Conversation With HUMANITAS Board Members Winnie Holzman and Edward Zwick
by Matt Pacult Photo by Arnold Wells
Edward Zwick and Winnie Holzman discussed the nature of collaboration and the mechanics of writing at AFF on Sunday. Their friendship became evident as soon as they started asking each other writing questions and pinpointing the other's idiosyncrasies. They worked together on thirtysomething, My So-Called Life, and Once and Again. Zwick is on the HUMANITAS Board of Directors and Holtzman is a Trustee. The panel was moderated by Linnea Toney.
They discussed the nature of collaboration. Zwick described two kinds of writers relationships: combative vs. open. “There is the writer who believes what he has written should be enbronzed. That it is THE thing that he has said, and the best way to say it… your presumption to suggest something or have a different idea can be met with this very defensiveness.” Zwick continued, “And then there is the writer that looks upon that as an opportunity. And is willing and supple enough to question and tear apart and come back to you with even more or create that third thing that neither of you had even imagined.”
There is value in both relationship molds. Holzman said, “You can collaborate with someone successfully and not be getting along with them.” Yet, the product turns out better than what one writer working alone would have produced. Referring to a more collaborative writing partner, Zwick said, “That’s the thing you prey for.” In the writer’s room, Holzman mentioned she and Zwick would be finishing each other’s sentences.
They discussed how collaborations evolve. Holzman said, “We have been collaborators but Ed is my mentor.” She was an apprentice that got to collaborate and not just observe. That rare, treasured relationship led to a more fulfilling creative life, Holzman explained. That phenomenon is rare, Zwick said, because, “As the prodigy becomes more prodigious, that relationship starts to change.” The mentor experiences an anxiety of influence as he is confronted with a more confident, dominant apprentice. “A change in any relationship—as we all know having been in relationships that have changed—is the hardest thing to reconcile.” Referring to Zwick and his writing partner Marshall Herskovitz, Holzman said,“These men were really gracious to me in their openness and their invitation to me to change…to grow.”
Zwick mentioned the industry’s pressure on collaborative relationships. “This business does everything it can to divide you. There are people whispering in your ear.” There are infinite variations of conflicts that occur between directors, actors, writers, cinematographers, etc… “It happens all the time among passionate people. You have to allow that into process too. There’s gonna be conflict. The question is how you deal with it.”
On the subject of structure, Holzman asked Zwick how he had such an innate sense of story structure. His writing partner, Marshall Herskovits had told him, “He could take me and drop me into the center of any story and I’d be able to tell him what scene came before and what scene came after.” It goes back to his childhood. “Story for me was a way of organizing a very chaotic childhood..whether it was my toy soldiers or in books or whatever…story became this kind of inner sound I heard.” Everyone has different gifts, he said, but his might be genetic. He told the anecdote of how he was telling his three-year-old daughter a bedtime story, and she pointed out, “Daddy, there’s no conflict.” She was right. He had been sleepy and lazily telling it.
They were asked how beating a play is different from beating a film. Zwick replied, “I would compare a screenplay to poetry in the way I would compare a play to prose.” It’s a matter of compression. Zwick cited an anecdote about F. Scott Fitzgerald from the book What Makes Sammy Run? by Budd Schulberg. The studio wanted a scene about the disenchantment between a husband and a wife. Fitzgerald came back with a “20 page exegesis on this relationship and its complexity.” The studio head dismissed Fitzgerald and called in a rewrite man. An hour later, the rewrite man came back with the scene: “A man and his wife walk into an elevator. The elevator doors open and a pretty woman walks in. The man looks over at a pretty woman and his wife looks at him looking at the pretty woman. They look at each other. The elevator doors close.” The rewrite was half a page.
When asked about suspense, Holzman said that she thinks about ticking time bombs and injecting suspense in comedic and romantic scenes. She is always asking, “How can I grab attention, pull that person in, and create a situation where that person doesn’t want to look away?” Zwick added, “Marshall (Herskovitz) maintains that an audience loses their attention every six seconds. Unless you give them a gift every six seconds, their mind will wander.” He gave examples of gifts: jokes, relationship status shifts, camera moves, an extraordinary image, plot changes. “Literally your compression has got to be so intense and your understanding of that rhythm has got to be so dynamic as to never let those six seconds pass without something happening.”
They talked about who they write for and why. When writing in suspense, Holzman said “You’re not writing for your aunt who thinks everything you do is wonderful.” It needs to keep an audience engaged. On the other hand, she valued personal, intimate writing that passes a standard she sets for herself. She wondered who would care if she gave up writing, describing those moments of self doubt. “I imagine myself quitting the business. Nobody cares…a few people are happy.” The audience laughed, as she continued, “Nobody cares but me. I care for the rest of my life.” Zwick said, “I maintain you’re writing for six or seven people, two of whom are dead.” Those inner voices keep him honest.
There are qualities of television writing that repulse them. Zwick said, “There has been something that has happened that’s lazy.” The fact that each hour has to end on a cliffhanger has led to, “the supremacy of plot over character…There’s something to be said for shape and roundedness and the promise you can make to the audience of an experience rather than only the promise of a story.” Holzman added, “I just can’t stand all the darkness on TV…I’m not saying it isn’t done with incredible artistry, but after a while it builds up for me and is overwhelming.” Zwick pointed out there is a discrepancy between the number of actual serial killers in American history and the hundreds of TV shows dedicated to serial killers.
The conversation touched briefly on gender roles in Hollywood. Holzman said, “Most of my friends who are writers, we were all mentored by men. And we were so grateful, we didn’t have women in our lives like that who wanted to do that for us. We didn’t encounter those women.” She said there was kind of a scarcity mentality, “If I help you in, there won’t be enough for me.” That attitude has changed. Now she and other women of her generation have the freedom to mentor women, or anyone else for that matter. She concluded, “You may have a different experience. That was my experience.”
When asked about HUMANITAS, Zwick said that the HUMANITAS prize was founded on a simple idea. “The brilliant observation was that writers need money,” he said to laughter from the audience. And rather than providing artists with a statue, HUMANITAS would provide them with cash. “It’s an inducement to a writer to do things he cares about rather than the things he has to do for the people.”
For more coverage of this panel, check Austin Film Festival’s show On Story in the coming months.