Ed Zwick takes us behind-the-scenes on Daniel Craig’s latest pic “Defiance”
Among a whole host of Holocaust and Holocaust-related films opening in 2009 comes Ed Zwick’s “Defiance”. Based on Nechama Tec’s book about the remarkable true story of the Bielski brothers, Jewish partisans who safeguarded the lives of some 1,200 Jews in the Naliboki forest in Belorussia (Belarus) for more than two years during the war. Movies.ie recently met up with Ed Zwick, director, producer and co-writer of the film, to talk about bringing this little known story to the big screen, working with some of Hollywood’s biggest names (including Daniel Craig in the lead role) and why the Holocaust remains one of the most powerful subjects for contemporary cinema:
Q:How did you find out about the Bielskis Brothers?
A: It was around twelve years ago, I first heard the story. A friend of mine, Clay Frohman, read an obituary in the New York Times. It was Zus Bielskis, the last of the brothers to die. That led Clay and I to Nechama Tec’s book, which we optioned and began to write. Eventually we were led to the Bielski family, many of whom were still in Brooklyn and they supplied us with a whole host of stories, photos and eventually even a videotape that they had made of Tuvia Bielski at the end of his life, talking about his experiences.
Q: Given the exceptional circumstances of the events – why do you think this is something that hasn’t been explored before?
A: Yeah I’ve been asked that question a few times now and I have a few theories on why this isn’t a story that is more generally known. I think that the Jewish culture has rightly devoted much of its energy to remembering the six million who died and as result this story has been somewhat overshadowed. There was also reluctance on the part of these survivors to come forward – an element of survivor’s guilt perhaps. What’s also interesting is that even today, the Jewish people of the time are so often viewed as passive. And initially, I had believed that Warsaw and Sobibor were the only instances in which Jews had fought back. But when I went research I found that there were countless cases, often futile, that was reported but nonetheless usually associated with the availability of the natural world, the forest particularly, in Bialystok, in the Ukraine, in Lithuania, in Poland, any number of places.
Q: Did you contact many of the survivors – how willing were they to get involved?
A: Yeah we managed to track down nearly 40 survivors and we had 19 at a previewing screening in New York – they all reacted very well to the material and representation of the people and time.
Q: Given that this is a powerful and unknown true story – did you ever consider making it into a documentary – a sort of quasi-historical document?
A: Well I’m a fan of documentary but I think it’s important to recognise its powers and limitations; I am a feature filmmaker and that’s what I set out to create. We tried to be as faithful as possible to the story and the lives of the people but given the limitations of running time, there is an inevitable element of reductionism to the film. So in that sense, documentary may have served us better. On the other hand, documentary is a genre that is usually reserved only for those who know some of the background of the time. A feature film, like Defiance, can offer the story to so many more people and allow them engage and vest in the story through the drama and the characters
Q: How difficult was it to cast your three main actors?
A: I’d always had Daniel Craig in mind when I was working on the script; long before he took on James Bond. When you see him in films like “The Mother” or “Layer Cake” you see that he is a very modest man, who can be physically imposing, who can be enormously powerful and yet soulful at the same time. These were qualities that he seemed to share with Tuvia Bielski. Then, I cast around him. So for example, for the story Liev Schreiber’s character needed to be able to rival Daniel’s presence on screen – even dominate it at times. Jamie Bell seemed like a natural choice because he parallels his character in many ways – the younger brother coming-of-age during the action.
Q: Late last year we had “The Boy in the Stripped Pjyamas”, now we have “The Reader”, “Defiance” and soon Tom Cruises’ “Valkyrie” will hit screens – why do you think so many films.
In terms of the Holocaust, now seems to be the 11th hour for those who are still alive. There may be some sort of anxiety about that. In the next five or ten years there will be no more living memory of the time and there may be some urgency of telling these stories while those who can tell them are still alive.
Q: And what’s next – you’ve tended to stick with socio-politically motivated films in the recent past (Blood Diamond, Glory, Defiance etc) Will you be sticking to this area or can we expect something lighter?
(Laughs) Well, I do find myself motivated socio-politically these days but we’ll have to wait and see… I have a project in the works but I never like to speak about these things until they are concrete.
“Defiance” is in Irish cinemas from Friday, Jan 9th.