Ed Zwick – When he was impassioned, still is, but no one cares

September 2009 By Philip Berk

Ed Zwick is the last of the good guys.

I’ve known him for twenty years now, some of which I’d almost forgotten.

Who knew that he (and his writing producing partner Marshal Herskovitz) were the brains behind My So Called Life. Thirty Something, yes, and Once and Again, for sure, all three landmark TV shows and ones that he personally promoted, successfully I might add, when they received repeated Golden Globe recognition.

Even for his films he has gone the extra mile.

I remember him sending every HFPA member a personal invitation to see an advance screening of Blood Diamond in which he extolled the virtues of Leonardo Di Caprio.

“One of the great joys of making this film was watching Leonardo Di Caprio’s evolution in this role.  Danny Archer’s journey is the fulcrum of the story of “Blood Diamond,” and the truths revealed through that journey rest squarely on his shoulders. In fully embodying this Zimbabwean soldier-of-fortune, I believe Leonardo takes his place among the great Hollywood leading men – from Bogart in “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre” to Michael Douglas in “Wall Street” – who forged resonant and memorable performances as complex anti-heroes.”

Besides being an indefatigable promoter he is a passionate filmmaker, a contemporary Stanley Kramer whose movies feature fully rounded characters, confronting difficult moral issues, with plots that concern the ambiguity of authority and the individual conscience as the ultimate arbiter of truth.

His first film as a director was Glory which brought Denzel Washington his first Oscar.

Although he’s made few films, he has been successful in wooing Hollywood’s top leading men, Brad Pitt in Legends of the Fall, Tom Cruise in Last Samurai, and of course Leonardo Di Caprio in Blood Diamond 

In like fashion he was able to land Daniel Craig for his latest Defiance, a heartfelt, brave, but ultimately flawed retelling of the exploits of the Bielski brothers in saving over a thousand Jews from the Holocaust. 

At his press conference he’s once again the consummate salesman.

Where did he find the story? I ask him.

“Twelve years ago a childhood friend of mine Clay Frohman read an obituary in the New York Times of Zus Bielski. A reporter had gone to Brooklyn and heard from the family about this story, and that led us to a book by Nechama Tec, who’s a professor of sociology a the University of Connecticut. I optioned the book. We didn’t have a deal. We did it on our own, and we began to work on the story, and over the years we would try to get funding that was not possible. But because the last couple of films I’ve made had done particularly well in Europe and because Daniel was willing to sign on, we were able to get the funding in Europe. We presold the rights to the European territories and then brought the film back here to get domestic distribution; so in some measure it’s a European film as much as it is an American film.”

Footnote: The film fared poorly in Eastern Europe. Poland particularly, where the film had to overcome criticism that it re-wrote history. In its first week it was ninth at the boxoffice selling only 366 admissions per theatre.

Was he able to talk to any of the survivors?

“We spent a lot of time getting to know the survivors. We read a great deal of the memoirs of those who were no longer alive, and we believed the word defiance meant the refusal to give up — the human spirit even in difficult circumstances — the will to have love and sexuality and humor and community and friendship amidst that setting was as important as revenge, and to that end the film is a mixture of dark and light. The idea that these remarkable things could take place even while the worst things were happening  was very central to our design.”

The film was shot in Lithuania standing in for Belarus.

How rigorous was that location?

“We shot in a real forest. We would go there at dark and we’d be there until dark — it was very cold and very wet, but at the same time we were very aware that the real people weren’t able to go home at night and take a hot bath. They lived in holes in the ground. So it was a humbling experience making the movie for all of us, which added to the film. The actors didn’t have trailers nearby. No one went to a trailer. Everyone stayed together and created their own community.”

Can he talk about that. Did actors stick together based on the characters they played?

“I think two things happened. One because we  were working on hallowed ground, a place where 300,000 were killed in the forest in unmarked graves. It’s all around you, and you can’t help but be possessed by the spirit of those who were lost. Then there’s the need to keep your levity, and it’s surprising how light and buoyant people were because you’re dealing with such difficult material. There has to be humor, and there has to be life all around us. The great part was watching Daniel and Liev (Schreiber) torment Jamie (Bell) as their little brother, or to see people get together and huddle around fires trying to keep warm and and sing and do things like that. It was actually extraordinary.”

Can he account for the fact that in 2008 there were six films dealing with the Holocaust?

Besides Defiance, there were Good, Boy with the Striped Pajamas, Valkyrie, The Reader, and Adam Resurrected. 

“I have some thoughts on this subject. For the survivors this is the eleventh hour. Within five or ten years anyone with any living memory of that period will be gone. So there is some anxiety there, a desire to honor the people before they’re gone. However even though the Jewish community has devoted an extraordinary amount of time and energy to memorialize the 6 million who died, we’ve paid pretty little attention to those who survived or told stories of how they survived. That’s an important redress of history, because the desire to survive was always there. And that was always there in the forest of Bialystock, in Poland, in the Ukraine, in Hungary, in Romania. We Jews have always used the story of the Passover (Moses liberating the Jews from slavery in Egypt) as a means of preserving our culture.”

If he were in the forest, would he have made it?

