the King's Men," the highly anticipated film that has consumed
Steve Zaillian for the last three years, is finally done and due in
theaters Sept. 22.
a film student at San Francisco State in the mid-1970s, the
writer-director Steven Zaillian (B.A., '75) hardly thought
he'd end up a Hollywood hit maker. "I was much more interested
in making documentaries and art-house films," he recalls.
But with a string of credits in films hailed for both artistry and box-office
appeal, Zaillian seems to be enjoying the best of both worlds. He won
an Academy Award® for his "Schindler's
List" screenplay in 1993, the same year of his brilliant directorial
debut in "Searching for Bobby Fischer," in which he elevates
a game of chess to edge-of-your-seat drama. Five years later, Zaillian
won praise for his second feature, "A Civil Action," a grimly
realistic look at the legal system.
Along the way, Zaillian garnered Oscar® nods
for scripting Penny Marshall's "Awakenings" and Martin Scorsese's
"Gangs of New York." Pick a Zaillian movie and you'll find
what The New York Times critic Janet Maslin calls a "keen,
But for all his success in writing and directing, Zaillian sounds as
doubt-ridden as a Hollywood rookie as he awaits the release of "All
the King's Men," the big-budget drama that Sony Pictures is positioning
for an Oscar push. Zaillian wrote and directed the film.
"I have no idea, honestly," whether the film is any good,
Zaillian says in a phone call from his office on the Sony lot in Culver
City. "I mean, I feel good about it, but I'm probably the last
person to ask. I'm way too close to it."
Due in theaters Sept. 22, "All the King's Men" is Zaillian's
adaptation of Robert Penn Warren's 1946 novel, based loosely on the
life of Gov. Huey Long of Louisiana. Zaillian's high-wattage cast --
led by Sean Penn with Jude Law, Anthony Hopkins and Kate Winslet --
spent six months shooting in Louisiana, mostly around New Orleans. Filming
wrapped just four months before Hurricane Katrina hit.
Watching the horror unfold on television at home in Santa Monica, the
director was stricken. "I fell in love with Louisiana, the way
people do, so it was very difficult to watch," he says. Several
days into the disaster, Zaillian watched as Penn piloted a small boat
through toxic floodwaters to rescue stranded survivors. "It was
an incredible thing to do," the director says.
Zaillian was born in Fresno and grew up in Los Angeles. His late father,
James, was a radio journalist who ran the news operation at KNX 1070.
After high school, Zaillian joined his older sister, Marcia, at Sonoma
State, where he became interested in film, mostly documentaries and
foreign and art-house fare. After taking two or three courses, Zaillian
had exhausted the small college's cinema offerings. Midway through his
junior year, he transferred to SF State to take advantage of the broader
film curriculum and spend time in a city that he had loved from afar.
"Who doesn't want to live in San Francisco?"
At SF State, Zaillian felt at home right away. The film program shared
with Sonoma State a certain highbrow ethos that favored serious storytelling
and cinematography over typical popcorn movies. But his writing talent
remained untapped. Instead, Zaillian focused on the production side
of filmmaking. SF State's program emphasized teamwork over individual
performance, and Zaillian recalls working as a crew member on classmates'
a comfortable niche for himself in the editing room. He liked being
able to focus on a project in a calm, unhurried environment, far from
the chaos of the film set. Editing "is where a lot of creative
ideas come from," he says, "and the one period during the
production process where there's some sanity." Even today, Zaillian
is most at ease in the editing room. Last year, when he asked for more
time to edit "All the King's Men," Sony obliged, even though
it meant delaying the film's release by a year.
Zaillian has stayed in touch over the years with one of his favorite
instructors, John Teton, then a young San Francisco Art Institute graduate
who taught a course in animation. Teton remembers Zaillian as "bright
and focused," though clearly interested in live-action over animated
filmmaking. Teton, who today runs an animation training program based
in Portland, Ore., has enjoyed watching Zaillian's ascent in Hollywood,
both as a fan and as a fellow filmmaker. The climactic chess game in
"Searching for Bobby Fischer," Teton notes, is a brilliant
example of Zaillian's skill as a cinematic storyteller, even with the
"ostensibly uncinematic subject of a chess game." Two other
SF State grads lent a hand on the film. Shawn Murphy (B.A., '68)
worked on the sound crew, David Gropman (B.A., '74) in set
design."Steve is an incredible talent and certainly a pleasure
to work with on the scoring stage," says Murphy, who has worked
with Zaillian on many films over the years. "His depth and thorough
approach as a director is unusual these days and I'm sure his upcoming
projects will reveal his special talents again."
Zaillian stumbled into screenwriting. After graduating from SF State,
he signed on as an apprentice editor at a company that made low-budget
films. His first credit was "Breaker Breaker," which starred
Chuck Norris as a karate-chopping truck driver. After editing a few
more low-budget projects, Zaillian and some actor friends got an idea
to make their own movie. None was particularly eager to write the script,
so Zaillian took it on himself.
That film was never produced but Zaillian turned out another script,
which fell into the hands of John Schlesinger. The "Midnight Cowboy"
director was impressed by what he read and tapped the young writer for
the screenplay for "The Falcon and the Snowman," the 1985
espionage story that starred Sean Penn and Timothy Hutton. Zaillian
has never been out of work since.
For his next project, Zallian takes off his director's hat. He's working
on an original script for Universal's "American Gangster,"
about a Harlem drug kingpin. Ridley Scott directs and Denzel Washington
and Russell Crowe star.
The day after talking to SFSU Magazine, Zaillian had family business
to attend to. He and his 17-year-old son, Nick, were heading out for
a weeklong college-scouting trip in New York. (Zaillian and his wife,
Elizabeth, also have an older son, Charlie.) The teen fell in love with
the Big Apple as a youngster and was eager to check out Columbia and
Zaillian is leaving the choice up to Nick. "But as I told him,"
he said, chuckling, "you know, there are some awfully good colleges
here in California…"
-- Anne Burke is a freelance writer
who lives in Los Angeles.
Read interview with Steve Zaillian .