Mr. Beaks Talks DEFIANCE With Ed Zwick!
Midway through my interview with Ed Zwick, the DEFIANCE writer-director hit me with this frightening conundrum:
"As newspapers are falling left and right, and peoples' interest in reading source material and history of that sort seems to be less than ever it has been, for better or worse some of these films are going to exist in lieu of a permanent record."
So when historical fiction becomes history, film the fiction as history?
It's a more controversial notion than any contained within Zwick's latest, a tough-minded but ultimately uplifting dramatization of Jewish resistance during World War II. DEFIANCE stars Daniel Craig as Tuvia Bielski, the eldest of a rough-and-tumble Polish clan which fled to the forests of Belarus and took up arms against the Nazis. Initially motivated by revenge for the murder of their parents, the Bielski brothers - including the bull-headed Zus (Liev Schreiber) and the younger, more sensitive Aron (Jamie Bell) - quickly found themselves charged with the protection of a growing number of refugee Jews, who gradually formed a tight-knit community which endured until the end of the war.
Zwick has long been fascinated by the paradox of morally motivated violence, so I thought it might be worthwhile to begin our conversation comparing DEFIANCE to the thematically similar GLORY. This led us into a more general discussion of his work, which has been both praised and derided for its forthright consideration of societal ills. I've long heard that Zwick is one of the more engaging and intellectually stimulating interviews out there, so I was not surprised that we effortlessly covered so many disparate subjects over the course of our twenty minutes together. In the below Q&A, we discuss DEFIANCE, GLORY, his storytelling philosophy, his post-9/11 thoughts on THE SIEGE, the recent passing of his mentor, Nina Foch, and more. (I wish I could've got more on a new DVD release for SPECIAL BULLETIN, but this seemed like one subject that didn't interest him.)
Mr. Beaks: One thing that immediately struck me about DEFIANCE is that it feels like a companion piece to GLORY.
Ed Zwick: I think you're not wrong.
Beaks: In that it is about oppressed people, who have historically been considered victims, standing up for themselves. This is obviously a theme that appeals to you.
Zwick: Sure. I couldn't have invented it. In other words, having done one movie long ago, it wasn't as if I was always looking to find it. But when it appeared, I suspect it appealed to that same impulse. There are certain differences, obviously, and there were very different obstacles. The resistance of the Jews has to do with overcoming the facts of an orchestrated campaign systemically perpetrated. What was interesting to me was that there was a very significant difference between passivity and powerlessness. In other words, passivity is a psychological state in which one accepts meekly what happened, whereas powerless suggests something altogether different. They were a stateless people. They had no access to weapons. Their neighbors were hostile, in that the local police collaborated and that they faced this campaign. And yet what one finds is that it had as much to do with opportunity as anything else. In other words, in an urban setting, it's very hard to hide. But when you look at a map as to where resistance took place - and it took place everywhere in Europe - it had to do with the natural world: the forest of Bialystok in Poland, the forest of Lithuania, the forest of the Ukraine, the forest of Belarus.
But the other part about GLORY that I think is very interesting is that the story of GLORY in 1863 was, when it took place, one of the most famous stories in America. It was celebrated particularly in the North, where the abolitionist movement was so central. But as time when on, and as industrialization came, and as the issue of the African American became problematic in the north, and as racism found its way into Boston, that story fell into disrepair. There had been streets named after the 54th Massachusetts soldiers, and there had been schools named after them. And yet by the time I got to it, it was just a statue on the Boston Common that I walked past everyday when I was in college, and didn't even notice. I didn't even know because it wasn't in any of the history books that I had read. Why is that? How does a story go from being central to the popular imagination to becoming inconvenient to the historical record.
That's interesting to apply to [DEFIANCE], too. What is it about this story that would've prevented it from being more generally known. I found out about it when an enterprising reporter for The New York Times went and heard about this in Brooklyn when Tuvia Bielski died. He got the story. It was there to be mined, and yet no one had celebrated it. Why? You can speculate. The Jewish culture has devoted an extraordinary amount of time and energy, and rightly so, to memorializing the six million who died. It's possible that, in doing so, they've inadvertently shut out the light from shining on those who lived and survived and how. Additionally, those people who did survive - as many in my experience are like who've gone through traumatic events - are very loath to talk about it - whether that's survival guilt or shame at having done things of which they're not necessarily proud. It's generational, too: Vietnam vets and World War II vets tend not to be rhetorical.
In any event, the analogies are very interesting in terms of the use of history - and so, too, by the way, the state of Israel. Its role in the popular imagination may have been something in which the image of the militant Jew was controversial in some way. I can't speculate which one of those things was more important, but altogether they become an interesting question.
