Blast had an opportunity to speak with “Defiance” director Ed Zwick in November. Now, from the voice recorder hidden in the bowels of entertainment editor Terri Schwartz’s car, the transcript of the interview finally emerges. Zwick discusses the lengthy process creating the film, how it was working with Daniel Craig and the true metaphors behind the film.
BLAST: You said you first came across the story of the [Bielski] brothers 12 years ago.
ED ZWICK: Yes.
BLAST: What was the process between then and now in creating the movie?
EZ: Well, we optioned the book, and then we, on our own, worked on a story from the book. An adaptation. We go a studio to pay us to write a script, and they then abandoned the process. We worked on it ourselves but, inevitably, life intercedes and making a living and the other things that catch your imagination. That included several other movies over those years. But each time, we would go back to it, think about it, try to find financing, not necessarily be able to, work on it. There was a significant amount of work that happened about three years ago when it occurred to me that there was a central flaw in what we were doing in the telling that involved trying to tell too much an it was about telescoping the beginning significantly and telescoping the end so as to intensify the fabric of it. That really helped. It sort of took on a new life and it somehow galvanized me to rededicate myself to trying to get it done. And I had gotten Daniel Craig. He had wanted to do “Blood Diamond” at a certain moment, and the studio was not interested in that. But I had met him and really liked him. I had liked his work before I had seen him in “Layer Cake” and “The Mother” and I had seen “Infamous;” these great roles. And it was only a matter of time before his gift became known, so that when I finished this draft, he was the first person I sent it to. And he read it and said he wanted to meet and we got together in London and had a six hour conversation that was terrific and really, by the end of which, it was clear to both of us that we wanted to do this thing. I had to secure the financing then. We had been rejected by every conventional means and again, with Daniel’s participation, were rejected again. So I found an independent financier who was willing to put up the money who then pre-sold some of the foreign rights to mitigate his own investment. And then we got a domestic distributor, which was Paramount Vantage, to distribute it.
BLAST: And that’s where we are today.
EZ: And, well, there was four months in Lithuania and some post-production.
BLAST: [“Defiance”] is very different than other World War II and Holocaust movies that are out there, just in the fact that you think “World War II” you think “D-Day” and you think of “The Holocaust” you think “concentration camps.” Was there a conscious decision to keep those aspects out of it?
EZ: They were not intrinsic to the experience of the story. I wanted the story to be very subjective: from the experience of these people, which means that the Germans themselves were at a distance. If they were close to you, it meant that you were dead. So therefore, they had to be at removed. Similarly the camps were, at that moment, nothing but a rumor, if that, so they couldn’t figure in the story. I really wanted to remain true to the circumstances and to their experience, and that defined the telling. It was about “the forest” and what happened in that forest became, metaphorically, a place of change and transformation, as it has been in literature from the Brothers Grimm to “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” It’s a place where people go to seek refuge but are changed by it.
BLAST: Did you ever meet with any of the [Bielski] brothers or any of the families?
EZ: The three oldest brothers in the story are dead, and were when we began. But their sons became very important to us and told the stories their father gave us, videotapes of their fathers that they had collected. We met others who had been in the brigade. They came to visit us. It turns out that they gave us access to an autobiography that Tuvia had written.
BLAST: Has that been published?
EZ: No, it is unpublished and it’s literarily very odd and stilted but it’s very interesting as a document. It has some of the Soviet party nomenclature in it. It has a very casual attitude toward violence. It contradicts itself at certain times. It’s very interesting.
BLAST: Not personally having known the story [of the Bielskis] before this movie, were there any creative liberties taken?
EZ: Definitely, in the composite of the other characters, and in the imagined dialogues between people. I mean, who knew what happened there really? And these conversations? There was a dialectic in the Nechama Tec book about the decision to seek revenge and the impulse to save others. That found its expression in these two characters [Tuvia and Zus Bielski], and that becomes the central metaphor of the story.
BLAST: There are a lot of metaphors in the whole Passover idea of [Tuvia] coming through as Moses and splitting the sea. What was the basis behind that decision, other than the obvious?
EZ: Besides my own artistic so-called interpretation, I felt that the metaphor was implicit. These two brothers, it evoked Moses and Aaron. These people wandering from one place to the next, it evoked the wilderness and the diaspora. I just thought that there was a real value to its epic nature to find those metaphorical parallels. When they were passing through the water [at the end of the film], that happens to be true but it’s remarkable.
BLAST: Was it true that [the passing through the water] occurred at Passover or was that a creative liberty?
EZ: No, I believe that the big attack did take place during Passover. I could be wrong, but I think that’s true. What’s surprising is that people who [don’t get the metaphors] go along anyway. We screened the movie in Westminster, Colorado where they may have heard of Jews but never seen one, and it played wonderfully, and people got it. They related to it as a story; a story of survival and of community and all the other parts of it. I mean, there is a special relationship that one has with a story if you imagine your relatives or yourself in that situation, so how could it not but be that? But it’s not necessary I hope.
