Julia Roberts walked off set – and we’ve not spoken since: director Ed Zwick’s Hollywood horror stories

Hollywood director Edward Zwick
Edward Zwick, director of Blood Diamond, Legends of the Fall and Glory: 'I still have that fire in my belly' - Evan Mulling

Spilling the tea on Hollywood is a literary tradition. Think of David Niven’s The Moon’s a Balloon, William Golding’s Adventures in the Screen Trade, or Easy Riders, Raging Bulls by Peter Biskind.

To that pantheon of tell-alls, we can now add Ed Zwick. At 71, after more than 40 years as a writer, director and producer, Zwick has seen the best and worst that Hollywood has to offer. As a pioneering TV writer and executive, he made Thirtysomething and My So-Called Life. Behind the camera as a director and producer, Zwick has capered around the world with the industry’s biggest stars.

He helped Denzel Washington win his first Oscar for his role in Glory, an epic about the American Civil War; put Brad Pitt into a Western in Legends of the Fall; had Leonardo DiCaprio doing a more than passable Zimbabwean accent for Blood Diamond; and turned Tom Cruise into a samurai for The Last Samurai.

Anthony Hopkins, Daniel Craig, Jennifer Connelly, Claire Danes, Jake Gyllenhaal, Anne Hathaway and countless others have all worked with him. Along the way he has battled penny-pinching producers, capricious actors and, in one notorious encounter, Harvey Weinstein at the height of his manipulative, avaricious powers. If it can go right or wrong in Tinseltown, it has happened to Ed Zwick.

In a reflective moment during lockdown, after a remake of Thirtysomething was put on hold, Zwick, who started his career as a journalist, decided that the time had come to commit some of his stories to paper. The result is Hits, Flops, and Other Illusions: My Fortysomething Years in Hollywood, an enjoyable memoir which canters over Zwick’s many successes, and rather fewer failures.

Edward Zwick with actor Denzel Washington on the set of Courage Under Fire, which was released in 1995
Zwick with Denzel Washington on the set of Courage Under Fire, released in 1995 - Cinematic/Alamy Stock Photo

‘I’m more accustomed to my films being polarising, frankly,’ Zwick says, over video call from his home in Santa Monica, California. Bearded, with horn-rimmed glasses and a plaid shirt somewhat louchely unbuttoned, a spacious wood-beamed room behind him, Zwick looks every inch the prosperous Hollywood veteran. He is friendly, but you can imagine you would not want to be late to set. ‘There has been unanimity about the book, which makes me anxious,’ he admits.

He should not worry. Perhaps unsurprisingly, given he has made his fortune distilling complex stories into digestible spectacles, Zwick strikes a canny balance between pulling back the wizard’s curtain and spilling over into bitchiness. ‘Speaking of names, I’ll be dropping a few,’ he writes. ‘I’ve come to accept there’s no way to tell these stories without being falsely modest or pretentiously unpretentious.’ He briefly agonises that his disclosure might stop him being invited to Hollywood parties, before merrily carrying on.

‘If I was willing to take the p—s out of myself, that earned me the right to do it to a few others,’ he says. ‘I couldn’t avoid [name-dropping]. This was the currency, these were the people I was working with. My fascination with them predates my familiarity so it was inevitable that I would be aware of what seems at times to be name-dropping.

‘But I thought talking about it might inoculate it from dishing [the dirt] seeming to be the book’s only objective. It was part of it because it had to be. The director Sydney Pollack talked about treating movie stars as actors. That’s what the book is about. I didn’t talk about their home lives and romances. That would be somebody else’s book.’

Well, yes and no. He discloses plenty of things his subjects might have preferred to stay protected by Hollywood’s gold-plated omertà. On the set of Blood Diamond he walks into DiCaprio’s trailer to find the actor – who famously dates models and who was between girlfriends at the time – sitting with Jennifer Connelly, leafing through a lingerie catalogue.

‘What are you doing?’ Zwick asks. ‘Shopping,’ Connelly replies.

Zwick's anecdotes include a recollection of Leonardo DiCaprio flicking through a lingerie catalogue with Jennifer Connelly
Zwick recalls stumbling across Leonardo DiCaprio flicking through a lingerie catalogue on set with Jennifer Connelly - Gregg DeGuire/WireImage

Many actors get glowing write-ups, including Cruise. ‘His superpower is joy,’ Zwick says. Matt Damon was agreeably mischievous. Billy Connolly was ‘so funny I had to tell him to shut the f—k up’.

The actors who come in for criticism are those with the most wipe-clean public profiles. Brad Pitt is usually thought of as Hollywood’s perpetual golden boy, a sandy-haired hunk. When Zwick cast him in Legends of the Fall, however, he found that while he ‘seems easygoing’, he ‘can be volatile when riled, as I was to be reminded more than once’. He also claims that Pitt’s ‘greatest concern was having make-up applied to his butt’.

The two rowed constantly on set. ‘I don’t know who yelled first, who swore, or who threw the first chair,’ Zwick writes. But he explains that he has never shied from a frank exchange of views.

