Where you've heard of her: In 1989 producer Lili Fini Zanuck was the second woman ever to win an Academy Award for Best Picture with Driving Miss Daisy. Before that, she discovered the screenplay and produced Cocoon. Together those two films grossed $200 million, garnered six Oscars, and helped label Zanuck "Producer of the Year" twice. Since then she's produced steadily—Mulholland Falls, True Crime, and Reign of Fire—and directed Rush and Part Three of the mini-series From the Earth to the Moon.
"I want your job": That's what the then 23-year-old Lili ambitiously told producer Richard D. Zanuck (who soon after became her husband) when they met in 1977. She originally moved West to become an editor, but when that didn't happen she began working at the Zanuck/Brown Company as a gofer. At the urging of David Brown, her new husband's then-partner, she began working as a researcher and other behind-the-scenes positions and would often go under the radar looking for material by soliciting works from un-produced writers. "I was looking for material from sources that weren't necessarily meeting with agents, or didn't feel they had access to Dick and David. Anyway, I found Cocoon. The rest is history," she explained.
What she really wants to do is direct: After the success of her well-received undercover narc drama Rush in 1991, Zanuck fell into the sophomore slump for directing another feature. "A lot of people do that," Zanuck said. "They make such a big deal over what their second picture should be that they get paralyzed, and I think I did that. I know I'm definitely going to be working this year, but I'm not sure what I'm going to be doing. I'm totally in limbo. It's just all in that pre-pre-production where you have two nightmares: One that everything is going to happen at once, and two, that nothing's going to happen at all."
Where my girls at?: Zanuck gets upset that although there are women in powerful studio positions, there aren't enough women hiring women in the industry as a whole. "I assumed 20 years ago when I started doing this that as women succeeded they would help the women behind them. That's not the case. You have a better chance of a man helping you." Zanuck continued, "We don't really have many women working as UPMs, first ADs, and not many female cinematographers at all. All of the numbers in the guilds are low for women. So, because we have Sherry Lansing and Amy Pascal and Stacey Snider, etc., it looks like, Oh, my God, women are running Hollywood. Women may be running Hollywood, but they're not hiring enough women."
Producing as a woman: Zanuck believes that producing and being a woman is kind of harmonious. "It requires you to see the big picture, but then to also micromanage people, and you need to be a support group, and ultimately you're the person who's responsible for letting other people know how they're doing. So, nobody tells you how you're doing. It's kind of a maternal thing that way and requires great organization. So I'm not surprised that women succeed in it," she explained.
Having a plan and stuff: Zanuck emphasized that everyone in this industry needs to be goal-oriented. "You have to set a goal and every day you have to do a little something that takes you toward that goal, and if it's reading about your craft, that's enough. If it's about watching an old movie and seeing something, that's enough. But you have to identify the goal and you have to work toward it, even if it's baby steps. The people who have the hardest time are the people who are not sure what they want to do," she said.
Do little gold men make you a pioneer?: "I don't know if I feel like a pioneer," Zanuck said. "I do remember very clearly when I used to watch the Academy Awards as a young girl. I would have never thought that being a producer was an option for me. So I do feel that maybe when I won and other women win for Best Picture, there's some young girl somewhere who believes that's an option open to her now. So if all you accomplish is that someone sitting at home goes, 'I like her dress and I want that job,' then that's OK."
The Lee Strasberg Institute (7936 Santa Monica Blvd.) will be hosting a screening of "Rush" on Wed., Feb. 19 at 7 p.m. followed by a Q&A with Lili Fini Zanuck. To RSVP, call the institute at (323) 650-7777.