..Gary Dretzka
Noah Forrest
..Leonard Klady
..David Poland
..Douglas Pratt
..Ray Pride
..Kim Voynar
..Michael Wilmington

March 14, 2006
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An interview with Sydney Pollack

There’s at least one thing that makes the modest, marvelous Sketches of Frank Gehry by Sydney Pollack a unique documentary: it’s a five years ongoing mutual appreciation-cum-bitch session between a pair of successful men in their 70s who must navigate the ego and caprice of other men who would give them the millions necessary to practice their respective crafts of architecture and moviemaking.

Pollack, the director of sleek romances and superbly crafted comedies like Three Days of the Condor and Tootsie had never worked in nonfiction. Five years ago, the famed architect prompted his friend, Pollack, to attempt a portrait just as a patron, one of a dozen credited producers, offered seed money. While combining interviews with peers and artists of other forms—Philip Johnson, Bob Geldof, Barry Diller, Michael Eisner, Dennis Hopper, Ed Ruscha, Julian Schnabel, architecture critic Herbert Muschamp—footage of Gehry’s major projects, especially the Bilbao Guggenheim Museum, Pollack also captures their own conversations about the creative urge, with revelations both dark and light.

An emphatic and gregarious talker, Pollack responds enthusiastically to questions but mostly agrees to observations: “Exactly” is the dry flipside to his charming “Y’know”s. We talked at the Peninsula Hotel in Chicago on May 5.

PRIDE: “American Masters” came in at the late stages, but you were making this film intermittently over five years. I wonder two things.Tthe genesis and its stages, but also how did you find its shape? You work with the same team of screenwriters on most of your fiction films, you’re always honing the narrative form—


PRIDE: --So exactingly. I assume you found the form for the documentary rather late.

POLLACK: I did. Exactly. That was what so difficult about it for me, because it was a completely different way of working. Backwards from the way I usually work. What happened was we had a kind of patron, really, in Hiro Yamagata, who gave us the seed money, so to speak, to begin shooting. The way it happened was I spent a lot of time feeling, y’know, flattered and pleased that Frank asked me. But petrified of doing it, because I honestly don’t know anything about documentaries nor about architecture. I didn’t think it was a good idea, y’know? He kept saying, “That’s why you’re perfect.” And I tried to analyze, what does that mean? And I thought, “Okay, what he means, that’s why you’re perfect, is, you don’t know anything about architecture, so you won’t make a documentary that’s filled with scholarly academicians who are gonna make, y’know… theoretical pronouncements about architecture. You’ll be a layman talking, which is good,” he thought. And I thought, “Okay, maybe I can make a virtue of that. And you don’t know anything about making documentaries, so maybe you’ll find a form for this documentary like I try to find forms for my buildings that aren’t beholden to tradition and everything that’s gone before it.” That’s what I understood he meant by “That’s why you’re perfect,: okay? I still, from a practical point of view, didn’t know how to begin, even! Then what happened is this guy gave us this money, and I [said], everyone understands that this is a spare time thing. And Frank said, “Hey, it’s spare time for me, too, I don’t have time to stop my work and do this.” So it was all of us were working on a kind of as-able time frame. And [Yamagata] gave us the start money, and we started by sitting down and saying, “Who, okay, you have to interview a lot of people when you do a documentary. Who are the people that know Frank? Who can we get?” Yes, architects, yes, Philip Johnson, yes [Charles] Jencks. Artists: [Chuck] Arnoldi. Julian Schnabel. Ed Ruscha. But more colorful. Odder people. [Sir Bob] Geldof. [Dennis] Hopper. Schnabel. And then I think the real, real thing that helped me break the back of it was the analyst. Talking to his analyst. That was a rudder for me, that was connective tissue where I could sort of trace his life and the discipline of his unconscious—no, that’s an oxymoron—his unconscious, the development of his unconscious in this area. And that gave me a kind of a shape in an odd way. The angry Frank, the Frank who left home, the Frank who began to be disciplined. The Frank who found permanence with a woman, the Frank who got maturity, the Frank who admitted he harbored all these angers and resentments and then began to control them and come to terms with them. The Frank who faced his peers in the group therapy session. And the Frank who finally began to relate to his clients in a completely different way. So there was kind of a shape to it.

