The Civil War masterpiece Glory return to theaters today from Fathom Events (under the banner of its TCM Big Classic Series) to mark the film’s 30th anniversary. Directed by Edward Zwick off a screenplay by Kevin Jarre, the Tristar Pictures release presented in soaring fashion the true story of the 54th Massachusetts, the first all-black volunteer regiment to fight in Union blue. Led by a white officer, Col. Robert Gould Shaw (Matthew Broderick), the outsider troupe included Pvt. Trip (Denzel Washington), Sgt. Major John Rawlins (Morgan Freeman), Pvt. Jupiter Sharts (Jihmi Kennedy), and Cpl. Thomas Searles (Andre Braugher, making his feature-film debut).
The film won three Oscars, including a best supporting actor trophy for Washington that instantly elevated him to a whole new strata in Hollywood. Deadline sat down recently with Zwick (who followed Glory with films such as Legends of the Fall, Courage Under Fire, and Blood Diamond) to reflect on the cinematic and cultural legacy of the landmark Civil War epic. Zwick noted that one early scene in Glory that brought Washington, Kennedy, Freeman, and Braugher together in a tent, revealed the “beating heart of the movie” to the director, prompting him to home in on the soldiers and their group dynamic as the foundation of the film (as opposed to the script’s emphasis on Col. Shaw’s personal odyssey). It was a choice that led Glory on its march into cinema history.
DEADLINE: You mentioned that you recently attended a screening of Glory in a theater for the first time in many years. Did you see the movie you remembered or did you perceive it differently in any unexpected way?
ZWICK: The movie registers in my memory in terms of my life, the age of my children, my marriage and various other things. So I do see it differently in those terms. But, watching it again, it’s not as if it is a different movie — although it does seem like a different movie in the culture now than it was then. I can tell you that watching it again reminded me of what I took away from the movie. I’ve come to realize that a movie becomes what it wants to be. In other words, you can have a vivid, over-determined sense of what you want to accomplish but then the movie takes on a life of its own. That was something I didn’t understand until I made Glory. In the particular case, of Glory, the studio made the movie because Matthew Broderick, who was coming off of Ferris Bueller, was willing to do it, and basically they said, “Well, you can cast the other parts if you want.” What became so clear to me the minute that I shot that first scene in the tent is that’s where the movie was and that’s what I began to chase in the making of that movie in terms of some writing and focus and any number of other things because what those guys knew and understood is something that I was humbled by. I had to get out of its way, too, in some ways, and that was interesting to me. In a movie there are organic things and they do change. They change as you make them and they change as you cut them. And then they even change again over time.
DEADLINE: Moviemaking is the most collaborative art, too, with hundreds of people involved. A film is pulled into different shapes by chance and by all the choices made along the way…
ZWICK: Context changes it, the dynamic of filming changes it. In this particular case, I had worked on that script for a very long time and with people like [noted historian] Shelby Foote. But I couldn’t have known what it would feel like to be shooting those scenes in Savannah, Georgia, just blocks from the site where slaves had been held in cages. Or what it would feel like on the battlefield when we went to Gettysburg for the reenactment to shoot some of it, to think of what it was to be on that ground.
DEADLINE: That sense of place and the sheer scale of the film invest a lot of power into Glory.
ZWICK: You know what’s funny is that now, in this age of CG, if you can have 200 Orcs, why not have two million Orcs? But the scale in Glory is in fact a little sleight-of-hand. There were a couple days when we had 700 people. We went to a reenactment at Gettysburg for a day to shoot it in July for some of those early shots, but in fact I took some of the biggest days when we had those extras and I sort of salted them throughout the movie to give it that sense of scale. I actually one reason it might seem big is that it’s feels accurate to what the size of the encounter might have been. There were maybe 900 men in the regiment and maybe we had 700. So some of the authenticity is from the [portrayal of the] proximity of how they fought and the tactics. All of that somehow, I think, made it seem bigger perhaps on the screen than it really was when we shot it.
DEADLINE: You mentioned that you recently watched Glory in a movie theater for the first time in years. What did you see in it that surprised you? What kind of reactions did you have in general?
ZWICK: It’s so mixed. I think every director generally cringes at the things that he cringed at even back then and there were few of those moments, inevitably. But, look, the work that these actors were doing, the ensemble work? Particularly of Morgan? Amazing. Denzel’s work was so celebrated at the time, but watching the movie again what I remembered was how much the ensemble efforts helped when we did a lot of the improvisations that led to these key scenes. So I see that work when I look at the movie. I also see great subtlety in Matthew’s work because it’s a very difficult thing to play someone who is callow and this kind of reluctant — even diffident — hero, which was appropriate to the period. That really struck me as I looked at the movie again. It felt right in terms of behavior and attitude. I’m not sure his choices were seen as craft when the film came out. In the time since Glory, the moviegoing audience has seen Matthew age and they have seen him do more subtle work and maybe now realize that there was real craft there.
DEADLINE: This was such a shining moment in the career of Denzel Washington. The two of you would work together again [on Courage Under Fire and The Siege] but was it especially satisfying for you to watch his career ascent after his Oscar win for Glory?
