Web-special: Q&A with Sydney Pollack 

"Sydney Pollack
Feb. 9, 7 p.m.
Indiana Historical Society

Filmmaker/actor Sydney Pollack looks, talks and carries himself like the quintessential New Yorker. But no, not even close.

“People are shocked when I say I grew up in the Midwest,” he said in a phone interview. “I guess it has to do with the years I went [to New York] and how much of a rapport I had with New York. I felt like I was where I belonged.”

Pollack was born in Lafayette, Ind. — his parents met at Purdue University. His father was a pharmacist whose drugstore chain transferred him to Mishawaka and then to South Bend when Sydney was about 4. Pollack graduated from Central High School at 17 and moved directly to New York to begin his career.

He’s been back to his home state only once since his father died in 1976, to get an honorary degree from the University of Notre Dame in 2002. But he’ll be at the Indiana Historical Society at 7 p.m. Friday for its next History Makers: IHS Distinguished Speaker Series, which will include a question-and-answer session and screening of his excellent documentary, “Sketches of Frank Gehry.”

In an interview with NUVO, Pollack talked about his childhood and some of his many film and TV credits. Here’s some of what he had to say, starting with a question about “Sketches of Frank Gehry.” (The full conversation is available as a Podcast.)

NUVO: I know this is going to sound ridiculous, but I saw the movie in a theater last July, and if someone had asked me a week ago, “What do you remember about it?” the one thing I can really remember is his architecture. I had completely forgotten that you were in it and that you had made it. I don’t mean that as any kind of insult; I was just so taken by the architecture and the pictures, and that’s what’s burned into my mind.

Pollack: Different people have different reactions to it. Aspiring artists hook onto another aspect of it because there’s something about the way Frank failed and failed and failed and failed and then suddenly made it late in his life. Some people hook onto the fact that there’s a conversation going on between two people whose lives are completely in the hands of the public, and the frustration of that. Some people hook into just the creative process that gets discussed, some people hook into Frank’s methodology, and some people hook into the extraordinary work that he did.

NUVO: Did you know all those things were going to come into play when you started making the movie?

Pollack: No. I made the movie for completely other circumstances. This wasn’t a professional job for me. I’m not a documentary maker. I don’t profess any expertise in either architecture or documentaries, and I had no particular wish to make a documentary and knew that I had nothing to contribute to architecture. But I was, myself, so intrigued with his buildings.

I happened to be touring Europe, opening a picture in 1997, and the fall of 1997 was the opening of the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao. Frank was a guy I had met at parties and we ended up being big complainers together about what a pain in the ass it is to have your whole life dependant on a bunch of strangers. Everything you do is evaluated by these faceless, nameless people who either like what you did or didn’t like what you did. So we had a rapport that came out of social complaining.

I didn’t quite understand his early architecture at first. It seemed definitely original, but I wouldn’t say that it spoke to me in the way that this later stuff began to. I had been on a tour of 12 countries; I was tired as hell. The tour ended in Madrid and I suddenly remembered that he had sent these invitations to a bunch of people to come to the opening and I laughed when I got it and I was saying to people, “Is he serious? Does he think people are going to get on a plane and fly to Bilbao, Spain, just to go to see an opening? That’s crazy.” But hundreds of people showed up, including me.

When I went up there, I just wasn’t prepared for how thrilling that building was. I was blown away by it. I was speechless when I saw it. I didn’t understand how one mind could do it. I didn’t understand how this guy who was my friend, who I talked to every day, came up with it.

He had been talking to me a little bit about a documentary — only in the sense that he was saying the BBC and the CBC are approaching me for documentaries and I don’t want to do it. Then one day he said to me, “Have you ever thought about a documentary?” and I said, “God, no, I don’t know anything about documentaries.” And he said, “If you ever think about it, I’d sure love it if you’d do this.” And I said, “Frank, I’m the wrong guy. I don’t know anything about architecture, I don’t know anything about documentaries.” And he said, “That’s exactly why I want you to do it.”

It took me three years, from 1997 till 2000. I kept being haunted by that building. Then I saw plans and what he was doing with Disney concert hall [in Los Angeles], and I saw some pieces of models he was working on in Chicago and I thought, God, this guy is an original. I found myself curious about how he got to that place. So I said to him, “What would we be doing this for?” He said, “I don’t know, we’re not doing it for anybody. We’d just be doing this to make a record and have it.”

Over the next five years, I spent probably one day a year, no more. If I had a free Saturday, I did it. I shot half of it, three-quarters of it myself, and there was no pressure. Halfway, three-quarters of the way through, [PBS’] “American Masters” asked if they could see some clips. [They] gave us another $300,000 to finish it and in turn bought the rights to air it on “American Masters.” Then the guy that runs the Toronto film festival … asked if he could see a rough assembly. I sent it up to him and he wanted it as an official entry.

