Ed Zwick has won an Oscar, co-created an iconic TV series and seen his films gross more than $100 million.
But on a balmy day in upstate New York last summer, he got kicked off a set. By his own son.
He was trying to be careful. This was Jesse Zwick's first time making a movie — a low-budget ensemble drama called "About Alex" — and he didn't want to impose. Together, they'd decided that Ed, the film's executive producer, should drop in on production after a week, giving Jesse enough time to establish himself as an authority with his cast.
But the day the elder Zwick visited set, Jesse was already feeling overwhelmed — giving actors notes, answering crew members' questions. So when Ed whispered a small suggestion in his ear, he snapped.
"He just turned and gave me a look," the 61-year-old filmmaker recalled, "and I said, 'OK, I wonder what time the next train is.'"
It's difficult to imagine Jesse, 28, lashing out at his dad when in person he seems to respect him so much. On a recent Friday, they met at a cafe at Bergamot Station — a spot where all the kids from Jesse's high school, Crossroads, used to hang after the bell rang. It was the first time the father and son had sat down together to discuss "About Alex," which opened this month to mixed reviews, and they were trying to figure out how to relate to each other as fellow filmmakers.
Ed, a warm presence with a patchy beard, was deferential to Jesse, allowing him to do most of the talking. The father and son don't look much alike — Jesse is of fairer complexion and has light eyes — but they speak with the same deliberate cadence.
Growing up in the nearby Pacific Palisades, Jesse never imagined he'd follow in his father's footsteps. Ed had become famous in the 1980s when, along with Marshall Herskovitz, he created the zeitgeisty series "Thirtysomething." He went on to direct actors like Denzel Washington in "Glory" and "Courage Under Fire," and he later won an Academy Award for producing 1998's "Shakespeare in Love."
Still, Jesse wasn't taken with Hollywood. He and his younger sister would visit their dad on set sometimes, but everything moved so slowly there, with the same scenes being reshot endlessly.
"I'm going to write about real things," he told his father.
Still, during college, he decided to take a semester off to gather a better understanding of the movie business, serving as a camera trainee on the set of 2006's African thriller "Blood Diamond." It didn't go well.
"The illusion of being in the camera department is that it's glamorous," Ed said.
"But it was a really tough shoot," Jesse continued. "We were in the trenches in the heat of South Africa. A lot of times, I was carrying 75-pound cases filled with lenses and equipment from one side of set to the other."
"Maybe — and I'm just speculating," Ed added cautiously, "there was some de-mythification based on seeing what a director goes through — whether it's with an actor or with the producers or money or whatever. It was very much about the process and not so much about that this is fabulous."
As the production moved on to Mozambique, Jesse quit, opting to travel around the continent instead. Soon, he was back at Harvard — also his dad's alma mater — focusing on writing about real things. After graduation, he moved to Washington, D.C., and got a fellowship at the New Republic. But after work, which involved a lot of fact checking, he found himself writing more creatively. He sent drafts of screenplays he'd written to his dad, which made Ed nervous.
"When somebody shows me a script, it's hard not to feel like a surgeon being asked for an opinion," Ed said. "It's hard to divorce myself from that kind of critical judgment, so there was some anxiety on my part. But when I saw there was such ability and that he had his own unique voice, I was encouraging."
Ed floated a sample of Jesse's work to Herskovitz, his producing partner, who in turn passed it along to Jason Katims, creator of "Parenthood." Soon, Jesse had landed a gig as a writers assistant on the NBC series.
"Which was kind of weird," admitted Katims. "I don't want to underplay my connection to Ed, because he gave me a career. He was significant in how Jesse came into the picture — but I wouldn't have hired him based solely on that connection."
What was unique about Jesse, Katims said, was that he was able to imagine storylines for all the program's characters, no matter their age — a rare quality for a young writer.
But it was his perspective on twentysomethings that he decided to explore with "About Alex."
A kind of "Big Chill" for millennials, the film is about college friends reuniting at a country house after one of them attempts suicide. Although Jesse acknowledges the movie is an homage to Lawrence Kasdan's popular 1983 film, he also likes to believe it asks questions about how friendship has evolved in the age of social media. It also had a link to his father's famous television series — a relationship-based comedy-drama very much of its time.
Though his cast was populated by young actors — Aubrey Plaza, Max Greenfield, Jason Ritter, Max Minghella — Zwick was still the baby of the bunch.
"But it never felt that way," Plaza noted. "I think his script was so intelligent that we immediately had tremendous respect for him. He was a very quiet, humble leader, which I think can be more powerful than an aggressive, controlling one."
Before production began, Jesse and his father had a couple of "cram sessions"; Ed screened a few episodes of "Thirtysomething," stopping to point out how certain things were shot and offering advice on how to talk to actors. Of course, "About Alex" was a much smaller affair than such Ed Zwick action movies as "The Last Samurai" and "Defiance" — its budget was well under a million dollars, and the entire thing was shot in under a month. So the pair didn't have much time to prep.
"It was a woefully short amount of time," acknowledged Ed. "But it's really only in the sort of humiliation and abject despair of making horrible mistakes that you learn."
A couple of weeks after meeting at the Santa Monica cafe, the father and son met in suits at the ArcLight in Hollywood for the premiere of Jesse's film. The elder Zwick sat alongside his wife and Jesse's mom, Liberty Godshall, near the front, beaming proudly as their son thanked his cast for taking a chance on a "very green director."
Leading to the event, Ed said he'd been thinking a lot about the role he'd played in Jesse's life. Without his son by his side, he freely admitted in an e-mail that he was thankful Jesse had established himself as a "hard-working journalist" before trying his hand in Hollywood — something that was "somehow liberating."
"Every father looms large in his son's life — some by their presence, others in their absence," he wrote. "Of course I still worry — as any parent might — about their child choosing to go into a tough, capricious, wildly competitive, at times heartless business. But who am I to give advice? I hope he wouldn't have listened anyway."