ZWICK: He lives for the work and for the process of it. Obviously it meant a lot to him, I know, to be recognized like that but I have very particular memories of him and the things that stuck with me as we got older were different ones. I remember being at a dinner afterwards with him and I remember his mother and seeing her reaction. I’ve also come to know [Washington’s sons] John David, and Malcolm, and I know that Glory has a particular importance to them, and the way they see him and see his career. And that is kind of great. I suspect that, you know, if I were to ask my son it would be similar, too. A lot of kids, young men in particular, I think, see this movie and it’s a moment that seems to really resonate. I can’t tell you how many times that somebody’s come up to me you know and said, “Well, I’m an assistant professor of history at Davidson College in Ohio and I saw that movie when I was 14 and I had never really thought about American history before that and I began to read…” I’ve gotten a lot of that over the years and that’s really nice.
DEADLINE: When you think about your days writing for Rolling Stone and the journalism chapter of your career, how would you say it has informed your filmmaking?
ZWICK: Well, it’s funny I also wrote for The New Republic after Rolling Stone and together they formed something. I think if there’s any kind of thread to the movies that I’ve done, they have all, in some sense, been a thinly veiled excuse to do research or to do something investigative, be it with The Siege doing a lot of stuff with the DOD and the CIA, and it was the same thing with Courage Under Fire and the Inspector General of the Army, or the research that informed Blood Diamond. I think that the idea of actually doing the source reading and trying to meet the real people and really get the feel of a place and of a kind of the people even this most recent movie I did having to do with death row and the death penalty, I mean, I think there’s just no substitute for that. I think some filmmakers make movies about other movies as opposed to making movies about life. As a journalist, you are so encouraged always to go and smell the smells and be in the room. That pursuit is the thing I would say informs my filmmaking. Out in the world is where you find eccentricity and the odd idiosyncrasy and that helps inform the work. It’s often those weird eccentricities that actually give it depth and that feeling of authenticity.
DEADLINE: Michael Mann has a similar approach of immersing himself in reportage and meticulous research to find cinematic details that will ring true. He’s a native of Chicago, too, like yourself…
ZWICK: Yes, he is and, yes, he goes deep. I remember him talking about the stitching on the back of a seat of a Ferrari. Okay, but Michael, we’re not going to see the stitching on the back of the Ferrari when the guy’s sitting in the chair. “It doesn’t matter. It’s got to be right.” There’s something to be said for that, though. [Steven] Soderbergh talked a lot about this when we did Traffic together. If the default is truth and authenticity, if the sets feel right, if the costumes are right and fit, if the words and the staging is right, if you can create that ambience in which an actor can feel it all, it becomes an edifice for the performers so they don’t have to do as much to get to the place of the performance. I think that’s one of the things you get. And maybe that’s why some of the performances in some of my movies have been memorable. It’s not just great actors — because they are great actors — but it’s also because what they are being asked to do was within some believable context. Everyone then somehow conforms to that in that way.
DEADLINE: Beyond the added authenticity to the film and the filmmaking, what other ways did the location and its history come across to you? What was it like being a Chicago filmmaker making a Civil War epic in the South?
ZWICK: I was a young guy, maybe 34, 36, but I was a survivor of the politics of the late 1960s and early 1970s and issues of race were very prominent in my experience and in my consciousness. And here I was, this young white kid trying to talk to these guys — and, through the film, talk to the world — about a very important moment in black history. I had a certain amount of anxiety about that. But some things happened in my favor. One of them is I had wonderful advisors and people around me that I really trusted, Shelby Foote among them.
DEADLINE: What about the world beyond your circle of support?
ZWICK: Before we started shooting I had this call from Kweisi Mfume, who was the head of the Congressional Black Caucus, and he said they wanted to come visit the set to talk to me before I started shooting. My first response was, “Oh, f—.” But then, once they came and they sat down, we had a very nice dinner and they said: “Look, here’s what we want to talk about, we just hope you understand that this group was not a monolith, that it was made of shoemakers and soldiers and doctors. Those men were not a monolith and our community is not a monolith. And it was so wonderful because that was my intention. Another thing that was so vivid was their generosity and that was mirrored by Andre and Denzel and Jihmi and Morgan, which is you know…you know, we could write lines like you know “Ain’t much a’ matter, today we be men,” and you could be afraid that you’re going to be sent straight to while liberal hell. But, in fact if, you were to ask me to imitate or to try to parrot what my grandfather in the shtetl might have sounded like, I could do that easily and with great love. And what I found is that these guys were right in touch with those voices in much the same way and they dealt with it with extraordinary humor and good will. And the extent of that response was a great surprise and an enormous part of the experience.
DEADLINE Do you consider Glory your signature achievement as a filmmaker? And, before you respond: Yes, I do routinely ask people to pick which of their children they love the most …
ZWICK: Yeah, exactly! Good luck. But, yeah, exactly, you have two children and that’s like a Sophie’s Choice right there.I can tell you that that I think the best movie that I’m ever going to make is the one I haven’t made yet. If I thought anything different I would stop. There are four ways to judge a movie and the first three don’t count. You know, the first one is the opening weekend as it grosses and the second one is the critics and the third one is the awards and none of them really matter because the only one that tends to matter is time.
DEADLINE: That’s interesting, especially coming from a filmmaker whose production company is named Bedford Falls. As in George Bailey’s hometown in It’s Wonderful Life, a national treasure now but a movie deemed a commercial and critical dud when released in late 1940s…
ZWICK: Well, there you go, right. There are two kinds of movies. Memorable movies and forgettable movies. And you can’t always get the one you want but you should always be shooting for memorable. We wanted to make Glory memorable and, well, the fact that we are talking about it now 30 years later suggests that we succeeded on that level.