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Writer-director Steve Zaillian discusses his unlikely path to Hollywood and his soon to be released film, "All the King's Men."

You transferred to San Francisco State from Sonoma State. What brought you here?

At Sonoma State they only had two or three film classes, and I took them all.

What type of films were you into as a student?
At Sonoma State, nobody who was teaching any art classes was interested in Hollywood movies. They were interested in foreign films, old movies, art films, things like that. So that was my interest, along with documentaries. I took both of those interests to San Francisco, where I found a similar sort of feeling there, too.

You liked the editing process a lot. Why?

It's where I feel the most comfortable and it's where I think a lot of the creative ideas come from. It's very much like writing in that it's a calm environment, and you can try things and throw them out and try something else until you like it. It's the one period during the production where there's sanity.

Do you still have any 16mm film footage from your time at SF State?
I only remember working on other people's films, so I don't know that I even have a piece of film to show for it. I have stuff from Sonoma State because we did do our own things there, but at San Francisco State, at least in the production classes that I took, it was more about being on a crew [and] making a film together.

What was the first job you landed after SF State?
I was working as an apprentice on some very low-budget films. The company I was working for was gradually going out of business ... Just before I was going to get laid off, the guy who was running the company got some money to make another film. I was the only one left, so I got the job to edit the film, called "Breaker Breaker" with Chuck Norris. It was his first movie. That led to another editing job. I was very happy being a film editor.

You later fell into writing. How did that happen?
I met some actors in the course of doing those jobs and thought, we can do this just as well as the people we're working for, but the thing we were lacking was a script. I wasn't so much interested in writing as having something that I could make with my friends, who were actors, and they weren't going to write the script. I ended up doing it, but I was certainly more interested in directing it or editing it. Then again, it's just so weird how these things happen, before we could even try to start gathering the money to make the film on the script, a producer somehow read it and said that they wanted to option it. I ended up selling it but never making it. … Somebody read it and ...suddenly I was writing another script.

The first script was called "Bad Manners." That was the one I was hoping to do with my friends. It didn't get made but it got me another job on a film called "Alive," which actually was made into a movie many years later but not with my script. John Schlesinger ("Midnight Cowboy," "Marathon Man") had been interested in that story for a long time, and even though he didn't want to make that movie, he read the script and knew enough about the story and the source material to know what I had done. He hired me to write the "Falcon and the Snowman," which was the first script that I wrote to be produced that was produced.

Did writing come easily to you at the beginning?

I had to sort of learn how to be a writer. It didn't come naturally to me. It wasn't part of my personality to sit in a room for months on end by myself.

You directed and wrote the screenplay for "All the King's Men," your latest film. It was supposed to be out last year but you needed more time for editing.

It's funny, because it sort of goes back to everything we've just been talking about, that my interest in film to begin with was in an editing room. When you're shooting and there are 200 people standing around, every day costs you so much money that it's a whole different mind frame that you're in. You can't go back and change things really. It's a very high pressure sort of thing. I find the editing process to be the least appreciated of the three stages of making a film, which would be writing it and shooting it and editing it. I always want a lot of time for the editing, and always have been given a lot of time for the editing. It's also the cheapest part of the process. There are only three or four people there who are getting paid as opposed to 300.

Do you feel good about this film?
I'm probably the last person to ask in terms of how we did (laughs), I mean, how would I know? I'm way too close to it, but the actors are incredible and it's a great story, and everybody on it worked really hard, and I think it turned out pretty good.

You filmed in Louisiana and wrapped about four months ahead of the Gulf Coast hurricanes.
I had never been to Louisiana before making this film, and got to spend six months there and fall in love with it the way people do. New Orleans is an incredible place and I think it will be an incredible place again some day, but it was very sad for all of us.

Sean Penn, who plays Willie Stark in "All the King's Men," returned to Louisiana to rescue survivors of Hurricane Katrina.
I talked to Sean just before he went and it's like, everybody is sitting around, [saying], 'Gee it's so terrible. I wish we could do something about it,' and he said. 'Well, I'm getting on a plane. I'm going to go down there and see what I can do.' It was an incredible thing to do.

How did you get involved in "All the King's Men"?
I was approached by the producer, Mike Medavoy, who was approached by James Carville, who is from Louisiana. The only way that I can judge things that I get involved with is, do I think it's going to hold my interest for the amount of time it's going to take to both write and direct it, which is going to be three years before its all is said and done. There are not a lot of stories that are that compelling for me to invest three years but this one I felt was.

How would you compare it to the 1949 original?
The way it came to me was as a book. I still haven't seen the film. I was curious but I couldn't really figure out the advantage of seeing something because images can get in your head and you just can't get them out and you're always aware of, are you changing something for the sake of changing it or because it's better?

Your next screenwriting project is "American Gangster," about a Harlem drug lord during the 1970s. It's based on a true story.
It's really a story about an American businessman (Frank Lucas) who's black, who's building a kind of empire where no black man has built an empire before. He became the biggest heroin dealer in the United States for a very short period, a couple of years. The Mafia was coming to him, as opposed to the other way around, which was the way it's always been. So it's really about his rise and fall and at the same time the story of this policeman (Richie Roberts) who is trying to catch him.

Whose idea was it to make the film?
Nick Pileggi, who wrote the screenplay for "Goodfellas," knew [Lucas] and thought that there was a story in his life. But, for whatever reason, didn't want to write it himself, and asked me if I would be interested in doing it. And I said, 'I don't know, maybe I should meet these people.' So I met Frank Lucas, and also met Richie Roberts. It was through these interviews that the story just kind of gradually starting taking shape.

You were on the project, off, and now you're back on again.
To make a long story short, I had a falling out with the first director who was on the picture, and then [Universal] ended up not making that picture with the people who were involved at that time and then it was resurrected again recently with Ridley Scott, who I've also worked with before.

If I had talked to you three months ago we would be having a much different conversation because I would have been totally demoralized by what was going on and the fact that it wasn't being made. So this is a happy turn of events.

Did winning an Academy Award for your "Schindler's List" screenplay change your career?
I'm sure it did but I don't really know specifically how it did. I always felt that up to that point I was working on the things I wanted to work on. I always thought what I was working on was a good project. I never felt, oh, I'm doing this in order for me to be able to do something else, like some sort of stepping stone. I always felt that what I was working on was the best thing that was out there really, at the time. I've always sort of felt that way, so that didn't really change. I don't know, maybe I was considered for certain projects that I wouldn't have been before. It's hard to know.

I still don't think people think of me as a director. They always think of me as a writer who sometimes directs something. It's really hard to know how other people think about you. It's a hard question because I don't really know. I don't know if people changed the way they thought about me either after the directing or Academy Award.

Do you think of yourself as a writer who occasionally directs?

Yes, I do. There's a lot riding on things, a lot more so when you direct something, so it's nice to be able to go back and forth, to not have all the responsibility for having written and directed something, and to go back and write something and then to really give it to somebody else and then not have to worry about it so much.

Which do you prefer?
When I was sitting writing "American Gangster" for 18 months, all I could think about was about getting out of the room and doing something else, directing something, just not writing, you know, and now after doing "All the King's Men," it looks quite inviting to go back into that room. I'm lucky that I can do both.


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