SYDNEY POLLACK’S SKETCHES
By Alex Simon
Editor’s Note: This article originally appeared in the June 2006 issue of Venice Magazine.
Sydney Pollack is one of the most successful film directors of his generation. Born July 1, 1934 in Lafayette, Indiana, Pollack initially cut his teeth as an actor, then an acting teacher, under the auspices of the legendary Sanford Meisner . After striking up a working friendship with a hot young director named John Frankenheimer, Pollack was introduced to actor Burt Lancaster, who encouraged the young Pollack to turn his attention behind the camera. More than forty years later, just a few of Pollack’s credits as director include They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?; Jeremiah Johnson, The Way We Were, Three Days of the Condor; Absence of Malice; Tootsie; Out of Africa; The Firm; and last year’s The Interpreter. Pollack has also produced a host of critical and box offices hits, and won a Best Director Oscar in 1985 for Out of Africa.
Sketches of Frank Gehry marks a departure of genre for Pollack: his first documentary feature. An intimate look at the creative process of his longtime friend, renowned architect Frank Gehry, the film gives the viewer a front row seat for a spellbinding conversation between two artists in diverse fields, both of whom are still at the top of their game in their 70s. A testament to the creative spirit, as well as a fascinating psychological study, Sketches of Frank Gehry by Sydney Pollack is a gem of a movie, and perhaps Sydney Pollack’s most personal work to date.
Sydney Pollack spoke with Venice Editor Alex Simon recently in Beverly Hills. Here’s what was said:
I was glad to see you throw your hat into the documentary ring.
Sydney Pollack: It was fun. I’d never done it before and it was kind of exciting to try something new at this time in my life.
Pollack (L) and architecht Frank Gehry (R).
You don’t often see documentaries made about one friend by another friend. The two of you obviously have that interactional short hand that people who have known each other a long time possess.
Well, there was a lot of confusion about that, because I think some people…it’s been mostly met with a lot of praise…but there’s a few people who’ve been disappointed that it’s not more confrontational. In a certain way, the idea here was not for me, who’s unqualified, to make some sort of objective study of Frank as an architect. I’ll leave that to the architectural scholars. This was me trying to get you inside Frank’s head, that’s all. To show you what he’s like, how he thinks, what his process is, how he feels about himself, about his work and projects. I was completely uninterested in assigning a value to him in a scholarly sense.
But that’s why I, and other laymen, find it accessible, I’m sure.
I think it’s six to one, half dozen the other. Some are disappointed it’s not more confrontational, while the other half gets what we were going for.
That’s bizarre to me. I mean, if you were doing a film about Dick Cheney, I can see why you would want to be confrontational. What the hell are you going to confront an architect about?
(laughs) Confrontational in the sense of making it tougher. I so clearly like Frank, and like what he does, and that’s what I wanted to bring across.
I also felt like you were gaining understanding of yourself and your own process through understanding his.
That’s true, absolutely. That’s also one of the main reasons I did it. If I wasn’t really curious to learn something from it, I wouldn’t have made the film. Learning means, why do I want to understand him? He’s a whole other human being. I want to understand him, because understanding him is going to help clarify myself to myself.
Anytime you have a layman’s knowledge of another art form or process, you can take some of what works for them, and apply it to your own work.
Yeah, I certainly think I learned something about another technique that has to do with a kind of freedom and looseness and liberation by doing a documentary. That is something I’ll think about for quite a while, in terms of how to make more use of it in fictional filmmaking.
I know that you and your producer were the cinematographers. What kind of camera did you use?
A little Canon GL-1, a home mini-DV, but quite a good little camera. There was no way I was going to get truth out of Frank with a crew staring at him. It just was more intimate and simpler and became a real conversation between Frank and I. It’s what most really good documentary filmmakers do, I think. If you come in with an entourage of five guys, you’re not going to get something that’s honest and candid.
Pollack films Gehry outside the Disney Concert Hall in L.A., which Gehry designed.
Did you study any documentaries before doing this?
I tried to look at a couple, but they scared the hell out of me. I looked at one film on Gaudi, who is a famous Spanish architect. I looked at one on Frank Lloyd Wright. I looked at Fog of War, the Errol Morris documentary, and that helped me because I saw all the jump cuts in it, so I realized that was allowed! (laughs) It’s a good thing I didn’t see it early on, though, because the way I got into this movie, because I wasn’t going to be in it at all. That’s the height of arrogance, I thought. I didn’t realize you could do all those jump cuts when you’ve got one person talking. I’m used to a feature film where I’ve got multiple angles on a scene, which is how I cut out the boring or the bad parts, which is to change angles. So I said to my producer, ‘Here, you get me cutaways of Frank.’ And my producer shot both us. And I said ‘What are you doing that for? I’m not in this movie! I’m just talking to Frank.’ Slowly, that footage found its way into the movie and people said they liked it, because it was a dialogue, instead of a straightforward interview, which is a little bit different from what we usually see. If I had seen the Errol Morris documentary earlier where he used jump cuts to cut out the boring parts, clearly something you’re allowed to do in documentaries, I wouldn’t have had that second camera.
