HUMANITAS Board of Directors' Ed Zwick Honored at Austin Film Festival
by Matt Pacult HUMANITAS Board of Directors member Ed Zwick, Matthew Weiner and Jim Sheridan were the featured award winners at the Austin Film Festival this weekend. AFF co-founder Barbara Morgan moderated the winner’s panel.
Though each award they received is different, AFF takes into account the entire careers of their contestants, and Morgan asked the panelists discuss their path to success.
“Writers were very respected in my house,” Weiner said. Constantly focused on his personal writing, he described himself as a terrible student and suggested he was a terrible employee. “I always tell people don’t become good at your day job,” he said as he described situations in which a person takes a job for money, becomes good at it, gets promoted, and gives up writing. There was a period of five years during which he didn’t work, and referring to his wife, he said, “She may not realize this, but she kept me from being bitter. When you become bitter in those moments of struggle, people can smell it on you.” He wrote Mad Men privately, often at night, for no pay, years before it landed him on David Chase’s The Sopranos.
“I’m pretty much the same way, but probably am bitter,” Jim Sheridan said to laughter from the audience. “I think the thing I started with was an ego problem.” Hailing from Ireland, Sheridan claimed to have fired his dad from a theater company and wouldn’t let his drama teacher direct. He became successful in Ireland. “I ran a theater,” he said, “and then I just wanted to get out.” He moved to New York. “What changed me was jealousy of Neil Jordan,” he said to more laughter. “I knew him really well, we worked in college together, and he fucking made it, and I hated it. I was like, he’s not that good.” In New York, Sheridan wrote plays throughout the 1980s before writing and directing the critically and commercially successful film My Left Foot in 1989. The film launched his filmmaking career.
Zwick described his rise to success as traditional. He detailed the brutal filmmaking experience of AFI’s graduate program. Competitive students dug into each other’s work. “Afterwards you were required to do that penitential, ‘I am guilty of the sin of exposition. Forgive me Father for I have given you bad pace,'” he said. He emerged as a mimic of other people’s voices but uncertain of his own. While working on the show Family, he received network script notes for a scene that he felt he portrayed honestly. His response was to say, “I just can’t do this.” The shift was gradual but transformative. “It wasn’t until life sort of grabbed me by my throat and I learned about love and loss…was I able to break through to a personal place and find what began to be recognizable as my own voice.”
The panelists emphasized the desire to work outside of formulas. Weiner said, “Genre feels totally false to me,” stating that with Mad Men, “I get to do a comedy one week, I get to do a drama one week…I can do a film noir if I want to…but it will be related to life.”
Zwick explained, “When you talk about personal filmmaking it doesn’t mean, necessarily, autobiographical. It means what is invested personally.”
“Write stories without a gun,”Sheridan pointed out. “James Joyce was obsessed with not having violence in his stories.”
Sheridan added, “I keep thinking of these Greek guys…it took them about a hundred years to have two actors…then it took about another hundred for them to have three. So if it took that long to get those characters, there must be something fundamental about storytelling that’s personal, idiosyncratic, and about self.” That personality pushes the form into creative new realms.
For more coverage of the panel, check Austin Film Festival’s show On Story in the coming months.