Ed Zwick’s moral code

Times Staff Writer

Ed Zwick is yelling on the phone. With a tumble of black hair and a Mephistophelean beard, the smallish film director looks like a grown-up version of one of the impudent boys who populate the works of Maurice Sendak, and he’s taken to his task of fighting with the Warner Bros. credit department with insouciant glee.

He’s behaving in a parody of how people believe big famous movie directors behave, but the cause he’s fighting for actually has nothing to do with the size of his trailer, or the sheen on his car, or much to do with him at all. He’s gone into battle on the behalf of composer Hans Zimmer’s two assistants, whose names have been arbitrarily cut off the credits of his film “The Last Samurai.”

“What difference does it make if people are going to be walking out of the credits anyway?” he says with exasperation into the phone. His voice is beginning to boom, particularly as he seems to be making no headway with the studio functionary on the other end.

In the hallway outside the open door, his longtime writing partner and close friend, the vaguely Talmudic Marshall Herskovitz, slouches against a wall, vaguely amused, and admits that when they were younger, these eruptions were a lot more common. “He can be ferocious,” says Herskovitz, who also co-wrote and produced the film. A few minutes later, Zwick emerges cheerful and bouncy, having ultimately exacted a promise from the top studio brass to fix the problem.


Dressed in beat-up khakis and black T-shirt, the 51-year-old director has the slightly giddy, unfocused air of a student who’s just finished final exams. In a sense he has -- having only the night before finally completed “The Last Samurai,” the kind of cinematic behemoth that tests any director’s will and logistical powers. It’s a special test for Zwick, a widely liked, unusually articulate and slightly tortured Hollywood player just short of the A-list.

The $140-million epic, which opens Friday, not only stars the world’s biggest movie star, Tom Cruise, but also features a mammoth 120-day shoot (twice the industry average), locations on three continents and hundreds of specially-flown-to-New Zealand Japanese extras, on horseback, in armor, wielding swords, as they dodge the make-believe bullets of several regiments of the emperor’s army.

At its center, it’s a new chapter in the film canon of brave, battle-scarred men looking for redemption. The film tells the tale of a soul-sick Civil War veteran -- Cruise -- who rediscovers his honor abetting a samurai rebellion against the forces of modernization. It’s an Asian riff on “Shane,” an “Eastern,” Zwick jokes.

The stakes on this film are no laughing matter, however, for Warner Bros. It’s the studio’s entry into the Christmas sweepstakes, a film that not only carries its commercial aspirations but its hope at redeeming itself at the Oscars, after having been shut out almost entirely the last few years. If it’s expected that a Cruise-size star would be at the center of this juggernaut, then Zwick might come as something of a surprise.


Certainly, he isn’t the classic macho action-adventure director. He’s Harvard-bred and self-consciously literate and admits a preference for “the Byronic hero to the unquestioning conqueror.” None of his previous films -- from “Legends of the Fall” to “Glory” or “The Siege” -- has grossed more than $67 million domestically.

The ambitious “The Last Samurai” isn’t classic tent-pole fare. “A third of the movie is in Japanese,” says the filmmaker, on the eve of its debut. He’s willfully banished away worry about the film’s commercial prospects. “If you’re thinking of anything other than the movie, you’ll inevitably swing the bat and miss.”


A long way from suburbia

The writer-director is in fact best known as the co-creator with Herskovitz of “thirtysomething,” the landmark 1980s TV show that examined the angst and muted joys of yuppie married life. He’s one of the poet laureates of the suburban self-involved, able to etch gradations of ambivalence with the precision of a scalpel. For Zwick, the emotional minutia is riveting. He’s fascinated by what he calls “the epic nature of those struggles.”

On the surface, his films seem to be his own object-reaction to all those fuzzy feelings. They’re big, “Melville-like or Conrad-like odysseys into different times and places,” he says.

Zwick came of age during the Vietnam War, and he’s obsessed with men in battle, grappling with the age-old questions of duty, honor and bravery. But these are not the high-body-count bang- ‘em-ups, simple empowerment fantasies for 14-year-old boys. In Zwick’s universe, the battle is fraught with all the anxieties of domestic drama. No outlay of force goes unquestioned. Instead of joyful victory, there’s always a kind of sacrifice.

