INTO THE WOODS OF VILNIUS TO RECREATE THE BIELSKI ENCAMPMENT
From the beginning, Edward Zwick knew that DEFIANCE was going to require a complex and elaborate production in order to fully capture the scale and nuance of that terrible time in history. From choreographing the action to designing the sets and costumes to capturing it all on camera, the process would be, in itself, epic. It was the collective commitment to making the film that everyone - director, producer, lead actors and supporting players, department heads and crew - that made it possible. Zwick surrounded himself with a highly accomplished artistic team, many of whom he had worked with before, including two-time Oscar nominee, Director of Photography Eduardo Serra, Production Designer Dan Weil and Oscar® winning Costume Designer Jenny Beavan.
"Ed assembled much of the same team who had worked together on BLOOD DIAMOND, including Dan Weil and Eduardo Serra, both extraordinarily talented artists," says producer Pieter Jan Brugge. "The intense feeling of the film arises not just from the performances, but also out of an accumulation of nuanced details - the layering of the characters with the costumes, props, and the design - all of which help bring the audience into a world they've never seen nor heard about before."
The first question was where to shoot the film? Since Belarus is now a dictatorship, filming there was out of the question. Instead, a search of the surrounding Eastern European countries led Zwick and his creative team to Vilnius, Lithuania, which offered both an authentic landscape and a small but eager filmmaking community.
"The forests of Lithuania are absolutely extraordinary," says Brugge. "Once we saw them, we knew we would never find an environment better suited to shooting this movie. And it was very helpful that we would be able to access these locations from a city situated less than an hour away."
The city also contained many heart-rending reminders of what the Jews of Vilnius experienced when German troops entered the city in June of 1941, killing 21,000 upon their arrival and herding the remainder into two prison-like ghettoes in the traditional Jewish quarter. Then in 1943, the ghetto was liquidated and those left alive were sent to Nazi camps in Estonia and Poland or murdered and buried in unmarked graves in the nearby forests. Of a community once estimated at 60,000, there remain today only a very small number of Jews in Vilnius, but the survivors were particularly excited by the film. Many who had been in the forest as refugees visited the set and marveled at its authenticity. Some even worked as extras.
"It was moving to all of us to be in a place where so many of these events took place," says Zwick. "You cannot help but feel the ghosts. You sense the presence of the past all around you and you want to be true to it. You want to evoke that spirit and help keep it alive by creating a story that might be told to future generations."
In working with Serra, who garnered Academy Award® nominations for his work on the period films GIRL WITH A PEARL EARRING and THE WINGS OF THE DOVE, Zwick wanted the visual style to emphasize a sense of visceral immediacy, rather than of past history. "We wanted the audience to feel that these events are happening in the moment. We neither wanted it to feel antique nor too modern or flashy that might distract from the story," Zwick explains. "The low northern light gave us a kind of natural de-saturation that emphasized the darkness of the woods, the wetness of the moss, the absence of sky, what it must have felt like to be in that place for months on end."
Hours and hours were spent pouring through Russian photography archives, which were rife with heart-stopping images of the local partisans who had managed to document their experience. "There are so many provocative images, not just from Belarus, but Lithuania, the Ukraine, Poland. It was a treasure trove," recalls Zwick.
Though they wanted a modern sense of action, Serra and Zwick resisted getting too overtly stylistic with camera movements, in order to keep the focus on the story and the characters. "Sometimes you need to just let a story tell itself and get out of its way," remarks Zwick. "We were all humbled by the lives of the people whose story we were telling and the desire to honor them."
A similar sense imbued the work of Dan Weil, whose recent credits includes memorable designs for SYRIANA and THE BOURNE IDENTITY. Weil essentially built the forest village by hand, nail by nail, just as the Bielski Otriad had done decades ago -- even going so far as to dig out the underground bunkers, called zemlyankas, where the camp members slept in straw bunks.
"Dan was literally chopping wood and building things the way they would have back then in the forest," muses Brugge. "It was all in the service of giving people the experience of what it must have been like for those who lived through it."
Costume designer Jenny Beavan - an 8-time Academy Award nominee who won the Oscar® for Merchant-Ivory classic ROOM WITH A VIEW -- faced similar challenges of bringing her work to life as she labored to meld character into clothing that was often little more than rags. Says Zwick: "Jenny was able, with a tiny budget, to give a sense of each person's life before they came to the forest, of who they once were, and then of how they adapted to living in the new circumstances."
