Interview: Edward Zwick
By Ryan Mazie
November 18, 2010

The dude who made fun of my hat can be dropped off a canyon now.

Edward Zwick likes to go to battle. Whether it is directing Glory, The Last Samurai, Blood Diamond or Defiance, Zwick seems to have positioned himself as a director who uses a giant scope. So in 2009, when he set out to direct and co-write his next project, Love & Other Drugs, a romantic comedy whose main character is in the profession of pharmaceuticals, it was surprising to say the least. “The funny thing is that during that period of time [shooting big-budget movies], I also had been doing television shows,” recalled Edward Zwick during a roundtable interview in Boston. “Doing My So-Called Life and thirtysomething was an opportunity of doing very small, human behavior. And the last number of years I really stopped doing television to do movies and I missed it. To be away from it was something I had longed for. So this movie seemed to be an opportunity to express that part of myself.”

Love & Other Drugs tells the scaled-down story of a career-minded drug rep, Jamie (Jake Gyllenhaal), hoping to be put on the fast track by selling the new company drug, Viagra. Things get complicated when his no-strings-attached relationship with a girl diagnosed with Parkinson’s, Maggie (Anne Hathaway), turns into a romance. Loosely based on Jamie Reidy’s memoir, Hard Sell: The Evolution of a Viagra Salesman, Zwick talks about what makes a good love story, being a Hollywood matchmaker, returning to TV, and if his movie has enough nudity to enter the Guinness Book of World Records.

Like the game Jamie and Maggie play in the movie, tell me four good things about yourself.

Well, for one, when I became a father, I became a better director. Let’s see. My editor from film school has cut all my work for 30 years so I’m loyal. I’ve worked with the same actors a number of times (pauses) …. God, I have never had anything in my movies turn around on me like this (laughs). I actually have increasingly grown to love the process of making movies, which wasn’t always true. And finally, I think that actually the performances and stories of movies are more important than the director putting himself out in front of it.

What elements are important to make a good love story?

So often in romantic comedies, the obstacles are contrived and external. I think the most interesting obstacles are internal. One of the points of this movie is when you evoke work and Parkinson’s as the ostensible obstacles, once revealed, that the things that are more inhibiting are those issues of intimacy and of character that have to be worked through. They are higher than the Montague family walls and stronger than the Capulet rivalry. All of us carry around some baggage, some damage, that we have to get through in order to connect with another person. And that’s very much the heart of the movie.

Being one of the screenwriters, was the tone always the same throughout the scripting process?

I think Marshall [Herskovitz] and I really, very much, wanted to have that comic levity throughout. In my experience, nothing is too funny; particularly the most serious things, even illness. The word “and” was more important than the word “or.” They could be having the most serious moment, but it would also be undercut by something genuinely funny. I think that describes something Anne does in her performance very well and it really was the intention of the movie. They can’t help but enjoy each other, and that’s why they are drawn together.

What about the original story inspired you to make it into a film?

It is really hard to say. Something strikes you or you see another possibility. The book does not have a lot of [what’s in the movie] in there. It does evoke a moment and time and circumstance in a man’s life. I’ve known people who’ve had certain illnesses, I’ve dealt with issues of ambition in my own life. I was once that age. All of these things conspired to bring an opportunity to tell this story.

You work with two other writers on the script, so how does that collaboration work?

The first draft was by a very talented writer named Charles Randall and he wrote some lovely stuff. He had other commitments and we had ideas about a different direction we wanted to take the script. We held onto some very fine writing in there and reinvented other parts of it. At the end of the day, it reflects all of our work collaboratively. Marshall and I have written together so it’s really two writers if you will; Charles and then us. And happily, Charles is very proud of the movie and I am very proud of having his name on there with ours.

Jake and Anne have such an amazing chemistry that really makes the movie work. So how did that great casting come about? Did you have them in mind while scripting?

I asked them and they said "yes" (laughs). You never have anyone in mind when writing a script. That’s dangerous, really. But they were the first people who came to my mind and asked. Annie’s work in recent times has only been more and more exciting as she shows her courage; she’s very brave. And Jake has so much work that he’s accumulated now. Some of his movies are great, some that are less great, but I felt that there are parts of both of them that audiences haven’t yet seen that I could show them.
You get to know people individually and it’s like fixing people up. Sometimes you are right, sometimes you’re wrong. This time I was right. They are very smart, determined, brave, and serious about their craft. They worked for three days together on Brokeback Mountain. They knew and respected each other so I brought them back together. It was obvious.

