Declaration of Independents
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 hes overseen production of his own films, as well as those of a Whos Who of distinguished peers (including Anthony Minghella, Pollacks partner in the company since 2000). Its 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 Blue won 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 Out of Africa (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.
Pollacks latest, The Interpreter 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. Its a scenario rife with echoes of the current global political climate, and of Pollacks own 1975 espionage tale, Three Days of the Condor, in which Robert Redfords 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 Random Hearts, failed to catch on with critics or audiences, The Interpreter finds Pollack on surer footing, in a genre thats served him well in the past. Like Condor and Pollacks subsequent Absence of Malice and The Firm, its 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 dont 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 todays 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 The Interpreters European press tour. I dont say thats bad or good Im 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, thats 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. Thats why Ive turned to independent films as a producer, and Im 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 dont have this daunting, and inhibiting, pressure to reach everyone in the world or the pictures not considered a success. You cant 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.
Theres 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 cant 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, its an awesome place, and I didnt see any way to fake it.
Today a robust 70, Pollack studied acting in the 1950s under the legendary Sanford Meisner at New Yorks 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 Frankenheimers The Young Savages (1961), whose star, Burt Lancaster, encouraged Pollack to direct. Released in 1965, Pollacks debut feature, The Slender Thread, 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 Way We Were) to a car-racing drama thats an unflinching study of mortality (BobbyDeerfield), to a screwball farce (Tootsie) thats as savvy on gender politics as The Slender Thread is on race. For Pollack, its all about finding what he calls the spine of a given film.
It comes from my starting out as a teacher, says Pollack. Id tell my students, You cant go out on the stage and behave if you dont know whats creating the behavior. There has to be a want, a wish, a goal and that goal has to have some meaning. On Out of Africa, 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 Three Days of the Condor, [co-screenwriter] David Rayfiel and I said, Lets take a guy who trusts people and put him through an experience that makes him unable to trust anyone. Then lets take a girl who doesnt 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 dont set out to make political films, though relationships are nothing if not political. If a guys sitting in a room and a woman comes in and lights a cigarette, its a political situation.
The Interpreter is, per Pollack, about the efficacy of words interpretation, as it applies to both individuals and nations with Kidmans 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 hes borrowed as much from Tom Stoppard as from Edward Bulwer-Lytton. It comes from the speech in The Real Thing, 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 isnt 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. Its 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. Its all done with writing, by people who can really write and create that kind of response in you. And thats the genesis of behavior change, I think. Seeing something and being moved by it thats a powerful weapon.
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