Film director Edward Zwick on the set in Lithuania of his latest film "Defiance", starring Daniel Craig and Liev Schreiber.  (Photo: Paramount Vantage)

Edward Zwick, The Defiant One
By Omar P.L. Moore/The Popcorn Reel                         SHARE
January 28, 2009

SAN FRANCISCO -- As a filmmaker Edward Zwick has chronicled points of view of history.  Twenty years ago he depicted the trials and tribulations of the 54th Massachusetts Regiment of the North during the American Civil War in the film "Glory", the story of the first all-black regiment of soldiers as seen through the eyes of its white commander Robert Gould Shaw.  The film netted an Academy Award for Denzel Washington, his first.  In "The Last Samurai" the transition of the Japanese samurai to western ways with Tom Cruise as the bridge to the late 19th century.  And in "Blood Diamond", the diamond trade in Africa is rendered via the turmoil within African diamond worker played by Djimon Hounsou and the indifferent South African diamond hunter played by Leonardo DiCaprio.  Most recently Mr. Zwick has crafted "Defiance", a taut, visceral drama based on the true story of the Bielski brothers, the Jewish farmers who lost virtually their entire family, slaughtered in cold blood by the Nazis during World War Two.

"Defiance" is a smaller-scale, more intimate film from this Winnetka, Illinois-born director who has always taken on historical or current political stories and engineered them for the big screen.  "Defiance" recently opened theatrically in San Francisco and other U.S. cities after a New Year's Eve opening almost a month ago in Los Angeles and New York to qualify for the Academy Awards.  Daniel Craig and Liev Schreiber play the two volatile Bielski brothers Tuvia and Zus but together they have a common objective: revenge.  Blood in.  Blood out.

In late November Mr. Zwick was talking about having to go to Europe to get financing for this little-known true story.  It was only after the financing was secured overseas that American distributors came calling.  Paramount Vantage became the domestic suitor for "Defiance", a film Oscar-nominated last week for James Newton Howard's original music score.  Written by Mr. Zwick and Clayton Frohman, so far in its select North American theatrical release "Defiance" has made less than $20 million.  But numbers aren't everything -- the strength of story and acting in the film is.

In hearing this historical account of dogged persistence there is an incredulity -- that Edward Zwick, the accomplished producer and creator of the 1980's television series "thirtysomething" and director of what he termed "the Denzel trilogy" -- "Glory", "Courage Under Fire" and "The Siege" -- would have this much of an ordeal beforehand in gaining financing and then distribution in America for "Defiance".  Comparatively he had an easier time getting what he needed from surviving family members of the brothers profiled in his latest film.  "They gave us Tuvia's unpublished autobiography.  We met other survivors of this group," said Mr. Zwick, relaxing in a chair at the Ritz Carlton Hotel.

In finding a way to calibrate "Defiance", a story which took actually took place over a three-year period in Eastern Europe in the early 1940's, Mr. Zwick decided to pare the film into an assembly of the first year (circa 1941) of the struggle to survive in the forests of wilderness against the oncoming Nazis, who had murdered more than 4,000 Jewish people in the ghetto of Novogrudok, with Tuvia Bielski's wife and infant daughter fatal casualties among them.  The Bielski clan of resisters grew thanks to Tuvia's leadership, and many endangered members of Jewish communities joined the ranks to form a survivalist rebel army group, which included many women and younger children, to defend their surroundings against the Nazi German forces at all costs.  The Bielski Otriad became the largest partisan army force in WWII history, a group of more than 20,000, saving Jewish lives from certain extermination while taking German casualties in the process.  

Mr. Zwick said that he didn't want the Germans in his film to be the focal point as they so often are in World War Two dramas, and in "Defiance" they are off in the distance, an amorphous band of antagonists.  "To be hunted is not to see your hunter.  It's just to be experientially in the moment," the director said.  To those who may charge that Mr. Zwick utilizes expediency in crafting the film, "Defiance" does employ dramatic flourishes but "that to me is not a violation of history, it's a dramatization," he insisted.  The film itself isn't a seamless re-creation, for Mr. Zwick didn't want a documentary but a film that captured the essence of the experiences of those Jewish persons who fought back and triumphed in the toughest of circumstances.  "Defiance" co-screenwriter Clayton Frohman read the book by University of Connecticut Professor Emerita of Sociology Dr. Nechama Tec entitled Defiance: The Bielski Partisans, published in 1993, six years after Tuvia Bielski's death.  Mr. Frohman, moved by the accounts of survivors and in disbelief that the story had not been well-known, gave the book to his friend Mr. Zwick during a baseball game.  By the time Mr. Zwick read the book his mind was made up.  "Defiance" had to be made.  It took ten years. 

Filmed in Lithuania, the atmosphere for "Defiance" was no picnic -- just like the terror-stricken ordeals during the three-year-long fight more than sixty-years ago.  "The highest alcoholism rate, the highest suicide rate, the highest death-by-auto rate.  It's a very dreary place.  And the weather is dark, and it was cold and wet.  And the language was a problem," recalled Mr. Zwick.  That wasn't the only obstacle on the filmed location.

"And we actually had to find each other.  It's funny -- in a movie about community with people trying to find themselves -- we also did that as a company.  We had a talent show with a midpoint.  We had these group dinners.  You know, a lot of times we were just huddled around trying to keep warm.  We didn't have trailers to go to and be in because we were in the middle of the forest away from things.  It wasn't light 'till seven in the morning.  It got dark by four.  We didn't have lunch -- we ate like a running lunch.  It was a very intense experience."

While praising the ability of the British actors including Mr. Craig -- who wanted the lead role in "Blood Diamond" but Warner Brothers didn't -- and American actor Liev Schreiber to ably fit within an ensemble and sublimate themselves in service of an important historical film, Mr. Zwick, who has one or two unnamed projects on the horizon with producing partner Marshall Herskowitz, said that "the community is a character, more important even than any individual -- that is what the movie's about."

"Defiance" is now playing in select theaters in the U.S. and Canada.

The Popcorn Reel Film Review: "Defiance"

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