But your early work was certainly very avant-garde: The Slender Thread, Castle Keep, and They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? all utilized techniques like jump cuts and other things invented by the French and Italian New Wave.
Yeah, I guess they were at the time. You can’t do that very well now. It’s a bit more of a cautious time now. I don’t think I could make most of those films today, or Jeremiah Johnson, for that matter.
Burt Lancaster, Pollack's first mentor.
You could do them independently. I’m guessing they were pretty low budget films.
At that time they were, yes. But to get actors who are the equivalent today of people like Robert Redford, Jane Fonda, and Burt Lancaster, would be very costly. He was a real prince, Burt.
He was your mentor, wasn’t he?
He really pushed me into directing, then had the courage of his convictions to work with me when I was very young, just starting out.
One thing that this film drives home, is how every artist needs a mentor. You and Frank were talking about how you each had a mentor who helped guide you early on, and you mentioned “a great teacher” of yours. Was that Sandy Meisner?
Yeah. He was the major learning God of my life, he was the big influence on my life creatively. I don’t know how to explain him except to say he had a sense of truth about the psychological breakdown of behavior: what causes it and what creates the reality of it, that was thrilling to me in a way that influenced me and everything in my life and my work. Without knowing it, it became a foundation for me as a director. I thought I was a) learning acting, and b) learning how to teach acting, because I became his assistant, and taught with him. In fact, I was learning a technique for myself that would become a directing technique.
He taught the Method, right?
People call a lot of things “The Method,” but there really isn’t one Method.
But it’s all derived from Stanislavsky.
It’s all derived from Stanislavsky, but Stella Adler taught it different than Sandy Meisner and Strasberg taught it differently from both of them, and Harold Clurman taught it differently than the three of them, and Bobby Lewis took it in his own direction, as well. They each took The Moscow Art Theater of Stanislavsky and basic principles, and then developed their own approach. The goal was always the same: to find a way to analyze the construction of truthful behavior within imaginary circumstances.
The principals of Mirage Enterprises, which was responsible for some of the best films of the 1990s and early '00s: Pollack and Anthony Minghella. They died within two months of each other in 2008.
Personal behavior based largely on Freudian psychology, right?
Well, there was a lot of Freudian psychology involved in it, but it was more about working from the inside out, rather than the traditional approach with people, which was a kind of elocutionary approach, a physical one, a costume, a stance, a sound…the sort of approach a place like RADA had. This was a more psychological approach. The thing that’s difficult in talking about this, is that the goals are all the same: they’re all just trying to get you to believe. That’s all they’re trying to do.
It’s like religion, then. Different philosophical forms appeal to different people. Some are effective with certain people’s psyches, and others aren’t. The reason I’m going into this is that I found this film very psychological, in terms of how Gehry’s process worked, and how so much of his childhood and background goes into his work, particularly the fact that he felt like such an outsider growing up as a Jew in Toronto, right down to the fact that he Anglicized his name, from Goldberg to Gehry.
Yes, I agree. It’s very interesting.
Did you have the same experience being a Jew growing up in Indiana?
Well, there was a lot of anti-Semitism in the 50s, but by the time I moved to New York, when I was 17, I didn’t find any in New York, but as a kid, yeah, absolutely. I felt that.
A lot of artists grew up not fitting into the norm. Did feeling like an outsider help shape you that way?
Yeah, particularly in terms of the turning inward. Any dissatisfaction in your day-to-day life either breeds real neurosis or art, or both. (laughs) I think almost everybody who looks for a creative outlet has been steered there by their imagination that gets stimulated by some sort of turning inward. That’s why I said in the film that Meisner defined talent as being, essentially, “liquefied trouble.” In the luckier people, the liquification of the trouble allows it to leak out of the trap its in, and morph itself into the expression of something creative. Whereas if it doesn’t liquefy, if it just stays solid trouble, it expresses itself just with neurotic behavior and a troubled human being. But I don’t think there’s a really genuinely creative person alive who isn’t somewhat troubled. It would be an oxymoron to say “He’s a completely untroubled artist.” But not every creative person is an artist, either. I wouldn’t call myself an artist. I work in the field of popular culture. “Artist” is a word that someone else has to apply to you. You can’t call yourself an “artist.”
