Winnetka native Edward Zwick has directed some of the biggest actors in the film industry. He guided Denzel Washington through the films The Siege, Courage Under Fire, and to his first Oscar for Glory. He led Tom Cruise through The Last Samurai and Leonardo DiCaprio through Blood Diamond. He directed Daniel Craig in Defiance and Jake Gyllenhaal and Anne Hathaway in Love and Other Drugs. The Writers Guild of America recently honored him and his producing partner Marshall Herskovitz with their top honor for a career in television for their shows thirtysomething, Once and Again, and My So-Called Life. As a film producer, he’s won the Academy Award for Shakespeare in Love and been nominated again for Traffic. Last month, he picked up another honor as New Trier High School added him to their Hall of Honor, which celebrates graduates who’ve advanced their respective fields. We thought the occasion would be a great time to catch up with Zwick to get the lowdown on his favorite hometown hot spots and his thoughts on the industry he’s helped to shape over the last 20 years.
Sheridan Road: Do you make it back to the North Shore very often?
Edward Zwick: One of my sisters still lives on the North Shore, so I do see her from time to time, and I’ve also had occasion to bring movies back, whether it’s for press or for tests. We’ve tested movies in Chicago just to see how they play in the Midwest, so I’ve been able to scam a way to come back now and then.
SR: What were some of your favorite places to hang out growing up in Winnetka?
EZ: Oh, God, there was so many. I grew up almost across the street from Duke Childs Field, so I played soccer and hockey there; I went sledding there. Skokie Junior High and Crow Island [Elementary] were within spitting distance, so that was my world. There were other places that were really important. The Chestnut Court Book Stall. I also did a fair bit of parking on the lagoons. I did everything that one might imagine of that 1950s and 1960s boyhood. I played basketball at the Winnetka Community House, I went to a lot of movies at the Glencoe Theatre, and had a very traditional childhood.
SR: Do you think growing up in Winnetka influenced your films and TV shows?
EZ: My work has been deeply influenced by some of those people I had the benefit of coming into contact with and learning from. Starting with Crow Island, there was a teacher named Anne Baxter who was a drama teacher. There were such fantastic teachers at New Trier: John Baumhart and Red Buerger. I even worked with Doc Peterman from New Trier East on a couple of things. I had no idea just how privileged I was to be exposed to those people.
SR: You seem to know the trick of getting your actors award nominations, what’s the secret?
EZ: I cast movie stars as actors, not as movie stars. I believe that they and the story are more important to the film than I am. The more I become invisible and humble myself in front of their abilities, the better the movie is, and, consequently, the more they’ll be recognized and noticed.
SR: You’ve worked with everybody; out of all of those actors, is there anyone in particular who you liked grabbing a beer with after a day of working?
EZ: Well, Denzel [Washington] and I have essentially grown older together and our families have gotten to know each other. I grew very close to Jake [Gyllenhaal] and consider him a friend, although a newer one over these last couple of years. Having that beer is as much a part of directing an actor as is talking about Stanislavski. I like to think that those relationships are the most important part of the process and I’ve been lucky enough to be with people who are generous and kind as well as really hard working.
SR: What’s more fun to work on, movies or TV?
EZ: Do you like cats or dogs?
SR: Congratulations on the recognition from the Writers Guild of America. Did you and Marshall know you were doing something revolutionary with thirtysomething at the time you were making it?
EZ: You certainly don’t set out to do a revolutionary thing, you set out just to do the thing you’re doing. I think television hadn’t yet come into the realm of the real. I think movies had been there in the 1970s, but TV was behind. All we did was help it catch up. Obviously, it wasn’t just us, there were a lot of very talented people working at the time who all of a sudden at that moment were given a chance and we all fed off each other. There were a lot of those shows that aren’t mentioned as often, so we weren’t alone. But it’s nice to be recognized.
SR: You’ve been making big movies for the last 20 years. How has the process changed during that time?
EZ: It’s changed hugely. I think they’re still making big movies, but they’re not making big movies about serious subjects. They’re making very big movies that are superheroes and sequels and pre-sold titles, but I think a lot of movies that I’ve gotten to make on a large scale, I would have a hard time getting made right now. They won’t necessarily let you do the kind of things that I’ve been able to do—about the Civil War, or about the changing of the West—for adults. They’ll do that kind of thing for kids, but adults tend to get a very different diet in terms of movies right now. They’ll make The Hurt Locker, and they’ll make it for $12 million, and it’ll be a very small-scale movie. All of the serious movies this year are done in rooms. It’s about characters and dialogue, which is great, but they don’t have the things in them that some of the other movies have, which is real scale and real ambition in that way.
SR: Has your personal view of the process changed in that time?
EZ: It seems to change with every project now. My view is really to try to hold onto those values that I care most about: story, ideas, and characters. In order to make [Love and Other Drugs], Jake, Annie, and I had to be willing to give up a considerable amount of remuneration in order to be able to do what we wanted to do. But maybe that’s as it should be, because artists—I hope—want to do it for the right reasons. It’s really about doing whatever it takes to do the thing you want most, because there’s no amount of money that can compensate for that privilege. —Jake Jarvi