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
Omar P.L. Moore/The Popcorn Reel
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
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
"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
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
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.
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