Rush to the Top

The whiplash rise of Lili Fini Zanuck--from producer's wife to production gofer to Oscar-winning producer of Driving Miss Daisy to first-time director of the new film Rush--has left everyone in town breathless. Everyone, that is, but the woman herself. Here, over lunch, she drops a few clues to what's really driving Ms. Zanuck.

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Lili Fini Zanuck is coming out. We're marking the occasion over Cajun omelettes and piped-in Aaron Neville at what must be the Westside's reigning restaurant of choice for the overindulged and over-Prozac'd. "The hardest part of the whole process, this coming out of the closet, was saying I was actually going to do it," observes Zanuck, a chirrupy, attractive live wire who vibrates at frequencies undreamed of by the decorative "Ladies who Lunch" drinking their meals at nearby tables. I'm listening to her, hating like hell to admit to myself that she's completely unlike what I had every reason to think she might be: a granitelike, self-enchanted, big-haired Hollywood trophy wife. She is, after all, a woman who appeared on the scene out of nowhere and lucked out. And then some. Her whole story seems, from afar, like the stuff that those Jackie Collins/Judith Krantz bestsellers are made of: As the third wife of famed second-generation producer Richard Zanuck, and daughter-in-law of legendary studio chieftain Darryl F. Zanuck, Lili Fini shot to the front Hollywood ranks when she and her husband co-produced the surprise hit Cocoon and then went on to win the Best Picture Oscar for the even more surprising hit Driving Miss Daisy.

Zanuck's spare, no-nonsense personal style--"Take it or leave it" is the unmistakable message--leaves me with little doubt that she's gotten where she is with smarts and hard work, not just by trading on her famous last name. Now, when she's finally got the town's respect (an Academy Award will do that), she's refusing to play it safe by making Cocoon III or turning Driving Miss Daisy into a TV series. Instead, Zanuck is using her clout to take a shot at directing. "I'd thought about this for a long, long time," she tells me, holding a forkful of au gratin in midair, "but I always felt back then, that if I did it, I wouldn't have anything to lose. Now, I do."

Damn straight she does. After co-producing two odds-defying hits that she herself handpicked, Zanuck is about to come out not only as a director, but as the director of a very dark horse indeed. Her movie, Rush, is a jagged-edged, spooky, unruly tale that features Jennifer Jason Leigh and Jason Patric as drug-addicted narcs in mid-'70s Texas. It's hardly the stuff one might expect after the cozy, retro Daisy which charmed away four Oscars. Exactly, you can almost hear Lili Zanuck say.

Zanuck exudes an aura of someone who does--and gets--precisely what she sets out to. "Dick and I could have produced another movie and failed without too many people labelling the film 'a flop from last year's Academy Award winners,'" she begins to tell me. But the pepper mill she's grinding over her plate has started to screech like the violins in Psycho. "I'd fire the sound effects editor who came up with this one," she mutters sotto voce, laughing, then flags down a waiter and says: "I'd like an orange juice. And, please, a quieter pepper mill. Also, is there some reason why the air conditioning's blasting? It's not like there are four thousand people in here breathing heavily." Those matters attended to, she continues, "So, Dick and I could have slid by with a failure--a couple of failures, maybe. I thought: 'Yeah, there's a chance that if I direct, I could fail. But look, that's just what happens.' I went and made the movie I wanted to, anyway."

Three years ago, the Zanucks and Jerry Perenchio, their partner in The Zanuck Company, paid $1 million for a manuscript by Kim Wozencraft, a Texas ex-undercover cop who had turned her firsthand experiences of falling in love with her male partner, getting addicted to drugs, and doing over a year in a federal pen into a much-talked-about best-selling novel. The moviemakers quickly hired elusive writer-director Robert Towne to handle the Rush script. Then, hassles. "Tom Cruise's representation came to Dick," Zanuck recalls, "asking if it would be possible to give Bob a four-week 'window' to do a polish on the script of Days of Thunder. Dick said: 'Yes.' I said: 'Why?' That was in September. In January, we hear Bob is down in Florida directing second unit. At some point, we needed a script." Scratch Towne, enter Pete Dexter, the award-winning novelist and screenwriter of Paris Trout. Days before the script's due date, as Richard Zanuck drove his wife to her car after a meeting, he suggested she compile a list of potential directors for Rush. "When I said, 'I've got a few ideas,' and he asked 'Who?' I said, 'Me,' and got out of the car. He'd always said that he would really back me when I chose to direct. But I always thought it was going to be some little project. All the way driving home, I'm thinking he's going to say: 'We paid a million dollars for this book and you're going to direct it? Are you nuts?' When I got there, he said, 'That's a great idea.'"

