Getting Direct With Directors...
Ed Zwick
No.9: Ed Zwick

Ed Zwick rose to prominence with the Oscar-winning Civil War epic Glory, before cementing Brad Pitt's poster boy status with Legends Of The Fall. Courage Under Fire was an intriguing army-set thriller, which raised questions of heroism and military might. The Siege courted controversy by exploring extreme American reactions to a terrorist strike.

With Tom Cruise action epic The Last Samurai he has produced another thoughtful, engaging picture. He tells you about dumb questions, family matters and violence as porn.

Why did you become a director?

I have a son and a daughter. The son is 17 now and it's not at all clear what's going to happen to him in his life (he's very smart, he's got a range of options). But my daughter is ten and I can tell just based on everything she does and how she spends her time and her passions, that she's an artist. And I think that at a very young age, maybe not ten, but certainly 12 or 13, I was devoting every bit of my time to some kind of storytelling, whether it was writing, or working on some bit of theatre. It was clear that that was going to be my life. And I might have resisted that calling many times, but always I would come back to it. There seemed increasingly not even to be any question that this was inevitable.

If you weren't a filmmaker, what would you be?

I would think about teaching. I might have written non-fiction - biography, history. Something of an academic kind. It would have been somewhere in that area.

What other director would you like to see at work?

That's a wonderful question. To say [The Seven Samurai director, Akira] Kurosawa would be obvious, because his work has been so instructive to me before. I particularly admire Peter Weir. We had occasion to be dubbing next to each other on these two films [The Last Samurai and Master And Commander]. But you're not really watching a director work when he's dubbing.

The Seven Samurai

What your question reveals is just how self contained a director's world is. You tend not to learn to direct by watching other directors. You tend to reinvent filmmaking yourself. Actors go from one director to another and observe their process, but directors don't. Directors live in this world of their own devising. I've had occasion to produce for Steven Soderbergh [for Traffic] and I've watched him work. I've certainly been involved with other directors, but it would have been very interesting for me to see John Ford [The Searchers] and to see that kind of imperiousness, at a time when directors were a kind of despotic tyrant.

What was the last movie you paid to see?

I pay to see movies all the time. I paid to see American Splendor this year. I paid to see Lost In Translation. I paid to see Capturing The Friedmans and Spellbound. I go to the movies.

What was the last movie you walked out of?

God, I walk out all the time. My life is too short to sit there when I'm not in good hands, and I can tell that pretty quickly. I tend not to want to trash other people's work. It's hard enough to make any movie. Ironically it's just as hard to make a bad one as a good one, but it doesn't mean I have to sit there.

Do you believe in God?


Who's the most famous person in your contacts book?

Tom Cruise would not qualify, I suppose [because he's in The Last Samurai]? I'd have to think about that for a good while.

What's your favourite movie quote?

Favourite move quote? Let's see... I think it actually wouldn't be a quote. It might be a shot. The thing that comes to mind is Henry Fonda walking up the hill at the end of [John Ford's] Young Mr Lincoln. It's the most remarkable decision as to how to end a movie. I think it's a courtroom that he leaves, and he walks up a hill. And in the walking up a hill he assumes the mantle of responsibility for the rest of his life. It's just so brilliantly imagined and executed and yet utterly poetic, because it's not necessarily on story, it's a kind of apotheosis as he rises up.

I love screenwriters and screenwriting but I think finally great movies are never on the word. There is great dialogue in movies, but the things one takes away from movies are a set of images, a set of juxtapositions - something that somehow rises up beyond the story itself and lingers in your mind and in your imagination. I think that's where movies are quotable.

Which filmmaker do you consider the most underrated?

The Magnificent Seven (well, five of them)

You know, I've thought a lot about a group of directors in America. There's a man named John Sturges - The Magnificent Seven, The Great Escape, Bad Day At Black Rock. Just a wonderful storyteller who was quite humble, I think, not putting himself in front of the story, but as a teller of film story was hugely, hugely gifted. And others of his ilk: Sam Peckinpah and many others were of that moment. Certainly I think he's among the most underrated.

And overrated?

I could get in trouble there. I'm not a lover of those filmmakers who are as interested in themselves as they are in the stories they're telling. Who are self-conscious in this way. And I don't mean someone like Woody Allen, who I actually adore, because I think that as the subject of one's films, that's different. But I think to make one's technique the subjects of one's films is in fact boring. And I think you can probably extrapolate who I mean by that. But there are a few of them, now more than any other time, that I find tiresome.

