Q&A: Ed Zwick

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A master of the historical epic, director-producer Ed Zwick has brought a panoramic eye to the Civil War ("Glory"), the untamed American West ("Legends of the Fall"), the first Gulf War ("Courage Under Fire") and late 19th century Japan ("The Last Samurai"). So perhaps World War II and the Holocaust were inevitable. In his ninth feature as a helmer, "Defiance," Zwick co-wrote (with Clayton Frohman) the adaptation of the remarkable story of the Bielski brothers, who miraculously survived the Nazi onslaught in Eastern Europe while building a thousand-strong Jewish community in the forest of their childhood. The Hollywood Reporter spoke to Zwick about the changing landscapes of TV and film -- between which he's hopscotched for 25 years -- and how he finally got backing for a Holocaust movie 12 years in the making.

The Hollywood Reporter: Apparently, every studio passed on "Defiance," even with Daniel Craig attached. How did you convince financiers to give you $32 million for this kind of film?

Ed Zwick: I was lucky in that the last couple of movies that I had made had done particularly well in Europe. Europe is a place where more serious films still have a role as culture. And I guess it was the combination of those most recent films that I had done having performed, and Daniel's sudden new apotheosis as James Bond, and possibly that the subject matter was European, that the combination of those things gave us enough money.

THR: If you had a few sentences to tell people why they should give this particular film a look, what would you say?

Zwick: It offers an alternate view of history that people thought they knew with a story that no one knew. The Holocaust canon has been an iconography made up only of images of Jewish passivity and victimization. Necessarily and inevitably, in the name of memorializing six million lost, there has also been an overshadowing of those who survived and how they survived. I also think -- this occurred to me just recently -- now in the United States we're going to have to deal with a certain amount of sacrifice, we're going to have to give up a certain amount of our sense of entitlement or comfort. And to look at people who reckoned with something beyond our imagining and yet held on to their culture and their spirit of life, maybe that's particularly inspiring now.

THR: "Defiance" was bumped to 2009. How did you feel about that?

Zwick: It was distressing. It was clearly a factor of the credit crisis. And I think "The Soloist" was ill-treated in terms of being just pushed and pushed. A movie that's released in the fourth quarter '08 has to account for that expenditure in the fourth quarter '08. But the returns don't come in until '09. And the decision was finally based on wanting the majority of the spend to come out in the same quarter as the returns. It affects the stock price. So it was simply a bottom-line decision. And like it or not, I have to admit that I'm in a bottom-line business.

THR: Do you think you could make a movie like "About Last Night..." now?

Zwick: I definitely think I could make a movie like "About Last Night..." now. I'm not sure I could make a movie like "Glory" now, or even "Courage Under Fire" or "The Siege." It's not that they're challenging, it's that they're made at a certain scale. Even "Blood Diamond" I'm not sure I could get made right now. The interesting movies can definitely still be made but on a very small scale. The idea of putting that many resources to a story that might only make a certain amount of money is not what the studios want. They want movies that will move the stock price or justify giving up one of their tentpole slots. "About Last Night..." was made for eight million bucks.

THR: Is there a project that you've been attached to that you couldn't get going that you most wish you had?

Zwick: There's a wonderful script that ("Eastern Promises" writer) Steve Knight has written. He's written something for us, and it's called "Woman Walks Ahead." It's taken us a while because we can't find the right cast for it. And we will do it someday.
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