I’d consider you an artist. Obviously something pushed you out of Indiana, and into New York.
I certainly wasn’t at ease there. Something was missing, let’s put it that way, probably this idea that I would end up doing the same thing, day after day after day, like my father did. I went to work a lot with my father a lot as a kid. He was a pharmacist in a drug store. I just hated it! Every day was the same, and he did the same thing every day. I was restless and didn’t like the idea of doing what he was doing. At the same time, I didn’t know what I wanted to do. My dad didn’t really have the money to send me to college. I think he wanted very much for me to be in the medical world, to be a dentist. That’s what he really wanted for me. His rational was that dentists wouldn’t get called on weekends and wouldn’t have to get up in the middle of the night and make house calls, like a regular doctor did in those days. He thought dentists had it great: a five day week, working nine to five. I sort of talked him into giving me a little time to myself. There was the possibility that I was going to get drafted, even though the war wasn’t on at the time, we were between Korea and Vietnam, so the draft was just petering out. I talked my dad into letting me have some time in New York, although ultimately I did get drafted. But by then, I’d had enough time to get my roots in at the Neighborhood Playhouse and start teaching.
I thought the comparison to Gehry and Peter Falk’s character of Columbo was very interesting.
Yeah, Frank admits that he tries to have a kind of “Aw, shucks” persona, and a kind of rumpled exterior, but underneath that is someone who is competitive as hell, and he’s someone who knows himself pretty well. He’s a very wise guy about himself. It’s unusual to find someone who not only knows himself so well, but is also so forthcoming and truthful to other people.
You couldn’t do the work that he does without knowing yourself well.
I think so. Now Frank, there’s an artist!
From the October 1999 issue of Venice Magazine:
SYDNEY POLLACK: HEARTS AFIRE
It was refreshing to see an adult movie hit the screens again with Random Hearts.
Sydney Pollack: I'm really proud of the movie, because it's hard to make a movie like that in today's climate, I mean, it's not Blue Streak, and what I mean by that is that it's not a formula kid's movie.
Harrison Ford and Kristen Scott-Thomas in Random Hearts.
This film, like many of your films, delves into dark places very quietly. It's also very non-judgmental about its characters.
It's a very difficult subject to tackle (adultery). We hear about it, we read about it, our Presidents do it, Kings and Queens have done it throughout the history of the world, but to the people it happens to, it's worse than death. And we can never really figure out why that is. Early societies excused murder on the basis of adultery. Saying a murder was a "crime of passion" was a way you could get away with killing someone. Societies at all levels have understood the pain of that kind of betrayal, and have excused almost any emotional reaction to it.
(Note: SPOILERS AHEAD)
I thought the psychology of the adultery was interesting too, that it didn't have anything to do with the other partner involved.
I wanted it to be that there wasn't any reason. He's a good cop, he follows all the clues and tracks down what happened, and there's no reason. That's why Kristen Scott-Thomas yells at him 'You're never going to find what you're looking for!'
The other theme I thought was fascinating was the idea that we never truly know anyone in our lives.
Exactly, and when a deceit like that happens to you, I talked to a lot of people about this, and what one person said to me who'd gone through this was 'when that kind of deceit happens, there's nothing in your life anymore that you completely trust.' So you find yourself saying 'Wait a minute, if that's a lie, then where's the truth?' I also found myself talking to Tom Stoppard, who's a good friend. Tom said something that was very helpful, which was 'Doesn't (Harrison Ford) really want to find that point in time where prior to it, he could believe what happened, and after it, everything is a lie? Isn't that the dividing line?' And that found its way into the script, when Harrison says to Kristen 'What's the last thing about your husband that you know is true?' Because at some point forward, everything was a lie. I just found that fascinating.
The sequence where they were identifying the victims of the plane crash was really chilling.
I looked at pictures of plane crashes and the identifying process, then contacted the National Transportation Safety Board, and they came and were our technical advisers. They agreed that if we didn't show anybody smoking in the movie, they'd participate and help us...I thought the crash site was really authentic because we had the help of all these various agencies. It was based on a real crash that happened in the Potomac river in 1984. They show the faces on television screens because the bodies are so beat up sometimes, but in many ways the (clinical) nature of it makes it worse.
This is the second picture you've done with Harrison Ford. What's it like collaborating with him?