The cast found that Beavan's clothing helped to keep in mind all that their characters' had been through. Says Alexa Davalos: "Jenny is an artist who really understands that she is giving the actor a second skin, and her clothes feel so authentic right down to the cuffs. In the case of Lilka, you see in her clothing how she is holding onto a shadow of who she was before, even though she now wears a man's jacket, trousers and belt. Her costumes were a real gift to us."
Shooting almost entirely outdoors, the production faced its share of travails, from the freezing rain off the Baltic, to the damp cold and snow of the Lithuanian lowlands. But the cast and crew offered few complaints. Instead, they all spoke of the remarkable endurance of the real life characters, and how even a glimpse of what they'd gone through to stay alive kept them motivated.
Summarizes Brugge: "What we went through as a cast and crew could only approximate in the smallest way what these people endured during those years living on the run in the woods. For each of us, it was a deeply humbling experience to come to a personal understanding of what it must have been like and how meaningful it is that they survived to tell the tale."
THE MUSIC OF DEFIANCE
The final color in creating the world of DEFIANCE was its music. "I often think about filmmaking itself in terms of music," Zwick explains. "For me, the film has passages that are allegro, andante, and adagio. There's a rhythm to storytelling, especially in trying to give the audience the time to fully experience moments before you're on to something else."
That musicality is echoed in a stark and compelling score by James Newton Howard, a seven-time Oscar nominee who reunites with Zwick after working together on BLOOD DIAMOND. Howard and Zwick decided to recruit the dynamic, young violinist Joshua Bell to play the score's haunting, evocative solos, in part in tribute to the many lost artists of Europe. "I wanted to have a score that was not only appropriate historically but also emotionally appropriate," says Zwick. "The sound of the violin is central to Eastern European Jewish culture; it is the sound of what was lost. And so it became the centerpiece, with everything else embroidered around it."
Zwick and Howard began talking about the music quite early on in the process. "It was an enormous pleasure to watch James wrestle with the themes, and marvel as the score grew," says the director. "James is both prolific and enormously self-critical. Melody just flows from him yet he is never satisfied. We probably discarded as much beautiful music as we used in the final score."
As with Zwick, Howard found the story had a personal effect on him. "It's been a very moving experience, a very meaningful experience and also a real joy for me to write this score. My father was Jewish, so there is in me, I think, a Jewish soul that comes out in the music," he says.
He enjoyed focusing on the musical versatility of the violin. "The violin can express the complete range of human emotion. It can be joyful and jaunty or it can sound like it's moaning and crying. And it can express great longing and loss, which is so strong in this story," he says. "The violin is so emotional that the key was keeping the music reined in so it doesn't tip over into sentimentality. I took a minimalist approach, with the score's melodies rooted in simple harmonies."
Howard especially enjoyed working with the renowned violinist, Joshua Bell, who played a similar role as the soloist for the Oscar-winning THE RED VIOLIN. Says Bell: "I don't do a lot of film scores but this story was just so interesting. I come from a Jewish heritage - in fact my grandmother lived very close to where the story takes place - yet I was shocked that I'd never heard this story. It was eye-opening for me -- and when they sent me some of James Newton Howard's music, it was just so beautiful, I was delighted to be asked to take part in it."
Bell agrees that the violin seems to suit the characters of DEFIANCE in their strength and passion. "The violin is so central to Jewish tradition in that part of Europe and it's also a sound that goes straight to the heart," he observes. "What James and I worked on was a balancing act to strike just the right tone, powerful but not melodramatic." Howard was moved by the way in which Bell did just that. "He's one of our great living violinists and I felt he took the score and made it a thousand times better," says the composer.
Once the score was complete, subtlety continued to be the guiding principle in weaving the music through the picture. The film's 3-time Oscar® nominated editor Steven Rosenblum explains: "James Newton Howard wields his music like scalpel, as opposed to a broad sword, which is just what this film called for. Ed and I love his music so much we might have had a tendency to overplay our hand, had James not resisted it. He understood this film had its own rhythms to which the music had to be true."
Edward Zwick is well-known for his heroic movies that include Glory (1989), and the breathtaking works of art that include Legends of the Fall (1994). Zwick has also been known for his thoughtfulness as a director, and for his record of working with television series and other films as a producer.
Born in 1952, in the city of Chicago, Zwick had a brother, Joel Zwick who was ten years his senior, and went on to become a film maker. This may have been one of Zwick's reasons to enter the film industry himself. After graduating from the AFI Conservatory in Los Angeles, California, Zwick worked as a journalist with the magazine Rolling Stone. He found work on television in 1976 as a producer, writer, and director.