Alan Horn, the president of Warner Bros., says, “Ed has deep empathy and compassion. He understood the cultural implications of the movie. He knew he was dealing with an important part of Japanese history, the code of the samurai, and he took all of that very seriously.”


Zwick is a throwback to an older style of filmmaking where moral choices exist in a moral universe. In the film, Cruise’s character’s whole raison d’etre is to rediscover his own moral code and, alongside that, his humanity.

Although the film is set at the end of the 19th century, his quest carries echoes of 21st century longing -- the desire for simplicity amid a fast-changing world, for a war for meaning, rather than simply to satisfy imperial and financial objectives. There’s the allure of Eastern culture as an antidote to Western malaise. Zwick tends to use the words “post-Freudian” a lot in describing his work, this in a town where producers literally count the “action whammies” in their films.

But Zwick still thinks movies can change the world. In fact, he seems almost offended that some might take a more cynical view of today’s movie-making enterprise.

“The word ‘moral,’ like the word ‘reality,’ has been co-opted,” he says. “Reality television in fact describes something that is false. The notion of a moral majority is in fact politicizing a word that should have no politics. If it can be said that images of gratuitous violence can engender behavior that is either dissociative or worse, then can it be imagined that movies that aspire to look at the world truthfully and talk about the complexities of behavior and its consequences in real ways can have a salutary effect?”

Zwick is sitting in his office, a lair of wood and light, filled with memorabilia both sentimental and puckish. There’s Denzel Washington’s cap from “Glory”; Claire Danes’ ID card from the long-gone, still-lamented TV series “My So-Called Life”; photographs of his family (wife, two kids), as well as a framed letter from Harvard Law School offering him readmission if he ever changes his mind and decides to go.

Stacks of books grow like weeds around the edges. “To me, film directing is a thinly veiled excuse to remain perpetually a student,” he says. Zwick has spent months reading up on 19th century Japan.

Like many film geeks, he first became interested in Japan through the films of Akira Kurosawa, which he discovered when he was 17. He later took an Asian history class at Harvard, and eventually, when he moved to L.A., wangled himself into a reception to meet the director. “You know, these things lodge somewhere in your creative armature, and they have a funny way of rising to the surface in unexpected moments.” Six years ago, he received a script about an American who goes to Japan and gets trampled in a cattle drive. He didn’t like it very much, but it sent him back to his Japan books.

He pulls out a beat-up copy of Ivan Morris’ “The Nobility of Failure,” in which he discovered the real story of Saigo Takamori, who led a real samurai rebellion against the government. “I was aware of the moment of European contact with Japan, but I had no idea what the Meiji Restoration was, the wrenching transition that the whole country went through .... This one man, and then many others, took umbrage at the precipitous westernization and loss of that which he deemed most important in the culture. All of a sudden, my eyes were turning into pinwheels.”



Daunting challenge

Hollywood-style filmmaking requires a Hollywood star, and Zwick and co-writer John Logan fashioned a script more along the lines of “Lawrence of Arabia,” a fictional story about a despairing Civil War vet who finds true friendship with the samurai leader and love with his sister. The romance is told with all the decorum of 19th century Japan -- all longing but no consummation. Zwick worked hard to make sure that 19th century Japan was accurately rendered. It’s not only a moral consideration but, from the studio’s perspective, a financial one; one wrong step could kill the film in Japan.

The studio submitted it to Cruise, whom the director has known from his early days in Hollywood, when Demi Moore, the star of his first film, “About Last Night ...,” was living with Emilio Estevez, then Cruise’s close friend. But Cruise passed, as did an array of other A-list actors. With the project in danger of dying, Zwick holed up by himself for three weeks to revamp it, and finally Cruise signed on.

Cruise says he was intrigued by the idea of making an action adventure with “philosophical underpinnings.” “I’ve been to Japan many times and was always fascinated by it. I always wanted to get inside that culture and the people.”

Still, the actor said he was a little “daunted” when he first heard how Zwick planned to shoot the film, including one fight sequence in which his character, who has learned the samurai style of fighting, fights off a crew of assassins by himself. Zwick wanted to do it in one take, which meant Cruise had to perform the stunt himself. “Sixty-nine different points of contact!” Cruise says. “When he first talked to me, I couldn’t cross my legs! I couldn’t sit down cross-legged. He was saying, ‘Don’t worry.’ ”

In discussing the film, Zwick, who reworked the script again with Herskovitz, tends to focus less on the romance of the pageantry -- what he calls “the world’s biggest electric-train-set factor” -- than the struggle to impose his will on all the disparate elements. To him, it’s a task requiring samurai-like discipline and focus.

