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Edward Zwick Is Revisiting His Past, Wondering About His Future

What is the Edward Zwick style? Many directors have their visual or thematic signatures — those indelible elements that make their films unique — but the 71-year-old Oscar- and Emmy-winning storyteller has never brandished such overt flourishes. That can often be judged as a cinematic shortcoming — an indication of a lack of artistry or vision — but Zwick makes a persuasive case in his new memoir that worrying about being an auteur is less important than serving the narrative you’re passionate to bring to the screen. 

In Hits, Flops, and Other Illusions: My Fortysomething Years in Hollywood, out on Tuesday, the director of “Glory,” “Legends of the Fall,” “The Last Samurai” and “Blood Diamond” speaks candidly about the myriad challenges involved in making films. True to its title, the memoir finds Zwick examining both his triumphs and failures, offering lessons learned and colorful tales about working in the creative trenches. (Lest anyone forget, he was also one of the forces behind acclaimed TV series such as “thirtysomething,” “My So-Called Life” and “Once and Again.”) Hits, Flops, and Other Illusions is smart and funny, with Zwick heaping praise on stars like Denzel Washington, Tom Cruise and Leonardo DiCaprio while eviscerating Harvey Weinstein, who made his life hell during “Shakespeare in Love.” (Zwick backed the project in its early days, long before Julia Roberts was briefly attached — she was convinced she could talk Daniel Day-Lewis into starring in it with her. Zwick eventually won an Oscar as one of its producers, but, well, that’s a complicated story, and he gets into it in beautiful detail in the book.)

I spoke to Zwick last week over Zoom from Chicago, and he was just as engaging and honest as he is in Hits, Flops, and Other Illusions. He discussed what’s daunting about writing a book when you’re used to putting your thoughts in your characters’ mouths — and how he feels about the current debate swirling around the appropriateness of telling other cultures’ stories, something he has done consistently in his career. Zwick also spent a little time pondering the prospect that he may never direct again.

In Hits, Flops, and Other Illusions, you write compellingly about all the hurdles a director faces when trying to make a movie: budget issues, studio demands, fickle actors. Was it liberating — or daunting — to write your first book, where those obstacles aren’t in your way and the connection to an audience is more direct and intimate?

When one writes a movie, there’s so many aspects of it, but you are within a form. It’s like a sonnet or a villanelle — it’s this rhyme scheme, A-B A-B, and the scansion is such that you are writing within a prescribed form. And that’s comforting — it’s reassuring because it’s the known world — but it’s also limiting. And not only that, but you’re in a medium that is an art dictated by commerce, which is to say that it’s going to be scrutinized and it’s going to be commented on, and there’ll be those pressures put upon it that are both artistic and commercial. It will go through many forms — it’ll go through the development process, it’ll go through the preview process, and it’ll go through the release — and they all have their own horrors. 

There are great rewards to that, obviously, but to [write a book] was to be freed of all of that. It didn’t matter what anyone thought because it’s what I thought. On the other hand, new horrors await because it’s only you. Who are you really? What do you really feel? Freedom can be a terrifying thing. How long should this paragraph be? Or this chapter? What do I want to keep in and leave out? That’s not dependent on the time or the rhythm of a movie — although, of course, what you discover is a book has its own rhythm, and a chapter has its own rhythm. 

I’ve written a lot personally, provocatively, subversively, and put those words in the mouths of other people — those pretty people over there, nicely dressed. There’s a little veil — there’s a curtain that exists between me and them, there’s a remove. But to go into the first-person is to just blow all that to hell and to be revealed and to be vulnerable, especially when I began to write about things that are personal. It was at times daunting and intimidating, but also liberating because that’s the process of creation. 

After so many years of making movies and television, was it strange to figure out what your “memoir voice” is?

You’re creating a character, like it or not. Who is that person and what is he like? What does his voice sound like? I’d like to think that what happened in my career is that the naturalism of my voice — or the truth of my voice — has emerged over time so as to be not that different from my spoken voice or my internal voice. But I also very quickly realized that the way that I tell stories in life is somewhat different, because I tend to make myself the butt of the joke. That’s just my nature, and I found that being expressed in the book — not even deliberately, but it was just evolving in this way. 