Zwick eventually moved on to higher grounds, though. He made three films released for television in two years: the fashion drama _Paper Dolls (1982)(TV)_, the more comedic based Having It All (1982) (TV), and Special Bulletin (1983) (TV) which is about a reporter and his camera man held hostage by terrorists. Zwick followed up with his first theatrical release; About Last Night... (1986) starring Rob Lowe and Demi Moore. The film concerns a man and a woman attempting to enter a love affair with each other, despite their differences and the opinions of others. It was based on a theatrical production and was a success for Zwick's rising star. He raised the bar for himself with his second film three years later: bringing back a story of great heroism, Glory (1989) was a Civil War film about the first black regiment raised for the Northern army. It starred Matthew Broderick as the idealistic abolitionist Colonel Shaw, Cary Elwes as his friend and second-in-command, Denzel Washington as an angry ex-slave who questions the point of the war, and Morgan Freeman as the wise father figure towards the other soldiers in the regiment.
Glory (1989) was a massive success commercially and critically. At the Academy Awards, the film did not gain any nominations for Zwick, but it won three Oscars for Best Cinematography, Best Sound, and Best Supporting Actor (Denzel Washington). Zwick pursued television again before coming back with a light-hearted drama Leaving Normal (1992). The film was not the success that Glory (1989) had been, though, but Zwick bounced back immediately with Legends of the Fall (1994). The film was about a family of a father and his three sons as they live in the wilderness of Montana. The film starred Brad Pitt as the wayward middle son who cannot settle down, Anthony Hopkins as the stern father and former soldier, Aidan Quinn as the oldest brother who tries to be good and do the right thing, and Julia Ormond as the beautiful woman that is engaged to the youngest brother, played by Henry Thomas. The movie (which had been filmed in Canada) won an Oscar for Cinematography, showing massive landscapes and beautiful skies. Zwick drew wonderful performances from all of the actors, particularly Quinn, Pitt, and Hopkins.
Zwick produced the television show "Relativity" (1996) starring Kimberly Williams-Paisley the same year as he directed the Gulf War film Courage Under Fire (1996) starring Denzel Washington, Meg Ryan, and Lou Diamond Phillips. The film was a success, and helped advance a then-unknown Matt Damon's career forward. Zwick produced a couple of movies in 1998, winning his first Oscar for the film Shakespeare in Love (1998). He had produced this film, and while he did not direct it, he helmed the action thriller The Siege (1998/I) instead. The film once again starred Denzel Washington in the role of an FBI agent that must combat terrorists in New York City, who are taking hostages and threatening to set off bombs in the city. Also starring in this film is Bruce Willis who plays a military officer who takes extreme measures against the city. The film was not a major success for Zwick, and he would not direct another film for five years.
Instead, Zwick turned to producing again. He received his second (and thus far, last) Oscar nomination for producing the crime film Traffic (2000) which won an Oscar for 'Benicio del Toro' and director Steven Soderbergh. He also produced the emotional film I Am Sam (2001) starring Sean Penn and the thriller Abandon (2002) starring Katie Holmes. It was at this time that Zwick returned to the director's chair with the epic film The Last Samurai (2003) starring Tom Cruise and Ken Watanabe. The film (which was about a U.S. military officer training soldiers in Japan how to fight against the samurai) was a success critically and commercially, earning four Oscar nominations for Acting (Watanabe), Art Direction, Sound, and Costume.
Three years after this film, Zwick filmed what is now one of his most well-known pieces of work: the powerfully emotional drama Blood Diamond (2006) starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Djimon Hounsou. The film focuses on the war in Sierra Leone, and the issues of child soldiers, diamond mining, and smuggling are discussed while the story unfolds. DiCaprio plays a mercenary-like character that becomes interested in hearing of a man (Hounsou) that has found a very large diamond and hidden it. Hounsou's character is a father who has lost his son to the rebels, and is desperately seeking for his boy in the maelstrom that Sierra Leone has become. The two are thrown together reluctantly initially, but decide that they would be worse off without each other.
This was another success for Zwick, and it earned five Oscar nominations at the Academy Awards: two for the lead actors, two for sound and sound editing, and one for editing. Zwick once again did not receive any nominations for directing. In 2008, his latest film, Defiance (2008) finished filming and is set for a December release. It stars Daniel Craig, Jamie Bell, Liev Schreiber as three Jewish brothers outrunning Nazi forces occupying Poland and protecting hundreds of Jewish refugees.
Edward Zwick is an accomplished film maker in American cinema, but he is also a veteran of television series, and frequently juggles movies with series as he works.