“Someone much wiser than I said the only great joy is having directed. It’s full of anxiety and some sense of loss and unrequited vision, the ability to actually breathe and soften and to look as the camera looks, and see as the camera sees, to be clinical and technical and present, devoid of the expectation and stress and anxiety. It’s almost a mediation, a kind of devotion and will that’s hard to maintain day after day.”

This film, in particular, “was very grueling. It was one of those movies where it was hard every day.” Herskovitz, who co-produced, enumerates the conditions like the plagues in the Bible, and they include everything from weather and language barriers to elaborate stunts and, in the end, the studio, which became concerned when the production ran over during the last mammoth battle sequence .

“We got into a problem with them the last four weeks. We were way over budget and they were upset, and we had to deal with that.”

Zwick just kept on directing. . “You’d have 200 guys slugging at each other, and he’d ask Yoko (Narahashi, his translator and advisor) to tell him some idiosyncratic Japanese sentence that would apply to what they were doing, something that a Westerner would never know,” Herskovitz says. “At the end, he’d get on the loudspeaker and shout it, and the guys would look at him like he was a madman. He has a way of trying to puncture everyone’s embarrassment. He’d rather make a joke of something than allow people to stand around being uncomfortable.”


A prescient project

In the years between “thirtysomething” and “The Last Samurai,” Zwick has alternated between TV and film. His first critical success as a film director was “Glory,” based on the true story of Robert Gould Shaw, an inexperienced white soldier tapped to lead the first all-black regiment in the Union Army.

It was followed by such films as “Legends of the Fall,” a 19th century tale that unintentionally solidified Brad Pitt’s stature as a pinup, and “Courage Under Fire,” a brainy, “Rashomon"-like tale about a disputed incident in the Gulf War.

In “The Siege,” an Islamic fundamentalist terrorist cell sets bombs off in New York City, which leads to the declaration of martial law. When the film debuted, Zwick who’d made a belabored attempt to portray Arab Americans fully (the film featured an Arab American FBI agent), found himself under attack by Arab Americans. After 9/11, he was hailed as being scarily prescient.

“I was just paying attention,” says Zwick, who nonetheless still sounds irritated by the what he calls “the barrage of political correctness that descended at the time to suggest that I somehow was participating in racial stereotyping, that there were Muslims who were terrorists.”

Zwick didn’t direct for five more years, although he produced such films as the award-winning “Traffic” and “Shakespeare in Love.” He actually won a best picture Oscar for the latter, but it’s less a badge of honor than a reminder of his own Hollywood heartbreak.

Zwick had planned to direct the film himself when, six weeks before the start of principal photography, star Julia Roberts bailed. “I then spent five years trying to get other people to make it with various casts.” All the studios passed, until it was eventually made by Miramax and Universal but directed by John Madden.

He’d also promised Herskovitz that they’d do another TV show, which turned out to be “Once and Again.” The pair forewent salaries in return for owning a piece of the show. The show, which chronicled a marriage between two divorces, was a critical success but died after three seasons. “It would have turned out to be the most successful failure I’ve ever had,” he adds with a grin.

Zwick also forewent directing because he wanted to be home with his family.

“The litmus test for me is not its opening weekend, or its awards, or critical reviews, but whether or not it can justify the two years that can never quite balance the algebraic equation with the loss of so many other things. Some are worth it and some aren’t.”

Zwick started out in the film business as Woody Allen’s assistant, and the master’s words have stayed with him. “He said, ‘You’re tired on Tuesday morning and this shot doesn’t quite work, then the light is bad on Thursday afternoon, and in each of those cases you let it go or compromise. At the end of 15 weeks, that’s happened three to four times a week, and the aggregate of those moments accumulate into something that’s painful and unsatisfying.’ The sense of compromise to some is damning. I think that’s why so many directors behave so badly or go a little nuts.”


On the Web

To see scenes from

“The Last Samurai,” visit