Thursday, April 23, 2009

Film feature: Joel Zwick's big fat Greek killing

John Corbett and Nia Vardalos in My Big Fat Greek Wedding.

By Hap Erstein

Joel Zwick is rarely mentioned in the company of such great directors as Steven Spielberg, Martin Scorsese or Francis Ford Coppola, but he has achieved something that none of them has.

He directed the highest-grossing romantic comedy of all-time, a little independent film called My Big Fat Greek Wedding, which to date has brought in some $368 million worldwide.

In 2002, long before audiences embraced this Cinderella story of the plain Greek-American girl (Nia Vardalos) who finds her Prince Charming (John Corbett) and blossoms through love, long before it found a distributor when so many shrugged and turned it down, My Big Fat Greek Wedding played the Palm Beach International Film Festival.

That is reason enough for the festival -- which opens today and runs through Monday, April 27 -- to honor Zwick, 67, with its Visionary Award on Friday evening’s black-tie gala at the Boca Raton Resort & Club. Then on Saturday morning, at the Seagate Beach Club in Delray Beach, Zwick (at right) fields the public’s questions in an informal Q&A session on his prolific career.

Talking by telephone last month, Zwick recalls how the Palm Beach International Film Festival really threw his breakthrough movie a lifeline.

“I think the Palm Beach festival could have been one of the only film festivals that My Big Fat Greek Wedding went into,” he recalls. “We were basically a pariah. Nobody knew what to do with us. Nobody cared what to do with us. I mean, every studio saw My Big Fat Greek Wedding, the finished movie as it showed up in theaters, and none of them would distribute it. It didn’t fit any demographic pattern that they were used to.”

So the Palm Beach festival became a focal point of a grassroots campaign to demonstrate the film’s appeal. “We wanted to show it here because obviously we believed -- and I think rightly so -- that this movie needed to attract ethnic centers. It didn’t have to be Greek. In Palm Beach, I think it was primarily because of the Jewish population in the area,” says Zwick.

Even Zwick and his cast and crew were unsure of the appeal of the film. “We didn’t know what we had, to be quite honest. We were just kind of hoping and praying and limping along.”

Prior to My Big Fat Greek Wedding, Zwick’s experience had largely been in television, with over 500 series episodes to his credit, including such shows as Laverne & Shirley, Webster, Perfect Strangers and the pilot for 1980’s Bosom Buddies, featuring a little-known actor named Tom Hanks.

“My years of experience had mainly been in comedy and in that kind of human interaction,” says Zwick. “That’s what I studied and that’s what I care about.”

When the Big Fat Greek Wedding screenplay made its way to Hanks, who decided to produce it, he called Zwick and offered him the chance to direct it. “He said, ‘Y’know, this is just the kind of thing that you’ve been doing for years, in terms of understanding what makes people tick, what makes them funny, what makes it all work.’ ”

The sign of Zwick’s success with the film is the way people kept returning to the movie and identifying with the characters. “They connected because it was everybody’s family,” says Zwick. “They saw their crazy aunts, they saw their crazy uncles, the kids got to laugh at the silliness of the adults.

“I think one of the things that I fought for -- that Tom wanted me to fight for -- what that it became a valentine to immigrant America, so we never made the older generation look silly or stupid.”

Looking back on the film, Zwick is most proud of the fact that “it turned into a fairy tale. Which I wasn’t anticipating. I just wanted to make the romantic relationship credible, that this guy could fall for her. Because essentially, she was a bit of an ugly duckling. But the idea of a fairy tale only became apparent after the movie was finished,” insists Zwick. “I think part of it had to do with the particular goofiness of John Corbett.”

So soon, Zwick was the toast of Hollywood, which meant he got sent a lot of scripts to direct that were knock-offs of Greek Wedding, reset in other ethnic cultures. “The other thing that happened that surprised me was that somehow, based on Greek Wedding, they determined -- because they had no idea what to do with me -- that probably my best skill was that I could direct females. I started to get Hilary Duff movies, I started to get Mary Kate and Ashley Olson movies, I started to get Lindsay Lohan movies.”

All of which he turned down without a second thought.

“Basically, Hollywood wants to stereotype you, put you in a box. And because of my experience, my years in the business, I no longer needed to chase a career,” says Zwick. “I had a great career and now it was a question of picking and choosing. I just didn’t want to pick and choose to do the next Hilary Duff movie.”

He chose instead to direct stage shows, including George Gershwin Alone, the biographical concert starring Hershey Felder, which had a pre-Broadway run at the Cuillo Centre in West Palm Beach.

He has made a few films since My Big Fat Greek Wedding, but nothing that came close to its success. He directed Fat Albert, based on Bill Cosby’s childhood characters, and Elvis Has Left the Building, starring Kim Basinger, which went straight to video over a lack of faith in the movie by its producer.

Zwick has a couple of films in pre-production, but he has been running into a brick wall trying to get them financed. “To raise money in the independent market now is like impossible,” he sighs. “But we keep working on it and hopefully it will happen. I don’t need to all of a sudden come up with the next movie that makes me a household name again.”

Besides, if that happened, he wouldn’t have time to go to places like Palm Beach and collect awards.

The 14th Annual Palm Beach International Film Festival, April 23-27, screens more than 110 films from 10 countries, with a special Italian Cinema sidebar. For schedule information, call (561) 362-0003 or go to the festival’s website at

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