Many wouldn’t expect Love and Other Drugs from director Edward Zwick. It’s fair to say that anyone who comes out of Glory, Defiance, or Blood Diamond wouldn’t say, “I bet this guy could make a hell of a romantic comedy.” But many, understandably, forget Zwick also directed About Last Night and Leaving Normal, so he’s not a man only dedicated to his historical epics.
Zwick is coming off Defiance, and if you know the history of that film, then you know it was a real challenge for him. Zwick seemed relieved by the idea of making a film that didn’t have serious financial and technical challenges. My interview with him was the first of his long press tour, so he was relaxed and eager to discuss the film.
Here’s what he had to tell us about his latest and more:
Obviously, you’re known for making epic films. I’m sure a lot of people have asked about you about making a non-epic, but do you see it as an actual change?
People, especially press, want to pigeonhole you. It’s just easier saying, “Oh, that’s what he does.” You know, if a director is really a director I think he’s interested in more than one thing. I might have painted myself into a bit of a corner doing all these big, serious David Lean-esque movies. You know, my first job was as Woody Allen’s assistant and I loved all the Truffaut films. They were films just about relationships and behavior, and this was a welcomed opportunity to do that.
Was going back to to something smaller-scale something you were looking for after Defiance? I know you had a lot of problems on that film.
You know, I don’t think it was born out of that impulse; it was much more of a creative impulse. I know that when I’m writing I always want to be directing. And when I’m directing I always want to be writing. I think when you’re making something big, you want to be making something small. And when you’re making something small, you want to make something big [Laughs]. Each have its challenges, but this was pure fun. I’ve had very good experiences with my past several films with the actors I’ve worked with. I’ve been lucky to be working with great people. I’ve rarely had as nice of an experience with these two actors, who were exceedingly generous to each other and me. We also had fun, which is not often. In any case, it was a pleasure.
How would you describe the tone of the movie?
I just felt like people talk about work, illness, and life as if it’s only one thing. That’s not my experience in life. My experience in life is that sometimes the most serious things are the funniest. And sometimes the funniest things are really serious. I really wanted to try to capture that, and I know it’s hard to have that tone going back and forth. It actually describes an experience of life to be truer than just the sort of turgid dramas or balls-out comedies. I’m made vaguely anxious by both of those things.
And at what point, whether during the writing process or editing, do you find that tone?
Both all the way. It’s a good question, because you do think about it a lot during the script process. You discover different parts of it when you’re shooting it. And then you look at it again, because you’re rewriting when you’re editing. You’re massaging that tone and creating something consistent. Then you play that before audiences. It’s like being off-Broadway. You show it to your most critical friends, you show it to one hundred strangers, and then you show it to four hundred people. After that, you start to get a feel for what you’ve done. It is about the audience, too.
How did Fox feel over not having the most likable protagonist? You always hear horror stories about that.
There are horror stories. We avoided those horror stories by bringing the studio a script with the actors already wanting to do it. We didn’t put it through the horrible development process. The development can be killing. Everyone presumes to know what a script is, but only until you’ve made a movie do you understand the actual translation of how a script mutates and morphs into a movie with staging, actors, and editing. In the development process, everyone wants to be overdetermined. You hear, “Oh, we never see her parents! We need to know more about her relationship with the doctors! How did Jamie get that interview with that representative?” You can imagine the conversations. They’re well intended, but they just kill the life.
It’s best if you can avoid them [Laughs]. That’s why a lot of, particularly if you’re given the technologies, young filmmakers can find ways to do things with less money and avoid that process. Once you get into the big hundred million dollar films, which are huge investments, they’re going to want to be heard. That becomes a very difficult process of negotiation, strength, tactics, and politics.
You’re one of the rare directors who does have final cut, but what’s that collaboration process actually like? Many presume you just get whatever you want.
No. It’s a collaborative enterprise not just on the set with you and the actors, the crew, and you and your cinematographer. You are in collaboration with these financial entities, who are offering you tens, if not hundreds, millions of dollars to do your work. Unless you are so arrogant and so pretentious to believe it’s your right, you’re well served to be in a relationship. Everyone has ideas, and often they’re good. Sometimes it’s your job to save them from themselves. And sometimes it’s their job to save you from yourself.