What's the dumbest question you've ever been asked?

[Laughs] Did I choose a subject or a film because I imagined what its commercial potential might be? I think to look at the films that I've done and to come up with that question is pretty stupid. But you'd be surprised. Someone asked me, Did I think to do The Last Samurai because I realised that Japan was an important market for international film? I just literally thought they had to be kidding.

That's a question for Michael Bay.

That's right. You see, you can say that.

Do you believe in test screenings?

I believe in showing the movie early and often. I think there's definitely something to be gained, in the same way that one would show a play in previews. I believe when you've been in the bubble of a film for so long and you've gotten so close to it, there is that moment when you show it to an audience and you see it again for the first time and that's a gift. Because you see what they see, not what you've been obsessing about. Sometimes your concerns become too minute. Sometimes you've forgotten some issues. Whether that's clarity or logic.

Tom Cruise in The Last Samurai

Seeing it with a preview audience, you don't need to see the cards or speak to them afterwards. You know, as they see it, what's happening. So to that end it's very important. I've never re-shot an ending to tailor to an audience's response or done anything of that sort, but there have been many times when I've suddenly realised, Oh God, I assumed something that isn't true, or they're made desperately uncomfortable by a leap that I might have made. Any number of things can happen, so I do show it to an audience. Sometimes more, sometimes less. In this case [The Last Samurai], not that much. A couple of times.

How seriously do you take reviews?

They have to be thoughtful to be taken seriously. I think what's very interesting is there are any number of reviewers now who feel entitled to respond in some kind of very summary and grand way when they've not nearly devoted the kind of thought or attention to their piece as I did to mine. And that can be good or bad. I think that shoddy work is shoddy work. On the other hand when a review is really interesting, provocative, revealing, it doesn't have to be positive to be interesting.

The level of discourse, in many different aspects of our culture, has degraded. What I think is very interesting in reviews is this license that some reviewers have to be very personal about an actor (a director, a composer - doesn't matter), but not necessarily to understand the intentions, to acknowledge the ambition or the purpose of what someone's trying to accomplish. Rather to be utterly dismissive.

There is such latent rage in some reviewers. And I don't know if that's a factor of having to be forced to sit there in movie after movie after movie after movie, which has made someone feel passive, or whether it is the feeling that they, if given the opportunity, would be doing so much better. What I've understood criticism to be is to be a response, a dialogue between someone who looks at art and thinks about art, and the artist, but not an opportunity to prove one's cleverness or demonstrate one's vitriol. I don't see the purpose of that.

What's your biggest regret?

I don't have many personal regrets, quite honestly, but professionally... I think early in my career there were many times in which I was afraid to give voice to some things that were important and personal - I was hamstrung by convention. It would have been nice to have overthrown that at a younger age.

There are five minutes left till the world ends. What do you do?

I hope that I could have my friends close and my family closer.

What performer would you love to work with?

Daniel Day-Lewis in Gangs Of New York

There are so many. Meryl Streep, Daniel Day-Lewis, Philippe Noiret. That's a good start.

What film makes you want to spit?

[Laughs] Any film in which I can hear the meeting - of the filmmaker and the studio executives trying to cynically imagine its place in the culture. Whenever I see violence imagined as pornography I get upset. Whenever I see a relish of real cruelty. I'm not a fan of people's delight in holding the hand of an audience over the flame of their work.

What are your three favourite films and why?

Oh gee. One of my favourite films is a film by Bill Forsyth called Local Hero. It's a lovely movie. It's a film that feels like an improvisation. It captures something that I am utterly incapable of catching, which is a whimsy. It has this just delightful, cracked tone that just pleases me whenever I see it. It also has a score by Mark Knopfler that I could just listen to again and again. It's a great score.

It's A Wonderful Life

If I hadn't seen it so many times now, I would evoke It's A Wonderful Life, because [Frank] Capra's vision is in fact not sentimental, but just so dark. It has that sentimental turn at the end, but it's very, very grim.

Um, oh what's the name of it? It's a Ettore Scola movie... It has Vittorio Gassman in it... About people who are friends. It begins with a man diving into an empty swimming pool and it goes back. It has partisans in the war, in the 40s. We All Loved Each Other So Much! That's the title. Very meaningful. It has a great understanding of people over time and I think time is the element that film can actually do best with, but it's hardest to do.

The Last Samurai is released in UK cinemas on Friday 9th January 2004.

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