There’s a book that Calvin Trillin once wrote called Alice, Let’s Eat, which is about his travels eating around the world, yet it also becomes a book about his wife. And in this, I found that the characters, whether it was [Zwick’s wife] Liberty or [his creative partner] Marshall [Herskovitz] or the various people, the dramatis personae of my life, I was able to sketch them and raise them up and have them there with me. And that made it more of a familiar exercise.

Many of your films are ensemble pieces. In the book, you even advise writers to spend extra time revising their scripts to beef up the supporting characters. So it makes sense that your memoir would have a bunch of people in it.

My movies, good or bad, like them or not, have absolutely lifted up the supporting cast, and it’s been recognized with the various Oscar nominations for Best Supporting Actor or what has happened to people’s careers based on being the supporting character rather than the lead. 

That could be a legacy of having been trained in the theater, where everything was essentially an ensemble, and trying to invest those voices. The greatest actors know that the better the supporting cast, the greater they will come off in the movie. That is what people like Tom Cruise or Leonardo DiCaprio understand — they’re never selfish. In fact, they’re very much interested in giving more things to [the other] actors. I’d like to think that that is part of why I’ve always loved movies: I could talk about the supporting actors in the history of movies as well as I could talk about the leads.

Before I started the book, I confess I had forgotten you had won an Oscar.

So do I from time to time. [Laughs]

I got the sense from reading the book that there is still a bittersweet component to how you won your Oscar. You write about the experience of dealing with Harvey Weinstein, who tried to cut you out of the process of making “Shakespeare in Love,” even though you had developed the material years earlier and brought on people like Tom Stoppard and John Madden. But you didn’t get to speak on stage when the film won Best Picture — Weinstein made it all about him. I imagine you might have very mixed feelings about what, for someone else, would have been their shining moment.

It was complex, but I’m also left with remarkable experiences. Going to used bookstores with Tom Stoppard and sitting there with someone who’d been an idol for life. Building sets at Pinewood [when the film initially was going to get off the ground in the early 1990s]. I also think that it was demystifying — about the Oscars and what that all is. There’s some gift at going through an experience and discovering that it, in fact, is a very, very potentially ambivalent moment. 

Any time that you feel that you’ve failed in any way, that leads to a process of self-examination and scrutiny. When something works, it’s mysterious and you tend not to examine it. I’d like to think that, from that moment, there has been growth in my career — as a director and as a writer and maybe even as a person. There are lessons learned that are really important personal lessons that have nothing to do with statues. Or maybe everything to do with statues.

That’s what makes your Oscar moment interesting to me: It should have been triumphant, but in some ways, it wasn’t. So what’s the lesson you learn?

I can only describe it in terms of other experiences. When I was younger, there was a slight inability to be completely present in any one thing because I was always anticipating the next. A lot of people talk about this who are in the money business — they’re trying to make money, and they never take satisfaction because they’re always thinking about more money. 

You get on a train when you’re very young of validation and of the approbation of strangers and accomplishment — any of us who have had that experience of being the kid who’s getting As in school or whose parents put on them certain expectations. You are grasping — you’re reaching — [for more], but I had already been thinking that I had not taken the full measure of pride and pleasure or a sense of accomplishment in things that I had done. Consequently, my life began to change before [“Shakespeare in Love”], but that was certainly part of it — of really trying to dedicate myself to being more present. These moments are fleeting, good or bad or indifferent. Even the writing of the whole book — to re-experience something and let it recur in your heart — was a great pleasure.

There’s a lot of conversation today around who has the right to tell certain stories. Some of your biggest films — “Glory,” “The Last Samurai,” “Blood Diamond” — if you were starting out now, studios might say, “Well, a white guy making these movies, I don’t know.” How do you feel about that?

I’ve never tried to imagine myself as a pundit or as a political commentator — I think my work either speaks for itself or it doesn’t. I do know that doing the homework and giving the voices themselves a chance to speak, you are a vessel into which you are pouring all these things that you are learning. 

This is by no means a special pleading, but I could not have made “Blood Diamond” without Sorious Samura — this man who became a kind of Virgil for me into this world, who was in Freetown, who was with me every step of the way. This woman named Yôko Narahashi and some of the Japanese historians and the Japanese writers that I worked with — their voices are there in [“The Last Samurai”]. To ascribe that single, almost overweening control to one voice in any movie, unless it’s so personal, I think is a canard. 