Earlier in your career you had a presence in TV. Do you intend going back to TV now that there is such a boom in higher-caliber TV writing?

Well certainly if I were to do TV it would have to be [cable]. If you are a writer now, that’s where you want to be obviously. Yes, there are certain exceptions – Modern Family is great writing, but a lot of it isn’t. There is so much that is good in cable and if I were to do it, that’s how I would. I haven’t talked about it yet, I’ve been lucky enough to make the movies I want to make and I will continue. On the other hand, there are some detractors of television. Just doing it week after week and getting it out in front of so many people, that’s pretty heavy.

Do you prefer writing for television?

Whenever I write for film, I prefer writing for television. When I write for television, I prefer writing for film (laughs).

I loved the soundtrack of the movie. How did that come together?

It was an opportunity to be eclectic. Composer James Newton Howard, who I’ve worked with a lot, does great orchestral stuff; so have Hans Zimmer and James Horner. But to have a contemporary soundtrack was a different opportunity I felt again changed things up in a way I wanted to.

Nowadays everything is available … at a click on the computer. Music supervisors might say, let me give you 50 cuts that might be interesting for this part and you’d go, “OK.” (laughs). That’s always fun. Something is either working or not and music always makes it better.

The ‘90s were an interesting moment in music history. Not the best moment, so to find stuff that is evocative of it, my favorite is when we do the Macarena! That just puts you right there. It is unmistakably that moment and no other.

I think that there might be more nudity in this than in any other romantic comedy.

Does that mean I get into The Guinness Book of World Records?

How did the actors, who obviously signed up for it, react?

We wanted there to be authenticity in the movie in every aspect. The people with Parkinson’s who talk about the drugs in that one scene have Parkinson’s. The relationship between Jamie and Maggie we wanted to have a beating heart of truth. In my humble experience, when two young people meet and are really into each other, they are naked a lot. And not always fucking. They are talking. But I wanted to have that feel to it. And by the way, I think you have to exclude European films from that record, because it is not so surprising in those.

Were there any suggestions to choreograph the scenes to be less graphic?

It felt so coy. And I didn’t want to be coy. I wanted to be straightforward and [Anne and Jake] got it. They understood. I didn’t want it to be exploitative. If you look at the movie closely, each sex scene is a marker of something. It is about how they get closer, how they are having trouble, what they get through. It’s not just for the purpose of just looking at their bodies.

Was there anything you had to tone down to get an R rating?

Only cut nine or ten sex scenes (laughs).

People seeing the ads go, “it’s the Viagra movie,” but seeing the film, the Viagra plays just a part.

Yeah, I mean, I really like cross-pollenating movies. Is Broadcast News about friendship or is it about ethics in journalism? Is Jerry Maguire about sports management or love? Is His Girl Friday about a newspaper or divorce? I just think that those movies I really like are about a number of things.

So how do you feel about the film’s promotion?

Look, it’s hard not to be reductionist when selling a movie on television in 30 seconds, because that’s mainly where the movie is sold. Yes, there is a trailer in theaters that is more complex. I hope and my suspicion is that it won’t be sold as a typical rom-com. It is more than that. It is an unconventional love story. It’s sexy and edgier. The key is for the movie to sell itself. People seem to like it, when they see it and talk about it and I hope it becomes a date movie. Men like it as much as women. That’s a rarity.

Why do you think men like it as much as women?

I think that Jake’s character’s arc of what he goes through is pretty relatable. The idea of trying to succeed and understand what the cost of that is on a relationship is relatable. Also trying to deal with the world in which sex and love are not necessarily synced up.

The movie is fairly long with many different elements tonally and plot wise, so how was the process of pacing it?

I’m told the film is four hours long (laughs). Comedy is a hard thing to talk about. You try things to see if they work or not, but finally it is intuitive. You have to trust your sense of what’s funny. Then when you play it in front of an audience and it falls flat, then you reconsider.

How many takes do you do on average?

Well, I tend to do less rather than more. If it is about the timing in physical comedy, sometimes you have to do more, because if it’s off by that one second then it falls flat. There are stories about Chaplin that are just astonishing about how many takes he took. But, there is a freshness often in the first couple times things happen and when I’m doing that, I often have two cameras to just cover it if it never happens that way again.

How has the response from the Parkinson’s community been?

Those people actually had Parkinson’s in the movie. We were in the Parkinson’s community very much in Pittsburgh and Annie worked very hard with neurologists and support groups. Also Michael J. Fox is someone I know very well. He was very helpful to me while making this movie and said something very important to me, “It can’t be funny enough.” So that’s what we did.