The company is called Mirage Enterprises, but there is nothing illusory about the career of its CEO. For 40 years now, Sydney Pollack has been making movies in Hollywood, and for the past two decades Mirage has been the base from which he’s overseen production of his own films, as well as those of a Who’s Who of distinguished peers (including Anthony Minghella, Pollack’s partner in the company since 2000). It’s also been a launching pad for auspicious young talent like Steven Zaillian (Searching for Bobby Fischer),Steve Kloves (TheFabulous Baker Boys) and Ira Sachs (whose Mirage-produced Forty Shades of Bluewon the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance this year). All told, movies produced and/or directed by Pollack have earned some 80 Oscar nominations, with Pollack himself collecting Best Picture and Best Director statuettes for OutofAfrica(1985). Not bad for a kid from Lafayette, Indiana, who started out wanting to become an actor and, in his spare time, has managed to work in that capacity for the likes of Robert Altman, Woody Allen and Stanley Kubrick.
Pollack’s latest, TheInterpreter— which he directed, produced and acts in — is a fleet paranoia thriller about a United Nations translator (played with stark intensity by Nicole Kidman) who uncovers a plot to assassinate the despotic leader of a war-torn African nation and, in doing so, becomes a target herself. It’s a scenario rife with echoes of the current global political climate, and of Pollack’s own 1975 espionage tale, ThreeDaysoftheCondor,in which Robert Redford’s sheepish CIA librarian stumbled onto a government conspiracy to pillage the oil fields of the Middle East. (Imagine that!) Arriving six years after his last directorial outing, the romantic drama RandomHearts,failed to catch on with critics or audiences, TheInterpreterfinds Pollack on surer footing, in a genre that’s served him well in the past. Like Condorand Pollack’s subsequent AbsenceofMaliceand TheFirm,it’s a meticulously plotted mystery that patiently winds us through its serpentine skullduggery, and is notable as much for its crackerjack suspense set pieces as for the compelling, carefully drawn characters that hold our attention even when they don’t share the screen with a ticking time bomb. In short, just the sort of smart, solid nail biter that may be more liability than asset in today’s dumbed-down Hollywood marketplace.
“Certainly, where big, expensive movies are concerned, the trend is not to do this kind of picture,” Pollack tells me in his Beverly Hills office, during a brief stopover between a South American bike-riding expedition and TheInterpreter’sEuropean press tour. “I don’t say that’s bad or good — I’m not trying to pass judgment — but everything today is geared for the young male audience, the video-game audience. And if you say to them, ‘Sit down, put the popcorn away, turn your cell phones off, listen carefully and see if you can figure this out,’ that’s not always a plus.
“At one time — the 20 years when I was most productive as a director — you could make more eclectic films, and a lot of that was economics. The cost of making and marketing movies is out of control, at least for movies with big stars in them. That’s why I’ve turned to independent films as a producer, and I’m eventually going to find my way into that arena as a director. I want very much to make a $15-million to $20-million movie where I don’t have this daunting, and inhibiting, pressure to reach everyone in the world or the picture’s not considered a success. You can’t do anything about it, but it makes you worry when you want to get a little bit layered and complicated, or you want to have two characters sit down for seven pages of dialogue — which they do in this movie, frequently.”
When they do, that dialogue often transpires inside the United Nations building, that Wallace Harrison and Le Corbusier monument to diplomacy, which has hitherto been strictly off-limits to Hollywood film crews. Pollack too was refused at first, but doggedly persevered until he won an audience with Kofi Annan and, in turn, permission to shoot inside the U.N.’s hallowed walls.
“There’s an emotional noise that that place makes, because of the historical associations, because of the scale of it, because of the architecture,” notes Pollack, whose next film will be a documentary about Frank Gehry. “You can be an atheist, and yet there are certain cathedrals that you can’t walk into without understanding why people are reassured by them. And this building, the U.N., makes you feel what it was designed for — a place in which world-shaking decisions are made. From the Security Council room to the General Assembly, it’s an awesome place, and I didn’t see any way to fake it.”
Today a robust 70, Pollack studied acting in the 1950s under the legendary Sanford Meisner at New York’s Neighborhood Playhouse, where he eventually became an instructor himself. Roles in live television drama followed, as well as a stint as dialogue coach on John Frankenheimer’s TheYoungSavages(1961), whose star, Burt Lancaster, encouraged Pollack to direct. Released in 1965, Pollack’s debut feature, TheSlenderThread,found a rather ingenious metaphor for race relations in the telephone line connecting a campus crisis-center volunteer (Sidney Poitier) to a suicidal suburban housewife (Anne Bancroft). Since then, Pollack has specialized in unpretentiously marrying popular genre entertainments to a range of sensitive and provocative subtexts — from an epic romance set against the Hollywood blacklist (The WayWeWere)to a car-racing drama that’s an unflinching study of mortality (BobbyDeerfield), to a screwball farce (Tootsie) that’s as savvy on gender politics as TheSlenderThreadis on race. For Pollack, it’s all about finding what he calls the “spine” of a given film.
“It comes from my starting out as a teacher,” says Pollack. “I’d tell my students, ‘You can’t go out on the stage and behave if you don’t know what’s creating the behavior. There has to be a want, a wish, a goal — and that goal has to have some meaning.’ On OutofAfrica,I worked for a year-and-a-half with [Oscar-winning screenwriter] Kurt Luedtke, and about half that time was spent trying to find the spine. Finally, I got on to this idea of possession, that the movie was about possession, be it between a man and a woman, or between England and Africa. On ThreeDaysoftheCondor,[co-screenwriter] David Rayfiel and I said, ‘Let’s take a guy who trusts people and put him through an experience that makes him unable to trust anyone. Then let’s take a girl who doesn’t trust anybody and force her into a nightmare through which she ends up trusting.’ And that told us how to write the scenes in a certain way. I don’t set out to make political films, though relationships are nothing if not political. If a guy’s sitting in a room and a woman comes in and lights a cigarette, it’s a political situation.”
TheInterpreteris, per Pollack, “about the efficacy of words” — interpretation, as it applies to both individuals and nations — with Kidman’s idealistic translator pitted against the cynical federal agent (Sean Penn) for whom language exists only to deceive. Yet the film is ultimately, if cautiously, optimistic about the pen truly being mightier than the sword — a notion Pollack says he’s borrowed as much from Tom Stoppard as from Edward Bulwer-Lytton. “It comes from the speech in TheRealThing,where the playwright admonishes this girl because of her faith in a lousy writer, and talks about how the butchering of words by someone who isn’t able to make adequate use of them is a crime. I took that speech and dictated it to every one of the writers on this project. It’s one of my favorite speeches in all of literature, because it speaks to the reason why your hair raises in a certain moment in a film or a piece of theater, or why you laugh, or why you cry. It’s all done with writing, by people who can really write and create that kind of response in you. And that’s the genesis of behavior change, I think. Seeing something and being moved by it — that’s a powerful weapon.”