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IMG_8682.JPGEdward Zwick can create grand spectacle (“The Last Samurai,” “Glory,” “Defiance”) but he is unsurpassed in creating honest moments of intimacy in couple relationships, from “thirtysomething” to “Once and Again” with his frequent partner, Marshall Herzkovitz. Zwick is co-writer and director of “Love and Other Drugs,” a very sexy romance set in the 1990’s world of pharmaceutical sales and health care challenges. Anne Hathaway and Jake Gyllenhaal, who played an unhappily married couple in “Brokeback Mountain” reunite in this film as a pair who are less naked with each other in the literal sense as they become more open to each other emotionally. I last spoke to Zwick about “Defiance” and was thrilled to have a chance to meet with him again to discuss one of my favorite films of the year.
Where did the movie come from?
Jamie Reidy wrote this book, Hard Sell, which doesn’t have a lot to do with the movie, but it is about his experiences as a pharmaceutical rep at the time of the introduction of Viagra. And a very talented guy named Charles Randolph wrote a draft of the script and it talked a lot about the Viagra experiences but it didn’t talk about the relationship that much. And then Marshall [Herskovitz] and I took that, keeping a lot of stuff that was Charles’ that was really good but also trying to add stuff we felt it needed.
It was a very interesting moment in American cultural history. Suddenly the FDA said they were relaxing the rules on advertising drugs to consumers. And consumers were going to their doctors and saying, “I want this.” Ad sales skyrocketed and drug sales skyrocketed. It was a go-go time in the 90’s. Everything was about making money and the character seemed to embody that to me.
We finished the script and then said, “Who is out there right now that really enchants us as actors?” I’d known Jake a little bit. His parents are in the business. I’d seen his work grow and grow and grow and I felt there were parts of him I knew that I hadn’t seen, that I felt I could show people and surprise them with. And Annie’s work was already great, and I saw her in “Rachel Getting Married” and especially Shakespeare in the Park and I said, “This girl is really great. She wants to take risks.” I said, “That’s who I want to do this movie.” I thought, “That’s a very sparkly, very sexy combo, and I went after them.”
They each had very interesting things to say about the script. They’re both very smart, intellectually smart and actor smart. We got to know each other very well. You have to gain a real level of trust to make a movie like this. Can we be both truthful and funny about squirmy personal things? Can we find moments that are relatable beyond just these two? It evoked all sorts of things in my own life and for other people, I hope. It’s contemporary not just about the relationship but about somebody not being able to get their meds.
I was glad to see one of my favorite actors, Hank Azaria, in the film and I thought he was superb as the doctor. He has a difficult part because he has to create a very full character while delivering a lot of information about the medical profession.
He can do anything and do it so effortlessly you don’t see him working. Doctors are kind of this shibboleth in our society. We know what they do and we depend on them but we don’t know a lot about what it feels like from their side. The fact that this guy’s life could be morally ambiguous in certain degrees or that he would have complaints or frustrations or a cynical view of certain things was an opportunity within his character to reveal certain things. It was intrinsic to who his character was as opposed to being a mouthpiece for a movie. The key to write him was to understand what his circumstance was. And Hank is so good he rounds that out and makes it organic.
And what a surprise to see Jill Clayburgh and George Segal, a blast from them 70’s past.
Just to sit on the set with George and Jill was like bathing in the 1970’s movie culture. It was so important to me. They had each done Paul Mazursky movies, “Blume in Love” and “An Unmarried Woman,” those were touchstones to my childhood. And they were generous and fun and we hung together.
One of my favorite scenes in the movie is the Parkinson’s patient group meeting. Those were actors, weren’t they?
No, those were real Parkinson’s patients. I’ve known Michael J. Fox for a long time and I talked to him a lot about this. He said to me, “You have to understand. You can’t make it funny enough.” I said, “I got it.” We got a lot of patients and I gave them a lot of things to say, and then I asked them to tell me about their experience. These are good-hearted funny people reflecting on their experience. Yes, illness is serious, but the indignities are also funny. And that defines my world view. There is nothing that is so serious that you can’t also see its comic side. Comedy is a way of talking about the most serious things. I’m interested in the word “and,” not the word “but.”
How do you market a movie like this?
By showing the movie, by word of mouth. It’s about letting the movie sell itself, by showing the film to people and letting them talk about it. It’ll be interesting because it’s not one thing. It’s not a sequel or a remake or a superhero. It’s not a conventional rom-com. I’m going to a bunch of cities to get the word out. It’s a harder time to make original, less conventional movies. But God, we need them!

