The director Edward Zwick recalls a cautionary tale he constructed for himself when was 30, and a newly minted member of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. He joined a committee that included lions of cinema — Richard Brooks, John Frankenheimer and Paul Mazursky — who would regale Zwick and fellow newcomer Cameron Crowe with tales of their cinematic exploits. “They would tell these great wars stories, like, ‘When Burt Lancaster and I were doing “The Train” . . .’ ” Zwick recalled during a recent visit to Washington. “But I realized at a certain point that none of them were talking about what they were doing, because none of them were working. And they were pissed off. They had been marginalized too soon, and they were angry.” Zwick made a vow to himself: “I was not going to be that person.”
Now 66, Zwick has arguably reached lion status. But he has mostly made good on his promise not to be that person. In 1986, he made his feature debut with “About Last Night,” a movie about sex, love, coming of age and commitment that, along with the movies of John Hughes and Nora Ephron, epitomized an era in romantic comedy that now seems like a distant dream. With his partner Marshall Herskovitz, Zwick went on to create the groundbreaking television series “Thirtysomething,” in which an ensemble of young, white professionals indulged looming angst about sex, love, coming-of-middle-age and marriage. The team went on to produce another generational touchstone, “My So-Called Life,” and, most recently, “Nashville.”
But throughout a steady career in TV, Zwick continued to make feature films, most notably “Legends of the Fall,” “Courage Under Fire,” “The Last Samurai” and Zwick’s crowning career achievement, the 1989 film “Glory,” which starred Denzel Washington and Matthew Broderick in a Civil War drama about an African American Union military unit.
There’s something resonant about the fact that “Glory” came out a generation ago. Since that time, Zwick has navigated breathtaking changes in cinema — as industry, art form and self-contained culture — that easily could have derailed him, and have sidelined more than a few of his contemporaries. As a filmmaker dedicated to making mid-budget, adult-oriented movies, Zwick is operating within a business model dominated by superheroes. As someone whose target audience prefers earnest, conventional narratives about socially conscious subjects, he’s not eligible for indie-darling, Oscar-dark-horse status. As a white, male producer-director who has become a brand name in Hollywood, he personifies the very power structure that activists are now seeking to dismantle through more inclusive representation behind and in front of the camera.
Which makes the fact that Zwick has a new movie in theaters as notable as a yeti sighting on a rapidly disappearing tundra. “Trial by Fire” stars Laura Dern and Jack O’Connell as Elizabeth Gilbert and Todd Willingham, who embarked on an unlikely friendship when Willingham was on death row, convicted of arson in the fire that killed his three young daughters. Zwick had wanted to do the movie for several years before the philanthropist Alex Soros, whose interests include criminal justice reform, stepped up to finance the budget. Zwick was in Washington last week to talk to anyone who would listen about “Trial by Fire,” not just as a movie but as a persuasive call for the elimination of the death penalty.
“Had I not had somebody of the will and the political commitment of Alex Soros to help finance it, I’m not sure I could have gotten it made,” Zwick said of the film, which he admitted is something of an endangered species within the cinematic ecosystem. He even doubts he could get “Glory” made now, at least at the size, scope and production value the story demanded.
“It wouldn’t have been a regiment, it would have been 12 guys in the woods,” he says. “I might have been able to deal with some of the same themes, but scale . . . is an important part of the canvas. So how do I continue to tell stories that I’m engaged by in this rapidly changing set of realities?”
He thinks back on the older filmmakers whose bitterness he’d witnessed as an up-and-comer — industry giants who had stumbled when the culture shifted under their feet. “They were marginalized because they wanted to keep doing the same thing again and again after the world had changed around them,” he says. “Which is to say: Can I be supple while still trying to do the things that interest me?”
Zwick has signed on to produce and direct the pilot episode of a television series called “Away,” in which Hilary Swank will play the first female commander of a space mission. Expressing curiosity about George Clooney’s Hulu series “Catch-22” (“because the movie didn’t work — and that was Mike Nichols!”), Zwick admits that he’s been more leery of streaming series and the binge culture they’ve helped create.
“The nature of these shows, whether they’re six or 10 or however many they do, is this kind of Dickensian narrative shape that ends with a cliffhanger that obliges you to then gorge and go to the next, and leaves you in this state of anxiety,” he says. “Which is interesting. God knows it worked for Dickens. . . . But it also deprives you of something, which is a certain classical form that leads to a real catharsis and denouement, and the things that come out of a single and unique theatrical experience. And that’s my sweet spot.”
As for the power dynamics that are being renegotiated in Hollywood — both on- and off-screen — Zwick is philosophical. For one thing, he says, “I’ve been lucky enough to work with my wife [producer Liberty Godshall], who indoctrinated me long ago in the personal politics of men and women.” He welcomes more female-centered narratives, which he calls an “unintended consequence” of heightened awareness around sexism in the movie industry. He witnessed firsthand the implosion of Nate Parker’s career when the actor and director was confronted by a sexual assault accusation from his past (Zwick executive-produced Parker’s directorial debut, “The Birth of a Nation”). At the time, Zwick expressed regret for the young woman who had been harmed (and later took her own life), as well as for Parker’s struggle to express contrition and accountability.
“Trial by Fire” centers on the question of whether Cameron Todd Willingham really did set the fire that killed his children — a theory that’s thrown increasingly into question over the course of the film. But the film doesn’t shy away from portraying Willingham as a bully and an abusive husband. Through his relationship with Gilbert, this ultimate avatar of toxic masculinity manages to take responsibility for those actions through a form of the very restorative justice Dern advocated in her Golden Globes speech a year ago. “One reason why I wanted to make this movie is that it is indeed about the creation of meaning in the midst of a circumstance like that,” Zwick says.
For his part, he adds: “I would like to find some way even to talk about the subject in greater depth than I think it has been treated, [which is] the stuff of tabloid headlines and little phrases and some summary judgment at times, without due process or understanding of the complexities of circumstances of men and women. I think that would be an interesting subject, and I think there may be a way that we’ll do that at some point.”
Sounds like an Ed Zwick project, coming to a network, cable channel, streaming service — or maybe even a movie theater — near you.