‘We are all in very intense, pressured situations, away from home in some distant location with any number of things bedevilling you,’ he says. ‘We’re all passionate, reactive people. When things come up it’s not necessarily the worst thing that can happen. It speaks to a certain level of passion and commitment. Nobody is right or wrong.

‘Some actors are self-contained and don’t need much, others want to mix it up and have differences of interaction, [there are] those who want to be confronted, seduced, jollied out, have long intellectual engagements… It becomes a bit like the United Nations.’

Edward Zwick , Marshall Herskovitz and Brad Pitt (right)
Zwick (left), pictured here with fellow director Marshall Herskovitz (centre), 'rowed constantly' with Brad Pitt (right) - Michael Kovac/Getty Images for AFI)

Matthew Broderick, the star of Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, caused Zwick ‘the most stressful’ weeks of his life when – according to the book – he enlisted his mother, Patsy, to rewrite the script of Glory. Broderick walked out several times before the film came out. ‘Matthew wasn’t badly behaved, he was just too passive,’ Zwick says. ‘In the end his work was great.’ Glory was a triumph, winning Denzel Washington an Oscar.

Julia Roberts caused much more trouble, he writes, when it came to Shakespeare in Love. In the early 1990s, after being pitched the original idea about Will Shakespeare as a struggling writer in literary London, Zwick got the studio to pay Tom Stoppard $1 million to write the screenplay on the promise that a young Julia Roberts, then fresh from the success of Pretty Woman, would star in it.

She and Zwick flew to London together for readings with a who’s who of young British male actors, to see who might play Shakespeare.

On the flight over, Roberts told Zwick that she often couldn’t help falling in love with her co-stars. After Daniel Day-Lewis was not available, Zwick brought in Ralph Fiennes for a reading but, according to Zwick’s memoir, ‘It was a disaster… He couldn’t get out of there fast enough. After he was gone, I turned to Julia, awaiting her reaction. “He isn’t funny,” is all she said.’

One by one, she refused, among others, Hugh Grant, Rupert Graves, Rupert Everett, Colin Firth, Sean Bean, Tim Roth and Jeremy Northam. She eventually accepted Paul McGann, sometime Doctor Who and star of Withnail & I, but only briefly before she left the project for good.

He writes that the pair have never spoken since, adding, ‘I bear her no ill will. She was a frightened young person looking for love.’

Julia Roberts
Zwick reveals that he and Julia Roberts have 'never spoken' since she refused multiple potential co-stars for Shakespeare in Love, and left the project - Ron Galella Collection via Getty Images

Years later Shakespeare in Love resurfaced. Harvey Weinstein acquired the rights and tried to cut Zwick out of the process. Zwick responded by suing him. Weinstein rang him up. ‘You think you can sue me, you prick? You don’t know who you’re dealing with. I’m going to ruin you!’ Zwick stood his ground and, after making a tearful apology to Zwick, Weinstein agreed to keep him on as producer. When the finished film won the Best Picture Oscar, Zwick was on stage with Weinstein.

‘[Shakespeare in Love] gave me a certain perspective about a career,’ Zwick says. ‘When you get the s—t kicked out of you, do you just fold your tent and walk away, or stand up and see what lies before you? Having gone through that prepared me for other things. Why should I be surprised in a business that is as tumultuous as ours that I would end up getting kicked? It happens.’

When Weinstein was exposed as a sexual predator, it ignited the #MeToo movement. He is currently serving consecutive 23- and 16-year jail sentences for multiple sexual offences. Zwick worked with him firsthand – so why does he think Weinstein got away with it for so long?

‘Those of us who knew him believed he deserved to be jailed for his aggression as a monster in the business,’ says Zwick. ‘But someone of great aggression and size and power is often deferred to. We’re all so socialised and polite there’s a temptation to back away. I happen to come from a background where the default is to try to punch a bully on the nose. When I sued him, that was not the traditional response.

‘What I think about now, having learned about the sexual depredations, is the scale of the enterprise it must have been for him to be able to do that sub rosa for so long. That’s very upsetting. But when you study the history of fascist enterprises, the complicity and scale of complicity of people willing to turn a blind eye is staggering.’

Shakespeare in Love Best Actress winner Gwyneth Paltrow (centre), Harvey Weinstein (centre left) and Edward Zwick (centre right) celebrating their Best Picture win at the 1999 Academy Awards
Shakespeare in Love Best Actress winner Gwyneth Paltrow (centre), Harvey Weinstein (centre left) and Edward Zwick (centre right) celebrating their Best Picture win at the 1999 Academy Awards - Bob Riha Jr./Getty Images

Weinstein would be unlikely to get away with what he did now. Hollywood today is a safer place, for the people working in it but also in terms of the kinds of work being made.

‘Film has always been ungoverned to a certain degree,’ Zwick says. ‘That has been good and bad. We’ve become aware of depredations that have been going on, so that’s better [than it was]. But there is something to be said of the freewheeling behaviour that was part of my experience that was not just great fun, but also had an effect on the kinds of movies and performances that resulted.’