I do know, whether it’s “Blood Diamond” or “Glory” or even “Last Samurai,” those movies would not have been made except that somehow my crazed particular interest in a subject gave them the wind in their sails — that creative impulse to make them happen. In terms of something like “Glory,” that wasn’t just rediscovered history, it was historical redress, and it is very possible people would’ve still been walking past that statue in the Boston Commons and looked at it as a thing of the dead as opposed to something that has a political import. 

If the intention is exploitative — or is appropriated, as that phrase goes — that’s worth noting. But I can’t see it any other way than the way that I’ve done it. When we say “allowed to [tell someone else’s story],” that’s a very interesting phrase, because that suggests a cultural chilling effect or a pre-censorship by the assumed chattering classes who are the legislators of this. But no one’s the legislator of this — no one should be the legislator of this. An artist does what an artist does, and other people can react to it, but what one should be allowed to do is a very slippery slope.

You have a story in the book describing how Alan Horn, then president of Warner Bros., tells you that he loves “Blood Diamond” but that the studio won’t be making movies like that anymore. Essentially, the age of grownup movies is going away, replaced by franchises. Many people might think, “Well, there’s so many options now for great stories because of streaming and prestige television,” but as someone who makes movies for grownups, you’re less optimistic.  

Form is content — they’re interchangeable. When I think about the seasons of “The Wire,” there are things that are just so sui generis and amazing pieces of work. But those things had in them these intrinsic dramatic shapes, often episode to episode — what’s happened now [with] the construction of streaming narrative seems to be designed as commercially as it is artistically, which is to say the narrative shape leading to a cliffhanger. [That] invariably creates a different experience than a [work] that has the unity of shape toward crisis and climax and denouement and catharsis. The purpose of most streaming narratives seems to be to create anxiety: “Oh, what’s going to happen next?” That seems to be a retail conversation that was created — yes, movies had a different use of retail, but it wasn’t that. And I think it changes the nature of your experience.

When writing about how films are ultimately measured, you list a few factors that should be ignored, like box office and awards — you also note, “critics no longer matter.” Do you feel they’ve lost their power over time?

I can see how that could be inflammatory. [Laughs] What I mean is when I was starting out, the relationship between a critic and a filmmaker was dialogical. When I made my first movie, I got a call from Jack Kroll saying, “Hey, do you want to have lunch sometime?" I knew Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel personally very well. Critics believed, and directors understood, that there was some understanding or fellow feeling on each part where these things would somehow not just be engaging for both but would somehow yield something else. 

The whole critical [ecosystem] was, I think, diminished to someone who has a keyboard and a site. Newspapers began to further diminish coverage. There were no longer the pull quotes in the papers — nobody knew [a movie] was there and no one talked about it, so it vanished. Critics were very important in participating in that individuation — in that lifting up of a particular voice or a piece of work. I don’t get the feeling that it happens the same way anymore. 

One of the most interesting chapters is the one on “The Siege,” where you recount the criticism you got from some organizations, who accused you of Islamophobia. In there, you reprint your entire 1998 New York Times op-ed defending yourself and the movie. I got the feeling that you really wanted to get something off your chest in that chapter. Do you still feel burned by the negative reaction to the film?

Not burned, no. But I printed that [op-ed] because I don’t think I could have ever articulated better what had happened or what my feelings were. 

I think it was Anaïs Nin who said that to write a memoir is to enjoy the same meal twice. And so, if in one moment I was experiencing the delirium of directing on horseback, it also was a re-experience of the feelings of what happened in those moments. I tried — because this is what a director does with an actor — to find the sense recall, find those feelings and make them vivid and fresh for myself in order to write them the same way I would ask an actor to perform them. I don’t walk around thinking about some ill- treatment by a journalist or an accusation that I was Islamophobic, because I know that’s silly. But to examine the dynamic, you have to put yourself in the dynamic — you have to recall what those feelings were and what was happening. 