PRIDE: How old was he when he left his first marriage behind, the bankruptcy, changing his name, and so on? He wasn’t young…

POLLACK: He said that name change, I believe he said, happened in the 50s. He’s 77 now. He’s been with Berta ever since I’ve known him, and I’ve known him for 25, almost 30 years—

PRIDE: So probably over 30.

POLLACK: Oh yeah, he was in his 30s, I’m sure. Maybe close to 40.

PRIDE: That’s a great life example, let along an art example, to see represented, is that you can, forget the American second act-Gatsby-Fitzgerald cliché, but to be reminded that you can suddenly discover, “Oh, something’s been holding me back.” And then there’s a great thing Frank says with gusto in the movie, about freeing oneself for artistic practice, “That is so stupid-looking! It’s great!”

POLLACK: I know! I love that. I love that.

PRIDE: Did your friendship encompass knowing him to be able to make an observation like that?

POLLACK: [quickly] No. I, I learned a lot more about him. My knowledge of Frank was gleaned from… We connected in a way that you sometimes do with people. You can’t explain it all. We were just both bitching so much, I think, that we found common ground. I was pissed off and angry, he was pissed off and angry, and we were talking about how hard it is to work for these dopes that we all work for. Y’know, how everybody was a fool! [laughs] Y’know, the same things that everybody says where you have to consider a lot of people’s judgments in what you do. So you’re always knocking them and bitching about them, y’know—

PRIDE: The two of you are in a rarefied situation, where what does $100 million buy and what do people who are entrusting you with $100 million want?

POLLACK: Yeah. Exactly. And we got close on that basis. But I had no idea about his art, really. I, I used to go to dinner at his house with he and Berta and I thought the house was the weirdest thing I’d ever seen. I’d get in the car and I’d drive home with my wife, and I’d said, I can’t imagine living in that place. I don’t know how you live there. But I begin to understand it now. It’s begun to be beautiful to me. I think I hit a big turning point in his work with Bilbao, in ’97, when it opened. I was there for opening day and I was just completely unprepared for how emotional how I thought it was. If you had said to me, you can get goose pimples and be brought to tears by a building? I would’ve said, you’re insane. But that’s what happened to me. And I don’t know if you ever saw Charlie Rose’s show where Philip Johnson, they had it live when Philip Johnson walked in… and started to sob. They couldn’t stop him, he couldn’t stop crying. Live! On Charlie’s show. He just looked up at that thing, it’s unbelievable, it’s moving, it’s really moving.

PRIDE: There’s that amazing corridor view [that’s on the cover of the Bilbao Guggenheim’s catalog] looking toward the gleaming mass of the building down a hillside of traditional architecture. It looms.

POLLACK: Exactly.

PRIDE: The only time that’s happened to me was the first time I went to the Frank Lloyd Wright home and studio, there’s a children’s room with a simple cove, low ceiling, and you don’t know why in a certain room or space, but it just works. It works.

POLLACK: Yes! Yes.

PRIDE: You put yourself into the film. Did you want to avoid that, did the editor say, this will be a good thing? There’s a different intimacy when you see a friendship in a documentary, or two peers observing each other. Did you have reservations?

POLLACK: Well, it’s a very, very uncomfortable thing. Because you say, what kind of hubris is this to make a film about a guy, an artist, and then stick yourself in it? I, y’know, I would never, I would never do. I just… It happened purely by accident. It would happen because I needed cutaways. I just had my own one camera there and I needed a cutaways, so I said to Ultan [Guilfoyle], my producer, “Go, go, get another angle for me, so I can cut out the boring stuff ‘cause I don’t have coverage the way I do in a [fiction] film.” And he starts shooting both of us. And then the editor started putting, wanting, she was assembling stuff, kept showing me stuff with me in it! And I kept saying, “Dammit, get that out of there!” They would take it and then she would put it back in, y’know, and say, “It works better this way.” And then Frank kept saying, “Y’know what’s great about this? We’re having a conversation. And you gotta be in this with me, you gotta be in this with me. “And so finally I got talked into doing it that way. And y’know, I was scared to death that people were going to look at it and say, “Isn’t that a little bit narcissistic, my boy?” y’know? But they don’t. I think they like it.