The Nature of Existence is a new documentary from Roger Nygard, who visited people all over the world to ask them the hardest and most important questions he could think of, about our purpose and the nature of existence. His interviews included Indian holy man Sri Sri Ravi Shankar (The Art of Living), evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins (The God Delusion), 24th generation Chinese Taoist Master Zhang Chengda, Stanford physicist Leonard Susskind (co-discoverer of string theory), wrestler Rob Adonis (founder of Ultimate Christian Wrestling), confrontational evangelist Brother Jed Smock, novelist Orson Scott Card (Ender’s Game), director Irvin Kershner (Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back), Stonehenge Druids Rollo Maughfling & King Arthur Pendragon and many more. The DVD will be released tomorrow.

He was kind enough to take time to answer my questions:

Why are we here?

It took me four years, interviewing over a hundred experts, collecting hundreds of hours of footage,and tons of airline miles to find my answer. The most common answer I got from people was religious, variations on, “To serve God,” “To know God,” “To praise God,” etc… But then that begs the question, what is God? I found that definitions varied widely. As Gandhi said, “there are as many religions as there are individuals.”

We also seem to have this notion that as a goal in life we should be pursuing happiness. But as Julia Sweeney told me, happiness is a false goal, you can’t pursue an emotion — happiness comes as a byproduct of having a purpose in life. So the real question is, how do we find purpose? You can’t give somebody else a purpose, they have to arrive there themselves. But you can give clues; you can help show people where to look, which is what my film is about. I believe the answer is in the film — it’s part of the experience, the journey we’re all on. In the film, you get to see my journey; you see what I learned from Christians, Muslims, Jews, Jainists, Buddhists, Hindus, Sikhs, Confucianists, Taoists, Atheists, Pagans, Native Americans, Baba Lovers, Satanists, everyday people, scientists, and more…. And now I have collected in one movie all their answers to the biggest questions.

What unexpected similarities did you find in the different ways people have of making sense of the world?

I was surprised to discover that religious and scientific motivations stem from the same drive within us. We all share a curiosity about the world, and the Universe. Where we look for those answers is what’s different. I’ve heard the religious describe it as being born with a God-shaped hole in your heart. As you grow and mature you fill that space with something…religion, spirituality, drugs, adventure, sex, or some other pursuit, God being the most perfect fit. The scientists fill that space with questioning and learning. They describe humans as pattern-seekers making connections between things in their environment as they attempt to exert control in their lives. But control is an illusion. There is an old joke, if you want to make God laugh, tell him your plans. Quantum mechanics has made it even clearer that we exist in a Universe that is variable and unpredictable. But we have made great strides in the thousands of years that our species has existed. Where religion used to be the exclusive holder of cosmic explanations, science has been encroaching on religion’s domain, providing more and more answers for how things are the way they are. Who’s right? Whenever I asked a scientist, “Why do we exist?” They would often correct me and say the proper question is, “HOW did we come to exist?” They leave the why question to the religious and the philosophers. I think conflict between religion and science occurs when the “why” and “how” domains get confused as the same thing. To each it’s own. Render unto Caesar….

Did you find some approaches more hopeful than others?

Some approaches are more tolerant than others. I find proselytizing to be destructive. Our best hope for the future is to accept the fact that we will NEVER all agree. Given that, our most hopeful course is to allow others to have different beliefs. Jesus (and others) preached the Golden Rule: do unto others as you would have them do unto you. This is somewhat invasive, however, in that it assumes that everybody else would want the same thing as you. Confucius is known for a negative version of this, also known as the Silver Rule: Do not do to others that which we do not want them to do to us. Essentially, live and let live. To quote Julia Sweeney again, I also like her rewrite of the Golden Rule: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you, but ask them first if it’s okay.

