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'Ghosts' Story

July 19, 2007 By:
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Stellan Skarsgard as Goya (left) jokes with producer Saul Zaentz.
It takes a living legend to scare the life out of "Goya's Ghosts." Who better a fan of phantasmagoria than soulful Saul Zaentz?

Zaentz, praised profusely by publications as the last of the great producers, is what Bialystock and Bloom could only dream of had they considered themselves artists instead of arses. His "Goya's Ghosts" -- framed against the Spanish Inquisition in the late 1700s -- is Zaentz's spectral vision -- to appear on screens starting July 20 -- in which fabled artist Francisco Goya (Stellan Skarsgard) paints himself into a corner trying to help a young woman (Natalie Portman) wrongly accused of practicing Judaism escape the Inquisition.

"Goya's Ghosts" is just the latest in a stunning series of films in which Zaentz's expresses interest in the medium for art's sake, stretching back to the sanity-straining "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest," in which the producer first set fly his cinematic ambitions more than 30 years ago.

For his efforts, the son of Russian-Polish-Jewish immigrants from Passaic, N.J., passed Hollywood's leading taste test, winning a trio of Oscars for "Cuckoo's Nest," "Amadeus" and "The English Patient."

Patience itself, Zaentz has a track record that dates back before eight-track recordings; before film, he had built an enviable empire as a music producer.

So, at 86 -- appropriately for such a kingpin of music, the same number of notes on a keyboard -- Zaentz finds the sounds of music are especially sweet when applause and acclaim mix for a man whose career has been in concert with art and audience appeal.

Not bad for a former peanut vendor who's grown a solid-oak oeuvre over the years.

And those peanuts ... "That's when I was selling them, working games at [St. Louis] Cardinals games," he says of those years long ago when "get yer nuts, right here" preceded "Cuckoo's Nest" by decades.

Of course, had he followed up on his first ambition ... "Chicken farmer," he reveals of his studies at Rutgers University.

Chickened Out
When he found that it took more than plain pluck and he actually worked a chicken farm, those ambitions bought the farm.

But music bought him a lifestyle as he went on to join -- and then buy -- Fantasy Records, simultaneously signing Creedence Clearwater Revival to a contract.

It was film that also lent him credence, one which he enjoys today. Call him ringmaster -- and, yes, he produced the "Lord of the Rings" triumphant trilogy, too.

What does the "Goya's Ghosts" producer see that others don't?

"It's always a matter of the script," says Zaentz.

He has a good read on history; "Goya's Ghosts" first materialized after Zaentz and Milos Forman -- director for "Ghosts" and also Zaentz's "Amadeus" -- took to the illustrious Prado Museum in Madrid.

"We were there doing promotions for 'Amadeus,' and I had never seen a Hieronymus Bosch," he says of the demon-detailed controversial painter of the 15th and 16th centuries.

"So we went [to the Prado] and walked upstairs and there were 100 Goyas there."

Faster than you could say "La Maja Desnuda," he and Forman found their man whom they would one day profile later. But "Ghosts," Zaentz cautions, "is not a biopic, although everything you see is based on something true."

Truly interested in the Inquisition -- "I had read about it years ago" -- the former Jersey boy who had run away from home as a youth found a home inside the Prado that day.

And it all hit home, too, later when the script delves into the anti-Semitic semantics and acts of the Inquisition "since I'm Jewish and Milos' father [who died in Auschwitz] was Jewish."

Ectoplasmic kismet collaborating with his friend and fellow artist Forman on "Ghosts"?

"We have the same kind of truths between us; we trust each other."

In history and the arts they trust: The story of Mozart, this tale of Goya ... "Before we get our minds in it, we have our hearts in it," says Zaentz of picking projects.

There is a near unbearable lightness of being -- he produced that, too -- that emanates from the producer, which comes, he avers, from years of honesty. Don't take crap, he says matter-of-factly; don't give it out.

And in the habit of speaking his mind, he doesn't demur when it comes to "The Hobbit," the "LOTR" follow-up, news of which fans have been following since talk surfaced that director Peter Jackson is off that project.

Off and running is outspoken Saul, who favors Jackson and would like to see it all "worked out."

For now, he's working on getting the word out that "Ghosts" can co-exist in a world of summer movies of supernatural heroes; it's an unchained melody he truly believes in.

But Zaentz won't take stock in being called an icon, despite the obvious credits that he's accumulated over a career making him worthy of the title.

"Icon? I thought Mel Gibson was supposed to be an icon," says the producer who hasn't given up the ghost when it comes to an appreciation for spunk and sarcasm. 

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