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The Producer and His Fine Madness

If Saul Zaentz picks up the best picture Oscar for 'The English Patient,' it will be a bravura ending for a journey many others feared to tread.

March 23, 1997|Patrick Goldstein | Patrick Goldstein is a regular contributor to Calendar

'There are certain words that Saul Zaentz has asked me not to use on this stage today," says Anthony Minghella, director of "The English Patient," a mischievous glint in his eyes. "The first one of them being 'stingy.' Another one being . . . "

Before Minghella could finish, Zaentz rose halfway out of his seat in the audience, cupping his hands together to make himself heard: "You could say 'parsimonious'!"

Zaentz's retort earned a knowing smile from Minghella, who was at a recent symposium honoring the directors of films nominated for best picture Oscars. Having spent four years with Zaentz struggling to make a notoriously difficult novel into a film, the Oscar-nominated director appreciates the wily 76-year-old producer's cost-saving zeal as much as anyone.

When "The English Patient's" financing deal with 20th Century Fox fell apart barely a month before filming was to begin, Zaentz turned to Miramax, which put up $27.5 million (with an additional $5 million from Zaentz) to bail out the film. To preserve the film's 127-day shooting schedule, much of it in scenic Tunisian and Italian locales, corners were cut everywhere. Zaentz persuaded the entire cast and crew to defer half their salaries until the film recouped its negative costs.

Minghella worked even cheaper, deferring 75% of his salary. "The whole film was made with glue and bits of string," the director of the sumptuous-looking picture explains in an interview conducted on the day he won the Directors Guild of America's award for best feature film director. "There was no fat. If there had been, Saul would've cut it out. He's extremely frugal--that's the kindest word for it. Saul's not interested in indulging anybody."

With his white beard and ample girth, Zaentz is often described as jovial and paternal--one writer described him as a bohemian Father Christmas. He quotes as easily from Milan Kundera as from Darryl Zanuck. Against long odds, he's self-financed an array of classy, ambitious pictures, nearly all made from novels deemed too dark or complex to be made into films.

"Saul is a wonderful mixture--he's a street-smart guy from Jersey who has impeccable taste," says Michael Douglas, who produced "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" with Zaentz and views him as a mentor. "There are a lot of people in this town who pretend to have both toughness and good taste, but with Saul it isn't pretense. His power comes from his joy and enthusiasm for a project."

Zaentz is guaranteed one trip down the aisle Monday, to receive the coveted Irving G. Thalberg Award for excellence as a movie producer. This month he also received the Producers Guild of America's producer of the year award. If he wins for "The English Patient," he'll have the rare distinction of earning a best picture Oscar in three consecutive decades, having already won for "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest," which swept the top five awards in 1975, and "Amadeus" in 1984, which won eight Oscars overall, including best director, actor and picture.

"You don't make movies to be art movies," he says over lunch, eating a Cobb salad, a napkin tucked into his shirt to catch any stray crumbs. "You make movies that move you emotionally because if you're going to commit five years of your life to a movie, you need something to keep you going."

Born in New Jersey, Zaentz ran away from home at age 16, supporting himself hawking peanuts at the St. Louis Cardinals training camp in Florida and gambling at cards. He served in North Africa and Sicily during World War II, but never held a steady job until he moved to San Francisco at age 26, where he went to work for legendary jazz producer Norman Granz. In 1967, Zaentz bought Fantasy Records, eventually making millions from the label's Creedence Clearwater Revival hits, which funded Zaentz's first forays into the film business.

Today, the Fantasy music catalog--which includes the John Fogerty-penned Creedence hits, such jazz labels as Riverside, Prestige, Milestone and Pablo Records, plus a portion of Stax Records--has been valued at between $60 million and $70 million. The company is based in a seven-story Berkeley office building that Zaentz has often mortgaged to help raise money for his films. In addition to the Oscar winners, they include "Payday," "The Unbearable Lightness of Being" and "At Play in the Fields of the Lord."

But don't be fooled by Zaentz's hearty, Kris Kringle countenance. You don't make it on the margins in Hollywood by being a soft touch. "Saul loves being answerable to nobody," says John Lithgow, who became a friend after spending five months with Zaentz in the jungles of Brazil making "At Play."

"Being on the set, playing hearts with Saul, I realized the secret to his success: He can spot everyone's strengths and weaknesses right away. He was a killer. He'd shoot the moon three out of every four games."

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