I finished The Studio last week, a compelling look at the inner life of the 20th Century Fox lot in 1967. Written by John Gregory Dunne, late husband to Joan Didion, it is a captivating portrait of the sausage-making process of motion pictures.
The book was an extensive undertaking, examining each and every department on the lot and their relationship to the process. After a few chapters, I was left bug-eyed at the stream of voices and skill-sets that went into conceiving a single picture. Dunne captures the day to day affairs of the lot with great humility, a fly-on-the-wall who illustrates just how much work goes into bringing the magic to the silver screen.
Dunne is quick to acknowledge that such honest journalism couldn’t have been possible without the invitation of Richard D. Zanuck, the former President of 20th Century Fox. His tenure would be short-lived, fired by his father Darryl F. Zanuck — co-founder of the studio — for backing a few expensive musicals that failed to return at the box office.
I was consumed with the scenes that unravelled in his wood-panelled office. Zanuck Jr. was a captivating personality, a man who went on to enjoy an incredibly successful career as a producer and would become a guardian angel to the next generation of directors including Clint Eastwood, Steven Spielberg and Tim Burton.
“Dick was really a fantastic support system for me. He never interrupted me when I was speaking… All he did was back up my ideas. I had never been supported that way in my life.” — Steven Spielberg
Watching this excerpt from a recent documentary, Don’t Say No Until I Finish Talking, directed by Laurent Bouzereau (Five Came Back) you get the sense that Zanuck strayed far from the beaten path. Loath to Hollywood double-talk, he was a man of action, someone that put his money where his mouth was.
I loved the story behind the making of Jaws, the fabled production that hailed the advent of the summer blockbuster. Its path to glory was far from assured, with its primary villain suffering technical malfunctions from start to finish. Zanuck shielded Spielberg from Universal executives who rallied to replace him intuitively understanding that 'The Kid' was on to a winner.
It's easy to lean cynical, to see the propulsion of all this content creation as nothing more than a clever way to line The Man's pockets. While I won't sit here and deny the underlying principles of show business, when you read between the lines there is something far greater than a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.
The men and women that powered Hollywood were filled with a gnawing desire to bring stories to life that dazzled and moved audiences to tears. Then as now, they yearned to deliver upon spectacles that swept up hard-working souls, leaving their problems at the popcorn stand.