The funny thing with writing a book is, even then, you think about what you didn’t [include] — [I didn’t mention] what it felt like to have security and people trying to guard you against perceived threats. I [also] didn’t write about the very interesting relationships with people that I had known and grown up with who were Arab-American, and those interactions. I didn’t talk about what the experience was for Tony Shaloub to be in the middle of that moment. Unfortunately, there’s still an oversimplification in this kind of a book of some of the complexities, because — and here’s the struggle — you want it to be entertaining. I’m not writing a 120-page script — I’m writing a 300-page book — and even that proscribes a certain amount of complexity.

Especially in the chapter about “The Siege,” I gathered that the sensitivity around certain issues in modern culture, as it pertains to art, rankles a bit.

Show me an artist who’s not rankled by it. I do believe that one of the purposes of art is not to comfort. The purpose of art is a kind of interpretive mirroring. This is how I feel, and if anything comes between that process — either a proscriptive politics or cultural censorship—it’s no longer art. Anything that we love or have been moved by in a piece of work, what would’ve happened if those writers had been acting according to certain perceived or imagined dictates?

But I think younger people don’t see it the same way.

I think you’re right. My son is in his late 30s, my daughter is 30, they’re both artistic. They have much greater awareness and sensitivity built in. They do make certain assumptions, but it’s not like it’s a conversation — there’s just an assumption that this should be. I’d like to think that I’m somewhat sensitized to certain realities, but I’m also a little bit combative about others. 

You write that you haven’t had the career of your directing idols — that your career “has never attained celebrity status.” So where do you place yourself?

It’s impossible to talk about oneself with any complexity and not sound like an asshole. [Laughs] I would say that I’ve made an artistic decision that I would elevate the story above myself, and that I would place the performances of the actors on the edifice of that story — I would humble myself before those things and choose to lift them up. There is a different reality in certain artistic decisions where the director himself is as visible — it’s also what is noted by the critics, and often what is sold and becomes part of a brand. When the stories that I’ve been telling have often had ideas in them or historical truths, I believe those to be more important than me, and I don’t want to come between me and that intention. And I suspect one reason why so many of the actors that I’ve [worked with] have benefited with recognition is because I’ve not put myself in front of them.

Your last film, “Trial by Fire,” was 2018. Do you ever think, “Was that the last one I’ll ever direct?”

I think I felt that every time that I finished a movie and took a couple of years to get [another] movie going. I was sick 17 years ago [Editor’s note: Zwick was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma] and was then quite fine, so everything since then has seemed to be remarkable and gravy. I’ve been very active. There are [projects] that seem to have great prospect of happening, but I also know that if I were to look at all the things that didn’t happen compared to those that did, they’re probably an equal number of each, and that’s a good batting average. If I were a baseball player, that would put me in the Hall of Fame.

Credit: Landy Major

To extend the baseball analogy, is it hard to consider you’ll never step back into the batter’s box? I understand that the uncertainty is always there for a filmmaker, but as you get older, is that feeling different? 

Am I still going to be able to climb a 14,000-foot peak as I was able to do when I was in my teens? No, part of age does have to do with acceptance. I’m not saying I’m good at it — I’m not saying that I look forward to it — but I’d be an idiot not to understand that that’s part of a process that I’m in the middle of. 

But think of it this way: I’ve just written a book at 70 years old, which was an entire big swing into the unknown. I’d never written a book, I didn’t have an agent, I didn’t know the process. I had no notion of what that might mean. And it has been exciting. The creative experience was exciting. Conversations like these are exciting. 

I’m getting these letters and very interesting responses [to the book] — that’s not what it is to make a movie. You make a movie in a bubble, and it goes out there and you sit there in an audience once or twice, and then it’s in the past. Already, I can tell that this book is going to have a longer tail, and it’s being read one at a time. Readers are different than moviegoers, I’m discovering. Moviegoers these days are like, “Well, have you seen it?” “Yeah.” “Was it good?” “I don’t know.” But already what I’ve seen is I’ve engendered some very fulsome and thrilling responses from people that I hoped to touch or had never thought I would touch — that’s a new experience. 

All I’m saying is, will there be another new experience that isn’t necessarily making a movie? I don’t know.

Edward Zwick will be hosting a conversation about his book tomorrow, February 13th, at the Metrograph, followed by a screening of "Glory." Get tickets here.

Tim Grierson

Tim Grierson is the Senior U.S. Critic for Screen International

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