out his career with Milos Forman’s Goya’s Ghosts in the 2000s.

But instead of judging each of these movies and their successes against the cinematic movements of their time, it’s more important to see them simply as projects that Zaentz felt passionate about. Not only was he not working within the framework of popularity, he wasn’t responding to it either. Some of these were movies absolutely no one else wanted to make, but they hit Zaentz hard enough in the gut to put his money, time and talent behind them.

His punishment for being that independent was having to write so many Oscar acceptance speeches.

In 1997, when he took home the Oscar for The English Patient, he also accepted the Irving G. Thalberg Memorial Award ‐ a special tribute, not handed out every year, that saw him join the ranks of Zanuck and Goldwyn and Hitchcock and Wyler and Bergman and more. An elite club of creative producers.

Here’s a bit of free film school (for fans and filmmakers alike) from a man who fiercely cut against the grain.

Trust Yourself and The Talent Around You

“You would absolutely be justified to say to me, ‘What the hell have you done before this film to make you think you could make [The English Patient]?’ Nobody said it to my face, but I’m sure a lot of people said it to each other. Saul [Zaentz] made me feel he had absolutely every confidence, and so he empowered me. Had I been making this film at a regular studio, they would have been looking over my shoulder every day and saying, ‘that’s too dark, that’s too light, that’s too slow, that’s too fast,’ like bugs swarming around your head when you’re trying to work. Swarm, swarm, swarm all day. When Saul was about ‘Focus on what you’re doing. You can anything you want. I believe in you. Do it.’”

That’s director Anthony Minghella, looking back on a production experience that would eventually earn him his only Oscar for Best Director. While he got to play modest about the film’s chances at the time, Zaentz pointed to the bleachers.

Here’s the producer’s prediction from the same feature:

“This one is going to get nominated. We’re going to get quite a few. I believe it. Script, camera, … the reason, I think, I can’t see five better pictures out there.”

Such is the power of full conviction. It’s a trait that’s hovered in the background of every Zaentz-produced movie, and it’s often been one of the direct causes for the success of the cinematic outcome. Which makes a lot of gut-level sense. Doubt and frustration can be great creative motivators, but it’s a producer’s job to create the best kind of incubator for the best version of the film they’re making.

This isn’t about hubris or unearned swagger, but a steady belief in yourself and the people around you. It’s also not The Secret-style hoodoo mysticism. It’s about projecting a confident faith which creates an environment where everyone can feel safe to try different things and let their skill reach its full potential.

Know Your Role

This can be tricky for producers because exactly zero people understand clearly what movie producers are supposed to do. Some are purely financiers, popping their heads in now and again to check on the investment. Others are creative partners, and it’s here where the urge to become co-director is probably strongest.

This is related to the advice above, because trust in others will always be the best medicine against the virus of micromanagement. For Zaentz, producing was about giving the goldfish the largest possible bowl in which to grow.

“Saul is the producer ideal because he realized that a film has to be made by one person, the director, not by a committee.”

That’s frequent collaborator Milos Forman. Obviously Zaentz sought to nurture auteurism and auteurs. As a producer, you have to ask yourself how best you can become a conduit for filmmaking skill without muddying the waters.

Trust Your Audience

Ah, the triumvirate of advice on trust is complete. Yourself, your peers and the people who you’re sharing with. Of course, a producer very well might be the first audience member ‐ the one who reads a book or play or script and shakes it in the air demanding that it be turned into a movie. Its his or her first name on the petition, showing a willingness to move mountains made of money to turn a dream into a reality. Cheerleading costume not optional.

In that, there has to be a balance for both art and commerce, but Zaentz’s output seemed to hold that one would take care of the other. That if you made an intelligent film, intelligent filmgoers would support it.

It’s easy to be cynical with the spandex-covered marquees today, but keep in mind that Zaentz found great success with his formula of mature and incisive storytelling in three different decades marked by three different cultural environments (including a budding Blockbuster Mentality).

So it makes sense at a studio level to run as fast as possible toward what’s working for everyone else. Meanwhile, the Saul Zaentzes of the world will keep shouting, “If you build it, they will come.”

You’re Never Too Old to Start

It’s cool to be a wunderkind. Saul Zaentz was not a wunderkind.

Starting his filmmaking career in his mid-50s ‐ albeit a transition from an incredibly successful run in the music industry ‐ Zaentz is proof that you can be old enough to play with your grandchildren and still retain the spark of potential for building new triumphs. If you’re dismayed by the calendar or disheartened to see how many young filmmakers are pushing through to earn fame, shake it off and remember the Santa Claus-esque visage of Zaentz taking his first baby step toward the Oscar dais.

As indie legend Ted Hope took to heart when taking on his new job at Fandor:

“Zaentz didn’t start his film producing career until he was 50. I’m 50. Over my producing career I don’t took to make 70 more movies, I look to make a few films that have tremendous impact. So I have to help build the infrastructure to allow that to happen. We live in an era when good movies don’t get seen and aren’t appreciated and don’t resonate as deeply as they could. We could do a whole lot better.”

Risk Everything

In an excellent set visit for At Play in the Fields of the Lord, Roger Ebert tells the story of an expensive light being smashed, a rock star actor being surrounded by airport security, a plane breaking in two, and an on-set producer who didn’t have to phone back to the studio to explain any of it. The producer, of course, was Zaentz, who answered to no one because he was bankrolling the project out of his own pocket.

“We had to build everything on this location. Kitchen, mess hall, dormitory, costume and props departments, roads, everything. . . We could theoretically have shot this movie in a studio, or in a more convenient location, but it would have been wrong. This is a movie about the rain forest, and every shot should declare that it is being shot in the place it’s about.”

Location shoots were par for the course for Zaentz, who demanded the real thing and was willing to pay for it.

Naturally, almost no one can finance a movie of this scale from their own wallet, but this is merely a scaled-up version of the Kevin Smith model that a lot of indie filmmakers just getting their sea legs can work with. Zaentz had a bigger billfold, so he was playing with bigger toys and got his own pontoon plane, but the chances of him losing millions were very real (so real that he sometimes did).

There’s something deeply profound and inspiring about a producer who feels so strongly about a property that he’s willing to pay for it himself. To put his money where his imagination is. How much could you/would you be willing to put on the line to make something yourself?

Do What You Feel Insanely, Amazingly, Overwhelmingly Strong About Doing

Final Thoughts

On the one hand, it might be easy to consider Zaentz a hobbyist. He came from success in a different industry, and only produced 10 films in 30 years, but if we think of his participation in the industry as casual, it makes the height of his output and the three Oscar statuettes even more compelling. Zaentz was a homerun hitter in the midst of sacrifice doubles. He had his strike outs as well, but when he swung, he aimed over the fences, all the way to the parking lot.

Then, he connected.

It would be unfair to expect aspiring minds to follow these filmmaking tips in the way Zaentz did because he had millions of legs up when he entered the game, but it’s also not hard to imagine that even if Zaentz had limited resources, he still would have been making great movies that he believed in. The production value would have been lower, the subject matter might not have been as epic, and he wouldn’t have had the same acting talent, but he would have pushed ahead with conviction and passion anyway.

Then he would have used the money from his success to push that conviction to the Brazilian rain forest.

Keep in mind that One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest was a low budget indie. Everyone has to start somewhere. Why not start with passion?

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Movie stuff at VanityFair, Thrillist, IndieWire, Film School Rejects, and The Broken Projector Podcast@brokenprojector | Writing short stories at Adventitious.