Beaks: It's surprising that the Jewish militants never picked up on this story as inspiration.
Zwick: That's right. Not from that side either.
Beaks: You also make a really interesting decision early on in the film. The first act of violence is a brutal, drawn-out execution. And while it's motivated by a desire for justice, it's not terribly satisfying - for the audience or Tuvia. Why did you stage it like that?
Zwick: It was important for me not pull punches. It was important for me to not sentimentalize or romanticize who these guys were or what they did. That's the interesting part of the story: [the Bielskis] had within them this level of violence, and yet found compassion and the resources, emotionally, to extend themselves beyond that. I can't help but think of that quote from Auden's poem, "September 1, 1939". It says, "I and the public know/What all schoolchildren learn/Those to whom evil is done/Do evil in return." They are victims, and yet they at times express themselves in a way not unlike those who torment them. I felt that they did what they had to do so as to accomplish what they accomplished. That's the story. It's not only about righteousness. It's about something that is conflictual. Maybe that accounts for why they then didn't want to celebrate themselves after the fact.
Beaks: It seems like they were mostly interested in self-preservation at first. The morality of their undertaking sort of snuck up on them.
Zwick: I think one thing the movie suggests is that there's a civilizing influence of community and women. Love seems to have that effect sometimes.
Beaks: Most of your films address social ills in a very forthright manner. It's a very difficult thing to do. On one hand, people might say that you're addressing them directly and without nuance, and that there's a tendency to get a little heavy handed. As you're approaching the material, how do balance the need to address these issues with the need to simply tell a good story?
Zwick: When it's working best, it's when the characters intrinsically inhabit some space where their behavior is coming out of some personal motivation and not in the service of some larger idea. I think... you hope that the larger ideas resonate out of the personal interactions. When we were doing BLOOD DIAMOND, it was that this was a man looking for his son. The fact that this would lead you into the world of child soldiers comes about because of his very personal motivation. Obviously, the world of child soldiers is a very provocative idea that has all sorts of connotations socially and politically.
In this case, these men trying to survive is the armature of the movie. On the other hand, you look at some magnificent movie like LAWRENCE OF ARABIA, where this very personal, very eccentric journey of this character - and a very ambivalent journey - is nonetheless juxtaposed to the investment in the struggle of a people and the inequities of that moment historically. When it's working, they vibrate; the tensions resonate back and forth. The personal story seems to be affected by the grander story and vice versa - if it feels organic. When it stops feeling organic, when you start to sense the hand of polemic intention, then you've fallen off the razor's edge.
Beaks: A filmmaker who always struggled with this was Stanley Kramer. After a while, his films were only social problem pictures. They were only about making society better. They weren't about people.
Zwick: And by the way, we all have a lot of idealistic friends whom we admire for trying to make society better, who work for NGOs and who devote their lives to any number of things. It's a bit cynical to knock the impulse to try to improve society. I just think that the first god you're servicing is the god of story and narrative. On the other hand, narrative is the way we, for better or worse, learn about the political world. As newspapers are falling left and right, and peoples' interest in reading source material and history of that sort seems to be less than ever it has been, for better or worse some of these films are going to exist in lieu of a permanent record. Somebody has got to try to hold the mirror up to show us ourselves.
Beaks: But, wow, that's kind of dangerous when you think of films as educational. No matter how well-intentioned. I mean, I love MALCOLM X, but I'd never want that to take the place of the historical record. The same goes for GLORY.
Zwick: Absolutely. Film is necessarily reductionist: it compresses and it editorializes. But that's true of documentaries, too. Every time you juxtapose two images, you're making a political choice. And by the way, so, too, is a lot of revisionist history.
You know what I think? I think, finally, it's a lot about the iconography. Twenty years later, GLORY exists in a few salient images: a black man in a Union blue uniform charging up a hill. That countermands a lot of other images that have been front and center in the culture - and I don't think it entirely countermands it, but it at least attempts some kind of redress of that. Similarly, what a film can do is it can put those images out there, and they aggregate with any number of other images perhaps to become something of meaning. At best, it's a goad to people to want to learn more or look more closely at something they might've presumed to know.
Beaks: One of your most prescient films, unfortunately, is THE SIEGE. When it came out, it was a flashpoint for controversy.
Zwick: It was pilloried in a world of political correctness.
Beaks: And yet those images of tanks rolling over the bridges... I lived in Williamsburg, Brooklyn when 9/11 occurred, and, sure enough, I could walk out my apartment and find armed soldiers mulling about the neighborhood. Obviously, you don't want to say, "Hey, I was right!" But do you feel like you weren't taken seriously?
