In his new Hollywood memoir “Hits, Flops and Other Illusions,” film and TV veteran Ed Zwick shares a detailed account of his years-long ordeal trying to bring “Shakespeare in Love” to the screen. The Bard himself might appreciate the ups and downs and obstacles, from the day he says Julia Roberts ghosted the production that Zwick was set to direct in London, to the bullying and badgering inflicted by Harvey Weinstein, whom Zwick had to sue to get his producer’s credit. As Zwick writes, he fantasized about pushing Weinstein off the stage at the 1999 Oscars, when Weinstein hogged the microphone during the best picture victory speech.
Zwick also offers this pungent Weinstein comparison: “In France there are pigs who root around in the muck and mire for treasured truffles. They have a remarkable nose for what is valuable, but at the end of the day they’re still pigs.” For a book that doesn’t exist for the purpose of serving up zingers or exacting vengeance, “Hits” manages to deliver a tasty supply of both.
“I did sue him and recover my credit, so I did punch him in the nose metaphorically,” Zwick says in a recent video interview from his Los Angeles home. “But I never got that actual moment of tossing him off the stage, which, as we’ve seen from other more recent evidence, probably wouldn’t have been a good idea.”
A combination instruction manual, reminiscence and festival of name-dropping, Zwick’s memoir — subtitled “My Fortysomething Years in Hollywood” — captures much of what it means to be a Hollywood storyteller: the interminable delays between inception and production (on those occasions when production even happens); the egos stroked and dreams dashed; and the exhilaration that accompanies the miracle of a project that somehow, through a combination of persistence and good luck, reaches its fruition and lives up to its potential. There’s never really any meanness here from Zwick, the man behind movies like “Glory” and “Legends of the Fall” and TV shows like “Thirtysomething” (with his longtime creative partner Marshall Herskovitz) and “My So-Called Life” (with Winnie Holzman). Zwick, a youthful 71, comes across as a grizzled veteran still eager to learn and, mostly, to impart some of the wisdom he has gleaned from others over the years.
He is eager to see younger artists embrace the kind of personal filmmaking that inspired him as a youngster and continues to light his fire. “That does not mean autobiographical filmmaking,” he says. “It means investing in a story with something that you deeply believe in. That could be political and that could be cultural or that could be psychodynamic. That is what has always motivated me, even in the midst of big horse operas and historical epics. It’s about moral dilemmas, or that recognition of what heroism is. There are themes that I think unite some of my work, at least, and that would be the takeaway I’d hope for here.”
Lest you assume “Hits, Flops, and Other Illusions” is an exercise in pedagogy, be not afraid. Tea is spilled. Before Weinstein got his hooks into “Shakespeare in Love,” Roberts, then in her early 20s, was tabbed to play the starring role that eventually went to Gwyneth Paltrow. As Zwick writes, Roberts flew to London with him to help cast the male lead. She grew obsessed with Daniel Day-Lewis, even though Zwick explained Day-Lewis had already committed to star in “In the Name of the Father.”
Undaunted, Roberts disappeared one night and returned the next day with a big smile, proclaiming that Day-Lewis was in. Zwick then met with the actor, who explained that, no, he was still out. According to the director, Roberts proceeded to mope through the casting process, which included readings with the likes of Russell Crowe, Ralph Fiennes, Hugh Grant and Colin Firth. Roberts didn’t like any of them. Then, one morning, she checked out of her hotel and flew back to the States without telling her director, effectively shutting down the production to the tune of $6 million in sunk costs. It would be years before the movie was resuscitated, with John Madden at the helm.
Then there was Zwick’s ordeal with another rising star, Matthew Broderick. Zwick was happy to land Broderick, coming off the success of “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off,” to play the lead in the Civil War epic “Glory.” Broderick, too, put Zwick through the ringer, bringing his mother in to demand extensive changes in the screenplay and rake Zwick over the coals. At least Broderick ended up sticking around.
Zwick insists he harbors no ill will toward Roberts or Broderick, that he aims to accurately and honestly recount, not settle scores. “I determined at an early moment in the writing process that I was going to be as authentic as I was able,” he says. “It was about including both sides of what this experience not only was, but always is. Only if I could be true and authentic did it also establish my bona fides to tell other stories that are about wonderful people and deeply moving experiences. I didn’t want it to be just self-aggrandizing war stories, because that’s not the nature of the gig.”
“Hits, Flops, and Other Illusions” is ultimately a clear-eyed and intimate account of one man’s adventures in Hollywood, the good, the bad, and the ugly, from the pits of development hell to a tempered Oscar night triumph that didn’t end with a tumble from the stage, at least not outside the author’s mind.