You can easily forget that it’s a cold, rainy, late November afternoon in Santa Monica if you’re inside the warm, earth-toned offices of the Bedford Falls Co., the production shingle launched by Edward Zwick and his partner Marshall Herskovitz after they met as film students at the American Film Institute.
In the helmer’s own inner sanctum, there’s a large, plush, chocolate-brown leather sofa; at the far end of the room, there’s a portrait of Richard Nixon drawn by Ralph Steadman for Rolling Stone’s Watergate coverage, a memento of the director’s days with the magazine as a writer and editor.
“The idea was that people would feel comfortable here and come and hang out at the offices, and they often stop by because they know there’s stuff in the fridge,” says Zwick, smiling. “This has been a significant source of a cash-flow problem over the years.”
Zwick and Herskovitz just barely secured the name of their production company, Bedford Falls — named after the town in the Frank Capra classic “It’s a Wonderful Life” — in 1985 ahead of another filmmaker.
“About a week after we registered the name Bedford Falls, we got a call from Rob Reiner who said he’d wanted to name his company the same thing,” says Zwick. “But he seems to have done all right with Castle Rock, so I think he’s forgiven me.”
Bedford Falls has certainly gone on to success, too. The company’s produced such zeitgeisty TV series as “thirtysomething” and “My So-Called Life,” and critically lauded, bankable films like Oscar winners “Shakespeare in Love” and “Traffic.” There are also the Internet series “Quarterlife” and films directed by Zwick: “Legends of the Fall,” “The Siege,” “Glory,” “The Last Samurai,” “Blood Diamond” and this year’s “Defiance.”
Despite the large slate of projects, the writer-director-producer has kept Bedford Falls small and intimate.
“I know people who have these huge infrastructures in their companies that they have to keep going,” says Zwick. “Having money from television (come in) and (structuring) our offices this way means that we’ve only done things we wanted to do. I could hold out because I didn’t have to take something just to pay the mortgage.”
Both Zwick and Herskovitz admit they’re often attracted to characters that are in transition, openly ambivalent or highly conflicted in some way. They are also entrenched in the idea of richly personal filmmaking, something Herskovitz believes they learned at AFI.
“They taught us filmmaking in the way that a European conservancy teaches something, with the idea that there were masters who came before us and that we could learn from them,” says Herskovitz. “We looked at the films and got the idea that we should make films that are worth seeing and mean something to us.”
That perspective hasn’t made it easy going for Zwick, who, after years pushing to get edgy dramas like “Traffic” and socially provocative works like “Glory” made, wonders what it would be like to bring a project to a studio that it actually wants. His latest pic, the $35 million, WWII-set “Defiance,” was entirely financed by Grosvenor Park.
“Really, Bedford Falls is as much a state of mind as anything else,” says Zwick, who believes producing means just as deep an investment as directing. “We still have to raise money from people who have it. It has been a magnet to certain kinds of people who want to work with us and a center from which other things have emerged.”
While Zwick and Herskovitz have worked closely on most of Bedford Falls’ projects, it’s Zwick who has often done the traveling for them.
“Ed has more of a taste for going on location than I do,” says Herskovitz. “Every time he comes back from something like ‘Blood Diamond,’ where it was such a physically demanding shoot, he says he’ll never do that again. Then what does he do? He goes and shoots ‘Defiance’ in Lithuania in the middle of winter.”
That kind of determination and focus is something you hear about from many of Zwick’s collaborators — though they all say he’s awfully nice about asking them to do things over again.
“You know, I save his emails because they’re so wonderful to read,” says composer James Newton Howard, who worked on “Blood Diamond” and “Defiance.” “He’s always so encouraging and supportive, but he’s never afraid to tell you what he wants. He’ll reject something he doesn’t want and he’ll be very charming and kind when he does it. He wants you to do the best work for the film, and he’ll work with you to get there.”
Whether producing, directing or writing, Zwick believes there’s a similar level of emotional energy involved.
“Producing is just a different kind of a role in the process,” says Zwick, who, along with Herskovitz, is now writing and developing new projects for Bedford Falls. “Ultimately everyone is invested in the movie — the key grip, the costume designer — and all of you go out each day and leave everything on the field together.”
The duo are reluctant to talk specifics about upcoming projects: Zwick is not sure which ones will come together first.
“Marshall and I are writing again and we’re looking at both film and television,” says Zwick. “It’s like beating things in a mixing bowl. You’re never sure when something is going to quicken.”