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
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
Sean Penn, who plays Willie Stark in "All the King's
Men," returned to Louisiana to rescue survivors of Hurricane
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
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
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
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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