Sydney Pollack interview
Sydney Pollack has had an impressive career. Not only has he directed They Shoot Horses Don't They, Three Days of The Condor, Out of Africa, Absence of Malice, Electric Horseman, Sabrina and The Firm. He's also a successful actor. He played alongside Dustin Hoffman in Tootsie - which he directed - as well as taking roles in Woody Allen's Husbands and Wives and Kubrick's Eyes Wide Shut. And if all that wasn't enough, he's also found the time to produce over 40 films, which include: Cold Mountain, The Talented Mr.Ripley, Sense and Sensibility and Sliding Doors.
Located on the Universal backlot in the plush confines of the Hitchcock dubbing stage, Pollack is in the final stages of putting together his latest movie; The Interpreter. This political-thriller starring Sean Penn and Nicole Kidman marks a return to the genre. Having shot his new film on location around New York and in the United Nations itself (the first film ever to do so), it has been another huge scale project for Pollack, he looks weary but satisfied.
LF: How are you feeling at this stage of the process?
SP: Well, this is kind of a nervous stage, because I am still trying to settle on a precise final shape of the film. I’ve done three or four previews and it slightly changes each time. I'm trying to gauge the reactions, see what’s getting better and what’s not getting better. There are certain things that I personally like a lot but aren’t working so well with the audience.
LF: Isn’t that frustrating – going against your own instincts?
SP: Yeah, I have to seriously think about cutting things that I love and that always makes me nervous because I don’t know whether I am doing the right thing or not. I understand the criticism, but there are certain things that I am just a sucker for, that work for me but aren’t working for audiences in some way. So I have made certain changes that I am not one hundred per cent sure of yet.
This is a picture, which had a lot of difficulty in the completion of because we did not start with a finished script. I had an ending in mind that I was going toward but I didn’t have a script that got me there... I didn’t realise that it was going to be a lot more difficult than I thought, I tried to create the truth of a real threat [but] it became extremely difficult and, as a result, I was writing and working, writing and working all the time trying to get to this particular end.
LF: Has there ever been occasions when you’ve said: 'No, I’m not going to change it, and I’m going to stick to my guns'?
SP: Oh yeah, to be absolutely honest with you I’ve never tested a picture in my life until this one, I’ve been lucky. It wasn’t because I refused to, it was just that I was always so late delivering that I never had a chance. This is the first time I’ve been through this process… I’ve produced a lot of pictures that have gone through the process, like Cold Mountain and Ripley and all those things that I have done with Anthony [Minghella]. Sliding Doors and all those pictures. We tested all those, but as a producer.
As a director, I have never ever done focus group tests. This is the first time I have done it. So I am trying to feel how much to listen and how much to stick with my own gut. I really believe you should go by consistency, we’ve had four screenings and in four screenings you find a consistent line that people are having trouble and struggling with the ending. And enough of them, fifty per cent of them, that is a high number for these groups.
LF: It is kind of ironic that you are editing here on the Hitchcock stage given he was not allowed to shoot at the United Nations…
SP: I know, it’s true, I mean I almost didn’t get it. They said:“We didn’t let Hitchcock, why should we let you?” Of course I had no answer. I just refused to accept a no. I just kept on talking, arguing and finally I found somebody to get me to Kofi Anan. And I sat down with Kofi for half an hour and tried to explain what I wanted to do. I didn’t try and be a salesman because I didn’t want to do that. I didn’t want to pitch something. He thought and talked to the head of Security Council and president of the general assembly and I got lucky. They said yes.
LF: Have you found the demands of a thriller have changed since you made Three Days of the Condor in 1975?
SP: Yes, I think so. I think audiences are less patient with talk. You’ve got to get the gun out real fast or the clothes off real quick. You know, they are interested in sensation, pure sensation. I am gambling, hoping that they will enjoy having to think.
LF: What are your memories of being a filmmaker of the 70’s, was there that air of paranoia that fed into the work?
SP: Well, the seventies were an era of political paranoia, starting in the 60s and carrying over into the seventies. I wasn’t a part of that but I was as suspicious of everything as everyone else. I think that this picture is also relevant today. It is not torn from the pages of the New York Times or anything. The reputation of the UN has been on the line for a couple of years, the American government particularly have taken a tough stance against them. I acknowledge it [the UN] as broken, and things don’t work, but I also feel the alternative is worse. You know, we have to try to fix it rather than ban it.