I find him like being handed a great big gift. He is the actor with the least amount of personal baggage when it comes to work. He's a complete professional. He's smart as hell. He's movie-wise in a way that few people are. He has this charismatic thing that makes you want to watch him, and yet he doesn't has the ego and narcissistic baggage that goes with being in that position. I felt that way working with Meryl Streep, too. A gift.
I imagine both are great collaborators as well.
Absolutely. And I love Kristen's work in this, as well. I've always admired her work before, but here she had to go to some really strange emotional places. I don't think I've ever seen her so child-like and vulnerable as she is in this. Plus the chemistry between these two disparate people was really exciting to me. It's a case of opposites attracting--like a barge and a clipper ship! (laughs)
One thing I notice about a lot of the writing in your films is the spareness of it, almost Hemingwayesque. Explain how you work with your writers.
We sit down in a room together, we don't actually write together, and sit down for days on end and go over every line and every scene, then go and do another draft, then sit down for days and days, then another draft, and so on. That's been the process since the beginning for Kurt Leudtke and me.
Let's talk about your childhood. What did your dad do?
My dad was a pharmacist, and had great hopes that I would be a dentist. He wanted me to do something in the medical field, and felt dentistry was a much better field than doctoring because you wouldn't get called on the weekends or late at night. That was fully my intention until I got almost got out of high school. I had been trying to get out of South Bend. I wasn't a very happy kid there. I didn't know it, and didn't know why, but it was a strange place to be with my particular temperament. I wanted to get to a more sophisticated, coastal city. We weren't too far from Chicago, and once in a while a teacher would take us there to see a play or something, and it was like going through the looking glass! I talked my father into giving me two years--I figured I'd have two years before I was drafted--to go to New York and see if I could make it as an actor. I convinced him by explaining that getting drafted would be my ticket through dental school on the G.I. Bill. (laughs) So I got accepted to the Neighborhood Playhouse, studied with Sanford Meisner, and it changed my life. I did get drafted eventually, but I never went to Dental School. I got into teaching acting very early on. Then I came back to L.A. and continued teaching, and that's how I met John Frankenheimer.
He was really your mentor in many ways. Tell us about that.
John is a wonderful guy. He did so much for me. I was his assistant on a couple things, and through that I met Burt Lancaster when John did a picture with him called The Young Savages (1961). Burt started pushing me towards directing, and that's how I got into it.
You initially started as an actor, though.
Yeah, but I really didn't do that much. With my physical type, I played the buddy of the buddy of the soda jerk, you know. (laughs) I did a couple Broadway shows and some live TV.
You also did two episodes of The Twilight Zone.
Right. Then I got a part in a movie called War Hunt (1962), which is where I met Redford, and we became friends. I wasn't much shakes as an actor. I stumbled into the teaching, which is how I met Frankenheimer who had also studied with Meisner. When I was Meisner's assistant, John would hire me sometimes as a dialogue coach for actors on his TV plays. When Ingrid Bergman did "The Turn of the Screw" for TV in 1959, John hired me to work with the two kids. Then when he did The Young Savages, I came out to L.A. to work on that. Burt then started encouraging me to call Lew Wasserman at Universal. I still lived in New York at the time, so Lew said "Can you move out here?" I said "Sure, I guess." So, as a favor to Burt, he said "Okay, I'll tell you what, you come out here and I'll pay you $75 a week for six months and you can just watch. Then we'll see what happens. So we moved out, my son had just been born. We rented an apartment over a garage. I had a little Vespa motor scooter that I rode every day to Universal. Then a man at Universal named Dick Irving, Amy Irving's uncle, who produced a lot of very good, and very bad, half hour and hour television shows. He took a liking to me, and when one of the shows got canceled and there were a couple episodes remaining, he gave me a shot at directing.
What show was it?
It was a terrible show called "Shotgun Slade." (laughs) It was a half hour western starring Scott Brady, who was a great guy, in which the gimmick was the hero carried a sawed-off shotgun in a holster instead of a pistol, and it had a contemporary jazz score even though it was a period western! (laughs) They were shot in two days. They were the worst, but it was a great training ground, and I really fucked this first one up something terrible! (laughs) I didn't know what I was doing. Like learning a lot of things, you think you're learning and doing great until you really fuck it up, and that's really the only way to learn anything. For some reason, in spite of the fact that I blew the first one so badly, they didn't fire me, and the second one I did was good, and from that moment on, I was a director. The years that I was in television I got nominated for an Emmy every year, then I finally did win for a show called "The Game," with Cliff Robertson, who also won.
Pollack with his first Emmy Award, 1966.
What was Lancaster like?
