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With 'Samurai,' he's big in Japan

CAMBRIDGE -- The multihyphenate Ed Zwick seems comfortable finding his way around Harvard Square on a recent visit to his alma mater -- that would be the college that gave the neighborhood its name -- but he has a certain edginess about him. It's not nerves, exactly. And there really isn't any reason the Oscar-winning Zwick should be nervous about the release of "The Last Samurai," which he directed, produced, and co-wrote.

 

His resume is a series of successes. Among his directing turns are "Glory," "Courage Under Fire," "About Last Night," and "Legends of the Fall." Producing credits include "I Am Sam," "Traffic," and "Shakespeare in Love," which won an Academy Award for best picture. And writing efforts include "The Siege." His television curriculum vitae is equally impressive, with numerous credits for series such as "thirtysomething," "Relativity," "Once and Again," "My So-Called Life," and "Family."

It was TV that first pulled Zwick away from being a stage director, which he studied at Harvard's American Repertory Theatre, to work in the late '70s on "Family."

With "The Last Samurai," which opened Friday, Zwick and his cast and crew are already receiving some early attention that should make everyone happy, including a best director award from the National Board of Review. Zwick returned to Harvard recently to teach a class and screen a final copy of the film. He discussed the movie over breakfast recently at Henrietta's Table.

Q. You seem a little edgy. What is that?

A. I hadn't seen this print of the film yet, and I really wanted to see how it all came together. This really isn't the kind of film you put out there for test audiences. Nothing we learn from previews will or could change what we ultimately release. But I have to say that I was curious how it would be received in Japan, and so far the reception has been excellent.

Q. Did you worry about that?

A. Although there is a rich history of cinema in Japan, and I would cite a number of movies and directors as influences, I was surprised by how much people inside Japan were happy to hear that their story was being told. The Japanese people and their culture haven't been the subject of as many movies as so many other cultures. I think there was a hunger to have those be told.

Q. Were there cultural hurdles to getting the movie made?

A. No, I think because from the beginning we realized what we were up against in shooting a movie in three locations about an American, a Civil War hero who travels to Japan, and the cultural clashes he witnesses and faces. I'm glad it was apparent from the beginning that we weren't presuming to tell a Japanese story to the Japanese people. And I think once we conveyed that to those we worked with, they helped us get this story told.

Q. How did you pick this story?

A. It was such an interesting time, and so many stories related to both countries that could have been told. But we didn't want to tell an exact historic account of any one person or any battle. We merged a few stories and pulled from history where possible. [Tom Cruise's] character [Nathan Algren] is actually based on soldiers who had similar experiences. There wasn't one uprising, but for the clarity of a story we took events and pulled them together.

Q. And the Japanese advisers on the film or the Japanese audiences didn't mind?

A. The individuals we were lucky enough to work with were remarkably generous with their knowledge and their opinions. I think because we stated all along that we were trying to tell a story, not make a documentary of any one particular moment in either culture's development.

Q. How did you prepare?

A. We did a lot of research. We read an enormous amount from that time. Of the West Point class of 1854, some 60 to 70 percent of the class members wrote letters back home, and they were available through the West Point librarian. It's amazing, actually, what was available -- so many stories of the wars with the Indians out West. They covered the spectrum of backgrounds and emotions about representing their country in that arena.

Q. And by "we," you mean?

A. [Fellow writers] John Logan and Marshall Herskovitz, and, of course, Tom [Cruise].

Q. Why did you choose a big-name movie star like Tom Cruise to appear opposite actors unknown to US audiences?

A. First, Ken Watanabe [who plays Cruise's nemesis turned comrade in arms] isn't known here, but he's well known in Japan. And I think it was more of a question of `Why Tom?' before people saw the movie. He's that convincing in the role. He's the consummate student of film. He works hard to prepare for each role; for this role he underwent a remarkable transformation. In the beginning Tom couldn't sit right, much like his character. He had to learn each of those changes in his character. He really is undergoing the same education his character goes through on-screen.

Q. Will the next project build on this?

A. I never like to talk about a project until I've solidified what it's going to be. For me, it's about the story and the universality of what that story will say, whether I'm writing it or directing it, or producing. Is it interesting? Will people want to not just see it but enjoy having been told this story? It's about the humanity of it and the human transformation that attracts me to each story. Each character in any of the pieces I've worked on could be a movie of their own. You find the most compelling story.

Carol Beggy can be reached at cbeggy@globe.com.

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