“Speaking personally, I’m a Jewish kid from the Midwest but for an accident of birth and generations it could well have been my fate to be there. So I couldn’t but think of what I would have done. Would I have made it? Would I have fared well?  Would I gave gone to those woods? That was a very challenging question to be asking in the middle of that. Maybe audiences might ask themselves that question also.”

Watching the movie a second time I was struck by Daniel Craig’s commitment to the role. No Jewish actor could have played the role with more feeling, 

Where does that emotion come from? I ask him.

“Well first of all Daniel was an extraordinary actor long before he became James Bond. He’s a trained working class English actor who’s worked in repertory theatre from the time he was twenty. You’ve seen his work in Infamous and The Mother and in Sylvia. All those movies he was great in. But what is most remarkable about Daniel is his refusal to be pigeonholed. To do this movie now is a testament to his artistic ambition. If you think back to Sean Connery: he did The Hill with Sidney Lumet after becoming James Bond. He too made a statement: ‘I am going to stay an actor. I am not going to be a movie star.’ Daniel has a natural modesty, and his willingness to be part of an ensemble and not put himself in front of this movie but rather let others shine and to accept that the central character in the movie is not he or Liev or even Jamie, it’s the group. And  that generosity I find is so extraordinary.” 

It’s almost as if he has a special connection to the Holocaust? Did they ever discuss it?

“He’s an extraordinary soulful person. You can ask him why if he has some special feeling for the subject. He connected very deeply with Jamie and Liev. They created something very extraordinary. I don’t think we’ve begun to see the depths he is able to achieve when given the opportunity. He was a remarkable partner and an inspiration to everyone else.”

I later asked Daniel, but he was evasive, even though a year earlier when I wondered if there was any reason why he had done three Holocaust movies (Munich, Fateless, and Defiance) he told me privately there was, but he preferred not to talk about it.

With Daniel signed on, how come no major studio was prepared to release the film. Doesn’t he have a development deal with Warner Bros.?

“They would rather do superhero movies and sequels. For this movie to be made we all deferred three quarters of our salary, including James Newton Howard. (cinematographer) Edward Sera, the entire crew. We all invested in our belief to make the movie.”

Mia Wasikowska who plays Chaya in the film is Australian. 

“She’s phenomenal, isn’t she?” 

How did he cast her?

“I’ve had great experiences over the years with actors. And she reminded me of when I met Claire Danes when she was 14 for My So Called Life or Evan Rachel Wood when she as 14. Mia is so brilliant and obviously after Alice In Wonderland she’s going to become quite extraordinary.”

Lithuania has a long history of anti-Semitism. Did he come across any of that when filming this story of Jewish resistance?

“Your question evokes many things. My experience with Vietnam vets or World War II vets or survivors of the Holocaust, they’re very loathe to talk about their experiences. I made a movie with Denzel about a real life Medal of Honor winner, and he didn’t want to talk about his experience. Lithuania is a very grim place still. It’s a traumatized place. In Germany the third generation  of Germans have dealt with their past. There’s been Truth and Reconciliation, but in Eastern Europe there’s been very little. I will say, the Lithuanian actors were very available, even though Lithuania has the highest suicide rate in the world, the highest death by alcoholism, the highest death by auto accident. Many people, not just those who participated in the crimes, 500,000, were taken to the Gulag under the Soviet occupation, and in ‘93 when freedom came, 500,000 of the youngest most entrepreneurial people left for O.E. So you’re left with a country that has some real problems; you couldn’t help but sense that. The young people don’t know their history, they don’t know about the Holocaust or what happened to the 500,000. They’re not really dealing with what happened there.” 

The interesting dynamic of the film is that the Bielski brothers were not your typical Jewish heroes. They were from the lower class, thugs even.

“It was very important for me not to portray them as a monolith. They were a varied group made up of different influences. Religious and secular, gender issues, but particularly class, because the women that married the Bielski men were more educated. They were refined, but they found these men who were rough, and together they formed alliances that lasted 60 years. One of the mistakes in showing Jewish culture in Eastern Europe is to imagine everyone as the same. They weren’t, and with that kind of oversimplification comes objectification and prejudice; so it was very important for me to show a multilayered group of people.”

Why were the Bielskis so reluctant to tell their story? 

“It’s possible they did things, some things of which they weren’t particularly proud of, in order to survive in the forest. I suggest that in the movie. It’s very hard when you’ve done things that are questionable, and yet you had to do it. I think they were just happy to have lived the life they had. I think their triumph was to put that away and live the rest of their lives peacefully.”

Does he believe film has the power to influence people and bring about change?

“If I didn’t believe that, I wouldn’t be making socially relevant films. But by the same token people might argue that a certain gratuitous violence or exploitation can have a negative effect on society. I believe there is something salutary in the experience of those who go to the movies. I know from my own experience that after seeing some films, I have never looked at life again in the same way. I have to believe there is a generation of people who are going to be looking at movies in exactly the same way people in the 1930s looked at films; artists at that time believed they should have a role and a voice and that their role was social as well as just entertainment; so I’d like to think that’s still possible.”

Your long term partnership with Marshall Herskovitz, is that still viable?

“Well, we’ve been not only each other’s friend, but we’ve been each other’s teacher too. As you get on in this business, with so many people around you telling you you’re great or telling you that you know nothing, the value of having someone who knows you and tells you when you’re full of shit is really valuable. We do that for each other.”