Oh God, he was a prince. Burt was a self-educated, self-made artist. He was a kid from the Harlem streets, who ran away to join the circus and became a trapeze artist. He was completely cultured and literate, but never lost the street kid. He was private before anyone out here was, the first independent filmmaker with (his company) Hecht-Hill-Lancaster, which made Marty (Best Picture, 1955) and so many other great pictures. He was the first guy to go make a picture like The Crimson Pirate (1952), but then would go and do The Sweet Smell of Success (1957). He was willing to fail. He used to call me from the road while he was doing Knickerbocker Holiday and say "Ah the critics are killin' me, my boy! And I deserved it, too, because I was terrible. But it's getting better, it's getting better!" (laughs) He was amazing. He was absolutely fearless. I never saw him afraid of anything in his life. He was totally unselfish, just gave me a push, called Lew Wasserman and I didn't hear from him for three years. Then one day I get a call from him: "Dear boy, do you know who Luchino Visconti is?" I said "No." "Well, you should see some of his movies, read this book The Leopard and meet me in Rome where we're shooting the picture. I need someone there who speaks English!" So he called Wasserman, got me out of my contract while they were shooting, and I went to Rome and got to watch Visconti!
God! What was that like?!
I was there for two months and got to watch this master every day. And those were the days just after (Fellini's) La Dolce Vita (1960), so I hung around that same area of Rome and every night I'd go up one side and down the other having a drink in each bar, pretending I was in La Dolce Vita or 8 1/2 (1963).
Without the midgets and fat ladies, right?
(laughs) That's right! I was 28, 29 years old. Just a kid. What an experience.
Pollack with Sidney Poitier on the set of The Slender Thread (1965).
Then in 1965 you did The Slender Thread, your first feature.
Yeah, it's a film with two lovely performances in it (Sidney Poitier and Anne Bancroft) but you have to take Dramamine to watch the picture. I was trying to hard to convince everyone that I was a movie director...it was so buzzy and zippy...
Pollack sits before a poster of They Shoot Horses, Don't They?
Is it fair to say that They Shoot Horses, Don't They? was the film where you found your directorial voice?
Well, that's what the world thought because it was the first film of mine that got that kind of critical attention. I think I found some kind of voice in This Property is Condemned (1966), I don't know how to describe it, but something happened there that solidified certain style and mood things that have stayed with me in all the things I've done. They Shoot Horses was an enormously challenging picture in the sense that it took place in one set, it was the same activity over and over, and it had to get slower because they got tired. So I had three things that are a director's nightmare: no visual relief from the set, no relief within the set in terms of the activity, and worst of all, you can't pick up the pace, it has to get slower. So I had to find other ways to pick up the pace. And that challenged really helped me in some way. It made it clear what I had to do. I learned an enormous amount from that.
"As the clock of fate ticks away, the dance of destiny continues!" Gig Young, in his Oscar-winning role in They Shoot Horses, Don't They?
Tell us about Gig Young, who met with such a horrible end in real life (murder/suicide with his wife), and who was so moving in that film.
I cast Gig almost by accident. I always thought he, at that time, was not a great actor and his career was really stagnant around '69. His agent was a guy named Marty Baum, who took over ABC Pictures, who were producing the film. Marty was a very loyal agent and kept saying "Just see Gig, give him a shot." I was determined not to cast him. Finally I said 'Fine, but I can only see him tomorrow, we're five weeks from shooting!"...so Gig comes to see me and he's got a terrible case of the flu. And in walks this guy. He hadn't shaved and had these sort of faded good looks and I saw the character! I was used to seeing Gig Young in a tuxedo with a young girl on his arm, sort of a road company Cary Grant. But because he had the flu, he had this whole other thing going. I thought if I could recapture that kind of sweaty, faded look he had from being sick onto the screen, then he was the guy. There was something touching, almost pathetic about him and he was wonderful in the movie. I was shocked when I heard about his suicide years later. It was reported that he hit the sauce quite a bit, but so did Mitchum, for Chrissake. So did a lot of people that I worked with and hung out with back then. Hollywood was a pretty hard-drinking crowd then. But I never got any hint that that's how Gig would end up.
Pollack, Barbara Streisand, Robert Redford on the set of The Way We Were, 1973.
The Way We Were was your first big blockbuster financially.
Yeah, it made a fortune and got very mixed reviews. It's one of those pictures that's gotten better treatment as time has gone by. Peter Travers called the other day to do an interview and he said "I just watched The Way We Were. What a great movie!" I said 'Where were you guys when I needed you, when I got the terrible reviews?!" It's funny how pictures get looked at differently as time passes.
I'm a big fan of The Yakuza. It's sort of like "Ernest Hemingway Goes to Tokyo."
