RT Interview: Defiance Director Edward Zwick on His Favorite Films, Rejecting Auteur Theory, and More

Favorite films and much more with the Oscar-winning director of Defiance.

by | January 13, 2009 | Comments

Edward Zwick - Jamie McCarthy/WireImage.com

With a successful career in television (thirtysomething, My So Called Life) and an Academy Award under his belt (for producing Shakespeare in Love), Edward Zwick the writer/producer has dabbled in more arenas than your average filmmaker. However, when it comes to helming his own pics, Edward Zwick the director has become known more specifically for his heroes — flawed, courageous, and almost always gunning for the Oscars. His latest film, Defiance, continues a string of weighty war dramas in the spirit of his previous Oscar pics Glory (1989), The Last Samurai (2003), and Blood Diamond (2006), in a gritty tale based on the true story of Jewish resistance fighters (Daniel Craig, Liev Schreiber, and Jamie Bell) in Nazi-occupied Poland during WWII.

Rotten Tomatoes caught up with Zwick to ask his Five Favorite Films, although things didn’t quite go as planned; like many film nuts, he had too many favorites to choose from. “That’s about the most difficult question you could ever ask a director,” he told us. “I might have to do my 500 favorites!

I do watch It’s a Wonderful Life with my children at Christmas, and I liked it long before it went into the public domain and became a cliché,” Zwick shared. “I like it frankly not because of its sentimentality but because of its darkness. When The Godfather comes on, any time of the day or night, I’m lost because I’m incapable of turning it off. But, God there are Truffaut movies and Kurosawa movies, and John Ford movies and John Sturgess movies, and Fellini movies and Bunuel movies, and Ettore Scola and Howard Hawks, Woody Allen and Paul Mazursky and… just stop me.

And so, we abandoned the excruciating question and turned towards the film at hand. Along the way, we discussed how a New York Times obituary led to Zwick’s 12-year journey bringing Defiance to fruition; why it was important to allow his heroes a certain degree of bloodlust and complexity; and what elements of the real-life events he had to cut out in the name of cinema. When asked his views on auteur theory — or if there is such a thing as an Ed Zwick aesthetic — his response revealed an interesting directorial point of view.

I’ve always believed that the stories and the performances are more important than I am,” said Zwick. “I think that the more invisible that my hand is, the more attention people can pay to the story and to those performances.

Read on for our full interview with Defiance writer/director Edward Zwick.

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Rotten Tomatoes: Well, let’s talk about Defiance. Were there any movies or directors that influenced you particularly in the making of Defiance?

Edward Zwick: I looked at Klimov‘s movie Come and See. It’s a great film. Different, because it’s very subjectively told, but it’s a great movie.

RT: What lessons did you take from it?

EZ: The brutality of the moment. You know, I tend not to go look at movies before I make a movie. I’d rather not be specifically influenced. I know they’re there. Let’s see, but this movie…I know it was important for me that the ensemble, the community, be a character in that movie, that we have a sense of the group, as a group, in addition to just the players, and so any movie that really talked about ensembles in that particular way I know would have been influential.

RT: What is interesting about your filmography is that in later years, you’ve been known for your large scale war-related movies, but you started out with different sorts of projects in both television and film. Can you talk about where in your career or in your life you started being attracted to the bigger films, or these certain themes?

EZ: Well, I hate to dissuade you from this, but I’m gonna tell you a story. Do you know the poet John Donne? He did “Death Be Not Proud,” he did, “No man is an island unto himself.” He was a preacher, and he wrote the Holy Sonnets, and it was later discovered that there were other poems by a man named Jack Donne, they thought, who wrote this very bawdy, very sexual poetry. And then they discovered it was the same man, and they decided that Jack Donne had a religious conversion and became John Donne. And then they discovered that, in fact, he was doing all of them all along. And the truth is that I made Glory after making About Last Night…, but then went and did thirtysomething. But after thirtysomething did Legends of the Fall. But after Legends of the Fall, went back and did My So-Called Life. And after My So-Called Life then did Courage Under Fire, but then did Once and Again and The Siege. And then we did Quarterlife a couple years ago, but now I’m doing [Defiance]. I think the truth is I’m interested in both those things, have been, and will continue to be. That TV stuff has given me an opportunity to give voice to a much more nuanced appreciation of human behavior and a kind of more comedic view, and these movies are 70 ft. across and 30 ft. high, and somehow the stories feel better when they can fill the screen.