I finished it and sent it up to Toronto. Frank and I went up there and it got a big standing ovation. Then people started buying it in the rest of the world and Sony Classics picked it up for theaters. So it ended up being in theaters, but that wasn’t the intention. The intention was really educational on my part. I did the documentary to find out what makes Frank tick and what the process is.

NUVO: When he said you’re the perfect person to do this because you don’t know anything about documentary filmmaking, what did he mean?

Pollack: He meant that he didn’t want a boring, scholarly approach. He didn’t want some guy who would be talking over the heads of everybody, who would only be talking to other architects, and he didn’t want a documentarian to whom this would be just another notch in your belt.

NUVO: In the ’80s, you had this remarkable run where you’re acting in “Tootsie” and that goes over great. Then you follow that with “Out of Africa” and you win the Academy Award. At that point in your career, do you feel invincible?

Pollack: Not at all. Quite the opposite. At that point in my career, I felt that I was suddenly under a bell jar. I didn’t particularly want to be there. I was loving the success of it but very nervous and insecure about having that much attention. There’s something marvelously liberating when you’re just doing the work and you’re on to the next one. You’re not reading every review and nobody’s expecting you to have a blockbuster every time. After that, their expectations would be very high and so every time I would do a picture it was expensive and with movie stars — which all the pictures have been — and so there was an enormous amount of pressure.

I liked the idea of going 180 degrees from a fast-paced, contemporary comedy like “Tootsie,” which got both terrific reviews and lots and lots of nominations and also was a monster commercial success, to “Out of Africa,” which was a big, outdoor, long, epic movie, slow, classical, traditional. That also was a big financial success and was rewarded with a lot of critical attention. That’s a very good feeling.

I had had it a couple of times before. I had it with “They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?” in 1969. That’s a picture that got 10 Academy Award nominations and I was still fairly young. That got enormous international attention. So I had it there. I had a certain amount of it with “Three Days of the Condor,” which made a pretty good ripple. I had it with “Jeremiah Johnson,” which was the first western ever to be invited to play in the Cannes Film Festival and got enormously respectful reviews … certainly in Europe.

The biggest commercial successes I’ve had would be “Tootsie,” “Out of Africa” and “The Firm.” But the biggest artistic successes would be “They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?” “Tootsie,” “The Firm” and, I suppose, “Condor” and “Jeremiah Johnson.”

NUVO: The flip side of the question is, when you have something like “Havana,” which doesn’t work, what do you take away from that?

Pollack: You don’t take away a lot. You’re terribly disappointed. It doesn’t necessarily change your view of the picture. You try to learn something from it, but it’s hard to learn. Every once in a while you can see your own mistakes, but sometimes you can’t. If I had a chance, I’d make that picture all over again and probably wouldn’t change very much. So it’s not a question of, boy, did I learn from that. It’s a question of my realizing that what worked for me didn’t work for a lot of people.

But I don’t ever have any idea whether it is going to or not. So each time there’s tension. I have no idea whether what I like, the rest of the people will like. You can’t make movies for other people. It doesn’t work because you’re not other people and you don’t know what works. If anybody knew what worked, people would make hits all the time.

The only choice you have is to make what you think is good, what you like. And you have to keep your fingers crossed and hope that since you’re a human being and all these other people are human beings that your tastes will be congruent.

NUVO: In a case like that, did you look through reviews to see if anyone had a point?

Pollack: I read all the reviews, but in many cases I just didn’t agree with them. A lot of people talked about it being a rip-off of “Casablanca,” which really never occurred to me while I was doing it.

Sometimes you read a very smart review, but it’s pretty rare. There is no test for a critic. There’s a test to drive a car or fly a plane. You have to be able to prove you can direct a picture. Anybody can be a critic. A critic is someone who writes well — well enough to be published. And then what you’re getting is their opinion stated as fact.

NUVO: I’m sure doing consistently good work has something to do with it. But what are other elements you need to have a long career in Hollywood?

Pollack: I don’t know. I don’t have any recipe for it. You can’t lie. You can’t do it consciously. I do what I do because I can’t help it — the flops as well as the hits. I do material that I respond to, that I think I can care about for the year and a half or two that it takes me to make a film. I have no idea what prerequisites there are.

You stay open to things and keep doing what you’re excited about. I can’t fake it. To stay interested in a couple of characters in a movie for a year and a half is a lot different than staying interested in them for two hours in a theater. I have to ask myself when I do a movie: Do I think I’m going to wake up a year from now and still be vitally interested in their problems and what they care about? That’s a tall order personally. Not to the world, but to me personally.

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