Love & Other Drugs is not your standard romantic comedy. Tackling subjects like Parkinson’s, intimate sexuality, and the healthcare industry, the film is not afraid to backdrop itself with big issues and look honestly at some difficult subjects, and yet it does all of this in a comedic manner that doesn’t feel contrived. The film is not perfect, but it’s far more sophisticated than your average Red-Text-On-White-Background rom-com, and it’s also something quite different than the epics Zwick has been associated with of late. I spoke with the very charming director in Atlanta at a small roundtable and I’ve got that for you today in conjunction with my review.. I’ve noted my own questions in green, but as you’ll see, Zwick managed to find interesting way of answering every question….
After years of making these sweeping epics, what was it like going back to basics?
Zwick: It was fun, it was a feeling of going home a little bit. It has to be said though, that when we would do 30 Something or My So Called Life there was a great deal of observed behavior and the same kind of seriocomic tone, whatever you want to call it. So it wasn’t as if I had abandoned it entirely, the had been sort of filling my appetite for it by doing some of that sort of TV stuff between the movies, but nonetheless, working with actors of this caliber in this kind of intimate circumstance was- it was a joy. Everyone says that, and I’ve said it before sometimes when it hasn’t been true, but in this case it happens to be true [laughter]. We all had a great time.
You tend to really highlight the intimacy in relationships, why is that so important to you?
Z: Well how do you feel about the intimacy in relationships? [laughter] I suppose I’m interested in the surface of relationships but I am much more interested in what makes them tick and why they work and why they don’t, and how they change- that’s been a preoccupation of mine for a long time, long before I did this, when I started working in the theater. And also I think that you know, you talk about epic movies and stuff, the focus of our lives tends to be more internal than external and our problems are epic to us, so I don’t even know that there’s as much as a difference as there might be on the surface.
I also noticed the relationships tend to expand outside of two simple characters, that it’s about family- can you elaborate on that a little bit?
Well, you know, I’m sure there was a time in this culture, as in every other culture, when family was the center of everyone’s life but as we’ve grown more mobile and there’s greater fluidity in the society, where children tend not to live at home (although now economically that’s happening a little more frequently), you know, but the family you create tends to be more central than even your own family. And I’m interested in those relationships among “found” families and friends that become very intimate and important. That was actually the governing principle of 30 Something, really that’s how it began.
So anytime I read interviews with actors and the subject of nude scenes come up they always talk about how uncomfortable it is, how it’s like the least romantic environment you can be in, so how did you approach the challenge of directing these actors, when they’re so literally bare on the screen?
Z: You know, I know that has been true, and that has been true for me too sometimes, in this case we really worked -it wasn’t worked- we spent a great a deal of time reaching this real level of trust and care for each other. We talked a lot about sex and sexuality, we looked at a lot of film and how it’s been done that wasn’t pleasing to us, and decided to find a tone that was right and also with the conviction that it not be gratuitous or exploitative and that it be in service of the story. And I hope you’ll notice that something changes in each of those scenes, they’re there for a purpose, they’re a scene with a beginning, a middle, and an end and they serve a function in the story narratively. That was the way, I think- and by the way, sex doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with nudity, they’re often separated even. And you know, it was a group decision on all our parts that if we were going to be authentic about drugs, and about Parkinson’s and about all sorts of things that we wanted to be authentic about sex too.
What was your insight into Parkinson’s before the film? What did you know beforehand?
Z: I mean, I knew a bit, I actually met Michael J. Fox when he first came to Los Angeles and worked with him on a show called Family and I’ve known him a little bit, and I’ve known other people who had it, and I had particularly seen the young onset Parkinson’s. It’s a disease not a lot of people know a lot about, and it’s particularly compelling in that it’s slowly degenerative and does carry with it some horrible prospects but one has the time in one’s life to live one’s life before that happens and I thought that was a very interesting circumstance to put up against quick drugs and quick fixes and a whole culture that was the antithesis of that.
Whenever you make a movie that is backdropped by something so loaded as the healthcare industry, obviously that’s a thin line to tread- you don’t want to say nothing, otherwise you’re being exploitative and empty, but you don’t want to be preachy and judgmental either. So how do go about striking that balance?