Thank you. I'm really proud of that picture. It still gets a lot of play at revival houses and cinematheques. I ended up having to stage every bit of the action sequences. I had no help. I got there and I was like 'Where's the telescoping swords you use in the sword fights?' They said "We don't have telescoping swords. We just use a bamboo sword with tin foil over it." I said, 'Well, how do you guys do all those great sword fights in your movies?' Mitchum says (imitating him) "Pay 'em." (laughs) All the fight coordinators were just terrible. Warner Bros. was very nervous about the picture, so I made a deal with the number three studio as opposed to the best one, a place called Tohei Studios, which was known for really cheesy B-pictures. It all worked out in the end, I guess. I haven't seen that picture for 25 years. I don't see any of my pictures once I'm done with them.
I don't know. I look at them when they reissue them for things like DVD. I just watched The Way We Were again and did a commentary for it.
Pollack (L) with Burt Lancaster on the set of The Scalphunters, 1967.
What was Mitchum like?
He was strange. I never got really close to him. He was a marvelous raconteur. Kind of a mysterious character. He had lives that nobody knew about: with Howard Hughes, going to Vietnam...talk about a drinker. He used to show up at my hotel room with a water glass full of scotch at 11 in the morning, just hang out in the room, smoke his cigarettes, and talk. It's funny, Burt used to smoke a lot, too, unfiltered Camels. And he shaved with soap, all his life. I don't think he ever bought a can of shaving cream. He had a Gillette double-edged blade that'd go for a month, and soap! (laughs) He never changed when he became wealthy. He had a big house and everything for his family, but he had a pair of Thom McCann loafers, khaki chino pants, white sweat socks, and one jacket that he called "the thousand miler" leftover from the circus days. It was a gray, herringbone tweed jacket, and he used to wear that with a Banlon sport shirt with short sleeves. He had a tie that he'd wad up and stuff in the pocket of the thousand miler. We'd be walking down the street in New York. Burt would say "I'll take you to lunch at '21.'" He'd take the tie out of his pocket, put it on under the Banlon shirt, walk in and look better than anyone in '21.' He looked like he was sculpted out of marble, his arms and his hands. He was bigger than life. He was only about 6'1 but he looked like he was at least 6'5, like Samson. He wasn't big like a football player, but like a Greek athlete, like Rodin sculpted him. Burt was just a better animal than the rest of us.
I heard that you directed a lot of re-shoots on The Swimmer.
Yeah, I did a lot of work on that. I guess they had a preview where the picture tested badly and Sam Spiegel and Burt were very upset. I got put in a very uncomfortable spot, to be replacing another director (Frank Perry), but I owed my life to Burt and here he was saying "Dear boy, I need you." So he went to Sam Spiegel and Sam didn't know who I was. Hell, I didn't know who I was! (laughs) I re-cut the picture, then I shot four sequences, one big one with Janice Rule and Burt. It was really tough when I had to work with Frank Perry's wife Eleanor, who wrote it, and she was very nice, very understanding. Then I went through again and tried to re-edit the picture.
Let's talk about Three Days of the Condor.
That's another film that's gained stature over the years, although when it came out, several of the New York critics took it very seriously. It was kind of a prescient movie because we thought we were really going out on a limb talking about destabilizing foreign regimes in the interest of oil and the CIA killing people and then all of the sudden, all this crap comes out, while we were shooting the movie! All the stuff about dirty tricks with Nixon. We cooked all that stuff up that's in the movie in a hotel room one night, and we're thinking 'Man, maybe this is just too far out. Is anybody really going to buy this?' (laughs) But that part of it worked.
There are definite Hitchcock elements in Condor. Was he a big influence for you?
You know, I'm embarrassed to say, no. I'm really pretty illiterate when it comes to film. I have to make myself watch a movie. I really don't know film history all that well. I saw Psycho (1960), (laughs) what can I tell you? I know all his films are famous and I know he was a great director. I just take everyone's word for it that he was the original cineaste. When I get around somebody like Steven Spielberg who says "It's like that great scene in Wyler's movie where such and such happens...," I feel illiterate. But a lot of those guys went to film school and were passionate movie buffs from the time they were kids. I backed into movies. I never wanted to have anything to do with movies, or ever saw myself as a director. I just saw myself acting in the theater in New York. I still don't see that many movies. It's hard for me to make myself go to a movie and sit in a crowd. I can't wait for the films to be over. (laughs) That doesn't mean that I don't love them, because I do. Once I get in there and get transported, it's great. But I feel like it's work. It's my job. And I don't want to be doing it when I have free time, you know? If I have the evening off, the last thing I want to do is go to a screening. I do have a screening room at home, like all spoiled brats in Hollywood, and I have screenings at home a lot. I'm terrifically impressed with a lot of the new younger directors like David Fincher (Seven, Fight Club), and I enjoy producing a lot of them. So Hitchcock wasn't a big influence on me simply because I didn't know his work. Had I known his work, he absolutely would have been. I actually spent more time at Hitchcock's house with him personally than I did seeing his films.
