As 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, watchful intelligence."
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' movie projects.
He discovered 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 NYU.
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 Californiaâ¦"
-- Anne Burke is a freelance writer who lives in Los Angeles.