Sex and drugs and rock and roll? ‘There was more of that. It was part of that period, and lent itself to movies that were looser and more exploratory of behaviours. Certainly now, when movies are so examined and tailored before the fact. This is a legacy of the fact that the companies making so much product are retail companies.’ He doesn’t name them, but Amazon and Apple were shops before they were studios.

The evolution of Hollywood finances in recent decades is an interesting sub-plot to the book. Zwick recounts lunch with Alan Horn, the then-president of Warner Bros, soon after Blood Diamond had come out.

‘“I love this movie,” [Horn] said. “I’m proud of it and I’m going to hang the poster in my office. But it’s the last one of its kind we’ll ever make.”

‘“But why?” I asked.

‘“Because it cost $100 million to make and the studio only made a $40 million profit,” he said, shrugging. “Our corporate bosses expect us to meet a P and L projection every quarter. It’s more profitable for us to lose $75 million on one release and then make $350 million on the next. [...] A big movie just for adults can’t do that any more.”’

Edward Zwick
Zwick feels that movies used to be 'more exploratory of behaviours' before 'retail companies' became film makers - Evan Mulling

‘[Studios] look at a thing as something that has to be pre-tested and pleasing and acceptable before the fact,’ Zwick says. ‘There are demographers and marketers who scrutinise this. The legacy of that is to create something more homogenised, acceptable. Movies were more willing to be disruptive and disquieting.’

Technology is also a factor, he adds. ‘Movies were only able to be seen once in the theatre. That was an ephemeral experience. Once you have the ability to have that movie and start and stop and see it in your home while you look at email or go to the refrigerator, it became a different experience. The intensities of it were different. It became equivocal to YouTube or gaming or any number of things that are competing.’

Zwick’s work might look different if it were being made afresh today, too. In one fine anecdote, Russell Crowe expresses interest in playing a Japanese role in The Last Samurai. It would have been surprising in 2003, when the film was released. Today it could cause a full-blown diplomatic incident.

Compared to other Hollywood memoirs, Zwick’s is refreshingly light on meandering back story. Mostly it is a chronological tale told through his projects, interspersed with lists of advice and anonymised gossip.

We learn the basics of Zwick’s early life in Chicago. His mother, Ruth Ellen, loved the theatre. His father, Allen, was a serial entrepreneur, who went bankrupt ‘not once, not twice, but three times’ he writes. He was also a narcissist and a philanderer, which helped bring about a messy divorce. Zwick went to Harvard for his undergraduate degree, eschewing Harvard Law School for film college in Los Angeles, much to Allen’s fury. He wonders if his love of actors is something to do with an absent father.

‘There was something unattainable about his attention, even his love,’ Zwick writes. ‘That I should choose a life pursuing intimate relationships with movie stars is almost comic in its Freudian implications. It’s possible it accounts for a certain love-hate relationship I’ve always had with them.’

Zwick got his break writing on Family, a TV drama on the ABC network. He says he has had two great marriages. There is his actual marriage to Liberty Godshall, an actor turned writer, with whom he has two adult children, Jesse and Frankie, both of whom have ended up in the business as well. There is also his creative partnership with Marshall Herskovitz, which has lasted his whole adult life.

Edward Zwick with Tom Cruise on the set of Jack Reacher: Never Go Back in 2016
Edward Zwick with Tom Cruise on the set of Jack Reacher: Never Go Back in 2016 - PictureLux/The Hollywood Archive/Alamy Stock Photo

He writes about the toll being on the road takes on family life. ‘I credit my wife with this determination that in those times when I was back, I was able to come back and be home for dinner and coach football and drive the carpool and be that father I wanted to be,’ he tells me. ‘I’m sure my kids bear some of the brunt of that, but they were also given extraordinary privilege to see these foreign countries and be exposed to gifted artists. They’re both writers. I don’t know if that’s a good thing or a bad thing.’

Zwick’s lowest moment came in November 2008, when he was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma on the day he was due to start casting Love & Other Drugs, ironically a film about disease, starring Jake Gyllenhaal and Anne Hathaway. Both stood by him while he juggled chemotherapy with keeping the show on the road. The experience gave him renewed appreciation of the pleasures of his work.

‘I was very sick and able to work soon after, not having known if I would ever work again,’ he says. ‘To have that opportunity was so delicious, and unexpected, that every day is joyous.’

So far nobody has sued over Hits, Flops, and Other Illusions. ‘I don’t think I’m defaming anyone with any malice,’ he says. ‘And I don’t think what I say in any situation is cruel.’

With the publicity tour coming to an end, he is looking forward to getting back into the day job. He and Herskovitz are teaming up with JJ Abrams to adapt a Stephen King novel, Billy Summers.

‘I still have that fire in my belly,’ Zwick says. ‘I loved [movies] long before I was paid for it or recognised for it, and like to think I still have that.’

The book has not made him blacklisted from Hollywood quite yet, then?

‘That remains to be seen,’ he says with a chuckle. ‘But I hope not.’

Hits, Flops, and Other Illusions by Ed Zwick (Simon & Schuster, £18.99) is out now; order at books.telegraph.co.uk