PRIDE: There are definitely documentary makers who showboat their presence, putting themselves center stage, but other times, it’s a cautionary self-critique, like when the Maysles Brothers’ acknowledge their presence in movies like Grey Gardens and Gimme Shelter. When you hear your voice and his talking at the beginning, it’s not seducing or calming, I’m looking for a different word. But it’s nice, because you feel, not that you’re eavesdropping, because you know it’s structured, but it still has this feel of sharing a process of discovery with the viewer.

POLLACK: Right. Well, that’s good. I mean, that’s, hopefully, what we wanted. I mean, what we came to want. It wasn’t what we started [off] wanting. But it evolved into that.

PRIDE: How is that different from your occasional acting roles?

POLLACK: Well, that’s a different thing. With a film, you hope to try to prepare as much as possible so that you have a goal, you have everything written down, you have shots prepared, you, y'know, you have to the crew prepared for what you want to do. You’re not finding the movie totally, you’re not totally finding the movie as you shoot. On a fiction film, you have at least a script. When I act in my own movies, most of the time, people don’t believe me, but most of the time I do it because I’m producing the movie and I’m the most reasonably priced actor I can get for that role! In The Interpreter, who wants to play that part? That’s a boring part. I didn’t want to play it, even.

PRIDE: And if you have a boring guy that you need to have in scenes spread out eight or ten times during the schedule…

POLLACK: Well, that was it. This guy spread through the whole picture. I tried. I tried Alec Baldwin, I tried a bunch of people. I wasn’t going to get any of these people! It’s a boring part! And finally, y’know, it was a headache, I thought I’m never going to get anybody for this and I was out of money and I said, I’ll just do it. It’s easier, I’ll just do it. That’s the way it happened. Now. When I go [and] act for other people, that’s different. I want to see what Stanley Kubrick is like, I want to see what Woody Allen is like, I want to see what Altman is like. That’s different. That’s a way to expose myself to those other directors.

PRIDE: There’s a line Mike Nichols says—

POLLACK: “It’s like sex, you don’t know if you’re doing it right.”

PRIDE: The version I heard has the F word, referring to how a director has to fumble toward their own method across several pictures, “It’s like fucking, you never know how the other guy does it.”

POLLACK: Yeah, that’s right.

PRIDE: Beyond roles I’ve admired such as in Husbands and Wives and Eyes Wide Shut and Changing Lanes, another recent appearance that impressed me is your substantial contribution to The Leopard DVD. You’ve been involved with Sundance from the start, sharing information and knowledge with others, but are you doing more things like discussing the Visconti film?

POLLACK: Well, I do it when I’m, y’know, when I can, when I’m asked. I’m going to Cannes and they’ve ask me to do some sort of a master class there. I don’t know what the hell that is, but I’ll figure something out. Also, I’m going to London Monday to do some press for this, but they’ve asked, again, for some sort of master class, which I’m gonna do. I don’t know what those are. I guess just talking with other filmmakers about process in some way or theories or whatever it’ll be. It’s fun to talk about that stuff. I always learn something when I do it, oddly enough. Teaching is another form of learning if you do it right, I think. I dunno. When I get an opportunity to do it, if it’s not making speeches or something, which I don’t know how to do, I never know how to do that, lectures, y’know. Would you do the so-and-so lecture, they always have names, the Edward R. Harper lecture, and I always say no to that. I don’t want to have to sit and write a formal treatise. But yeah, I’m always glad to talk about work experiences and what they mean or what I did or didn’t learn or what I think I learned or something like that.

PRIDE: Atom Egoyan has said that up until the time he made The Sweet Hereafter, interviews were like a form of therapy that unlocked the meanings of the movies he’s made. He didn’t understand them until he’d talked them out.

POLLACK: It’s absolutely true. It’s absolutely true.

PRIDE: Why is 2.35 beautiful? Why widescreen or CinemaScope, what’s good about that frame?

