When Ed Zwick appeared at a November screening of his new film, “Defiance,” he quoted some lines from a poem by W. H. Auden called “September 1, 1939”:
“I and the public know
“What all school children learn,
“Those to whom evil is done
“Do evil in return.”
Those lines are particularly relevant to the film, which is based on the true story of the Polish Jewish Bielski brothers, who saved dozens of other displaced Jews by offering them a kind of sanctuary and began a brutal fight against the Nazis in the forests of Eastern Europe during WWII. Indeed, the characters as portrayed in the film are heroic but also violent — sometimes murderous — in taking revenge against the Nazis and even each other. It’s that duality that pulled Zwick into the story.
“People tend to describe history in monolithic terms,” says the helmer regarding some of the film’s unsettling depictions of retaliation. “But when you break it down, you discover there are complexities throughout, and the Jews are not immune to that.”
While some attending the screening reacted with quiet gasps to one scene in which a Nazi soldier is cornered and beaten by members of the encampment, those moments seemed especially honest to one reporter in attendance whose father had survived Dachau by escaping the camp and living in the nearby forest and later told stories just as harsh about what it took to survive there.
Finding the money to tell that kind of story wasn’t a simple process — but not an unfamiliar one for this writer-director-
“This is typical for me with my movies. The studios didn’t want the film, but we were able to go to Cannes and get European financing because my last few films had done well there,” says Zwick, who completed the 60-day shoot on a $35 million budget, fully financed by Grosvenor Park. “Then we brought it back here (to the U.S.) and got domestic distribution from Paramount Vantage, and even then it was only possible if I and Daniel (Craig) took a very small portion of our salaries.”
Zwick’s passion for the material was evident in his commitment to the shooting location, Lithuania, which offers no tax incentives like some neighboring Eastern European countries.
It wasn’t an easy shoot,” says Dan Weil, “Defiance” art director, who adds that the country’s and miles and miles of diverse forests were key to the film. “The forest was a character in the movie,” he explains.
Composer James Newton Howard also found himself moved by Zwick’s commitment to and passion for the material.
“His energy never lags,” says Howard. “He was always so involved in the story.”
The struggle to get the story onscreen was worth it, says Zwick. “With these kinds of subjects, it never gets easier, but the reason to do this is that there’s a story that’s worth telling.”