Z: Right that is a balance, and I think it was about having those conversations be organic to the circumstance. You know, when someone stands up to try and be rhetorical, that’s when it all comes crashing to a halt, I think. But, if he’s trying to sell something to someone and he’s trying to learn something because he’s being indoctrinated into something, that’s also a way to get across a certain amount of exposition and making a comment about the practices that were going on. It’s an interesting note that while we were making the movie last year, the Justice Department levied the highest fine in its history against Pfizer, 2.3 billion dollars, for the practices that the movie describes.
To follow up with that, I noticed there’s only really two quick scenes before the character is training in that environment. It really hits the ground running, and I was wondering if it always was structured that way or if it developed in editing.
Z: Well, you end up shooting a little bit more, although we didn’t have a lot of time to make this movie and the less time you have, the closer you try to write to final cut in the script, because you don’t’ want to shoot one extra thing because then you don’t have time for something else. You know, it was trying to not just give you an introduction of that culture, but also of the 90s, where everything was sort of sped-up and go-go, and about a certain kind of flash and money and whatever, so it was in the interest of both of those things that it have that sort of flash and velocity to it, because centrally it is their story, and in some fundamental way, that is when the movie really begins, when they meet.
So who did you have work with Anne Hatheway to develop her Parkinson’s character?
Z: You know, she’s a brilliant girl and she’s a serious actress- I had done a lot of research and gotten to know certain neurologists and there are certain Parkinson’s support groups and patients, and all I did for Annie was to put her in touch with a number of those people and she took it from there. She met a lot of them, spent time and did her homework because that’s who she is.
I assume those were all actually people with Parkinson’s in the film?
Z: Oh, every one of them.
Where those any of the people that she learned from?
Z: No, because we were in Pittsburgh when we did that with a lot of the people in the community in Pittsburgh, and most of the people Anne had met were in LA, where she had been doing homework, and in NY too.
Going along with the idea of balance, and this is definitely a movie that balances comedy and drama, how do you approach the film so that one element doesn’t overshadow the other?
Z: Yeah, it’s a challenge, I mean, one thing Michael J. Fox said to me about Parkinson’s was that, he said, “It can’t be funny enough.,” which was really liberating to hear. You know, he said, “That’s how we deal with it,” and I appreciated that. The older I get the more I believe that nothing could be funny enough in life because so much of life is dark and tragic, so I guess that I wanted to do a movie that aspired to have both those colors in it, that’s how I understand life to be. It’s about “and”… this “and” this. David Mamet once said that, “In life, it’s either one thing or another, but it’s always at least one thing.”
That sounds like Mamet.
Z: Doesn’t it? Yeah, so you know, that was my goal, and you put the movie together and you realize there are certain things rhythmically that are at the wrong place and other times you find that’s exactly what you want to do. And that’s the process of post-production.
Something I really do appreciate about the film is that it’s beautiful.
Z: It is nicely- it is pretty isn’t it?
So, I wanted to ask about your relationship with your cinematographer.
Z: Listen, um, I’ve worked with some of the best guys in the business and we didn’t have the time or the money and Eduardo Serra, whom I’ve worked with on the last three movies wasn’t available [Damn Harry Potter! –r], so I said I’m gonna go with a younger guy and I looked around at a lot of people’s work and [Steven Fierberg] had shot the first season of Entourage, which looked great and was done very fast, and we did our homework.
Is this his first feature?
Z: Uh, no he’s done a couple of smaller things, I think you’d have to look them up, I’m not sure I even know- I looked at the TV work, but by the way John Toll, when he did Legends of the Fall for me, he hadn’t done much either, so there’s a tradition of that for me.
Anyway, he looked at every picture of Anne and Jake that had ever been shot, you know, he really did his homework. We had a very long conversation about what worked and what didn’t. We did a lot of tests about light and color with them- we wanted it to be believable, yet beautiful. We wanted it to be really sourcey and true, and yet pretty. It’s a process, and ironically when you have less time and money to make a movie, the more preparation you need to have, and one of the things we did sometimes, prepping on, was how it was gonna look, we did some test, we did some things like that.
Please give him my compliments then, because in terms of separating the film on just a surface level from the typical romantic comedies or whatever, the sophisticated look really sets it apart.
Z: There are a lot of romantic comedies that I’ve seen that cost twice or three times as much as this and don’t look as good, they don’t know how to do it.
They always shoot them very flat, very standard, which is so silly with how many gifted young cinematographers there are out there.
Z: And there are so many, and how the craft is becoming even more forgiving in terms of the DI [digital intermediate] afterwards, it’s true.
