Producer-director Edward Zwick is nothing if not serious; his recent film work includes “Blood Diamond,” a story of the corrupt African jewelry trade, and “The Last Samurai,” Tom Cruise’s grueling excursion to Japan.
Zwick is also one of the most thoughtfully spoken of Hollywood moviemakers. For his new picture, “Defiance,” Zwick visited the area in December and I asked him about the material: a story of Jewish resistance during the Second World War.
It began, Zwick explained, with his childhood friend Clay Frohman showing him a book about the Bielski brothers, three Jewish siblings who took to the forests in 1941 when the Nazis overran their communities.
The Bielskis maintained a world, and a fighting unit, in the forests of Eastern Europe. Zwick said he was fascinated by the saga of Jewish resistance, having grown up with impressions of Jewish passivity in the face of the Holocaust.
“Stories of resistance become inconvenient to history,” he said. “It’s a simplification. But those images of passivity became part of the culture, even alongside the six million who died.
“The impulse to resist is innate. There’s a Resistance phrase: ‘We will not go like lambs to the slaughter.’ But it got turned around through history.”
Given the non-blockbuster subject matter, Zwick needed to keep the production lean and fast. “You can imagine,” he said. “Drama itself has become the job of the arthouse movie. So we financed a lot of the film out of Europe.”
It helped to have name actors, notably Daniel Craig — 007 himself. Craig plays an unconventional protagonist, and Zwick said the actor’s approach was key to the film overall.
“Daniel has a natural modesty about him,” Zwick said. “One reason the ensemble is so good is because of Daniel’s generosity. It’s about community, and Daniel’s understanding of that allowed it to be what it is. You can see Daniel stepping back, and the other actors allowed to shine.”
Craig’s generosity extended to suggesting giving one of his big speeches to co-star Jamie Bell. “That’s like giving the St. Crispin’s Day speech to someone other than Henry V,” said Zwick, drawing the Shakespearean comparison.
Zwick shot the movie in Lithuania, not all that far from where the real Bielski partisans operated. Because so much of the picture takes place outdoors, one of Zwick’s main jobs was adding variety to the visual landscape. As he put it: “It’s very easy for a shot of a tree to look like another shot of a tree.”
The crew shot the film in reverse time, shooting the autumn and springtime scenes first, then capturing the winter shots when the snow began to fall. “Mostly it was about cold,” he said. “Swamps, rivers, lack of sun — it was cold all the time. And you have to prepared to add rain” to whatever scene he was filming at any given time.
This added a layer of reality for the actors, who could hardly afford to use acting-school techniques. “When your fingers are cold and you’re trying to load a gun,” he observed, “you’re not thinking about the Stanislavski method.
“But this coalesced the ensemble. People would huddle around fires. It’s the film approximation of the forest community.”