What do people understand least well about those with other beliefs?

Most people (including myself before I began this journey) are unfamiliar with the fact that there are so many other belief systems. There are over a thousand active religions on the planet. How do you know that you were lucky enough to be born into the right one, unless you investigate the others? The whole point of this journey for me was to get to know people with different beliefs, ask them what they believe and why they believe it–without trying to change them into what I think they should believe. I found there are more similarities than differences. As Mark Twain said, “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness.”

What have you learned about the importance of laughter?

Even though The Nature of Existence deals with some very serious subjects, to me they are comedies. People are fascinating, surprising, and funny. Life is absurd and if you don’t laugh you go insane.

What are some different ways people have of dealing with grief?

Grief, sadness, and loss are necessary to know joy. As one young man says in my film, “We exist to experience emotions.” There has to be a balance, you can’t have only happiness in life. But when we are in the downward part of the cycle, laughter is our strongest tool for coping with setbacks, for combating the infinity of death. The more serious a topic, the more jokes we tell about it.

What inspires you?

I am inspired by great art, great movies, great writing, great musicians, great speakers, great teachers, greatness in human endeavor… And on the contrary, bad movies, bad television, bad art, bad music, I find it depressing that somebody at some time thought that terrible work was good. If you want to be inspired, expose yourself to greatness.

How is your journey continuing? Where will you go next?

I have continued to learn from people at question and answer sessions and post screening discussions. This movie makes people want to talk. A lot. Only half kidding I sometimes announce before a screening, “I should warn you all not to see this film because it will mess with your mind. — But if your mind is already sort of messy, you’ll be fine. If your mind has everything stacked in nice neat piles, they may get jostled though.” Taking on the most challenging questions is a self-perpetuating process, because the result is so rewarding. After finishing the film I was faced with a bit of a dilemma, however: what to do next? What topic could be even more challenging than the very nature of existence itself? I finally found one, a topic even more perplexing and inexplicable: The Nature of Marriage. Check back in a couple years for some answers on that one….

One of the most famous characters in literature is the brooding Heathcliff in Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights. Since its publication in 1847 it has captured the imagination of generations of readers with its story of a tragic love affair in the Yorkshire countryside. A wealthy man impulsively adopts a street urchin with just one name: Heathcliff. He is described as “dark-skinned gipsy” and as “a little Lascar, or an American or Spanish castaway.” He grows up passionate and impetuous — and deeply in love with Catherine, the daughter of the man who took him in. She loves him, too, but marries a neighbor with whom she is more comfortable. Heathcliff’s passion becomes vengeful and the consequences are heartbreak and tragedy.
The story has been filmed many times. The actress Helen Hayes wrote in her autobiography about seeing a young actor on a tennis court she thought would be perfect to play the role. She told her husband, Charles MacArthur, who was co-scripting the screenplay, to suggest him for the part because he was a “fine, brooding, broth of a boy.” That is how Laurence Olivier got his first major Hollywood role. Heathcliff has also been played by Timothy Dalton, Tom Hardy, and Ralph Fiennes. A new production has just completed filming, directed by Andrea Arnold. It has just become public that the cast includes newcomer James Howson, who is black.
Like the recent casting here in Washington DC of a black actress in a theatrical production of “Sabrina” (in the role played on screen by Audrey Hepburn and Julia Ormond), this decision is respectful of the text but gives audiences a fresh perspective. In both stories, it can help modern viewers, who can have a difficult time relating to the barriers that previous generations imposed, to better feel the class and cultural differences of the characters. Howson will bring not only his own talent and understanding of the character but the ability to surprise us and to become the role without any preconceptions or other associations that only newcomers have. I love the idea of opening up even classical parts to a wider range of actors to make sure the role goes to the most qualified performer and look forward to seeing what Howson brings to the role.

I loved this flash mob dance to En Vogue’s “Free Your Mind” on “Modern Family!”

And here’s the original video with the fabulous funky divas, En Vogue:

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