interview with Sydney Pollack
Theres at least one thing that makes the modest, marvelous Sketches
of Frank Gehry by Sydney Pollack a unique documentary: its
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 formsPhilip
Johnson, Bob Geldof, Barry Diller, Michael Eisner, Dennis Hopper, Ed
Ruscha, Julian Schnabel, architecture critic Herbert Muschampfootage
of Gehrys 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 Yknows. We talked at the Peninsula
Hotel in Chicago on May 5.
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, youre always
honing the narrative form
exactingly. I assume you found the form for the documentary rather late.
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
who gave us the seed money, so to speak, to begin shooting. The way
it happened was I spent a lot of time feeling, yknow, flattered
and pleased that Frank asked me. But petrified of doing it, because
I honestly dont know anything about documentaries nor about architecture.
I didnt think it was a good idea, yknow? He kept saying,
Thats why youre perfect. And I tried to analyze,
what does that mean? And I thought, Okay, what he means, thats
why youre perfect, is, you dont know anything about architecture,
so you wont make a documentary thats filled with scholarly
academicians who are gonna make, yknow
about architecture. Youll be a layman talking, which is good,
he thought. And I thought, Okay, maybe I can make a virtue of
that. And you dont know anything about making documentaries, so
maybe youll find a form for this documentary like I try to find
forms for my buildings that arent beholden to tradition and everything
thats gone before it. Thats what I understood he meant
by Thats why youre perfect,: okay? I still, from a
practical point of view, didnt 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, its
spare time for me, too, I dont 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 unconsciousno, thats an oxymoronhis
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.
old was he when he left his first marriage behind, the bankruptcy, changing
his name, and so on? He wasnt young
He said that name change, I believe he said, happened in the 50s. Hes
77 now. Hes been with Berta ever since Ive known him, and
Ive known him for 25, almost 30 years
probably over 30.
Oh yeah, he was in his 30s, Im sure. Maybe close to 40.
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, somethings
been holding me back. And then theres a great thing Frank
says with gusto in the movie, about freeing oneself for artistic practice,
That is so stupid-looking! Its great!
I know! I love that. I love that.
your friendship encompass knowing him to be able to make an observation
No. I, I learned a lot more about him. My knowledge of Frank was gleaned
We connected in a way that you sometimes do with people.
You cant 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. Yknow, how everybody
was a fool! [laughs] Yknow, the same things that everybody says
where you have to consider a lot of peoples judgments in what
you do. So youre always knocking them and bitching about them,
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?
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 Id ever seen.
Id get in the car and Id drive home with my wife, and Id
said, I cant imagine living in that place. I dont know how
you live there. But I begin to understand it now. Its 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 wouldve said, youre insane. But
thats what happened to me. And I dont know if you ever saw
Charlie Roses show where Philip Johnson, they had it live when
Philip Johnson walked in
and started to sob. They couldnt
stop him, he couldnt stop crying. Live! On Charlies show.
He just looked up at that thing, its unbelievable, its moving,
its really moving.
that amazing corridor view [thats on the cover of the Bilbao Guggenheims
catalog] looking toward the gleaming mass of the building down a hillside
of traditional architecture. It looms.
only time thats happened to me was the first time I went to the
Frank Lloyd Wright home and studio, theres a childrens room
with a simple cove, low ceiling, and you dont know why in a certain
room or space, but it just works. It works.
put yourself into the film. Did you want to avoid that, did the editor
say, this will be a good thing? Theres a different intimacy when
you see a friendship in a documentary, or two peers observing each other.
Did you have reservations?
Well, its 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, yknow, I would never, I would never do.
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 dont 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, yknow, and say,
It works better this way. And then Frank kept saying, Yknow
whats great about this? Were 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 yknow, I was
scared to death that people were going to look at it and say, Isnt
that a little bit narcissistic, my boy? yknow? But they
dont. I think they like it.
are definitely documentary makers who showboat their presence, putting
themselves center stage, but other times, its 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, its not seducing
or calming, Im looking for a different word. But its nice,
because you feel, not that youre eavesdropping, because you know
its structured, but it still has this feel of sharing a process
of discovery with the viewer.
Right. Well, thats good. I mean, thats, hopefully, what
we wanted. I mean, what we came to want. It wasnt what we started
[off] wanting. But it evolved into that.
is that different from your occasional acting roles?
thats 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. Youre not finding the movie totally,
youre 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 dont believe me, but most of the time I do
it because Im producing the movie and Im the most reasonably
priced actor I can get for that role! In The Interpreter, who wants
to play that part? Thats a boring part. I didnt want to
play it, even.
if you have a boring guy that you need to have in scenes spread out
eight or ten times during the schedule
that was it. This guy spread through the whole picture. I tried. I tried
Alec Baldwin, I tried a bunch of people. I wasnt going to get
any of these people! Its a boring part! And finally, yknow,
it was a headache, I thought Im never going to get anybody for
this and I was out of money and I said, Ill just do it. Its
easier, Ill just do it. Thats the way it happened. Now.
When I go [and] act for other people, thats 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. Thats different.
Thats a way to expose myself to those other directors.
a line Mike Nichols says
Its like sex, you dont know if youre doing it
version I heard has the F word, referring to how a director has to fumble
toward their own method across several pictures, Its like
fucking, you never know how the other guy does it.
