TCS Daily

The Movie Man

By The Editors - May 29, 2008 12:00 AM

Sydney Pollack, the prolific director, producer and actor, died May 26 at the age of 73. He was born in Lafayette, Indiana, in 1934 and began his career in television in the early 1960s. His 1969 film "They Shoot Horses Don't They?" firmly established Pollack as a hands-on director for the big screen. His credits include such memorable films as "The Way We Were," "Tootsie" and "Out Of Africa," which won Academy Awards for best picture and best director.

In 2001, TCS contributor Ben Wattenberg met with Pollack to discuss the business and art of making movies. A video of this interview can be viewed at

TCS: Why do they say that film is a director's medium?

POLLACK: Well, there's no question that a good script is absolutely essential - maybe the essential - thing for a movie. But they say that it's a director's medium because all of the major decisions are made by the director, including who the writer is, or whether the writer will be rewritten. The director decides things like the cast, where you'll shoot, when you'll shoot, is it going to be a long shot, is it going to be a close shot, is it going to go round and round the people, who's going to play which part, how fast are they going to talk, what's the pacing of the scene, what are they going to wear.

TCS: That's true to a large extent on the stage and people say, "Shakespeare wrote it," or "Eugene O'Neill wrote it." They don't say who directed it.

POLLACK: You don't normally do another presentation of All About Eve. You do one All About Eve, and that's it.

TCS: You redid Sabrina.

POLLACK: Yes, and it wasn't a good idea by the way. I got clobbered for redoing Sabrina. I thought I could add something because of the time that went by. But it turned out that people really didn't want to see a remake of Sabrina.

TCS: The art or craft of motion pictures is a 20th Century phenomenon...

POLLACK: Maybe the most important one of the 20th Century.

TCS: Why would you say the most important?

POLLACK: Well, look at the influence it has. Look at the economics it commands. Look at the preoccupation with it of all cultures of the world. Look at its power to spread ideas. Look at it as a political tool, look at it as entertainment. No matter what point of view you choose, it would be hard to find something that's changed and affected the world as strongly, other than the Internet. It's the 20th Century's real art form.

TCS: Is it inherently different from the art forms it replaced, or now stands beside? Is it different from the novel, the play, or the opera?

POLLACK: It's deeply different from all of them. Number one, film is the one art form that combines all art forms. Every single art form is involved in film, in a way. I mean, certainly writing, painting, photography, dance, architecture, there is an aspect of almost every art form that is useful and that merges into film in some way. Film is a collective experience, as you know.

Reading a novel of a private experience - the nature of it is very different. The reader supplies all of the finishing touches in a novel. Exactly how the character looks is up to you. Exactly how the character sounds is up to you. Exactly the way they make love is up to you. None of that is up to you in a film. Every little bit is given to you.

TCS: Except you impute emotions into the actors.

POLLACK: Or you are stimulated by the film to have certain emotions.

TCS: It's not wholly passive.

POLLACK: No, it isn't passive, but it's done to you. You are not an active creator of the film.

TCS: Maybe that's a big reason it has such potency. Given the enormous power of this art form, do you love it?

POLLACK: Well, I do love it. I'm driven crazy by it, because it's so hard to do well, because you are trying to take what's a fantasy in your head and make it live through the minds of 200 people. It is a collaborative business. I have to try to communicate to a cinematographer what I want it to look like. I have to try to communicate to the actors without making them feel raped, or that they're puppets, or that they're being pushed around. All these people are your partners when you make a film. But, the objective in some way is to get what you've spent a year or two or three sometimes preparing and imagining in your head onto the screen as precisely as you can. And I personally find it very tough, and very frustrating. I don't know whether all directors would say the same thing. Everybody is different. But, yes, I do love it.

TCS: Where did you shoot Out Of Africa?

POLLACK: In Africa. I personally have never made a movie in Hollywood. I don't want to get up in my own bed and then go to the movie set, and then come home at night to my real life. I can't handle that dichotomy. I mean, that's a weird thing, but it's the truth. I suppose I could do it, but I prefer to go where the only thing I'm there for is the movie, and I've left this life behind. I've made films in Japan, in Yugoslavia, all over Europe, all over the United States, Mexico. But not Hollywood.

TCS: What are your favorite movies that you've made?

POLLACK: Well, it's hard. I mean, movies are like your kids or your fingers and toes or something. It's pretty hard to pick favorites. The truth is I like the failures as much as I like the successes. It's only the rest of the world that doesn't like the failures. From my point of view I work just as hard, I care just as much. I would go back and make Havana again if it came to me. I would go back and make Random Hearts. Both pictures were failures. I mean, they were certainly failures financially.

