Edward Zwick makes movies that Oscar can’t help but notice.
First there was “Glory,” the 1989 Civil War drama that earned Denzel Washington his first acting nod from the Academy. Then he produced the Best Picture-winning “Shakespeare in Love.” And just three years ago, Zwick’s epic drama “The Last Samurai,” starring Tom Cruise, earned four nominations. And come December 8, the director will be back with another film seemingly made to order for statue consideration.
“Blood Diamond” stars Leonardo DiCaprio as Danny Archer, a South African mercenary on the hunt for a diamond many will kill for. Joining him in this topical political drama are Jennifer Connelly as an American journalist looking for a story and Djimon Hounsou as a fisherman who needs the gem to save his son.
Zwick recently spoke with MTV News about his latest flick’s political dimensions, how he landed the elusive Leo and whether awards matter to him.
MTV: How does a film like this begin? Is it with a character, a story or an idea that you want to confront the diamond trade?
Edward Zwick: There was a very early script I read that described finding the diamonds in Africa, but it didn’t really take into account the political implications. That script really motivated me to look deeper into the issue and what I discovered was just remarkable, particularly because very few people knew about it.
MTV: What did you discover?
Zwick: When we buy something, we are endorsing a corporation that takes it from someplace else. In other words, we have a real political effect with our purchases. To be a consumer, we are in fact affecting the world and affecting the lives of thousands of people very far away who you never see. To understand that connection is very important.
MTV: Is there a danger in a film like this to preach to an audience rather than simply tell a compelling story?
Zwick: The key is just to have the lives organically inhabit those issues you’re dealing with. So the story of these people is in some sense at the forefront of the issue and also somehow intrinsic to them. In other words, the people don’t just represent something. Their motivations are deeply personal. That’s the key.
MTV: Despite Leonardo clearly being the star, it seemed to us that Djimon Hounsou’s character was the eyes and ears for the audience. Do you agree?
Zwick: I do think Djimon Hounsou is the moral center of the story. Searching for family and trying to keep the family together amidst chaos is a universal theme — one that’s been a part of movies for a long time. When you take the story of a man looking for a diamond and you juxtapose that with a man who is looking for his son, immediately one asks the question, “What is valuable?” That becomes the story.
MTV: What do you make of the harsh reaction that diamond merchant De Beers has had to your film?
Zwick: Their job is maintaining the image of diamonds. Diamonds exist because of image — their value, their worth, their indestructibility. So if a movie presumes to add some rather unattractive facts to the image, that’s something they’re concerned about. They’re going out of their way to talk about the positive benefits of diamonds and how all of this is in fact finished in Africa, when in fact [human-rights organizations] like Global Witness and Amnesty [International] are saying, “Sorry, that’s just not entirely true.” My sympathies tend to go with those who have no financial agenda.
MTV: Unless your name is Martin Scorsese, it’s hard to get Leonardo DiCaprio to commit to your movie nowadays. How did you do it?
Zwick: It’s very simple: I had a script that he very much wanted to do. I sent it to him a couple of times. He knew my work. We got along, and he said yes. I know that sounds a little bit oversimplified, but believe it or not, what it finally comes down to is a piece of material and a connection between the director and the actor.
MTV: What did he bring to the character?
Zwick: He’s remarkably brave and committed. He went to extraordinary lengths to immerse himself in the character — the physical training, the weapons and the psychological understanding to be a white South African of that generation.
MTV: Did you discuss the notion of Archer being an antihero?
Zwick: We never felt we had to talk about it. It was just so obvious that that’s what I was going for. It’s certainly what he embraced. The character had real complexity and some less-than-attractive qualities that were appealing to him. There comes a moment it seems in every actor’s life when he approaches a part like that. It’s like what John Wayne did in “The Searchers” or Henry Fonda in “Fort Apache” or Michael Douglas in “Wall Street.” It’s a great moment in an actor’s career when you see them do that and do it well.
MTV: You are no stranger to the awards season. What do you make of all the chatter about Oscar potential for your films?
Zwick: The reality is, your life is remarkably unchanged by awards. Movies are hard to make. They’re not made any easier by virtue of winning awards. It’s really an absurd notion that you could even compare any two movies and suggest that this is a better movie than that. A movie succeeds or fails on its own terms, and that’s a very legitimate conversation. But to say that “The Departed” or “Little Miss Sunshine” should be considered in the same breath — how do you do that? What does that mean, really? It’s a way to keep people interested in movies.
MTV: There’s been talk that Leo’s performance in “The Departed” could be considered a supporting one to make room for leading-man consideration in your film. Do you think his role in “The Departed” is a supporting one?
Zwick: It’s such a curious movie in term of its structure. Obviously Matt [Damon] has a very central part in it. So does Leo. So does [Jack] Nicholson. I suppose you can make an argument for it being an ensemble. On the other hand, whose name is the biggest movie star? I don’t know what makes one a lead actor or supporting actor in that case.
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