Yeah, thats right.
roles Ive 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.
Youve been involved with Sundance from the start, sharing information
and knowledge with others, but are you doing more things like discussing
the Visconti film?
I do it when Im, yknow, when I can, when Im asked.
Im going to Cannes and theyve ask me to do some sort of
a master class there. I dont know what the hell that is, but Ill
figure something out. Also, Im going to London Monday to do some
press for this, but theyve asked, again, for some sort of master
class, which Im gonna do. I dont know what those are. I
guess just talking with other filmmakers about process in some way or
theories or whatever itll be. Its 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 its not making speeches or something,
which I dont know how to do, I never know how to do that, lectures,
yknow. 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
dont want to have to sit and write a formal treatise. But yeah,
Im always glad to talk about work experiences and what they mean
or what I did or didnt learn or what I think I learned or something
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 hes made. He didnt understand them until hed
talked them out.
Its absolutely true. Its absolutely true.
is 2.35 beautiful? Why widescreen or CinemaScope, whats good about
me, the beauty comes out of practicality. Ive 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 cant 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 cant. You cant. 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 youre using
the environment to tell storyif you take a picture like They
Shoot Horses, Dont 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,
Youre in one set, for godssake! Why are you using widescreen?
Its not the Grand Canyon. Its 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 theres 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 dont 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 dont say its more beautiful.
I adore those old movies that were 1.33. Theyre great. Its
not a question of beauty, its a question of
of what is the
movie? The one movie I wish Id done it in, this is when I stopped
using Scope, which was Out of Africa. Because I got so
sick of it being butchered, yknow, DVDs werent in then,
they were still doing VHS and they were always panning-and-scanning,
chopping the edges off. And I just said, I cant do this any more.
More people see it in the aftermarket now, so they remember it that
way. I didnt frame it that way. Ive had people come up now,
who occasionally have seen a screening of Jeremiah Johnson or
a screening of They Shoot Horses and its a different movie
than what they ever saw. Its a completely different movie.
PRIDE: East of
Edens 16mm prints notoriously had a shot down the center of
a confrontation that had two noses bobbing in and out.
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, theres 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?
Well, I, I, I, Im partial to comedy when I can. I think its
the hardest thing to do, but I was looking for the fun. Everywhere.
Thats why I love Geldof and Schnabel.
is such a
have to smile, you, you creature!
Right! I didnt know what would or wouldnt be entertaining.
The change-up, its a good word you used. I was very aware that
you cant look at too many buildings. Or that you cant keep
thats 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 Maggies place in England and Bilbao and
his house in great, great detail. Theres only three buildings
that you really study. And so I thought that was okay, I thought, youre
not going to get bored if its only, and I dont 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, yknow,
different melody lines for the picture, so that it wasnt the same,
the same, the same, the same, the same. And that meant I had to find
some kind of storyline for the movie, yknow. 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,
Im 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, theres 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 couldnt, 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. Its
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.
Its a shape, in documentaries, you find that after the fact. We
had a great editor, Karen Schmeer whod done all of Errol
to put all this in your running time of--
Its 82 minutes. I just cut about nine minutes out of it about
three weeks ago.
kind of choices did you make about time of day to shoot? The light on
the buildings is usually very telling.
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. Thats Bilbao, Maggies place Maggies
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.
it wasnt plotted, it wasnt shooting at magic hour, it was
just observing how the light struck?
I knew, you knew that sunset and dawn would be good times for those
metal buildings. Curious times, anyway.
only seen the Disney on a horribly bright, flat day.
Thats no good, yeah. Its too much. It just glares at you.
a reasonable amount of critique in the movie, too, particularly the
idea that architects like Gehry might be engaging in logotechture.
I didnt know quite how to do that. I tried to get more people
that didnt 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 didnt think it would be bad for him or bad for the picture,
but yknow, I couldnt find a lot of people to talk against
him. I tried to get Richard Serra, but he wouldnt be in
it. He wouldve talked against him, he doesnt like a lot
of what Frank does. He was an old friend of Franks and he was
the perfect guy to talk about him, because he knows Frank, and hes
himself a great artist and hes very anti-Frank at the moment.
But he wouldnt be in it. But Al Foster is a very respected
guy, hes a professor of architecture.
a strength, a few spikes and barbs improve it. I wondered how you weighed
how much you needed of that in the finished product.
I dont 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.
your forty-plus years of directorial experience, Im 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. Whats the listening for making fiction, working
with four actors with four styles in the room, hows that different
from listening on this documentary? A lot of times, assembling doc footage,
it would seem youre in freefall. You cant put it all in
a box or a frame while youre listening to a particular interview.
Thats absolutely right. You dont know where youre
gonna go. You know where youre trying to go in fiction, but you
dont have any idea where youre 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 didnt. A lot of
days, Im sure you mustve had this in interviews, where you
kind of struggle, maybe, I dont know, youre struggling for
the right question to get the person going or whatever.
you let your curiosity guide you. If you keep referring to a screenplay
or a clipboard, youre not making a movie or conducting an interview.
Exactly. Thats 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.
Id say, oh okay theres an hour, but this little section
is terrific, and wed use that little section. Im sure its
very similar to how you get a good interview. Youre making little
mini-documentaries every time you do an interview.
14 , 2006
Email Ray Pride