Zwick: I don't think it's about "serious". Look, our capacity for denial as a nation is pretty well documented - never more so than in these last eight years. And the fact that there would be a lot of denial about what might befall us, one need only have looked at what was going on in Europe at that moment and to have seen what the intelligence services and the security services of France and England and Germany and all of those places were already dealing with. People forget, the World Trade Center had been bombed two years before I made [THE SIEGE], and but for an inadequate preparation and the corresponding plots that had gone with it - where they were trying to blow up the Hudson Tunnel and whatever else - it didn't take a genius to listen to what some of the minds in this country were already talking about. And to that end, I spoke to people in the DoD, in the Justice Department, in the F.B.I. and the C.I.A., and... I was just paying attention. My leap of imagination was to try to speculate on our response. And that's where it got sticky. Because I suggested that people might be brought into a stadium for a night or two. My imagination was limited. I could never have imagined nine years of Guantanamo or the Homeland Security Act... or all of those things that have been much larger reactions than I could've imagined. That's what we try to do at times, is to look slightly ahead of the curve of history and do as best we can. I think what happened reveals as much the limits of my imagination as it does the prescience.
Beaks: (Getting the "wrap-it-up" signal from Zwick's publicist.) Okay. Thinking time-wise what I want to touch on. (Zwick laughs) Nina Foch.
Zwick: Aw. Did you know her?
Beaks: Only through her work.
Zwick: She was one of those extraordinary teachers who really had a very profound impact on so many people. She was part of the connective tissue that is rapidly breaking between us in the modern context and the studio context. She came here as a contract player, she assisted George Stevens, she was in several of his movies, she was in the noir genre, she had been a friend of Uta Hagen and Stella Adler... she really was a bridge between the 30s and 40s and the contemporary moment. She's one of those people who really shook up your categories, who really threw the challenge to you to look at who you were and how you invested in the things that you did. I was just on the phone with a guy named Chris Terrio, a great young screenwriter who saw her for a few years at AFI. She touched a lot of us. I saw her very recently. She came to see [DEFIANCE], and we had dinner afterwards. I'm glad that I at least had one more moment with her.
Beaks: It's said that she could've been one of the first significant female directors.
Zwick: Would've been. Undoubtedly. But it was a very different world. She worked with Stevens on THE DIARY OF ANNE FRANK. She worked with him a few times. And what she taught is not just acting but directing the actor. That's been something that I've had benefit of, and really has helped me towards some of the performances I've been able to elicit over time.
Beaks: It's an art that film directors find hard to grasp.
Beaks: A very early film of yours that I loved when it was first broadcast is SPECIAL REPORT.
Zwick: SPECIAL BULLETIN.
Beaks: Of course. I completely misspoke there.
Zwick: That's okay.
Beaks: But I remember very vividly watching that as a child. It was so frightening because it worked so well as a fake news broadcast. It would be nice to get a DVD release one of these days.
Zwick: It was available for a while. It's very odd to have now done this for twenty years and to think that there were maybe pieces of work that you do that may not endure. On the other hand, what you do learn is that it's not about the opening weekend or the critical reviews or the awards; it's only about time. And those things that do endure are the ones that finally matter. The true measure comes then and only then. Only now after these many years have I come to understand that.
Beaks: You've worked with some great cinematographers: Eduardo Serra on DEFIANCE, but also John Toll and Roger Deakins. Do you pursue these guys, or is there a mutual respect and a desire to collaborate on one project or another?
Zwick: It's like casting. You have an eye for someone. John and I worked together long before he was illustrious, and Roger was still at the beginning of his career. Eduardo already had had a certain esteem, but he's so unpretentious and so interested in material that it's the same allure for him as it is to an actor. It gets a little bit easier once you have a body of work that the other person can look toward, but those guys are your partners; they're telling the story with you, and you want that kind of collaboration.
Beaks: Do you think you might work on something smaller in scope again? Maybe a romantic comedy?
Zwick: The funny thing is, TV had always filled that space for me. That's what THIRTYSOMETHING and MY SO-CALLED LIFE had been. I'd always been able to have that expressed. We haven't done it in a little bit of time, and it's led me to now want to do that. The first movie was in that world, ABOUT LAST NIGHT..., but I think now that it's been a few years since I've done this on TV, I actually do have the appetite for that. And I may.
DEFIANCE opens in limited release on December 31st. It will expand nationwide on January 16th.
Mr. Beaks: One thing that immediately struck me about DEFIANCE is that it feels like a companion piece to GLORY.