Perhaps Richard Zanuck flashed back to 1962 when studio titan Darryl F. Zanuck, his father, asked him for a list of top contenders to run 20th Century Fox and the 27-year-old son, according to legend, answered: "There isn't anybody better than me." The father hired the son. Then, seven years later, the father fired the son, when he suspected him of trying to unseat him. But that's another story. Isn't it? Well, yes. But Lili Zanuck has not escaped all hints of intrigue in her rise to the top.

She's been around long enough to develop immunity to slams. She's had to develop some armor: From the beginning, the climbs in her graph were so fast they set Hollywood's tongues wagging that she was anything from an overweeningly ambitious opportunist to, well, worse. If she didn't start out with one, Lili has by now devised a foolproof system to protect herself: When she doesn't like a question, she moves on to another subject, period. One of the subjects she tends to move right over is her pre-Hollywood past. This much is known: 13 years ago, she hit town, a striking, ambitious, divorced, widely-traveled Army brat who'd ditched a research job with the World Bank in Washington, D.C., and had no industry connections. Six months later, she went on a blind date with the son of Darryl F. Zanuck, and ended up marrying him. People who don't live in Tinseltown might well wonder how any outsider, even, yes, a good-looking blonde, could so easily meet a power player like Zanuck. But it's not so tough to fathom. In a city where the newly divorced are ever on the lookout for tomorrow night's date, what are friends--not to mention all the chic watering holes--for?

Marrying the power player is another matter. Indeed, had Lili hit town anytime from the '30s through the '50s, she might have landed in the lap of a mogul like Zanuck Sr., one of the industry's most shrewd--and legen-darily priapic--studio bosses. She might even have become, say, a Fox starlet and washed up at 30. For that matter, that old story still plays today. But that was not about to be Lili's story, for one simple reason: chemistry. Nineteen years older than his wife-to-be, Richard Zanuck, who had at last emerged from his father's long shadow by running Warner Bros. and by producing The Sting and Jaws with his partner David Brown, fell for Lili, and in no time flat, the new Mrs. Zanuck was working for the Zanuck-Brown Company.

Unlike Richard's two previous actress wives (who had played in Fox movies), Lili wanted nothing to do with being in front of the cameras. Instead, she gofer'd on The Island and assisted on Neighbors, doing low-level work and learning how things got done. But all along, for four years, she was developing "this little project with tiny aliens and old people [that Dick and David] let me do while they were off making The Verdict and Target." The modest Cocoon that Lili had shepherded mutated into a monster hit. She next championed a film version of the off-Broadway play Driving Miss Daisy, a project every major studio passed on. At about the point when she was trying to score production money from dentists with spare change, and her husband was warning her, "You're embarrassing us. Forget about it," she eked $5 million dollars out of Warner Bros. The studio eventually took in on the movie $106 million, domestic--more than it netted on Batman--and the Best Picture Oscar, to boot.