POLLACK: For me, the beauty comes out of practicality. I’ve spent my life viewing movies that have at their center, a relationship between a man and a woman. Every single movie. And so the heart of the movies are two-shots. And sometimes I like to be quite close. You can’t work in a close, tight two-shot and have any room for where you are or any sets and environment in a less wide frame. You just can’t. You can’t. A tight two-shot in 1.85 can be in limbo. You can just put up a piece of cardboard and shoot the tight two-shot. You might as well. And if you’re using the environment to tell story—if you take a picture like They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? or Jeremiah Johnson or any of these pictures where where the people are is essential, I mean, the studio kept fighting me with They Shoot Horses, saying, “You’re in one set, for godssake! Why are you using widescreen? It’s not the Grand Canyon. It’s the opposite of the Grand Canyon!” But that was precisely the point. I could shoot Michael Sarazin and Jane Fonda dancing or Bruce Dern and Bonnie Bedelia, whoever, the pairs, and still see this sea of people dancing, or the bleachers, and the people staring at them. So there’s more redolence to each frame. It has a different impact. If I cut the edges off of those frames, and you just have those center people, without a context, I don’t think would be nearly as meaningful. I mean, on an absolutely practical, technical level, I can transmit more information per frame than I can with 1.85. I don’t say it’s more beautiful. I adore those old movies that were 1.33. They’re great. It’s not a question of beauty, it’s a question of… of what is the movie? The one movie I wish I’d done it in, this is when I stopped using ‘Scope, which was Out of Africa. Because I got so sick of it being butchered, y’know, DVDs weren’t in then, they were still doing VHS and they were always panning-and-scanning, chopping the edges off. And I just said, I can’t do this any more. More people see it in the aftermarket now, so they remember it that way. I didn’t frame it that way. I’ve had people come up now, who occasionally have seen a screening of Jeremiah Johnson or a screening of They Shoot Horses and it’s a different movie than what they ever saw. It’s a completely different movie.

PRIDE: East of Eden’s 16mm prints notoriously had a shot down the center of a confrontation that had two noses bobbing in and out.

POLLACK: Exactly.

PRIDE: There’s a sameness to a lot of new documentaries, good stories without any formal grace or at least visual clarity. A couple months before The Interpreter opened in the US, I was at a documentary festival in Greece and four-five days in, I was thrilled to be see a movie of yours shot by Darius Khondji, in New York City, was opening. Whatever else, I figured The Interpreter would have a plotted out visual scheme. There are great subjects being explored, there’s personality in many smaller docs, but often no awareness of how to do any sort of change-up, to provide any sort of narrative momentum, let alone entertainment. How conscious were you of that sort of thing here, at different stages?

POLLACK: Well, I, I, I, I’m partial to comedy when I can. I think it’s the hardest thing to do, but I was looking for the fun. Everywhere. That’s why I love Geldof and Schnabel.

PRIDE: Schnabel is such a—

POLLACK: [grinning] Oh!

PRIDE: —character—you have to smile, you, you creature!

POLLACK: Right! I didn’t know what would or wouldn’t be entertaining. The change-up, it’s a good word you used. I was very aware that you can’t look at too many buildings. Or that you can’t keep… that’s why I tried to find different styles. One was just a montage of houses. The main title is purely impressionistic pieces of his buildings. You really only look at Maggie’s place in England and Bilbao and his house in great, great detail. There’s only three buildings that you really study. And so I thought that was okay, I thought, you’re not going to get bored if it’s only, and I don’t want to do many more, but I got all the others in that were really important by finding different ways to put them in. Some of them just a taste, some of them up front. Some of them with the models. And I picked the buildings that had, that were all different, with the exception of the Disney Concert Hall, which I was very worried, had too much similarity visually to Bilbao. So If found a different style by taking the concert hall before it was finished and the concert hall after it was finished and juxtaposing them. Instead of doing it linearly. The first part of it was linear, then we started jumbling them up so it was, you could see the beams, then you see the finish. I was trying to find, y’know, different melody lines for the picture, so that it wasn’t the same, the same, the same, the same, the same. And that meant I had to find some kind of storyline for the movie, y’know. And there was a point where it all got kind of nostalgic and moody and sad and I liked that. Not sad, but touching in a way, where he says these are like my children, I’m not going to see these buildings that many more times, I love them. Where he said the thing, I wish if I could be anything in the world, would be a painter. The thing where he says, there’s no there, there. So I started grouping all those things together and that started to have a shape in some way. And then trying to fit in his childhood. I did it twice, which is odd structure, but there were things I wanted to know, and I couldn’t, it was too long to do that car drive in one piece. So I did the car drive, car drive is now in two pieces. It’s about his past, so this picture has this weird shape where it goes back and tells you his past and then it picks up today for a while and then goes back again and picks up more of his past and then goes to its end. It’s a shape, in documentaries, you find that after the fact. We had a great editor, Karen Schmeer who’d done all of Errol Morris’ films.

