The first thing that strikes you upon meeting Edward Zwick is that he is whip-smart.
The other thing you get just by chatting with him for a few minutes is that he has a strong work ethic.
Consider his most recent films. He’s fought the Nazis in Eastern Europe with Defiance (2008), journeyed to Africa to depict the struggles over much-wanted gems in Blood Diamond (2006) and he’s cast his cameras on Japan in the 1870s to depict a Civil War veteran fighting against and for the country’s top warriors in The Last Samurai (2003). Then there are the small screen productions he’s been involved with, from the highly praised TV series Once and Again and My So-Called Life to the internet show Quarterlife.
So, it would seem like a natural that the seemingly indefatigable Mr. Zwick would chill every once in a while. And you would think an example of taking it easy would be helming a romantic dramedy called Love & Other Drugs on location for a few months in Pittsburgh. But even this project was no walk in the park.
“It’s harder in some ways because you don’t have all of those beautifully distracting visuals to keep the kinetic sense of film alive–the explosions and the chases and the gunfire and the violence and the action,” says Zwick, 58, from a Philadelphia hotel suite, in regard to tackling a more intimate project. “So everything has to be understood internally in terms of movements of the characters. It has to be finer and more narratively clear.
“The easier part is that you’re not putting peoples’ lives at risk and you are not in Mozambique, I was in Pittsburgh. I was not in Lithuania (where Defiance was filmed). I was in a nice hotel. There’s a slightly different ambient feel to figuring out how to make it work, than figuring out how to stay alive and how to deal with extraordinary weather and white tick fever and how to make thousands of people be in the right place at the right time. This is about two people, but somehow talking about those complexities is much harder than telling the helicopter where to go.”
Love & Other Drugs is based partly on James Reidy’s book Hard Sell: The Evolution of a Viagra Salesman, which chronicles Reidy’s adventures hustling the male sexual enhancement pill to doctors when it was introduced by Pfizer in the 1990s. But the book, Zwick urges, was just “a point of departure” for the film which centers on the complications of a relationship between the ambitious, gung-ho Pfizer salesman Jamie (Jake Gyllenhaal) and the free-spirited, commitment-phobic Maggie (Anne Hathaway) who has developed Parkinson’s disease.
“The relationship and personal stuff is all invented,” admits the bearded Windy City native, who, along with partner Marshall Herskovitz, runs the busy Bedford Falls Productions. ”So it was just the idea of telling a love story in that context—you know—made up, woven in. We met a lot of reps and explored the world of it. Obviously that was contextual to the story, but metaphorically, too, because there was a pill for everything, but not necessarily for love and not for what she (Hathaway) had (Parkinson’s), so it felt like the right resonance for the story.”
The filmmaker sees the time depicted in Love & Other Drugs as “a moment in history,” which was featured in the book. “Every drug emblematized a moment in our culture,” explains Zwick. “The late 1980s was about cocaine, and the 1960s was about pot, and Prozac was about the early 1980s. And Viagra was about the mid-1990s, where everything is go-go and old guys are going to become masters of the universe, still in IPOs and leveraged buyouts, and they’re going to be able to f**k until they are ninety. Putting a love story in that context is what that inspired in us.”
Was turning to romantic comedy after such heavy, location-focused dramas a conscious game changer for Zwick?
“You never know quite why you do what you do, but I’ve always been satisfied with some of the television we’ve been doing like thirtysomething, My So-Called Life or the like. And my first movie that was in this voice was called …About Last Night. It’s a genre I love, and I feel the romantic comedy is in this state of disrepair. I don’t think it’s been very romantic or comedic. And I just thought it could be both, and I just thought I would give this a try.”
Love & Other Drugs is an unusual film in that it seems to shift gears in terms of what it wants to do throughout. It begins as a comic satire of the pharmaceutical industry, with Gyllenhaal and his supervisor (Oliver Platt) attempting to push their product onto busy physicians’ script pads amidst such 1990s period trappings as the song “The Macarena” and devices such as flip-phones. Then it shifts into a sweet, sometimes wacky liaison between its attractive leads, and, while it goes back to these motifs at times, it also has an element of seriousness, dealing with Maggie’s disease.
Zwick sees similarities between Love & Other Drugs and some of his favorite comedies.
“Think of the great romantic comedies– Shampoo, very political… Harold and Maude, His Girl Friday, Pat and Mike, Adam’s Rib, The Philadelphia Story—they don’t have to be stupid,” relates Zwick. “But the interest in the world of ideas is magnetized in me. I think everything is political and interpersonal relationships are political, too, as are the issues of the moment, whether it is health care or selling consumer commodities of drugs or exploitation of resources of third world countries. Politics are part of our lives and i love to inform my canvass with that.”
