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Ed Zwick's moral code

'The Last Samurai' director sees nothing wrong with making films that try to change the world.

November 30, 2003|Rachel Abramowitz | Times Staff Writer

Ed Zwick is yelling on the phone. With a tumble of black hair and a Mephistophelean beard, the smallish film director looks like a grown-up version of one of the impudent boys who populate the works of Maurice Sendak, and he's taken to his task of fighting with the Warner Bros. credit department with insouciant glee.

He's behaving in a parody of how people believe big famous movie directors behave, but the cause he's fighting for actually has nothing to do with the size of his trailer, or the sheen on his car, or much to do with him at all. He's gone into battle on the behalf of composer Hans Zimmer's two assistants, whose names have been arbitrarily cut off the credits of his film "The Last Samurai."

"What difference does it make if people are going to be walking out of the credits anyway?" he says with exasperation into the phone. His voice is beginning to boom, particularly as he seems to be making no headway with the studio functionary on the other end.

In the hallway outside the open door, his longtime writing partner and close friend, the vaguely Talmudic Marshall Herskovitz, slouches against a wall, vaguely amused, and admits that when they were younger, these eruptions were a lot more common. "He can be ferocious," says Herskovitz, who also co-wrote and produced the film. A few minutes later, Zwick emerges cheerful and bouncy, having ultimately exacted a promise from the top studio brass to fix the problem.

Dressed in beat-up khakis and black T-shirt, the 51-year-old director has the slightly giddy, unfocused air of a student who's just finished final exams. In a sense he has -- having only the night before finally completed "The Last Samurai," the kind of cinematic behemoth that tests any director's will and logistical powers. It's a special test for Zwick, a widely liked, unusually articulate and slightly tortured Hollywood player just short of the A-list.

The $140-million epic, which opens Friday, not only stars the world's biggest movie star, Tom Cruise, but also features a mammoth 120-day shoot (twice the industry average), locations on three continents and hundreds of specially-flown-to-New Zealand Japanese extras, on horseback, in armor, wielding swords, as they dodge the make-believe bullets of several regiments of the emperor's army.

At its center, it's a new chapter in the film canon of brave, battle-scarred men looking for redemption. The film tells the tale of a soul-sick Civil War veteran -- Cruise -- who rediscovers his honor abetting a samurai rebellion against the forces of modernization. It's an Asian riff on "Shane," an "Eastern," Zwick jokes.

The stakes on this film are no laughing matter, however, for Warner Bros. It's the studio's entry into the Christmas sweepstakes, a film that not only carries its commercial aspirations but its hope at redeeming itself at the Oscars, after having been shut out almost entirely the last few years. If it's expected that a Cruise-size star would be at the center of this juggernaut, then Zwick might come as something of a surprise.

Certainly, he isn't the classic macho action-adventure director. He's Harvard-bred and self-consciously literate and admits a preference for "the Byronic hero to the unquestioning conqueror." None of his previous films -- from "Legends of the Fall" to "Glory" or "The Siege" -- has grossed more than $67 million domestically.

The ambitious "The Last Samurai" isn't classic tent-pole fare. "A third of the movie is in Japanese," says the filmmaker, on the eve of its debut. He's willfully banished away worry about the film's commercial prospects. "If you're thinking of anything other than the movie, you'll inevitably swing the bat and miss."

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A long way from suburbia

The writer-director is in fact best known as the co-creator with Herskovitz of "thirtysomething," the landmark 1980s TV show that examined the angst and muted joys of yuppie married life. He's one of the poet laureates of the suburban self-involved, able to etch gradations of ambivalence with the precision of a scalpel. For Zwick, the emotional minutia is riveting. He's fascinated by what he calls "the epic nature of those struggles."

On the surface, his films seem to be his own object-reaction to all those fuzzy feelings. They're big, "Melville-like or Conrad-like odysseys into different times and places," he says.

Zwick came of age during the Vietnam War, and he's obsessed with men in battle, grappling with the age-old questions of duty, honor and bravery. But these are not the high-body-count bang- 'em-ups, simple empowerment fantasies for 14-year-old boys. In Zwick's universe, the battle is fraught with all the anxieties of domestic drama. No outlay of force goes unquestioned. Instead of joyful victory, there's always a kind of sacrifice.

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