BLAST: How was working with Daniel [Craig] and Liev [Schreiber]?
EZ: We had a great experience together. We really did. They’re both from theater. Daniel is a working-class British actor from theater, and Liev is one of the great lights of the American stage right now and has been for the past 15 years. So at some times they’re very similar, even though one of them has just happened to be vaulted into mega-stardom suddenly.
BLAST: Well, [Liev] is going to be the next Sabretooth.
EZ: Well he is in fact. I wanted him to send me a picture of himself wearing some big cat suit with whiskers or something like that, but he said they managed to avoid that. I said I wanted to see him in spandex.
BLAST: You should have managed to incorporate that into [“Defiance”] at some point.
EZ: It would have been good, don’t you think? At some point just a kind of a “Rawr.”
BLAST: Have the hair and the nails; I think it would have gone with the theme of the movie.
EZ: Well there was a whole Holocaust theme in the first X-men [comic books]. The genocide of the mutants and all of that. There was Jews, homosexuals, and mutants. That’s who was sent to the camps.
BLAST: So basically, “Defiance” is just a big metaphor for “X-men.”
EZ: [laughter] You’re right, it’s in reverse.
BLAST: Tell me a little bit about your background. Obviously you’ve been a big player in [Hollywood]. Tell me a bit about your history and where you started.
EZ: I started directing the theater when I went to college. I did not study theater. I directed in the theater because it was a great opportunity to direct. I studied literature and history and anthropology and science and everything but theater, and I think that was the best thing that ever could have happened to me. I wrote journalism while I was in school and for a year or so thereafter. Somehow both of those things found their expression in these movies: the theater and the journalism; the research of a subject or the immersion in a subject.
BLAST: Do you think that’s more important to being a director than necessarily going and studying for eight years?
EZ: In film? I do. I do. I mean, otherwise you’re just making movies about other movies, as opposed to knowing how to learn about the world or going out in the world and actually seeing what the world has to tell you and to holding the mirror up to the world.
BLAST: Your stories tell about aspect of history, like with “Glory” or with “Defiance” and “The Last Samurai.” They’re aspects of history that people might not necessarily have known about beforehand. Do you set out, when you make these movies, to educate people, or is it just topics that you find interesting?
EZ: First I find them interesting, and I do want to suit myself because, I can’t keep myself interested for two years, how can I expect people interested for two hours? I think that’s for sure. But, there’s nothing wrong with people learning something while they’re being entertained. I think that’s one of the ways we actually learn most of what we learn. Even this presidential election, you saw both candidates trying to present themselves as a narrative. They understood that that was the way of communicating their story; their beliefs were somehow tied up in their narrative. And I think narrative is the way that people open themselves to learning as opposed to through the more rigorous, clearly academic process.
BLAST: What do you have next in line? Are you going to keep with the theme of “Blood Diamond” and “Defiance,” or are you going to make the next “Superbad”?
EZ: Well that would be good. Yeah, I liked “Superbad.” I wonder, what would it become? “Super…..”
BLAST: An adult version.
EZ: Yeah, I waited and I missed it. [laughter] I never really can predict. I just really tend to immerse myself. And then it’s done. And then I look around and I’m convinced I’ll never think of anything else and I’ll never get to make another movie.
BLAST: Which clearly is what’s been happening to you for a while ago.
EZ: It’s going to happen someday. [laughter]
BLAST: Nothing’s got your mind?
EZ: It’s a lot of head scratching, yeah.
BLAST: How long did it take you to film the movie, when you were in Lithuania?
EZ: Pretty fast: 60 shooting days. That’s about 12 weeks, or 10 weeks with six day weeks. It was a tough schedule and we were very far north and it was very cold and very wet. It didn’t get light until 7:30 in the morning and then it got dark by 4:30. It was a hard thing.
BLAST: Did you actually manage to film during winter?
EZ: Oh sure. We went all the way into real snow. Sometimes we filled it in with fake, but when you’re trying to load an automatic weapon in freezing conditions […] you’re just trying to get it done, and it looks great on film. The breath is real, and the shivering is real, and the faces are blue and the teeth are chattering. That’s a good thing. By the way, people suggested we film [in America], but those faces, the faces of the extras, you just can’t find them. They’re from Eastern Europe. That’s who they are.
BLAST: What kind of preparation did the actors have to go through for the film?
EZ: Weapons training, certainly. Dialect work. A lot of research. Russian. Daniel and Liev had to really learn how to speak Russian.
BLAST: The movie is obviously a very sensitive and emotional subject. Was that hard at all on the set for actors to cope with it or for you to cope with it?
EZ: You know, you’d think that, but in fact, when you’re doing something that you believe in or that has meaning, it never feels hard. I think what’s hard is when you’re doing something that’s cynical and you feel a little shabby and that you’re giving yourself away. I think that’s much harder.