You try to be conscious. It’s not as simple as it sounds. You also want them to really love your movie, because they’re the ones who are going to sell your movie. I’ve seen directors get involved with real pissing matches with studios where it becomes self-fulfilling. They want to show that the director is wrong and unconsciously they’ll even sort to sabotaging it.
It’s a hard thing to accept. It’s a bad thing if they tell you it’s their movie and what color to paint the walls, how to direct the actors, and how to cut the movie. But when they talk about it being their job to sell the movie and how they have to get butts in the seats, then I have to mindful of that. I have to do that if I want to get the chance to make another. If this was the only movie I was ever going to make, then fuck them. There is some give and take.
When working in this genre, do you care about likability?
I don’t know if you’ve seen Blood Diamond, but the character DiCaprio played is a racist, out for himself, greedy, reactive, and explosive. And yet, you sense within him this conflictual pull towards the land, this place, and the man who he meets. I think that’s what a great actor does. When you think of movies and the tradition of anti-heroes you think of Steve McQueen, Paul Newman, and Marlon Brando, and those actors were really interested in showing the darker colors. It makes a 3-Dimensional character.
Why do you think we don’t see more anti-heroes in blockbusters?
I don’t know. I haven’t seen David’s The Social Network yet, but I have a feeling his portrayal of Mark Zuckerberg is quite bad. And yet, I’m sure it’s very entertaining and interesting. If he had more social skills, he probably wouldn’t have had to develop a social network.
There’s been questions over Fincher’s approach to The Social Network, in how he doesn’t seem very interested in being completely fact based.
Well, that starts with Aaron [Sorkin]. I read the script two years ago when Aaron wrote. I know Aaron very well. That’s Aaron’s deep, deep interest to tell a story of something and to let truth inform the narrative. But anyway, what you’re gonna ask?
When you’re on a film like Defiance, how do you go about being factual, but also staying cinematic? Most people who see Defiance will see that as the definitive story.
That’s right. I think they key is to find a story where the facts conform to some narrative shape. It’s where you don’t have to bowdlerize history to get the dramatic effects. Once you start having to change what happened, that’s where I think you’re in shaky ground. When you’re telling what happened and trying to show the personalities within it then I think you’re okay. Nobody knows what those personalities were and it’s speculative. I think you’re allowed to speculate. Historians and biographers speculate all the time, and yet they’re presumed to be telling history. I think that’s fine, as long as you’re not changing the events.
Going from Defiance to Love and Other Drugs, is the thought process much different or is it a similar creative process?
[Pause] Yeah. I think if you were to break it down you’d see it’s much looser in its style. We really tried to, as actors and directors, to create the truth of the circumstance to totally hide ourselves in terms of the camera, except for a few silly flourishes. There’s certain things we do as little flourishes, but I really thought that this was about putting the actors forward, making them look a certain way, and giving you a view into them. It was all about the sake of the intimacy of it rather than dramatic flourishes.
Do you storyboard a lot?
You have to when it comes to the huge battles and all that, but with this, not at all. This was much more organic. It was much more of, “Lets all sit in the room and figure out what’s right. And I’ll figure out how to photograph it.” It was really about finding the truth of a scene.
Now, is there possibly anything you haven’t been asked about yet on this tour?
You’re the first interview I’ve had, so a lot hasn’t been asked. This is the first day of the press tour, so this is all fresh.
Okay. So what’s something you think nobody is going to ask about?
[Laughs] I don’t know if people realize how hard it is for a director to become invisible. I think it’s become vogue to talk about how obvious a director’s work is. In my opinion, that’s much easier. It’s about not putting yourself in front of the movie or calling attention to yourself. It’s about serving your actors and the story first, not yourself.
So when you’re on set and you say to yourself, “This could make for a really great shot…”
You then tell yourself to stop it and ask what is the scene about. It’s thinking of how the audience is going experience this viscerally where it can be funny or emotional.
Could you say you get to have your cake and eat it too, in a way? There are some striking shots, like when Maggie is all alone in that alleyway.
I hope, but they’re intended to… that shot is intended to reinforce her isolation. Like a painter, you put all this negative space around her and have a tiny figure down at the bottom. You see that because you’re a film buff, but I don’t think the audience is aware of that. I think the audience just feels what the shot is intended for.
Love and Other Drugs is in theaters on November 24th.