Though Saul Zaentz was a producer, it may surprise people to learn that, over a period of thirty-one years, he only produced nine movies. But among them are some of the finest movies made in the last forty years: One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975), Amadeus (1984), The Mosquito Coast (1986), The Unbearable Lightness of Being (1988), and The English Patient (1996). That’s not a bad record.
Zaentz came to producing after a long stint at the influential Fantasy Records, first as a salesman then later on as a co-owner, and before that he started out in life as a gambler. With these two experiences it makes a certain kind of sense that Zaentz would do well in Hollywood. He was tenacious, invested his own money in his productions (often leading to his owning those properties), and often had final cut.
He surrounded himself with some of the most talented writers, directors and actors available – Peter Weir, Anthony Minghella, Jean-Claude Carrière, Jack Nicholson and Daniel Day-Lewis to name but a few – and took the kind of risks that other producers would steer well clear of. As a result he was a three-time Oscar winner (for One Flew Over the Cuckoos’ Nest, Amadeus (my personal favourite of his movies), and The English Patient.
He was one of the last, great independent producers. If there is any regret to be had with his passing it’s that he didn’t come to movie making a lot earlier; think how many other fiercely intelligent movies we could have had the privilege to see if he had.