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RT: You mentioned Quarterlife, which I really enjoyed. I watched that when it was first online.

EZ: Yeah, it was an experiment, and that was, again, something that was as intimate as anything could ever be. It’s sometimes a little too convenient to assume that things are a progression. They’re often not.

RT: If it’s possible, would you be able to define an Ed Zwick style or aesthetic?

EZ: I guess I’ve always believed that the stories and the performances are more important than I am. I think that the more invisible that my hand is, the more attention people can pay to the story and to those performances. I actually think it’s kind of easy to impose yourself onto the material, with a self-conscious camera or an obvious stylistic choice. I’m much more interested in realism and verisimilitude and I think in order to do that, I will do whatever I can in its service.

RT: So perhaps you don’t subscribe to auteur theory.

EZ: I don’t think that I do.

RT: It seems like, these days, directors are very tied to a persona.

EZ: Yeah, I find that to be too easy. I actually think it’s much harder to humble yourself before the material.

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RT: With Defiance, how did you come to find and select that story as the next one that you’d be telling?

EZ: Well, you know, it took twelve years. We came upon an obituary in the New York Times that many years ago. We worked on a script, we couldn’t get financing; we were turned down by every studio again and again. During that time obviously I made other movies, but it really wasn’t until a couple of my movies did particularly well in Europe that I was able to get financing. And Daniel Craig’s star suddenly was ascendant there too. We financed the movie out of Europe, and brought it back here, and then found a domestic distributor. In that sense, it’s as much a European production as it is an American.

RT: What was it about the European financers? Were they a little more courageous?

EZ: I think film is culture in Europe, and films that have ideas in them, and films that have historical or philosophical bases, fit better into the commercial marketplace. And here, studios with any scale feel the need to do things that are about sequels or superheroes. You know, the arthouse space at $6 or $7 million certainly is available here, although that’s getting its own problems these days. This movie cost $30 million, which is modest by the huge standards, but we needed it to put it all on the screen, to accomplish what we wanted to accomplish and tell the story well. Period, and costumes, and numbers of people at times… In order to do that, Daniel and all the actors and I and everyone else took a quarter of our salary just to get it done. We invested in the movie, we invested in ourselves, and should it succeed, we’ll get our fees. But if not, we made something we wanted to make, and that was our operating principle. And I think in Europe right now, the international marketplace is as important as the domestic.

RT: Is this the first time you’ve had to leave the United States to get financing for a project?

EZ: Absolutely. And should it work, it may provide a template for others who are trying to a little bit more challenging material at scale.

Next: On casting Bond as his Jewish resistance fighter and why Zwick’s heroes tend towards violence

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RT: Talking about Daniel, was it very much of a challenge to get away from his Bond persona?

EZ: Not in the slightest. We knew Daniel’s work based on before Bond, when he became Terry Smith in Infamous, when he became Ted Hughes, when he became the character in The Mother or Layer Cake. He is a very chameleon-like actor, and you don’t lose that when suddenly you become a movie star. In fact, I think this suggest his determination to hold on to that quality.

RT: Was there a challenge in getting the audience to detach from their idea of who Daniel Craig is?

EZ: Well, I think it’s a testament to the course of his performance and that those to whom I’ve spoken who’ve seen the movie seem to have no problem having to disappear even within moments. Whether that’s because he has a very natural modesty and a very different quality, whether it’s costume, or whether it’s accent, or whatever it is, that hasn’t seemed to be a problem for many people.

RT: What I like about your characters in Defiance is that they’re heroes, but they have blood on their hands.

EZ: Yeah, it was very important to me that we don’t sugarcoat who these people were. They had to do things that may not have been a source of pride, but were a source of exigency. You know, when Leonardo DiCaprio and I were working on Blood Diamond, it was also trying to be truthful. That character is morally very questionable, right? And yet, you come to understand him and follow his struggle. I think these men are in a terrible circumstance, and yet, despite doing things that are at times morally questionable, I think their motivations are understandable and you can give yourself over to following why they do the things they do. And I think that engages us. I think when people are paragons, it’s less interesting, and it was very important to try to give complexity to a subject. You know, the whole subject itself was trying to add complexity into who Jews were. Similarly, we want to not give a “primary colors” interpretation of the characters.