Robert Redford in Three Days of the Condor.
How was that?
My wife was an actress and she was under contract to him for seven years. She was going to take Grace Kelly's place after she became a princess. My wife, Claire, was the girl in the famous "Twilight Zone" with Robert Duvall playing the ballerina doll. So Alfred Hitchcock hired her, put together a huge, expensive reel on her, then she got pregnant with our second child and Hitchcock was furious with her. But while she was under contract, we used go have dinner with he and (his wife) Alma at their house! I was too naive to realize what a great opportunity this was. I directed several of the "Alfred Hitchcock Presents" for him, and was in one that Norman Lloyd directed. But when I spent time with him, I wasn't even smart enough then to know what to ask him. Spielberg stares at me and says "You got to spend all that time with Hitchcock and Stanley Kubrick. I'm so jealous!" (laughs)
Pollack with Tom Cruise in Stanley Kubrick's final film, Eyes Wide Shut.
Speaking of Kubrick, tell us about working with him on Eyes Wide Shut.
It was great. Kubrick was the most gregarious, curious, charming guy to talk to. I never ended a conversation with Stanley where I wasn't more enthused than I was when I started. We had a wonderful time because I don't have the temperament to act, meaning I'm so used to directing that I can't go wait in my trailer, I don't know what that's like, so I stay on the set and watch, partially because I'm curious about how their set is run, and partially because it's my habit. Stanley stayed there too, so whenever we'd change set-ups, we were in this big library, and we'd always get in discussions about books, about writing, about Hemingway, about other directors...I had a great, great time.
Is there anything you learned from him as a director?
Well, I can never be Stanley Kubrick, so there's no point in my trying. But certainly his degree of fanaticism about detail was an impressive thing to watch. A lot of people in this business are labeled "perfectionists." Stanley is the only real perfectionist I've ever met.
What about Woody Allen? What was he like?
The opposite. Just as meticulous about his writing, but once he got on the set, the control part of it was in the writing. On the set, Woody encouraged freedom, and did very few takes.
Pollack with Dustin Hoffman on the set of Tootsie.
Let's talk about Tootsie. Apparently working with Dustin Hoffman was quite an experience.
We didn't fight nearly as much as people say we fought and we fought in a certain way only. We never fought about what good acting was or wasn't, and that's why we worked well together. Once we started to work, then I was directing and he was acting. We never had one problem. What we fought about was the content of the scenes, for two reasons: Dustin was much more interested in the process of acting than I felt the world was, and also Dustin has a slightly bawdier sense of humor than I do, and we were in an area where it could go either way. With a guy dressing up as a woman, what's the nature of the humor? So we fought about those areas for an hour in the morning when we first came in. Dustin would want to go hang out in the ladies' room, or whatever...(laughs) I wanted it to be about something else, which was the whole business with men and women. He and I remain very good friends. (Any disagreements) we had were never personal. I think a lot of it came from the fact that I was the director and had final cut, and it was his project that he originated and then had to hand over the reigns. So I don't blame him, in a way. But I think it's a good picture and Larry Gelbart did a wonderful job with the script, and then Elaine May came in and really kicked it up about five notches.
Pollack with Robert Redford on the set of Jeremiah Johnson, 1972,
You've worked with Redford more than any other actor (7 films). Tell us about working with him.
Well, it was a great collaboration, certainly for me. He came closer than any other actor to being able to interpret life as I was trying to interpret it. The films that we made together were true collaborations. We almost got stuck what I see as the same character in different places and different stages of his life. The guy in Havana who ends up all the way in Cuba is really the same guy I started with in This Property Is Condemned. He's come a long way, but that's where he ended up. His character is really a loner who refuses to bend to the requirements of anyone other than himself, and that keeps him connecting from a sustained level with anyone else. He wants a relationship which doesn't require proof in any way...I'd like to work with him again, but time is getting short, and he's become a wonderful director in his own right. But I felt I had a real creative partner with him, and because I knew him so well I knew where to push and where not to push, where I could get to and where I couldn't get to. I think there was a kind of mutual trust. That's why repertory companies work so well, they all know each other. If I could, I'd work with the same people over and over.
