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Filmmaker Ed Zwick on his memoir 'Hits, Flops, and Other Illusions'

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Ed Zwick pledges to drop a few names in his new memoir - Denzel, Matt, Brad, Julia, Leo, Bruce, Demi, Tom - Cruise and Stoppard - Daniel Craig and more - but not to depress sales. Ed Zwick says mostly nice things about most of the people with whom he's worked making celebrated films - "Glory," "Legends Of The Fall," "The Last Samurai" and "Blood Diamond," producing the Oscar-winning "Shakespeare In Love" and creating the signature television series "Thirtysomething," "My So-Called Life" and more. Ed Zwick's memoir - "Hits, Flops, And Other Illusions." He joins us in our studios. Thanks so much for being with us.

ED ZWICK: Very happy to be here.

SIMON: You promised a dish, so let me get this out of the way. Could you tell us your Paul Newman story?

ZWICK: Oh, my goodness. That's such a good one because - and no one has ever asked. I was only 27. And I had been asked to help Joanne Woodward direct an episode of television.

SIMON: Yeah.

ZWICK: And she was as lovely as you can ever imagine. But one day we were at their house working, and Paul was in the next room. He was watching race car on television.

SIMON: Yeah.

ZWICK: And at one point when Joanne had left the room, he turned to me and said, kid, do you want a beer?

SIMON: Wow, that is so moving.

ZWICK: Isn't that something?

SIMON: It really - yeah (laughter).

ZWICK: That's the kind of celebrity story that I tell. Pretty damn good, huh?

SIMON: What do you think made the TV shows you created - and I'm thinking, of course, like, about "Thirtysomething" - different at the time, even now, really?

ZWICK: Well, I think - if you remember that moment, everyone was a lawyer or a doctor or a cop, and the family shows were more like science fiction, as best I could tell, where everyone was just happy and lovely to each other all the time. And our supposition was if - we could lower the heroic or the epic stakes so as to find what was epic in the personal. And then the closer we looked, the more we found. And I think people actually, for the first time, could relate to these characters in a way that was very, very intimate.

SIMON: One of the things that struck me about this memoir - you could do a memoir of successes - you're very open about the role that failure, flops, even humiliation...

ZWICK: Yeah.

SIMON: ...Plays.

ZWICK: Yeah. I - what I learned is that there's very little to be gained in success having to do with being an artist. It's essentially mystifying. But only in, you know, abject and humiliating failure do you actually apply a certain scrutiny to what your process is and what has happened. And that's where growth comes from. You also learn that it's not a question as an artist if you're going to get hit, but when, and what happens when you do.

SIMON: Yeah. Let me get you to tell a filmmaking story. Of course, you made "Glory" about the 54th Massachusetts Infantry, one of the earliest Black regiments in the Union Army. There's a scene in which the character played by Denzel Washington is whipped. Now, it was a movie. The whip was made of shammy cloth. But you did something.

ZWICK: The first thing you have to understand is there's never been a moment - a film that I've shot with Denzel Washington that couldn't have gone right in the movie. And we had done a take. And it was great, but I just had this intuition that there was more. And I did something that could be considered a manipulation. I went up to John Finn, who was playing the guy who was whipping him, and I said, listen, John, this time, just don't stop till you hear cut. And I saw something happening on Denzel's face, which was that his whole action was to not give in to this humiliation, as a man of his nature would not have. And yet there I was, having taken that control away from him.

And then in one of those miracles of movie gods, you know, it happened to catch that tear as the light hit it and rolled down his face. But the thing that's most - to me, most thrilling, is that Denzel knew what was happening, I'm sure, and yet was so deep into the action itself - and this is the mark of a genius actor - that you could maintain both of those realities at once, to understand that you were so concentrating and so present, and yet at the same time aware that this was happening on film with a camera and a lens and that we were getting what he wanted.

SIMON: Look, I love Julia Roberts in every film I've ever seen. But, boy, you got a story. It's - I mean, it's the one story - and it's - well, let me get you to reconstruct it.

ZWICK: It was someone, I think, getting herself into a situation, which maybe she realized at a certain point she didn't want to be in.

SIMON: She was supposed to do "Shakespeare In Love."

ZWICK: She was supposed to play the lead in "Shakespeare In Love." She was 24. We went to England together. Julia had been very disappointed early on because she had decided that the person to play Romeo should be Daniel Day-Lewis. Julia sent him a dozen roses, said, be my Romeo. And it became very clear at a certain point that he was not going to be her Romeo. And I think she was deeply disappointed by that.

SIMON: But you were all set up to do the film. I mean, hair, makeup, lights...

ZWICK: Oh, no, we had built - we had...

SIMON: ...Sets.

ZWICK: ...We were building the the Rose Theatre at Pinewood Studios, and we met one extraordinary English actor after another, and she just didn't feel it was right with any of them. And then one day, she was gone. And I had never imagined anybody doing something like that and called the studio and said, well, of course we're going to recast and find someone else. But they didn't.

SIMON: Yeah.

ZWICK: And I was destroyed.

SIMON: How many years did it take to get the movie done?

ZWICK: About six more years of an odyssey through Hollywood to try to get someone to, you know, step up.

SIMON: Yeah. So many well-known actors in your films. But I want to ask you about one who has appeared in a lot of your films. The name may not be familiar in every household. Ray Godshall.

ZWICK: (Laughter) Ray Godshall was my father-in-law. I had had a very complex and difficult relationship with my father. And when Liberty and I got married, I met this man who just opened himself to me in this most extraordinary way. He was a kind of uptight character. He was a gentleman farmer but also a car dealer in Pennsylvania, but had wanted to be an artist. And here came this inappropriate Hollywood Jewish kid into that life of a kind of WASP appropriateness. And yet he was so tickled by me and became, for me, that man that I needed to have in my life.

But it was more than that because as I began to do movies, it's very hard to find an older man who has not been beaten down and destroyed by the disappointments of being an actor in Hollywood. And here was a man who I then asked on a certain day, would he just play a small part and have a few lines? And he did, and it was great. And it became this tradition where I would go on location, and he would come, and we would hang together. He was a kind of charm.

SIMON: There is so much in this place we call out there...

ZWICK: Out there?

SIMON: ...These days. Yeah.

ZWICK: Yeah.

SIMON: So much out there. What makes something last, a movie or a series?

ZWICK: Oh, boy. There's an Emerson essay on self-reliance which says that that thing that is most personal to you, that private thought, is the thing, when you express it, so many others recognize as their own. And I think that's what personal filmmaking means. It doesn't mean telling your own story. Those movies, I think, that that last are the ones that have something in them that have gone beyond the predictable.

SIMON: Ed Zwick. His memoir, "Hits, Flops, And Other Illusions." Thank you so much for being with us.

ZWICK: That was really fun. Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.