Zaillian, Steven 1953-
ZAILLIAN, Steven 1953-
PERSONAL: Born January 30, 1953, in CA. Education: San Francisco State University, B.A., 1975.
CAREER: Screenplay writer, director, and producer. Director of films, including Searching for Bobby Fischer, Paramount, 1993; producer and director of A Civil Action, Paramount, 1998.
MEMBER: Writer's Guild.
AWARDS, HONORS: Academy Award nomination for best screenplay adaptation, Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, 1990, and Writer's Guild Award nomination for best adapted screenplay, 1991, both for Awakenings; Academy Award for best screenplay adaptation, British Academy of Film and Theatre Arts (BAFTA) Award for best adapted screenplay, Chicago Film Critics Association Award, Golden Globe Award, Humanitas Prize, Friends of USC Libraries Scripter Award, and Writers Guild of America Award for best screenplay, all 1993, all for Schindler's List; MTV Movie award for best new filmmaker, and Tokyo International Film Festival special jury prize, both 1993, both for Searching for Bobby Fischer; ShoWest Convention Award for Screenwriter of the Year, 1994; Scripter Award, and Writers Guild of America nomination, both 1999, both for A Civil Action; Academy Award nomination for best writing, screenplay written directly for the screen (with Jay Cocks and Kenneth Lonergan), 2003, for Gangs of New York.
The Falcon and the Snowman (adapted from the book by Robert Lindsey), Orion Pictures, 1985.
Awakenings (adapted from the book by Oliver Sacks), Columbia, 1990.
Jack the Bear (adapted from the novel by Dan McCall), Twentieth Century-Fox, 1993.
Schindler's List (adapted from the book by Thomas Keneally), Universal, 1993.
(And director) Searching for Bobby Fischer (adapted from the book by Fred Waitzkin), Paramount, 1993.
(With Donald Stewart and John Milius) Clear and Present Danger (adapted from the novel by Tom Clancy), Paramount, 1994.
Mission: Impossible (based on the television series), Paramount, 1996.
A Civil Action (adapted from the book by Jonathan Harr), Paramount, 1998.
(With David Mamet) Hannibal (adapted from the book by Thomas Harris), Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, 2001.
(With Jay Cocks and Kenneth Lonergan) Gangs of New York, Miramax, 2002.
Also uncredited author of rewrites for films, including Crimson Tide, Primal Fear, and Amistad.
SIDELIGHTS: Steven Zaillian is an accomplished screenwriter and filmmaker who has demonstrated his talents in adapting both novels and nonfiction for the screen. Zaillian began his screenwriting career in 1985 with The Falcon and the Snowman, a film he derived, with director John Schlesinger, from Robert Lindsey's nonfiction account of a Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) associate who provides secret information to Soviet agents, enlisting his drug-using friend as an intermediary. This scheme initially proves lucrative for the partners, but the hero eventually suffers guilt over his actions and determines to end his treasonous behavior even as his partner uses their profits to maintain his drug habit. The ensuing conflict between the pair leads, inevitably, to an encounter with American law enforcement.
Awakenings, Zaillian's 1990 screen credit, is an adaptation of neurologist Oliver Sacks's book about his experience with a group of victims of the encephalitis epidemic that took place between 1916 and 1927, whom he briefly revives with the chemical L-dopa in 1969, after they have suffered decades of virtual paralysis. In the film, which was directed by Penny Marshall, the fictional Dr. Malcolm Sayer is portrayed as an emotionally withdrawn physician who experiences difficulties interacting with others. Through his involvement with one revived patient, Leonard Lowe, Sayer attains a greater appreciation for human interaction. Lowe, meanwhile, declines from effusive exuberance to derangement and depression as the L-dopa begins to exert a profoundly negative effect, and the patient's decline culminates in an emotional climax.
