Hits, flops and other illusions
By Ed Zwick
Gallery books, 304 pages, $29
Ed Zwick opens Hits, flops and other illusions, his engaging and panoramic memoir of some forty years as a writer and director for television and film, poking fun at himself and the paradox inherent in this profession.
Here he is, a mere mortal behind the camera, watching the drama of gods and goddesses… then launching into a shitstorm where he pretends to tell everyone what they're doing wrong. He imagines himself as a mensch, he writes. But he knows he's just Ahab in a baseball cap who wants what he wants and wants it now.
Zwick's tone is self-aware and funny, using humor to approximate serious and, at times, profound observations about directing, acting, and evolution or is it decentralization? of Hollywood between the years of The Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) and Wonder Woman (2017).
While other directors concocted fantasies about superheroes and superheroines, Zwick pursued humanistic dramas (and sometimes comedies) inspired by real-life heroes. For example, the African American unit that fought Confederate soldiers in his Civil War epic Glory. And Nazi-killing Jews hiding in Belarusian forest in WWII thriller Challenge. And the Big Pharma peddlers peddling Viagra Love and other drugs.
Zwick was the guy who saw possibilities in Marc Norman's satirical script Shakespeare in Love, and recruited Tom Stoppard to amp up the humor and poignancy. This prompted Julia Roberts, then 23, to come on board before abruptly leaving the ship. After spending $6 million on pre-production, the studio was unable to find a profitable replacement. Harvey Weinstein acquired the property and removed Zwick from the director's position. Fortunately, the now-disgraced mogul couldn't strip Zwick of his producer credit. Thus, it won the Academy Award for Best Picture. It's worth noting that as Hollywood blockbusters grew to colossal proportions, Zwick's films remained human-scale.
From his first triumph in episodic television (with longtime partner Marshall Herskovitz) through films such as Autumn legends And Love and other drugs, he balanced his interest in group dynamics with the place of the individual within the group. In other words, he specialized in adult films. A bonus feature of the memoir is found at the end of almost every chapter: there is an informative and entertaining list of the wisdom Zwick has gleaned over the years.
Writing a screenplay is one thing. Bringing it to life is another. Here Zwick's book distinguishes itself from Adventures in screen business, by William Goldman who wrote from the perspective of a screenwriter who believed that the screenplay was sacrosanct. He attacked the directors, ungratefully accusing them of being script killers. Zwick writes from the consciousness of the two writers And director, immensely grateful for what the actors, crew members and happy accidents bring to the game.
He is used to creating recognizable situations and dialogues in his scripts and displaying them on screen. And he's the first to admit that sometimes his best scenes come from a serendipitous moment on set.
Take Glory, the first of three films he made with Denzel Washington. With Washington and Morgan Freeman on set, Zwick recalls, the actors discovered implications and nuances that Zwick the writer had overlooked.
Sometimes, Zwick discovered, remaining silent is the best direction to take.
Or, take the example of Courage under fire, where Meg Ryan plays Gulf War medevac officer Captain Walden. While rehearsing the role of the squad leader, fatally shot during a rescue mission, a crew member begs her to lie down. Gritting his teeth, Ryan improvised, I gave birth to a nine-pound baby, asshole! I think I can handle it! Zwick immediately incorporated this line into the script.
Directing Tom Cruise in The last Samourai, Zwick acknowledged that sometimes the best direction is bad direction. He wanted Cruise to be more emotionally revealing. He didn't want Cruise to try for something to happen, he wanted it to happen. As the sun set and Zwick worried about losing the available light, he turned to the actor. Tell me about your son, he said, which turned out to be the key to unlocking the stars' vulnerability. Zwick saw Cruise looking inside as a window seemed to open and his eyes softened.
Love and other drugs, which got the nod the same day Zwick was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin's lymphoma, might have been a case of a storyline too close to home. The film about a pharmaceutical salesman (Jake Gyllenhaal) infatuated with an artist battling early-onset Parkinson's disease (Anne Hathaway) reflects both the negative and positive sides of the pharmaceutical complex.
Each actor first encountered an emotional scene during the film's finale. Gyllenhaal delivered his dialogue first, and it was Hathaways' tears off camera that helped him find his feet. When it was Hathaway's turn for a close-up, she couldn't cry. After a few failed attempts, Zwick put his arms around her. He reassured her that she was great in the movie and that there was absolutely no reason to cry in that scene. Instantly, she burst into tears and Zwick called Action. Steering by mistake, instinct or chance?
Zwick is neither a talker nor a score-settler. However, his memoirs are not lacking in substance. Consider two scenes from the filming of Blood diamond, on the civil war in Sierra Leone in the late 1990s.
When the production, starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Djimon Hounsou and Jennifer Connelly, left the small village in Mozambique where they had filmed some scenes, Zwick was surprised by the sight of large earth-moving machines. Someone had dug a new well. Convinced that each location should be left in a better condition than the production found, DiCaprio discreetly arranged it.
But, rather than proposing the actor for canonization, Zwick tells a contrasting anecdote. One morning, the director entered the makeup trailer to discuss the day's work with his actors. DiCaprio flipped through a Victoria's Secret catalog while the performers prepared Connelly for the camera. Surprised by his readings of male stars, Zwick asked what DiCaprio was doing, then among girlfriends.Purchases, Connelly deadpans.
Blood Diamond made a profit of $40 million. Over lunch, studio head Alan Horn told Zwick that he loved the film but that it would be the last of its kind the studio would make. $40 million doesn't move the stock price, Horn said.
I understood that there are four ways to measure a film and that the first three don't count, he writes. The box office is a false accounting, the reviews no longer matter and the awards are forgotten within a few days. Time is the only measure.
By Zwick's own metric and the longevity of so many of his films, time is on his side.
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