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In telling Clapton’s life story, Lili Fini Zanuck returns a favor

Eric Clapton in a scene from “Eric Clapton: Life in 12 Bars.”CBS

Lili Fini Zanuck is an Oscar-winning film producer, with “Cocoon,” “Driving Miss Daisy,” and “Mullholland Falls” on her résumé. Eric Clapton is a Grammy-winning guitar god who’s played in the Yardbirds, Cream, Blind Faith, and Derek and the Dominos. Though their names aren’t often associated, they’re longtime friends, and their working relationship stretches back more than a quarter of a century. Clapton scored “Rush,” the 1991 film that marked Zanuck’s debut as a director. She went on to direct the videos for Clapton’s “Tears in Heaven” (1992) and “Pilgrim” (1998). It was Clapton who contacted Zanuck when he needed a director for the new documentary “Eric Clapton: Life in 12 Bars,” which had a limited theatrical run in November and makes its Showtime premiere Saturday.

A native of Leominster, Zanuck spent only the first year of her life there, as her career-military father’s frequent reassignments kept the family on the move. A short-lived enrollment at Georgetown University sent her west with hopes of becoming a film editor. But no doors opened until she met her future husband, producer Richard Zanuck, on a blind date. Richard Zanuck and his partner David Brown, ran Zanuck/Brown Productions, which made, among many other films, “Jaws,” “The Verdict,” and “Deep Impact.” Her initial job with them, as a gofer, led to duties including finding original material, reading scripts, and eventually producing and directing. Zanuck, 63, spoke by phone from her home in Beverly Hills.


Q. Hollywood history says that you are responsible for getting the film “Cocoon” made. What were the circumstances?

A. I started going to the office to have lunch with Dick, and then we would pick up our boys from school together. Dick and David had a small company in terms of employees. They each had a secretary, and there was a lot they didn’t want to do. Material was always coming in, but a lot of it would just languish. So every time I went there I would go through this and that. One day I found this book called “Cocoon.” It was terrible, but it started getting really interesting in Chapter 11, and I thought it could make a good film. The option for it was only $2,500, so Dick and David let me do it. I developed the script with two writers, and I produced the film.


Q. When did the idea of directing come to you?

A. It was a few years before “Cocoon.” When Dick and David were producing “The Verdict,” I watched Sidney Lumet direct it. I liked everything about the way he did it, with such subtlety and grace. Right then I told Dick and David that I was going to direct one day.

Q. Your first one was “Rush.” Why did you choose Eric Clapton to do the score?

A. I was a big fan, and I knew I didn’t want an orchestral score. I wanted mostly guitar, and I had temped the movie with all Eric Clapton music because I felt it would work with the narrative. I didn’t know him, so I called his manager, and talked him into making Eric available to see the film. He committed to doing it after seeing the rough cut that had his music in it. Where “Tears in Heaven” is, I had “I Am Yours,” the song from “Layla.”


Q. So, was “Tears in Heaven,” the song about the death of his son, in your film before it became a hit?

A. When he arrived in LA to do the score, he said, “I’m gonna make a little recording of a song I’ve been working on.” We were in the Four Seasons, and he sings “Tears in Heaven.” Later, when I listened to the tape, I thought, “This is just too intimate; I don’t even know how to use something like this.” So I tabled it and decided to wait and see how everything went. Later he said to me that he would never release it because he didn’t want anybody to think he was trying to monetize a terrible situation. But he felt that if I put it in the film, it was kind of hidden, and people would have to discover it. It turned out being the only successful thing about the movie.

Q. How did “Life in 12 Bars” come onto your radar?

A. Eric called and asked me. He said some people had been archiving stuff for him for a possible anthology. He had been approached to turn it into a documentary, and he said it was making him nervous. So, he called me and said he would do it if I was involved.

Q. But you had no documentary experience. What was your immediate response?

A. I was kind of excited by it. Shortly thereafter I had a great editor, Chris King, who had done the Amy Winehouse documentary [“Amy”]. But here’s where I was scared: I knew Eric had an interesting life, and I wanted the film to be a journey through it. But we started getting archival stuff that looked like garbage. A lot of it was 8mm footage that came from family archives, a lot of it was on VHS, and a lot of the early stuff, like the Cream footage, is bootleg. I’m in the editing room, and everything was pixilating. But John Battsek, one of our producers, kept saying, “Don’t worry, when we’ve finished grading the footage, it’s going to look good.” And he was right. Also, some of the photos in the film were in boxes that Eric had in his attic, but back then, there were no selfies. So, even if you were working on the Beatles’ “White Album,” playing on “While My Guitar Gently Weeps,” you weren’t saying, “Hold on, could we get a picture together?”


Q. Did Eric set any rules or limitations in his interviews?

A. No, there was nothing he wouldn’t talk about, and when he saw the finished movie, there was nothing he asked me to change.

Q. Did making the film change your relationship with him?

A. It changed for the better. Even though every once in a while, he says something like, “You don’t know everything about me.” And I say, “No I don’t,” but sometimes I want to say I know a lot more than you know I know!


Eric Clapton: Life in 12 Bars

On Showtime, Feb. 10 at 9 p.m.

Ed Symkus can be reached at esymkus@rcn.com.