I have a character who is very, very strongly pro UN and the drama is the story of a woman who gives up violence and opts for diplomacy and then gets a horrible personal blow and gives up diplomacy and goes back to the violence and can’t quite pull the trigger.
LF: Are you a different man from the one who made Three Days of the Condor? Were you more politically driven back then?
SP: No, I don’t think so. If anything, I’m probably the other way. I’m less personally ambitious now than I was 30 years ago, when I was a young man who wanted to prove I could do it. I’ve had a long career. These days I won’t do anything unless I am personally invested. I have no reason to do it otherwise. I would say, if anything, now I get more challenged by the content of a movie. I am also fascinated and challenged by the way movies are made now – they are much more sensationalistic, the filming techniques have changed, you can hardly set a camera still - people will fall asleep if you do.
Finding that fine line, keeping it energetic and kinetic all the time, that really works. It isn’t an effect, it feels organic and it isn’t just a jiggling camera because everybody is jiggling the camera. You watch a movie these days and the camera just wobbles because people assume it gives it more energy, sometimes it does, sometimes it just jiggles. That bores the hell out of me.
LF: You’ve crossed over so many genres, is that about a refusal to be tied down?
SP: I just don’t want to get slotted. And also I’m curious to see if I can handle the genre each time. When I was starting out in the 60s the big test was Westerns, they don’t do them anymore. But you didn’t really have sea-legs until you’ve done an outdoor picture, an action picture of some kind. So I did a couple of those very early on, got interested in those and then I’ve always tried to find genre pictures and then look around for the love story.
Through the love story I find an argument. They are all arguments in some way. That’s what keeps me interested. I always want to argue something that I don’t know the answer to. So I can be fair with both people, don’t make one right, the other one wrong, make them both right in a certain way and really argue as hard as you can, which is why my characters don’t end up together. They just argue!
LF: You play a part in The Interpreter, and you’ve performed in Woody Allen’s films and Kubrick’s, what attracts you to acting?
SP: Let me tell you the truth of this is I gave it [acting] up and was thrilled to give it up. I didn’t go near it for 22 years until Tootsie. It is no secret that Dustin Hoffman and I were fighting at the time, I have enormous respect for him - he’s a terrific actor - but we argued about content. We never argued about acting. In the end I cast Dabney Coleman to play the part that I played, but Dustin started campaigning for me to play this part. I can’t tell you how much I did not want to do it; I was worried about the picture and I was worried about handling Dustin. I didn’t want to have to stop and learn lines. I didn’t want to have to put make-up on - I can’t stand putting make-up on. I didn’t want to have costume fittings, I didn’t have time. I just didn’t want to do it. But he went after me in the most intense way, until I was told by my agent who is his agent: "You are going to have to do this if you want to pacify him. Otherwise he is going to get furious." So I went ahead and did it. I hated every minute of it. I did it, I got done with it. Then the next thing I knew I got called by Woody Allen to do Husbands and Wives.
I read Husbands and Wives and I thought it was such a great script that I did it. I was playing an asshole but it was a great script full of witty, truthful, perceptive dialogue. I think it is one of his best screenplays. So I said: “How long will it take?” he doesn’t take long, he makes pictures very inexpensively, and he doesn’t make much money on them. I thought I could learn something watching Woody Allen direct, because directors don’t very often get to see other director’s work, they never do. Actors get to see directors, directors don’t like other directors on their set so you don’t get to see it and here was Woody Allen. So I did that. And then Kubrick…
Now twice I’ve been in my own films and both times, I have to tell you, have been to save money. The part that I play here is a stupid part, it’s nothing, but it has to be there and it is spread over five months. It would have cost an inordinate amount to hire an actor to be available for five months. I tried to get Alan Arkin, I tried to get Alec Baldwin, I tried to get a handful of people and they were going to cost a bloody fortune and finally Tim [Bevan] said: “Why don’t you do it? It’ll save a load of money.” So I ended up doing it. Now it’s not fun, it’s not much of a part; it’s just a guy to Sean Penn .
LF: Are you now in a place in your career where you are not judged by the performance of your last film?
SP: In Europe, but not in America, that’s the way it has always been here. In Europe, they look at your work as a body, they look closer. Here because the economics are so tight, it would be different - I guess - if I was doing ten million dollar movies. And I’ve always done things that are expensive and you have to be judged by how well things do. It is all about the opening weekend because after that you are fighting the interest and the success levels go down. I never think in terms of that in what I want to do.