Moving Pictures
Apr 03, 2024, 06:29AM

Anonymous Men of the Multiplex

Journeyman director Ed Zwick’s breezy and fully functional memoir Hits, Flops, and Other Illusions “does what it’s supposed to do.”

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In a few decades, maybe half a century, all work spurred on by the pandemic will be catalogued and known. Each book, movie, album, or painting will be cross-referenced, and full details will be available as to the amount of coronavirus in each work. How many will offer personal anecdotes about March 2020, 11th or 17th or whatever day the place they lived shut down? Stories from all over the world, all experiencing the same event in basically the same way, unlike all of our other era-defining tragedies since the end of the Second World War. Residents of New York, Oklahoma City, and Los Angeles saw parts of their cities explode, burn, and crash into the ground, and while they lived in the aftermath, the world understandably moved on in time after the shock wore off. Televised images of destruction don’t mean much when you can’t see or feel a trace of it in your waking life.

Who’s thought much of East Palestine, Ohio in the last year? Probably mostly the residents of East Palestine, Ohio, abandoned by the media after being inexplicably ignored in the first place. I’ve no idea what’s going on there, and don’t particularly care to find out unless someone thinks about it or tells me—in other words, a headline, a new article.

Ed Zwick’s new memoir kept me upright through a vicious and versatile cold these past few days. Hits, Flops, and Other Illusions offers rare, extended insight from a journeyman director. If you scan the Film section at a great used book store like Normal’s here in Baltimore, you’ll find plenty of memoirs, but mostly by actors and very well-known directors: Frank Capra, Peter Bogdanovich, Josef von Sternberg, William Friedkin; William Witney, perhaps the greatest journeyman director there ever was, wrote a memoir, and it’s in print, but how many people like Steven Brill, John Stockwell, Pieter Jan Brugge, or Andrew Fleming are even inclined to write in the first place? These directors are rarely interviewed at length, the press doesn’t cover them, and at one point, they directed hit after hit that made hundreds of millions of dollars.

Brill and Fleming worked with Adam Sandler in the early-2000s. John Stockwell began his career as an actor (notably in a trio alongside Jackie Earle Haley and Tom Cruise in Curtis Hanson’s 1983 teen sex comedy Losin’ It), but by the time I was going to the movies regularly, he was a screenwriter (Rock Star) and director (Crazy/Beautiful); Brugge got his start at AFI like so many others, and that’s where he met Ed Zwick. All of these guys make movies that everyone sees, but no one knows them, so who’d want to publish any of their memoirs? So they never even seriously consider the idea. Maybe for their children… but Zwick begins his book by setting the scene in Tribeca at four a.m. on March 11, 2020, about to start his first day on the reboot of thirtysomething (with a new cast, dubbed thirtysomethingelse). The city shut down, and so did the show. Four years later, “it’s stillborn”—like so many of the projects filmmakers become attached to in Hollywood.

Zwick’s book is as comfortable as it’s familiar and unchallenging; he offers nothing salacious, just the frustrations, injustices, and vagaries of being an American director in the last 40 years. He doesn’t have (known) demons or divorces, and if there’s anything to be gleaned between the lines, it’s his long suffering wife Liberty Goodhall, staff writer on thirtysomething who wrote one screenplay that sold and then dedicated herself to her family. Zwick mentions how pissed she always is here and there, and how their marriage strained at times, but they’re still together after four decades. He just doesn’t go into it very much, and why should he? It’s their life. Hits, Flops, and Other Illusions ”does what it’s supposed to do,” much like the movies Zwick made a career of.

Before the promotion started, I’d vaguely remembered the name Ed Zwick—and it turns out I saw about half of his movies as they came out without having a clue who he was. I had no idea the same guy directed The Last Samurai, Blood Diamond, Love & Other Drugs, and Pawn Sacrifice. That’s the fate of the journeyman director, no doubt well-compensated and in Wick’s case, largely successful with only a couple bombs and one massive disappointment-cum-skullfuck (Shakespeare in Love, which he helped develop, and was six weeks into building sets when Julia Roberts dropped out; Harvey Weinstein eventually got it, and when they won the Best Picture Oscar, Zwick was nudged from the mic). Unlike editor Paul Hirsch, whose career and memoir were much more bumpy and bitter, Zwick really can’t complain despite his insecurities and neuroses. He’s made several movies that have crossed generations: Glory, About Last Night, Courage Under Fire, The Siege; his television work is even more renowned, with My So-Called Life and thirtysomething.

Zwick admits in the foreword that before the pandemic, he never thought of writing about himself, and in the acknowledgments, he thanks one of his editors for asking, “Where are you in it?” Again, Zwick’s references to being a “nasty son of a bitch” are vague and few and far between; he mentions “banging heads” with Tobey Maguire, a situation I’m more interested in than the irresponsible abandonment by a young Julia Roberts. But Zwick, like his movies, is a control group. Nothing sticks out. He made romantic comedies and epic period pieces with relatively consistent success. He’s not remarkable in any way, but he’s never boring, and I’ve enjoyed many of his movies, and even thought about some for years afterward (The Last Samurai, Love & Other Drugs, Pawn Sacrifice).

He also tellingly admits several times that “he’ll never live up to his idols,” or the careers of contemporaries like David Fincher, Cameron Crowe, or Steven Spielberg. He’s “reconciled himself” to basically being anonymous, and that’s why his book is valuable: we never hear from these guys. Zwick gives exactly the kind of advice you’d expect from a journeyman: always shoot coverage, writer’s block is inevitable, you will make as many movies as movies you were about to make and never did. To me, it’s a sad life, because despite Zwick’s tightrope success, he admits to straining his marriage to this day, and the bitterness and rage of projects that fell through or were sabotaged is still red hot. He says Hollywood’s no place for an artist, and his career shows it. Look at how many fights, moronic or not, he had to go through to get these movies made? And how many compromises were there along the way? Again, Zwick sounds largely satisfied with his oeuvre; if he wishes he could recut or reshoot any of them, he doesn’t let on.

The book ends in a familiar refrain going back to the 1980s: multinational corporations are more and more the moneymen controlling Hollywood, and they won’t accept, for example, a $40 million profit against a $100 budget on Blood Diamond—it just “doesn’t move the needle on the stock price.” This was in 2006 or 2007, and obviously theatrical moviegoing in America has gotten a lot worse, even as cinema itself continues to live and grow like any other art form. At risk right now are the theaters, and Zwick can only throw his hands up at the way things have gone in the industry where he started shooting film. I can’t wait for the first memoir from a director of the post-celluloid age, super-famous or not, because after the 2010s, the economics and technicalities of the actual filmmaking process changed completely. Zwick is one of the last anonymous men of the multiplex.

—Follow Nicky Otis Smith on Twitter: @nickyotissmith


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