So is Lili some '90s version of the heroine in a Hollywood trash novel by Jacqueline Susann? (It was Richard Zanuck who turned Susann's bestseller, Valley of the Dolls, into a smash movie when he ran Fox.) After all, in a contemporary telling of the story, the semifictional heroine wouldn't rise to the top by becoming a superstar (the book's dated idea of triumph in Tinseltown)--nor even head of the studio, as was the case when the property was updated and remade into a TV miniseries--but by demonstrating enough real moxie to become, well, one of the town's handful of femme feature directors. I spin out such fantasias for Lili Fini Zanuck, who laughs scratchily while her gaze pierces: "So I'm actually Dick's creation? A monster he created? Look," she says, folding her hands in front of her on the table, "I wasn't a Stepdeal Wife. I've been around for a long, long time. I used to be a gofer in the company. I learned about deals and the working of a studio." She sits back slowly in her chair and stares off. At this point, I'm wondering: Have I just cold-cocked our interview? "You know," she says at last, "you're probably correct and I'm incorrect. I've never thought about it the way you have because, within the industry, I haven't been discounted. I've been very fortunate in that, even when I made Cocoon, I knew where I fit in within that company. Very early in the working process, I'd been treated with a great deal of respect. Within the industry, I didn't feel 'talked about.'"

Fair enough, but surely, on some level, she must have been aware that she was talked about? "You can't ever contemplate what the hell somebody else thinks. You mustn't think about that. Or it will cripple you. The incredible thing about gossip is that it never gets to you. It probably would have gotten to me quicker than to my husband. And it probably didn't get to either of us because of my husband. I was this 24-year-old third wife that he took to work. But, quite honestly, if I had ever stopped to think what anybody was saying or thinking, I would have been paralyzed. You'd go live in a cave or something. So, I gave myself over to moving on."

And, some say, to moving in. When David Brown, Richard Zanuck's astute, avuncular production partner, ended their 17-year association in 1988, it was Lili Fini Zanuck--or so went the rumors--who greased the pole. She doesn't flinch when I ask, point blank, whether she's heard the gossip that she's, well, the Yoko Ono figure in this saga. "It used to be a Pop and Pop company," Zanuck says, leaning into the table. "I can only make assumptions about all this because, quite frankly, David and I have never discussed it. David brought me into the company and, for many years, he and I interfaced professionally, probably better than Dick and I. Dick was very supportive, but he and David had this relationship for many years--more years than Dick had ever been married. Had I just been able to move at a much slower pace, everything would have been okay. It might have been too fast for some people. But I was really jamming on the brakes--my slowest pace became too fast."

Zanuck's pace went into overdrive when the little nothing, Cocoon, went mega. Meanwhile, Brown's pet, Target, directed by the respected Arthur Penn and starring Gene Hackman and Matt Dillon, came and went in the blink of an eye. "I said I wasn't prepared to go back to the mailroom," Zanuck says, her eyes like a pair of lasers, as she recalls the satisfaction of her personal triumph. "[Brown] said, 'What were you prepared to do?' I said, 'Well, I was kind of prepared to do that again.' That became very difficult. The truth of the matter is that I was trying to maintain where I had gotten to." Cracks in the company dynamic widened with Cocoon II. "Dick promised me when we made the original, and it was a promise I needed, that there would be no sequel," she says. "I don't believe in sequels. Why rip yourself off-- unless you're a one-trick pony? So, when there was all this sequel talk, I told Dick that I was going to have to hold him to his promise and he said: 'You can't do that.' I said: 'Then I don't want to be involved.' And I wasn't for a long while. [Dick] developed the material. At some point, the fact that I'm part of a partnership was brought to my attention. I did my best to fulfill my obligations. There's nothing wrong with the movie; I just never wanted to make it."

Cocoon II flopped. And Brown, often considered the literary-minded, urbane member of the partnership, left to pursue such projects as his book, Let Me Entertain You, and the Broadway play, A Few Good Men. For the celluloid version of the latter, Brown landed Jack Nicholson and Tom Cruise. "I would never have directed if the company were still the Zanuck-Brown Company," Zanuck asserts. "My feelings about maintaining harmony were so strong that I would suppress that urge. In a lot of ways, the way it turned out was probably most appropriate for everybody."