Readers Talkbackcomments powered by Disqus
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Dec. 30, 2008, 2:15 p.m. CST
That other thread cracked me the hell up.
Dec. 30, 2008, 2:19 p.m. CST
If this was the Interview Wars, Capone would be Rambo.
Dec. 30, 2008, 2:27 p.m. CST
by IndyAbbey Jones
best of 08..yep i said it
Dec. 30, 2008, 2:35 p.m. CST
Or the fourth brother, scammer, thief and kidnapper? (http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2007/oct/14/usa.secondworldwar) <p> <p> Oops, I guess not. That was saved for the sequel, I'm sure. Right? Right?
Dec. 30, 2008, 2:41 p.m. CST
by Lord John Whorfin
Beaks, you should ask yourself this question before posting an article. If not, and with you, it hardly ever is, then post it on Collider.
Dec. 30, 2008, 2:56 p.m. CST
by Lord John Whorfin
has a Mr. Beaks article ever showed up in the Top Talkbacks list on the right? I doubt it.
Dec. 30, 2008, 3:30 p.m. CST
Did have the balls to ask Zwick why he white washed history and compromised the dramatic possibilities of his story so that he could appeal to Jewish voters at the academy?
Dec. 30, 2008, 3:38 p.m. CST
some of enjoy reading thog
Dec. 30, 2008, 3:40 p.m. CST
i don't know what thog is.<p> some of us enjoy reading thoughtful conversations about film and art. thanks.
Dec. 30, 2008, 4:16 p.m. CST
Fucking eh let's see even more sad old ww2 holocaust related film. Go Jews! Whoohoo.
Dec. 30, 2008, 4:30 p.m. CST
Dec. 30, 2008, 4:47 p.m. CST
One of the best movies of all time.
Dec. 30, 2008, 4:55 p.m. CST
You people disappoint me. (except for the "thog" guy. you're all right)
Dec. 30, 2008, 5:46 p.m. CST
by hank quinlan
But I saw Defiance and it's not very good. Old fashioned and silly. It's clear For Whom The Bell Tolls (the movie) was a big influence and that's about the level it's on. Boring, disjointed, and simplistic. At one point, Daniel Craig gives a big speech to the new Jews in the camp...while riding a white horse. That's the level it's on. I was sort of shocked someone as smart and accomplished as Zwick made such a lame script. His socially conscious action epics get a tad heavy handed and unwieldy but are usually fun, creamy Hollywood entertainment (which I dig). Skip this one...
Dec. 30, 2008, 6:51 p.m. CST
The 9/11 commission cited a "failure of imagination" when it cam to forseeing the 9/11 attacks. This, combined with the notion that our government in particular is all seeing and at times powerful on almost a metaphysical scale is why I put very little stock into Zwick's talk on "denial". His protagonist FBI agent, played by Denzel Washington in The Siege at one point lectures the CIA operative that they wouldn't have the "boogeyman" of the Soviet Union to bandy about any more. I am keen to ask Mr. Zwick if he's read the declassified Vernona files and wants to call a few hundred spies littering our government in the 50's a "boogeyman". As for Defiance, my one sole hope is that it does not indulge in the same hopelessly splitting of moral difference engaged in films like Munich.
Dec. 30, 2008, 7:32 p.m. CST
by Grammaton Cleric Binks
Seriously, the resistance fighters of the Warsaw Ghetto come to mind. And I have two words for you: Krav Maga. You don't mess with Israeli Special Forces.
Dec. 30, 2008, 8:37 p.m. CST
I guess we can take equal enjoyment in similar, real events of the past too.
Dec. 31, 2008, 7:17 p.m. CST
First off, ANOTHER film about WWII and the Holocaust?! I'm of the school that the subject matter doesn't matter as much as the story and execution except in this case because Jesus H. Christ on crack cocaine we've seen this topic covered to death already! The story is fairly pedestrian and seriously is there no other topic out there for historical period pieces. Hell, back in the day (1950s/60s), they managed to do every time period from the ancients to WW1 as well 2, but now it's just WW2 and the Holocaust over and over again. We get it, it was a terrible event, but so was Genghis Khan who killed more people (and more brutally), Stalin, Mao, etc. etc. I've said it before and I'll say it again, why no movie about that other group the Nazis went after the Roma (Gypsies)? They were pretty much victims of a Holocaust of their own and are still discriminated against in much of Europe. IF there is even to be a retread of this well worn topic. And right after Valkyrie too! I'm boycotting and I'll watch this maybe on cable TV 2 years from now if it gets rave reviews.
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