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An Interview with Filmmaker Edward Zwick

Read Micah Sachs' review of Defiance, Unheralded Heroes of the Holocaust.

Edward Zwick is Jewish, but that is hardly a litmus test for what projects he takes.

"It informs who I am psychically, characterologically, morally, ethically, spiritually," the 56-year-old director says. "It is a strong influence, but it is by no means a solitary influence."

Zwick directing
Zwick directs Daniel Craig and Alexa Davalos in a scene from Defiance. Photo: Karen Ballard.

After making films with such varied settings as the Civil War (Glory), 19th century Japan (The Last Samurai), war-torn modern Africa (Blood Diamond) and the first Gulf War (Courage Under Fire), Zwick has directed, co-written and produced Defiance, based on the true story of the Bielskis, a group of Jewish brothers who saved 1,200 of their fellow Jews from the Holocaust by hiding them in the Belarussian forest--and fighting Nazis along the way. It's his first film about Jews, but it's certainly not his first work to explore Jewish life.

Zwick made his name in the '80s as the co-creator of thirtysomething, the short-lived but hugely influential series about a group of youngish urban professionals who yearn to have it all. At the center of the show was an interfaith couple, Michael (Ken Olin) and Hope Steadman (Mel Harris). They were in part based on Zwick's own intermarriage. Zwick says experiences from his own life (as well as that of thirtysomething's then-intermarried co-creator, Marshall Heskovitz) "inevitably" found their way into the show. Episodes on the December dilemma and the death of Michael's father explored conflicts and concerns unique to interfaith couples.

In his own life, he considers himself "religious" but not "observant"--"I'm not a member of Facebook either. I find it hard to do much of anything in groups," he says--but affirms that Judaism is the dominant stream in his 22-year-old son's upbringing. His wife, who became a Quaker during the Vietnam War, has much to do with that. "She was as much a prime mover, maybe even more so [than me], that he be bar mitzvahed," he says. "She wanted him to have some experience of religious training in his life." In December, Zwick took his son on his first trip to Israel as part of the Defiance press tour.

Prior to Defiance, Zwick was reluctant to tackle the Holocaust on film. He didn't know if there was anything he could add to the rich lineage of films about the 20th century's worst genocide. But he feels the story of the Bielskis is something fresh. "The standard iconography of victimization doesn't take into account the impulse to resist that was present in so many cases," he says. "With the exception of the uprising in the Warsaw ghetto, there had actually been very little done on resistance."

Yet he has no interest in saying where he stands on the ethical debate at the center of Defiance: whether it is better to save Jews or kill Germans. "I would prefer people to make their own conclusions. My job as a filmmaker is to present the story such that that conclusion is inescapable to the individual. If I haven't been able to do that by making the movie," he says, "I don't want to prescribe."

Micah Sachs

Micah Sachs is the former managing editor of InterfaithFamily.

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