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Tales of Filmmaking From Edward Zwick

posted by Jason Kottke   Apr 11, 2022

On his Twitter account, filmmaker Edward Zwick (Glory, Legends of the Fall, The Last Samurai) is writing these amazing short threads on the films that he’s made and the lessons he’s learned, many of them celebrating actors he’s worked with (these are my favorites). Here are some selections from some of the threads.

Daniel Craig:

The Fates can kiss or kill. I’d been working on Defiance, off and on, for ten years. Daniel read the script the night it arrived as he sat in bed and wrote back the next day to say yes. I was floored. It was only the first of many times he would astonish me.

Daniel simply said he was moved by the script. I later learned that his grandfather was among the first British soldiers to enter the camps at Bergen-Belsen. I found this out from Dan’s girlfriend; it would have been unlike Daniel to talk about himself.

We shot in freezing rain and snow. Our forest set was miles from base camp and Dan never set foot in his trailer. When I once dared compliment him at the end of a scene, he looked perplexed, “Not hard to act cold when you’re freezing your nuts off,” he said.

Movie fashion:

Anthea Sylbert tried two hundred jackets on Warren Beatty before finding one sexy enough for SHAMPOO. Imagine Anna Taylor-Joy’s character without outfits evoking chess pieces in The Queen’s Gambit? The costumer doesn’t dress actors, she clothes the movie.

Getting personal:

All good writing is personal. That doesn’t mean autobiographical. Whether a period piece or a sci-fi space opera, characters aren’t created, they pre-exist and must be found within you. Imagine yourself as a sinner or a saint and you’ll find their voices.

Why write something personal when the studios want superheroes? The secrets you think are yours alone are the ones people will respond to. Ask yourself, what is my own story about? What is it REALLY about? And why the fuck should anyone care?

Matt Damon’s first big role:

During rehearsals, I kept Matt and the others apart from Denzel Washington, whose interrogation of them drives the plot. As fate would have it, his first day of shooting was scheduled opposite Denzel. And his close-up was up first.

You can tell something special is happening on set by watching the crew. Even the dolly grip, who had made hundreds of movies, was paying attention. As the two actors began to work, it was as if a spell had been cast over the set…

As we finished Matt’s coverage, Denzel caught my eye and nodded approvingly. Later, he took me aside. “Who is the kid?” he asked? I told him it was Matt’s first big role. “Damn,” he said, “Better get my game on. He almost blew me off the screen.”

The house that Apocalypse Now built:

Joe was cast as the Sergeant who brings a drunk Martin Sheen his orders and throws him into the shower. It was the most exciting day of Joe’s life. Shooting went slowly and they planned to finish the scene the next day. That night, though, Sheen had a heart attack.

They sent Joe home, promising to bring him back when Sheen recovered. But Joe had been hired as a day player rather than on a ‘drop-and-pick-up’ so they were obliged to keep him on salary. Every producer’s nightmare was Joe’s dream. Then the Hurricane hit.

Anne Hathaway and crying on cue:

I asked Jake Gyllenhaal to go first. He was every bit as anxious but agreed without hesitation. As we rolled, though, it just wasn’t happening and he knew it. Off-camera, Anne could see he was having trouble and realized he needed help.

It’s impossible to exaggerate how much one actor’s work influences another’s. But as Jake found the magic and his performance blossomed, I happened to glance off-camera and saw Anne’s face wet with tears. She was giving herself to him completely.

Some of the threads are a series of blind items, slices of life about the movie biz. Like:

The lead actor wouldn’t take direction. His co-star sensed disaster. She begged him to help her run lines each morning, during which she would subtly direct the scenes. The stellar reviews credited the director with eliciting great performances from them both.

What happens in season 3 of a TV show?:

You’ve worn out the various permutations of relationships among the principal cast. Do you… a) go around once more? B) kill off a character? C) introduce a new lead? Why not surprise them and break the mold. Remember, The Wire was reinvented every year.

Working with Brad Pitt:

At times our disagreements erupted. We yelled, swore, threw chairs. The crew would walk away and let us have it out. But after each blow up, we’d make up and mean it. It was never personal; Brad’s a good guy. The movie we made reflects our passion.

Brad wasn’t pleased with my cut. He felt I’d underplayed the character’s madness. He was also unhappy when People Magazine named him Sexiest Man of the Year. After we were both nominated (and lost) at the Golden Globes, Brad and I didn’t speak for a year.

There can be only one:

When Zemeckis was directing Used Cars, Spielberg started to take over. Kurt Russell told him, ‘I can take direction from you or I can take direction from Bob. I don’t care who, but it can only be one of you.’ Spielberg apologized. He didn’t on Poltergeist, though.

Ahead of schedule:

By lunch on Welles’ first day the studio was angry he hadn’t gotten a shot. By 3 they were apoplectic. Minutes before wrap they were about to fire him when he called action. The 7 minute opening shot of Touch Of Evil is genius. “Cut!” he yelled. “We’re 3 days ahead!”

Jim Belushi:

As we stood on the platform shouting ‘Fuck You, No, Fuck You’ the train sped off for another loop. With it went the crew. I remember the producer’s horrified face pressed against the window as they disappeared. The deserted platform was suddenly quiet.

After a few more fuck you’s we were running out of dialogue. Suddenly I heard myself say, “Jim… I’m scared. If we fall behind, I’ll get fired. Maybe they’ll fire us both.” He looked at me. “Aw, don’t worry,” he said, “I got ya.” And pulled me into a hug.

All this has got to be for a book or something, right? Or should be…