TCS: But, were they failures in your mind? Did you say, "Oh boy, all this effort and it doesn't work." Or did you think they worked?

POLLACK: No, they were not at all failures in my mind. I mean, in Random Hearts I badly misjudged the audience's ability to accept Harrison Ford in a role other than what they really want to see him in. And looking back you can see that in everything. You can see it in Frantic and in The Mosquito Coast. They were failures - not artistic failures - but they weren't financially successful. When Harrison is in an action picture he's so good and that's what we want to see. We don't want to see him in pain, and in misery, and suffering.

The very reasons sometimes that you make a film are the reasons for its failure. I mean I wanted Harrison in a different role. I wanted to explore a dark relationship that happened when two people were thrown together because of a tragedy. These were all things that the audience wasn't in the market for. That's what is exciting about it, though. I didn't have the faintest idea Tootsie would be a hit, or Out Of Africa would be a hit, or The Firm would be a hit.

You don't know. You just don't know.



And it is the social and political influence that is most disturbing
The film industry should be about entertaining. They do a poor job of informing and should stay out of the arena. Movies are all fiction and/or fictionalized real-life stories. The fact that way too many people take them seriously is a major problem in our society.

Movies and movie stars are basically fake, fictionalized characters. The fact that so many in America, and the world, give them any real-world credibility at all would be laughable… that is if it weren't true.

I said disturbing and should
I did not say ayone should dictate anything. It is indeed a sad state of affairs in parenting, education and society when entirely too many people "believe everything they see" and are inable to distinguish between "an actor and the character he/she plays.

There are a huge number of airhead in this country unable to distinguish fact from fiction. So called "informative" movies just blur the lines even more.

I think the first time I really learned about "fictionalized" •true• stories on film was the movie Patton. After seeing the movie I was intrigued and read a lot about him. Unfortunately, either due to censors or Hollywood's need to sensationalize, I found the man on the screen only somewhat resembled the real live character. The real Patton was more profane, humble, intelligent and (perhaps) nuts than the guy George C. Scott portrayed. Yet, to me, it still ranks as one of the best I've seen.

Still, I learned the difference at 11 or 12.

Re Patton - the movies are nothing new in this regard
The Alexander the Great of history is almost surely a hugely puffed up version of the real man. The George, I cannot tell a lie, Washington of my school days is almost surely a sanitized version of the real man. The Soviets made well known members of the government into non-persons by editing them out of histories and pictures.

The saying that history is written by the winners is at least as old as the Romans - Virgil wrote The Aeniad as an exercise in providing Caesar Augustus with a family line back to the royal family of Troy. So history is an altered version of what really happened.

I hate the fact that movies are ideologicly biased (in a way in which I don't approve), but the movies are nothing new in this regard.

As far as believing everything they see, remember that the phrase "there's a sucker born every minute," dates from the 19th century - and it probably has a Roman or Greek antecedent or equivalent.

In the 1790's the whole French nation happily marched off to war under the command of an Emperor to butcher people while proclaiming "Liberty, Equality and Fraternity."

They are to some extent
Certainly some of the written history is edited, but revisionist histories are no better. •Caution• better to believe what was written at, or close to, the time in question than some future historians revision of the facts related. The original may be edited, but it is likely more accurate and more focused on the actual event(s) than the later, often more titillating, revisions.

Movies are much worse.

Histories are only read by those who want to know something about a certain historical figure or event, they are not mass marketed to the general public and are not primarily designed to entertain. Taking an entertainment device and calling it a "True Story" is in the same vein as calling "war of the Worlds" a work of non-fiction.

We probably agree on more things than we disagree but. . .
"(histories) are not mass marketed to the general public and are not primarily designed to entertain."

My point, perhaps clumsily presented, is that our current movies are in the same vein as the epic poems and the stories told about great figures in the past. The Illiad, Odyssey and Aeniad were popular entertainment. So were Shakespeare's plays. The Bible has the walls of Jericho falling by God's will at the sound of a horn but one suspects that something a bit more mundane was involved. Such vehicles have always had propagandistic as well as entertainment dimensions.

The big difference right now is that the power structure is very tolerant of dissenting propaganda. This tolerance, I submit, is overall a very good thing which unfortunately leads to some poor results (like Oliver Stone and Bill Maher). But then I basicly trust in the concept that you can't fool all of the people all of the time even though I have a very dim view of the reasoning powers and attention span of the average person.

I certainly can't argue with any of that
It is very true. Stories are, usually, just that; fiction. There are exceptions, but even the best are usually "dramatized" for entertainment purposes.

That is a good movie
And I'm sure you are right.

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