I know at my screening there were a lot of people taken aback by the first sex scene, as if there wasn’t an expectation for such a frank sexual scene in this kind of movie.
Z: You know, it’s funny, I had a conversation with Judd Apatow once, in which he said , “Well what I do, is I make sure in the first minute of the movie there is something really outrageous, so they know it’s coming.” Now, we didn’t do that, but I think the moment that is actually more telling is when Anne is at the doctor’s office and she’s being examined and she’s says, “I have this thing on my breast,” and sort of desexualizes her breast by doing that, so it’s like “whoah, we’re not in Kansas anymore.” And that’s the moment in the movie where it sort of declares what kind of movie it’s going to be.
I’ve always heard or gotten the impression that it’s slightly harder to do a slightly taken-back period piece, as opposed to a western or something where you just redo everything, how much did that…
Z: Well the funny things is, when I first set out to write this story, I wasn’t thinking so much about period, when you start doing your homework, and the prop guy comes to you and says, “Well do you want this flip phone or that?” and you go, “oh, flip phones.” Or he says, “boomboxes” or “pagers” and I’m going, “Pagers…? That’s funny.” There’s an opportunity there. So you learn these things, and you sort of take them into the piece and they become just little spices of something, you don’t want to- when people do the 60s for instance, when they first started doing the art direction for the 60s everybody was wearing love-beads, and had big huge bellbottom pants, when in fact, if you look at the photographs, there were people who were just wearing crew-neck shirts, and khakis and it was a mix, so you want to have it there, you don’t want it to be about the art direction.
This is the second film with Jake and Anne, with Brokeback Obviously, was there any dynamic change or anything, since their relationship was so different?
Well, I mean they didn’t work together a lot on Brokeback, I think they only worked three days together on that and had a few scenes in the movie, but they got to know each other, and respected each other and I think what happens with actors, particularly talented actors of the same age, because they have an awareness of each other in the community, they watch each others work, they run to each other at parties or screening or whatever. I think there’s this sort of unspoken community there that starts to develop, as their work grows and I think each of them had more than an awareness of each other, having worked together a little bit. And then they made all of this other work, and they were bringing that now to the dance, how they may have changed, or grown, or learned in between. I hadn’t thought about that but I think that’s true.
As a filmmaker that’s been making films for awhile, have your philosophies changed?
Z: Mmhmm, yeah, a lot. I used to over-determine everything and I think it took some of the life out of the process, maybe even out of the film for me, and I think as you gain a little bit of mastery you relax, and you let things happen and you try to be less in control of them and somehow open to things that take place that you might not have imagined. If I’ve learned anything, I’d have to say it’s a sort of passionate detachment. I eat my liver all the time on the movies and I’m not sure that’s good for the work because the camera is so objective, and it’s a Buddha, it just looks at what’s there and if you can try and divorce yourself from expectations, anxieties, fantasies, all that, you might have a better chance of seeing what’s happening and getting in there. My love for the process has only grown, and the joy of being on the set with the group of people that are so talented and so able and so fun really has become as important if not more important than the product itself.
With the film being so honest and raw, I was curious what you were most proud of about the film?
That’s funny, I think the movie has in it the amount of joy that I wanted it to have, even in circumstances that seem difficult, or edgy. I’m proudest that I think each of these actors are as good or better than they’ve been in their careers, and that’s something that we all accomplished together, and I think that I’m proudest in that I’m pretty much invisible in the movie, if you know what I mean- they’re forward in the movie, and that’s as it should be.
After making a movie like this, do you think you want to make more movies like this, or-
Z: I do, I am going to make more movies like this, and I reminded myself of something- I am still working on more things that are difficult and bigger, but I might try and have some variety in that.
What’s on your immediate slate?
I’m not good at that? I mean we’re writing, and I’m working with one writer on a thing with DiCaprio, and something with Marshall on our own. It’s difficult in these days to get a movie like this made, if it doesn’t have a roman numeral after it, if it’s not a comic book or a remake, it’s harder. So, you have to be more clever, and have to be playing more than one horse at a time. Obviously I want to keep making movies, and it’s the alignment of the right star, the studio, the script, my moment in my life, whatever I’m interested in have to line up together to really- it’s like the slot machines- to then come out, because I know too much. I know that it’s a year-and-a-half of my life, or two years and you know what the commitment is, so you have to be really invested and committed to get through that process.