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Interview: Ed Zwick

By SHAULA CLARK  |  January 19, 2009

Yeah, actually, I remember hearing — I think it was onThis American Life — that a researcher was, right after the war, trying to study Holocaust survivors, but there was no vocabulary for what had happened to people, and they were having trouble telling their stories.
You know, they say that also when Columbus's ships appeared, and no one had ever seen those ships, they couldn't see them, because they didn't fit into any frame of reference.

I went back to the 1987 obituary of Tuvia.
That's interesting, I never saw the Tuvia one. Ours was based on the Zus one. What was the Tuvia one like?

It was incredibly short — shockingly short.
Did it talk about any of this?

It talked about his history, and it talked very briefly about the rebellion, but it was like three paragraphs long.
Right. Well, history is remembered often to a purpose. It can't but be understood in its context. And certain events are inconvenient to the popular context, and it's possible that the fighting back of Jews might be not helpful to some conventional wisdom at a particular moment or to a particular person.

So a paradigm shift needs to happen.
That's right. Yeah.

I heard that the Bielskis really liked to tell their story. Were they enthusiastic to be involved with the film?
Very, yeah. They were wary initially, because who was I to presume to do this? But once they understood my intentions, they were nothing but helpful. They came to visit in Lithuania; they gave me access to their father's unpublished manuscripts, to hours of video tape that they had of him telling his story, all his pictures, things like that. And I think they're very proud of what we've done.

This is a project 12 years in the making.
Yes, it was. In reality, the actual making was no more than two, but the trying to get it made part was a long one.

How soon after you had read that obituary initially did you set out on this project?
Pretty soon after we started to work on it. But it was very hard to get funding. We got funding briefly and then lost it. And then, you know, I went off and did other things, because I presumed to have a life and a career and so did Clayton [Frohman, co-writer]. But we'd always come back to it — we never let it go.

That's great when the project that long haunts you can finally be made.
Yeah, that feels great about it.

One thing I found really interesting was that every movie I've ever seen Daniel Craig in, he's always Daniel Craig — that voice, unmistakable. He's sometimes almost larger than the role. And in this movie, the Daniel Craig aspect just kind of melted away and he totally inhabited his character [Tuvia Bielski].
Isn't that nice? He just disappears. Although I would recommend you a different performance. He did a movie called Infamous, about the Truman Capote/Harper Lee story. He plays Perry Smith — he plays this American farm boy. And he's utterly unrecognizable as himself — it's great. And so I had seen him do that before, and I knew that he was capable of it. I mean it's utterly different. But that's his triumph in this, I think, how he just disappears into the role.

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