So, now that The Zanuck Company, formed three years ago, is a Mom and Pop concern, how has the dynamic between the married business partners shifted? Even squeaky clean Ron Howard told the press that the couple sparred, and loudly, on the set of Cocoon. "We don't ever have what I would call big 'repairs,'" Zanuck says, "but lots of little ones. We're so sensitive to each other's feelings that there's never an opportunity for buildup. In all fairness to my Dick, he gave our relationship the illusion of equality from the beginning. But I'm far more pragmatic than that. Sometime from just after Cocoon up to the present, there's been a major shift so that now, I believe it. It's now not just the framework, but, in fact, has some truth to it. Dick's more romantic that way, so he probably believed it earlier."

And so now The Zanuck Company's fortunes rest on Rush, a movie that Lili admits is "not a regular movie at all." For one thing, it doesn't have regular movie stars. Big star names were bandied about to play the nice Catholic girl from Texas whose life takes a detour. Names like, say, Demi Moore? Jodie Foster? "None of the girls who were interested in the lead were unknowns and a few of them had more clout than Jennifer Jason Leigh," Zanuck concedes, refusing to drop names. She pointedly interrupts to ask whether the blue cheese in my omelette overwhelms the taste. It doesn't, and I won't let her change the subject. "One [actress] campaigned very hard and, because she was coming off a big box-office hit, people were all saying to me, 'You're nuts. This girl means something. She's simpatico and that will make for a more sympathetic movie.' Well, we don't cast that way. I wanted Jennifer badly because I didn't believe anyone else could do it as well as she. I still believe that." Zanuck will need every ounce of her faith in Leigh, because, as worthy an actress as she is, how many of you stormed the box office for Miami Blues, Last Exit to Brooklyn or Crooked Hearts?

And what about the rumors that Tom Cruise had eyes for playing the seductive, druggy cop who drags down the heroine? "All this Tom Cruise stuff comes from that Days of Thunder script polishing thing with Bob Towne," says Zanuck, dismissing what is more than mere hearsay. "[Cruise] did enquire about the project when it was a manuscript, but that was really the beginning and end of it." As a matter of fact, in interviews in the Los Angeles Times (among other publications) Lili and Richard Zanuck themselves talked plenty about hoping for Cruise. But we move along to how Jason Patric, who's known less for The Lost Boys and The Beast than for being Julia Roberts's flame of the instant, won the role. "Dick and I went to the movies in Century City to see something or other, but it had already sold out," Zanuck recalls. "Victoria Principal, whom we both know, was coming out of the theater and said: 'You've got to see Jason Patric in After Dark, My Sweet.' So we bought tickets, but it was crowded, so Dick and I couldn't sit together. Anyway, when it was over and we're walking up the aisle, we simultaneously said, 'That's the guy.'"

Zanuck makes the kind of savvy observation that reminds you of the instincts she's shown in her brief career. "At some point in the past ten years, all our leading guys became boys. Jason's got an edge like a man." She falls silent for a moment and sips her tea. "I haven't decided if I'm ever going to tell the truth about this Jason Patric thing...but maybe I just will. Jason was the very first actor that ever got this material. But he didn't commit to it right away because I was a first-time director. We sent it out to a couple of other people, but told him, 'It's your part until it's cast.' Thank God he came back."

I wonder out loud whether Zanuck herself suffered any of Patric's misgivings during this $18-million shoot. "Never," she fires back. "Directing doesn't feel like self-confidence to me as much as just knowing that you know how to do things. It wasn't brain surgery. I don't know how to do that. When you're a producer, you develop material to tell a story. That's almost half the battle."

The other half of the battle will be luring audiences to a tough-minded, morally smudgy thriller without icons like Cruise or Foster to act as audience signposts. Even in a holiday movie season almost perversely minus obvious crowd-pleasers, it's anyone's call whether we're up for a throwback to the era when drugs were happening and stoned soul paeans like "Cocaine" and "One Toke Over the Line" were hits. Zanuck is so into talking 'bout her generation, she hired rock avatars Gregg Allman to play a bad guy and Eric Clapton to write the musical score. "Do I want to be the Oliver Stone of the '70s? No," she says, laughing, anticipating the thrust of my questions. "Do I want to make another '70s movie? No. Do I want to make a statement about my generation? No."

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