Upon its release, Awakenings enjoyed popular success but was generally considered a sentimentalized adaptation of Sacks's book. Chicago Tribune contributor Dave Kehr was among the reviewers who deemed the film moving yet unnecessarily manipulative. Awakenings, he declared, "is a film that unquestionably succeeds on its own terms," but added that "those terms are deeply suspect." He concluded that the film "consistently swaps meaning for superficial effect." Similarly, New York Times reviewer Janet Maslin contended that Awakenings "both sentimentalizes its story and oversimplifies it beyond recognition." Desson Howe, in his Washington Post review, acknowledged that Awakenings "has all the appropriate poignant provocations." Among the supporters of the film was Washington Post reviewer Rita Kempley, who hailed the film as "literate and passionate" and "cause for rejoicing." And Newsweek's David Ansen, who faulted the filmmakers for turning "Sacks's tragic but fiercely compassionate vision to banal movie conventions," conceded that "at its best [Awakenings has] real power."
Zaillian followed Awakenings with the 1993 film Jack the Bear, which he adapted from Dan McCall's novel about a father and his two young sons. In the film the family must contend with a host of problems, including the father's alcoholism and kidnapping of the younger son. In addition to these challenges, the family copes with living in an unstable neighborhood replete with a drug addict, a Nazi sympathizer, and attack dogs. Time reviewer Richard Schickel was among the reviewers who characterized Jack the Bear as unconvincing and uncompelling. Schickel was especially unimpressed with the kidnapping episode. "This crisis is purely arbitrary," he wrote. "So is its eventual resolution."
Zaillian found more resounding critical favor with his next film, Searching for Bobby Fischer, which also marked his debut as a director. The film is an adaptation of Fred Waitzkin's book about his son, a seven-year-old chess prodigy. In the film Waitzkin tries to nurture his son's impressive chess-playing abilities even while the son's mother works to maintain the child's integrity and innocence. The film also concerns the boy's relationship with his mentors, a chess hustler named Vinnie and a more sophisticated, driven, chess master named Bruce Pandolfini. Newsweek contributor David Ansen called the film "stirring," while Wall Street Journal reviewer Julie Salamon described it as "an entertaining excursion into a fascinating subculture."
Zaillian has also won acclaim as the screenwriter for director Steven Spielberg's epic film Schindler's List,a drama set during the Holocaust. The film, which is based on Thomas Keneally's book of the same title, concerns true-life figure Oskar Schindler, a flamboyant, charismatic businessman who managed to save hundreds of Jews by providing them with employment in his munitions factory during World War II. The film traces Schindler's schemes to keep making a profit even as the Nazis commit countless atrocities across Europe, but also concerns the fate of the Jews who manage to find employment in Schindler's factory, and those who were not so fortunate, and were left to face the horrors of the concentration camps.
After its 1993 release, Schindler's List was hailed by critics as a powerful and important work. New Yorker critic Terrence Rafferty proclaimed it "a great movie," and Commonweal contributor Richard Alleva was equally laudatory, dubbing Schindler's List "very good indeed" and "splendid." Schindler's List received further acclaim from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, whose members accorded the film's producers an Academy Award ("Oscar") for best film, Spielberg an Oscar for best director, and Zaillian an Academy award for best screenplay adaptation.
In 1994 Zaillian was listed with Donald Stewart and John Milius as screenwriters for the suspenseful Clear and Present Danger, an adaptation of Tom Clancy's popular novel about government agent Jack Ryan's battle against South American drug kingpins and nefarious American agents. While Ryan pursues matters through proper channels, a band of guerrilla fighters, acting under a U.S. agency's authority, launch an attack on the drug lord's stronghold. The drug lord reacts by bombing nearby American officials, including Ryan, who thereupon determines to personally handle the drug lord's demise. Terrence Rafferty, writing in the New Yorker, called the film "a sleek, classically proportioned suspense thriller," while David Denby, in his New York appraisal, noted the film's impressive "Hollywood craftsmanship" and added that Clear and Present Danger is a "swiftly moving tale of many layers."