Pollack and Meryl Streep on the set of Out of Africa.
Tell us about making Out of Africa.
There were a whole mob of us in Hollywood that had thought about making this film for years. Originally it was going to be Orson Welles a hundred years ago, then David Lean worked on it for a while, then Nicolas Roeg almost did it with Julie Christie and Ryan O'Neal. I had read the book years earlier, but couldn't figure out how to get a screenplay out of it. After Absence of Malice, it was the only thing that Kurt Leudtke wanted to try to write. He did a first draft, and in the course of doing it we lucked out when a book was published by a woman named Judith Thurman called Isak Dinesen: The Life of a Storyteller. That book really had the material that permitted us to make a story out of it. The book Out of Africa gives you the sense of a woman, but no real detail out of which you could build a narrative. So Kurt and I worked on for a year together after his first draft, and then I committed to do it. It was the character of that woman that attracted me. There was something very touching about her courage. I was also drawn to her whole African experience and how she'd been able to take all the tragedy in her life and digest it and use it in her writing. It transformed her into a real artist, and there was something very moving about that.
I thought Havana was unfairly maligned by critics. You've had so many commercial and critical successes, what is it like when your work gets slammed and you have to deal with the other side of the coin?
It's a terrible feeling. It's very, very depressing, and no matter what anybody says, it's hurtful. You might understand where they're coming from, but that doesn't make it any easier. It was a film that I was very, very fond of. It's a film where I feel there's an enormous amount of good work done. I think it's some of the best work Redford's ever done and he wasn't recognized for it. For some reason, the audience was angry about his suddenly aging a little bit. The reviews were mean and personal about his age, and I was being accused of trying to imitate Casablanca...that was not what was on his mind or mine when we did it. His character was really a further extension of a character we'd been working on all our lives. But the nature of experiencing a flop is very difficult, because you put just as much care and love and high hopes into those, as you do into the big successes.
Pollack and Tom Cruise on the set of The Firm.
I loved the way you reimagined the novel The Firm for the screen.
I thought The Firm as it was written by John Grisham was a very successful and exciting reading experience, but was always very concerned that it wouldn't work as a viewing experience because the same standards don't apply when you stand something up on its feet and see it as a reality rather than seeing it in your head when you read it. There were certain logic problems that I couldn't talk myself out of when I stood it up on its feet. I couldn't understand why he didn't just leave the firm and go away if these were such bad guys. So I knew we needed to plug that up for the film. Number two, I felt that there was no sense of a love story in the book at all...and I wanted to make the wife a more active participant in the film. Most important, I didn't want Mitch McDeere to wind up as immoral and corrupt as all the people who were the bad guys. In a way, in the book, he did and had nowhere to go, except to be on a boat. So working backwards on the screenplay, I kept thinking of this circular form which I like and often do work from, which is a sort of A-B-A form. I thought if there's a way we could get Mitch to end up exactly as poor and exactly as few possessions as he did in the beginning, but with his soul intact, that would be a more interesting story to tell, and that was very, very challenging, but the writers (Robert Towne and David Rayfiel) worked very hard on it.
Pollack and Harrison Ford on the set of Sabrina.
What was it like doing a remake with Sabrina?
I would never want to do it again. What happened really was I was being asked to do it over and over, and kept saying 'no.' But, I was an enormous Harrison Ford fan, and had never worked with Harrison. After I'd said 'no' three or four times, Harrison called me and said basically "What's the worst thing that can happen? It's an old movie and we could have a lot of fun with it." I actually called Billy Wilder and asked how he felt about it and we talked at length and gave some suggestions. I went ahead and did it and the difficulty was trying not to re-make and finding another way to come at it, because the thing that was clearest in the original was the sense of the fairy tale. What wasn't in the original was the process of the love affair between Linus and Sabrina. So we decided to see what it was that Sabrina fell in love with, and also to make her a more modern girl. As it turned out, the performances in the film are wonderful, but I underestimated the kind of resentment people would feel with a remake, and it was the kind of role that many people were unhappy seeing Harrison play, I think. I don't necessarily think they wanted to see him as an action guy, but I also don't think they wanted to see him as this Homburg-wearing crotchety businessman.
Any advice for first-time directors?
For people just starting out, especially kids, I'd say go out and get a video camera and make a movie to see if you've got what it takes. If you're beyond that and have some experience, the best film education you can get is to watch the work of other directors and analyze what makes their films work or not work. Also, give yourself the opportunity to fail, because that's the only way you can really learn anything.
Pollack with Sean Penn and Nicole Kidman on the set of The Interpreter, his last narrative feature as a director.