If not for a chance encounter with Woody Allen in Paris, Edward Zwick, a Harvard grad who studied playwriting and directing, would now likely be crafting works for the stage instead of the screen.


 

If not for a chance encounter with Woody Allen in Paris, Edward Zwick, a Harvard grad who studied playwriting and directing, would now likely be crafting works for the stage instead of the screen.

“I was in Paris on a fellowship,” Zwick says. “Woody was there making ‘Love and Death,’ and I saw him walking down the street one day. This was before the cult [around him]. I walked up to him, introduced myself and said I wasn’t a stalker, and I asked if I could hang out on the set because I was interested in film. He said, ‘Sure, call me at my hotel.’ So I did, and he was very generous and invited me to come. Because I spoke French, they gave me a job — holding a walkie-talkie out on the rain, or whatever they wanted me to do. But I got to watch, and I asked questions and he suffered me in that way. I suddenly realized, maybe instead of going to New York and working for the Public Theater as I intended, I would go to California and look into this film thing. So I did.”

Zwick’s resulting filmmaking career includes producing “Shakespeare in Love” and “Traffic,” and directing  “Glory,” “Legends of the Fall,” “Blood Diamond” and his newest, “Defiance,” a Holocaust resistance tale.

It’s the based-on-fact story of Zus and Tuvia Bielski, Polish brothers who during World War II managed to save themselves as well as what grew into a community of other Jews by hiding from and fighting off Nazis in the forests of Belarussia.

Zwick first heard of the Bielskis when a friend sent him an obituary about Zus from the New York Times.

“Some enterprising reporter had talked to the family and uncovered this story,” Zwick says. “It was known within a community in Brooklyn, but it wasn’t generally known. That obituary led us to the book ‘Defiance: The Bielski Partisans,’ by Nechama Tec.”

The film opens this week. Zwick read that obituary about 12 years ago.

“We got the rights to the book and discovered pretty quickly that nobody really wanted to make this movie,” he says. “But we kept working on it. I would go off and make another movie because I had to make a living, and then we’d return to it.”

Zwick recalls that about two years ago, he had a eureka moment — a whole new way to rewrite the script came to him and, along with it, the idea to cast Daniel Craig, fresh off his huge success as the new James Bond, in the role of older brother Tuvia.

“I sent Daniel the script,” Zwick says. “Then I was on my way to Tokyo, and when I arrived, I got word that he had read it and wanted to meet. So I just kept flying. I flew around the world to London and sat with him in a hotel room, and we had a six-hour conversation, at the end of which we decided that we wanted to do this together. I found an independent financier, and we were shooting three months later.”

Zwick believes that much of the film’s strength is in the acting, and of the chemistry that came about after he cast Liev Schreiber as Tuvia’s younger brother Zus.

“Daniel is a working-class British actor who just happened to become a movie star,” he says. “And Liev is a star of the theater who in this film is given an opportunity to demonstrate to the greater populace what those who have seen him on the New York stage already know. But they speak the same language, and they would work with each other. They understood the need to have a kind of sibling rivalry, and their strengths competed in this nice way to combust and create this relationship.”

Zwick admits that one reason he wanted to direct the film was to correct a misimpression about the Holocaust.

“The impression is that there was only a kind of passivity and victimization,” he says, and there’s some frustration in his voice. “Of course, there was that, but there was also this very vivid, very strong impulse to resist. In most cases, it was thwarted, but in this case, these brothers, however reluctantly, found a way not just to keep themselves alive, but eventually to create the greatest act of rescue of Jews, by Jews, in history. They went to the forest, they fought the Nazis, they created this community, and they survived for three years and walked out of the forest with 1,200 people. It’s a remarkable story, a very moving, inspiring story.”

“Defiance” opens Jan. 16.

Ed Symkus can be reached at esymkus@cnc.com.