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RT: It also seems that your central trio, the three main brothers, comprise different shades of the same person, with Jamie Bell’s character quite torn between being more like either of his two older brothers.

EZ: Well I think that’s probably true. In Nechama Tec’s book, she really goes out of her way to talk about this dialectic between the urge for vengeance and the desire to save others, and I guess it’s the dramatist’s stroke to really invest that further in those two personalities. That also seemed to be born out by the history and the anecdotes we would hear about them. So yes, as the youngest and as someone becoming a man of his own, he both embraces violence and yet is drawn toward community. He gets married and stays true to that. So yes, I guess he manifests both of them.

RT: It’s been discussed that it’s seems convenient to some that all three of those main brothers get love interests.

EZ: It happens to be true!

RT: Right, those things really happened — which I suppose is your answer to assumptions of artistic license.

EZ: Yeah, that’s the amazing part. Sometimes truth can seem even beyond what you would dare write if you were making it up. But indeed, that happened.

RT: Was it difficult at all to have that very specific set of events and to kind of have to balance that out as a storyteller, and were you ever tempted to cut out any of the minor details?

EZ: Well, sure, you inevitably cut out a lot of detail. They took much more vengeance than I showed, they had much more quotidian making of shoes and coats, you know, there was a lot of trench digging. They, in fact, moved several more times than I was able to dramatize. You know, redundancy is not the thing that one looks fondly at in movies. Things stand in for other things; it’s dynamic. It’s more like poetry than prose. One event signifies or represents many others. So, there is always a reductionist quality. You hope you’re not taking away too much complexity while you’re doing it.

Next: Comparing his personal connection to Defiance to that with My So-Called Life

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RT: It seems like that’s quite a difficult thing to do as a writer when you’re adapting.

EZ: Yes, that is the challenge, and that’s why, by the way, we chose to tell only nine or ten months of the story rather than three years. At least, it was cutting out a more compassable part of the story to tell. It was choosing, limiting our ambition slightly, because if you told three years, think of how more diffused it would have had to be and how much more you were eliminating even than we did.

RT: And yet, you still have so much packed into one movie.

EZ: Well, yeah, that’s the trick.

RT: In terms of the action scenes, how much of the action was embellished from the real life events?

EZ: Well, I mean, they did perpetrate ambushes. The Bielskis certainly took their revenge on those in those villages, as we showed. They were attacked by planes and Howitzers. I think the final scene condenses several engagements in which they manage to get away. You know, I’m sure that the particular battle itself was more desultory in the way that things tend to begin and end than the way we show it, but the movie had to end somehow. It was time. And in fact, it was as much about the reconciliation of those brothers coming together as anything else, that led to that.

RT: In what way do you consider this a personal film, and is it more or less personal than any of your other films?

EZ: Well, as a Jewish kid growing up, assimilated in the Midwest, you don’t feel particularly close to these events. You hear about them, and you’re confused by them, and even angered by them. But to go there, inevitably you suddenly realize that the proximity between you and these events is an accident of geography and birth and maybe a generation, and but for a quirk of fate or fortune, karma, you may have been there. And had you been there, you can’t help but ask what you would have done. Who would you be? Would you have been able to survive? Would you have been inclined to one philosophy or the other? And that inevitably makes it personal. On the other hand, I think you can’t direct a movie without investing in certain aspects of its story or characters. So yes, in some specific way it was personal, but not in the specific way that thirtysomething was personal, when I’m writing about my friends or my marriage, or My So-Called Life when I’m writing about being in high school. On the other hand, every time you hold a camera and every time you talk to an actor or cut two pieces of film together, you’re making an editorial choice that reveals you.

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RT: How did you know what it was like to be a high school girl?

EZ: I think we’re all high school girls.

RT: I think you guys nailed it.

EZ: [Laughs]

RT: What’s it like being a voting member of the Academy? Is this time of year incredibly exciting and fun?

EZ: Yeah, I think that every member of the Academy thinks that he’s a genius. And everyone is an expert and knows just who to vote for, and does it in a way that is entirely personal and probably immune to all of the buzz and hum about all this stuff. You know, I do try to see the films so when I’m voting I actually know what I’m talking about. I’m not just voting for my friends; in that aspect, I’m no longer in high school.

Read reviews and watch the trailer for Defiance here. For more awards season interviews and news, check out RT’s Awards Tour.

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