A Civil Action, which appeared in 1998, is based upon Jonathan Harr's nonfiction account of a group of families living in Woburn, Massachusetts, who sued Beatrice Foods and W. R. Grace for contaminating the town's drinking water and thereby causing an inordinate number of cases of childhood leukemia—twentyeight—resulting in sixteen deaths. The families engage Jan Schlichtmann, a high-profile personal-injury lawyer, to defend them in court, and the film depicts Schlichtmann's inward and outer battles and his subsequent transformation while working on the case. Zaillian remarked in an online Writers' Guild interview that his major challenge in adapting the book was actually the book's strength: its "relentless accumulation of detail . . . describing a legal case of epic scale." He found it challenging to preserve the book's integrity and scope within a two-hour time frame. "Writer/director Steven Zaillian has turned in another sharp, funny, and compelling film" wrote Kerry Douglas Dye for Leisure Suit Media. The critic added that, while "justice doesn't triumph in any satisfying way. . . . the movie is still a pleasure."
Zaillian's screenplay for Hannibal serves as a sequel to the movie The Silence of the Lambs; both works have their foundation in a trilogy of popular novels written by Thomas Harris. The chief protagonist in both films is the serial killer Hannibal Lecter, whose criminal trademark is his cannibalistic tendency. In Hannibal the killer is pitted against an old enemy, Mason Verger, a pedophile and former acquaintance of Lecter whom Lecter horribly mutilated on a previous occasion. The movie turns on Verger's efforts to avenge himself upon Hannibal for that deed. In an interview with Douglas Eby for TalentDeveloment, Zaillian said: "I was ambivalent [about Hannibal] because it was a sequel, and I'm generally not interested in sequels. But they [Dino DeLaurentiis and Ridley Scott] talked to me for about three weeks about the story. . . . It was a wonderful process of really talking about the story and what it should be."
The film Gangs of New York, released in 2002, was co-written by Zaillian, Jay Cocks, and Kenneth Lonergan, and directed by Martin Scorsese. Taking place in the later 1800s, the story focuses upon a group of men called the Native Americans who violently oppose immigrants, and especially, immigrants who follow the Catholic religion. William Cutting, commonly known as Bill the Butcher, leads the Native Americans in their deadly actions. A young Irish-American man named Amsterdam Vallon, who is the son of one of Cutting's victims, hides his identity in order to come nearer to the gang leader so that he can eventually avenge his father's murder. Lisa Schwarzbaum, in Entertainment Weekly online, remarked that although the film "groans and lumbers under too many ruts of narrative didacticism," it is also "vast and hugely ambitious."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Chicago Tribune, December 20, 1990.
Commonweal, February 11, 1994, pp. 16-18.
Nation, January 7, 1991, pp. 22-24.
New Republic, January 7, 1991, pp. 32-33; September 20, 1993, pp. 36-38; December 13, 1993, p. 30.
Newsweek, December 24, 1990, p. 62; August 30, 1993, pp. 52-53.
New York, August 15, 1994, pp. 54-55.
New Yorker, April 5, 1993, pp. 102-03; December 20, 1993, pp. 129-32; August 15, 1994, pp. 75-77.
New York Times, December 20, 1990.
Time, March 29, 1993.
Variety, August 1, 1994, pp. 44-45.
Wall Street Journal, August 26, 1993, p. A9.
Washington Post, January 11, 1991.
Entertainment Weekly Online,http://www.ew.com/ (September 25, 2003), Lisa Schwarzbaum, review of Gangs of New York.
LeisureSuit Media,http://www.leisuresuit.net/Webzine/ (June 3, 2003), Kerry Douglas Dye, review of A Civil Action.
TalentDevelopment,http://www.talentdevelop.com/ (June 3, 2003), Douglas Eby, interview with Zaillian.
Writers' Guild of America Web site,http://www.wga.org/ (June 3, 2003), Alan Waldman, interview with Zaillian.*