PRIDE: And to put all this in your running time of--

POLLACK: It’s 82 minutes. I just cut about nine minutes out of it about three weeks ago.

PRIDE: What kind of choices did you make about time of day to shoot? The light on the buildings is usually very telling.

POLLACK: Yeah. With the important buildings, we would be there all day, try to get the morning, try to… unless we knew it was going to be ugly at a certain time. That’s Bilbao, Maggie’s place Maggie’s Centre Dundee, in Scotland, and the Disney Concert Hall. We hung out for a while. And Vitra. I had a couple of days at Vitra. I had three days at Bilbao, so we were able to get different light.

PRIDE: So it wasn’t plotted, it wasn’t shooting at magic hour, it was just observing how the light struck?

POLLACK: I knew, you knew that sunset and dawn would be good times for those metal buildings. Curious times, anyway.

PRIDE: I’ve only seen the Disney on a horribly bright, flat day.

POLLACK: That’s no good, yeah. It’s too much. It just glares at you.

PRIDE: There’s a reasonable amount of critique in the movie, too, particularly the idea that architects like Gehry might be engaging in “logotechture.”

POLLACK: I didn’t know quite how to do that. I tried to get more people that didn’t like him. I mean, he is my friend and I think his work is strong enough on its own that he can take counter points of view. I didn’t think it would be bad for him or bad for the picture, but y’know, I couldn’t find a lot of people to talk against him. I tried to get Richard Serra, but he wouldn’t be in it. He would’ve talked against him, he doesn’t like a lot of what Frank does. He was an old friend of Frank’s and he was the perfect guy to talk about him, because he knows Frank, and he’s himself a great artist and he’s very anti-Frank at the moment. But he wouldn’t be in it. But Al Foster is a very respected guy, he’s a professor of architecture.

PRIDE: It’s a strength, a few spikes and barbs improve it. I wondered how you weighed how much you needed of that in the finished product.

POLLACK: I don’t know. He was the only guy I had but then we had all of these bad headlines where we did the montage of, “messy, ugly,” that kind of thing.

PRIDE: After your forty-plus years of directorial experience, I’m wondering, most good directors will admit that directing is often largely a matter of knowing how to listen to others, not just telling, but listening to what they need. What’s the listening for making fiction, working with four actors with four styles in the room, how’s that different from listening on this documentary? A lot of times, assembling doc footage, it would seem you’re in freefall. You can’t put it all in a box or a frame while you’re listening to a particular interview.

POLLACK: Right. That’s absolutely right. You don’t know where you’re gonna go. You know where you’re trying to go in fiction, but you don’t have any idea where you’re gonna go… One of the things that this was about was seeing where the conversation would take us. I was hoping and trusting that if we had a conversation, we would get into some terrific areas. A lot of days we didn’t. A lot of days, I’m sure you must’ve had this in interviews, where you kind of struggle, maybe, I don’t know, you’re struggling for the right question to get the person going or whatever.

PRIDE: Ideally, you let your curiosity guide you. If you keep referring to a screenplay or a clipboard, you’re not making a movie or conducting an interview.

POLLACK: Exactly. That’s what happened. Every time I went in there with a lot of prepared questions, it was boring. So I would go in there with a few questions but then a dialogue would start and as the dialogue started and we really began to talk to each other, it went its own way. I’d say, oh okay there’s an hour, but this little section is terrific, and we’d use that little section. I’m sure it’s very similar to how you get a good interview. You’re making little mini-documentaries every time you do an interview.

June 14 , 2006

- Email Ray Pride



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