As for the recent crop of rom-coms, Zwick has been an observer, and he’s not thrilled at what he’s seen.
“They seem to be neither romantic nor funny enough,” Zwick states bluntly. “They are sometimes lazy.”
The director who also counts Glory, Legends of the Fall and Courage Under Fire among his feature film credits, continues: “There’s a legacy of inauthenticity and not paying the price of emotion when things follow the genre demands—only because they are supposed to when things happen that are implausible, but when characters do things that make no sense. Then we, as an audience, guard ourselves against any emotion.
“When you engage what people are doing and feel like you identify, I think there’s a reverse process where you open yourself to the experience. People then have something to invest in, a moment where a guy is going to tell a girl that he loves her and he’s having an anxiety attack, we relate something very personal to it. So, therefore, when the emotion starts to happen you’re invested.”
One aspect of Love & Other Drugs sure to gain attention is the ample nudity and steamy sex scenes of Hathaway and Gyllenhaal. In fact, we’ll go as far as to say that no other Oscar-nominated actress has as much screen time in her birthday on screen suit as Hathaway has in Love & Other Drugs.
When asked if he can speak to the nudity of Hathaway, a former Disney star with The Princess Diaries movies, Zwick jokes, “Speak to it? I can look at it!”
But Zwick, with a BA from Harvard and an MFA from the American Film Institute (AFI), had to get Hathaway, the Best Actress nominee as the lead in Jonathan Demme’s Rachel Getting Married, on the same page as him for the scenes she plays sans clothing.
“Obviously, she has to want to do it along with me,” confides Zwick. “She’s a very serious artist and a very ambitious artist and when you want to tell a story (of a woman) whose youth and beauty are going to be short lived and she knows it, the celebration of her sensuality and this sort of ephemera is very essential to character.
“And she was absolutely my willing co-conspirator in this. Knowing that the arc of character would make her that much more understandable, that sex is sometimes a hedge or even an injunction against love and she has to get past that in some way.”
As for Gyllenhall, Zwick believes he tapped into something new for the star best known for playing no-nonsense roles in Zodiac, Jarhead and Brokeback Mountain.
“I got to know him,” says Zwick, “and the hardest thing for an actor to do is bring that part of himself, and reveal something and his charm and his humor and his own sexuality which he had not revealed to the world. There might have been some inhibition in that, but I saw it there in abundance and I realized I could be the beneficiary of that.”
Does Zwick see the pervasive nudity necessary to the believability—or success—of the film?
“Well, I don’t know about your experience, but in my experience, when you are young and in love with someone, and you can’t keep your hands off each other, you spend a lot of time in bed,” he says. “I felt to be coy would be disingenuous. And only in being authentic could be you also have authenticity, in the other aspects of the movie or you want that to rival the same detail of what the drug industry is, or what’s going on with the disease (in the film), and you want it to be on the level of truthfulness.”
Zwick believes communication between him and the actors was a key to making the sequences score on film. “We had a lot of conversation and rehearsal so we could understand what would be appropriate to (specific) scenes,” continues Zwick. “The key to all of this is not to be exploitative, but (to make sure) a sex scene advances the story one way or another. It’s either about how it (the film’s relationship) grows, or how it has a problem and does it fall apart? As I looked at the film the other night, I realized that they (Hathaway and Gyllenhaal) are often nude and not having sex or not nude and having sex. So it’s actually not just about the sexuality, but a nakedness, if you will, about the story.”
For years, Zwick and writing-producing partner Herskowitz have been the principals of Bedford Falls, a company that also co-produced such non-Zwick-helmed Oscar-winning efforts as 1998’s Shakespeare in Love, directed by John Madden, and Stephen Soderbergh’s Traffic in 2000. He met Herskowitz, a Philadelphia native, while attending classes at the AFI, where other students included Martin Brest (Midnight Express), John McTiernan (Die Hard) and Amy Heckerling (Fast Times at Ridgemont High) at the time.
Of course, Bedford Falls is the name of the town in Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life. And Zwick says that from the legendary director’s works and others like him, he has been inspired.
“He inspired us when we thought about his name for the company,” says Zwick, who, when a child, wanted to be a shortstop for the Chicago Cubs, “like Ernie Banks.” “But it’s not just him. It’s the tradition of American film that is strongly narrative, character-based, in which the actors, the performances and story is forward and the director is in their service and not out in front of their material.
“It’s one tradition I honor and I think is one of our great virtues traditionally. I think there’s often a little too much attention paid to the self-consciousness of directors. Believe it or not, that’s easier to do than become invisible.”