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Before moving to the sunny streets of Hollywood and directing big-budget films such as “The Last Samurai” and “Blood Diamond,” Edward Zwick ’74 cultivated his interest in film on the slightly less sunny streets of Cambridge. And though Cambridge lacks the glitz and glamour of celebrity-heavy Los Angeles, Harvard holds a special place for Zwick, who paid a visit to his alma mater on Nov. 17 to premiere his newest film, “Defiance,” for Harvard students at the Brattle Square Theater.
Zwick has always felt the allure of the film industry. “I grew up as part of a generation to whom movies were central to your experience of life,” he said. His time at Harvard encouraged this interest in film and helped shape the kind of director he would become. Zwick describes the many hours spent watching classic movies at the Harvard Square and Brattle Square theaters. “That was a very important part of growing up,” he said.
Zwick spent most of his free time at Harvard directing shows for the Harvard-Radcliff Dramatic Club (HRDC). Working with diverse material ranging from “Of Mice and Men” to “You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown” helped him to cultivate an appreciation for all kinds of drama. “I think it shaped [my career] in terms of encouraging a certain promiscuity of taste,” Zwick said. “In the repertory theater one does Shakespeare one day and Sam Shepherd the next. And the idea that I might be interested in more intimate human drama and at the same time more epic and theatrical pieces I think is a legacy of that.”
His new film “Defiance,” about Jewish resistance during the Holocaust, combines Zwick’s dual interest in epic storytelling and intimate human drama. The film documents the amazing true story of the Bielski brothers, who helped thousands of Jews seek refuge in the Belarusian forest and escape the Nazis. Zwick was inspired to document this unique and moving narrative after a friend showed him an obituary in the New York Times for Zus Bielski, one of the brothers.
“It was a story of a familiar moment but a very unfamiliar story within that moment,” Zwick said. “That they were reluctant heroes, that they were complex, ordinary, unsophisticated men who discovered something fine, even magnificent in themselves...that to me is a very inspiring notion that people can rise to occasions and discover resources that had never been revealed.”
When asked about the most difficult part of directing his new film, Zwick smiled sheepishly: “The interviews?” But the intensely emotional material presented its own set of challenges. “It’s very visceral. You plunge right into it and we had no choice because we were working on a tight schedule and people had to be very intuitive,” he said. For this reason, Zwick turned to seasoned actors, including Daniel Craig, Liev Schriber, and Jamie Bell. “It was a very large cast of hugely talented actors from all over the world...In this case when it was about language and accent and all these things I really felt I needed people of a particular background,” he said.
In preparing for “Defiance,” Zwick put to use the research skills he learned at Harvard, spending countless hours combing through original sources documenting the Bielski brigade and interviewing survivors. He credits his courses in history with instilling in him the importance of primary source materials. “I think that’s been a help in the research of some of these movies...There’s just always a treasure trove of detail and nuance that is there to be mined that otherwise I would never have uncovered...I think this is the first place I learned that.”
With “Defiance,” Zwick hopes to show his audience a new aspect of both his own filmmaking and the genre of Holocaust movies. “I think it’s a bit grand to think you can change people’s thinking altogether, but that we might add some necessary complexity to their understanding of something about which they thought they knew something is the wish.”
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