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Brad Pitt Tried to Quit ‘Legends of the Fall,’ Grew ‘Edgy’ During Scenes That Required ‘Deep Emotion,’ Says Director

[Editor’s Note: Stay tuned later this week for IndieWire’s one-on-one interview with Anne Thompson and Ed Zwick about the stories he shares in “Hits, Flops, and Other Illusions.”]

Brad Pitt almost walked away from his 1994 leading role in “Legends of the Fall,” according to director Ed Zwick.

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In an excerpt from Zwick’s “Hits, Flops, and Other Illusions: My Fortysomething Years in Hollywood” (via Vanity Fair), the filmmaker recalled getting into arguments with Pitt on set, with the Oscar winner at one point needing to be talked “off the ledge” of leaving the project.

Per Zwick, Tom Cruise was initially in talks to lead the film as character Tristan. However, the actor dropped out over personal qualms with the character’s motivations. Pitt was instead cast. Yet following a table read just days before shooting, Pitt’s agent said the actor wanted to quit.

“I could see Brad’s growing discomfort as it went on,” Zwick wrote of the table read with the cast, including Anthony Hopkins and Julia Ormond. “Hours afterward, his agent called the studio to say Brad wanted to quit. It fell to [producer] Marshall [Herskovitz] to talk Brad off the ledge. It was never mentioned again, but it was the first augury of the deeper springs of emotion roiling inside Brad. He seems easygoing at first, but he can be volatile when riled, as I was to be reminded more than once as shooting began and we took each other’s measure.”

According to Zwick, “Brad’s anxiety about the movie never quite went away” even during production.

“Sometimes, no matter how experienced or sensitive you are as a director, things just aren’t working,” Zwick wrote. “You think the actor is being oppositional, while he finds you dictatorial. Some actors have problems with authority, but just as many directors are threatened when intelligent actors ask challenging questions that reveal their lack of preparation. Both are right and both are wrong.”

Zwick continued, “There are all sorts of reasons an actor might pick a fight. Most likely he’s afraid. Insecurity manifests as arrogance and fear precipitates bad behavior — on the director’s part as well as the actor’s. Brad would get edgy whenever he was about to shoot a scene that required him to display deep emotion. It was here that his ideas about Tristan differed from mine. Brad had grown up with men who held their emotions in check; I believed the point of the [‘Legends of the Fall’] novel was that a man’s life was the sum of his griefs. […] Yet the more I pushed Brad to reveal himself, the more he resisted. So, I kept pushing and Brad pushed back.”

Zwick recalled of a particular argument with Pitt: “One afternoon I started giving him direction out loud in front of the crew — a stupid, shaming provocation — and Brad came back at me, also out loud, telling me to back off. The considered move would have been to tell the crew to take five and for the two of us to talk it out. But I was feeling bloody-minded, and not about to relent. I was angry at Brad for not trusting me to influence his performance. Also for the reluctance he’d shown after the first table read. Who knows, I might even have been acting out my own inability to be vulnerable. But Brad wasn’t about to give in without a fight. In his defense, I was pushing him to do something he felt was either wrong for the character, or more ’emo’ than he wanted to appear onscreen. I don’t know who yelled first, who swore, or who threw the first chair. Me, maybe? But when we looked up, the crew had disappeared. And this wasn’t the last time it happened. Eventually the crew grew accustomed to our dustups and would walk away and let us have it out. ‘We hate it when the parents fight,’ said one.”

Zwick added, “Yet, after each blowup, we’d make up, and mean it. It was never personal. Brad is a forthright, straightforward person, fun to be with and capable of great joy. He was never anything less than fully committed to doing his best.”

Even after “Legends of the Fall” wrapped, Pitt was not happy with the final cut, according to the director.

“When I showed Brad the final film, he wasn’t pleased,” Zwick wrote. “He felt I’d underplayed his character’s madness. I had in fact cut only a single shot from the scene where Tristan is raging with fever, screaming as the waves wash over him on the schooner. But it was a shot he dearly loved, and it would have been little enough to leave it in, and I should have. Apologies, Brad. He was also unhappy when People named him ‘Sexiest Man of the Year’ — something for which I take neither credit nor blame.”

Zwick wrote, “There’s a bright line between strong direction and dominance, especially when a male director is directing a male star. At times it risks becoming what a shrink and friend once called ‘an issue of phallic identity’ — in other words, dick-measuring. A strong director working with a strong actor can be like two dancers who are both trying to lead. But such tension can also yield very good work. George Clooney and David O. Russell got into an intense altercation on ‘Three Kings.’ Each claims the other started it. Was it worth it? It was a great movie.”

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