DATE May 27, 2008 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
PROGRAM Fresh Air
Interview: John Powers on the 2008 Cannes Film Festival
TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
The 61st Cannes Film Festival, the world's most important showcase for new
movies around the world, wrapped up on Sunday. This year's festival along the
French Riviera was broad enough to include the world premieres of the new
"Indiana Jones" film, Clint Eastwood's new film, art films from around the
world that will eventually open in the US, and films that will never find an
American distributor. Our critic at large John Powers has been to Cannes many
times. He's joining us from London to talk about this year's festival, and
there's plenty to talk about.
Let's start with an overview of the festival. What made this year's Cannes
festival different from others?
Mr. JOHN POWERS: This year what was striking was two things. One is that
the films were, by and large, pretty good. I think last year was considered
to be the greatest year in 20 years. And perhaps the films weren't as good as
that, but I think almost every day I saw something really interesting and
good, and even the ones I didn't like I thought were interesting to think
about and argue about. That's at the level of the films.
At the level of the vibe of the festival, I think for Americans there, this
may be the year when, because of declining subscriptions to newspapers and
declining advertising, that Cannes started to seem slightly, you know, it
seemed to be like a place that you might not be going back to in the future.
There was a sense that the euro is so powerful against the dollar, because
suddenly for an American abroad the dollar isn't worth very much. Also there
weren't as many American film distributors there to pick up the movies. So
the American presence was slightly smaller this year and slightly gloomy
because everyone was thinking art movies don't sell in the US, foreign movies
don't sell in the US, nobody wants to go see them. And at the same time, lots
of film critics of various publications are getting fired. So that kind of
atmosphere colored a lot of Cannes. But I don't think the rest of the people
there felt that, but certainly the Americans did feel it.
GROSS: So do you think the fact that there are fewer newspapers and fewer
film critics now because the film critics are getting laid off, is that one of
the reasons why film distributors are reluctant to pick up art films and
Mr. POWERS: Well, I think that it's probably a vicious circle, that the
fewer critics you have praising art films means that fewer people hear about
them. But also, editors think that fewer people are going to art films, and
so why should you have someone who spends a lot of time writing about them.
So you have an overall mental state, I think, among American film people that
things are kind of not in the best shape they could be, at least in terms of
the films that would play at Cannes. At the same time, of course, the big
single event at Cannes was the launch of the new "Indiana Jones" movie,
GROSS: Let me just stop you. I don't understand it.
Mr. POWERS: Yes.
GROSS: Why is it that "Indiana Jones," which is this big, commercial
blockbuster sequel-sequel-sequel, sequel to the sequel of the sequel, what's
it doing at Cannes? Why do you need like a film festival at Cannes to show
Mr. POWERS: Well, I guess what happens is you get all these film people
there, and they want to be there to be first and to feel special. And then,
because every journalist, anyway, has an editor back home wherever his or her
country that is obsessed with "Indiana Jones" because it's the big movie of
the era. They're all told they have to go. So you have this strange
spectacle. On the Sunday that it played--I was out to lunch for Woody Allen
and Penelope Cruz, who made a very enjoyable film about a sort of a romantic
romp in Barcelona. And about 40 minutes into the lunch, all the other
journalists stood up and basically apologized to Penelope Cruz that, `I've got
to go.' And she said, `I know where you're going.' And she was right; they
were going to wait for two hours outside the Palais, where they show all the
big films, to see the "Indiana Jones" movie because that became the big event.
And I think the festival kind of encourages those kinds of big events--it
showed "The Da Vinci Code" two or three years ago--partly because the entire
world is then looking at you.
GROSS: Well, before we talk about the winning films at the Cannes Film
Festival, let's just talk a little bit about the jury that selected the films.
It was headed this year by Sean Penn. What kind of jury head was he? How did
he instruct the jury?
Mr. POWERS: Yes, well, on the first day, Sean Penn basically told the press
that his mission as the jury head was to make sure that they made films
connect the real world in social and political themes. And he said so
overtly, you know, filled with a sort of obligatory attack on George Bush
along the way, that one of his other jurors, Marjane Satrapi, who made the
film "Persepolis," said, `Well, we're going to care about aesthetics, too.'
You know, `We don't want to choose things that'll be embarrassing in 10
years.' And so all along we all kept thinking, as the films would show, you
know, `Would Sean like this?' Because film critics always talk as though we
know Sean Penn. `Would Sean like this?' And `What would Marjane say?' And
then in the event of the actual awards, it more or less followed the social
line that Sean Penn would like, which is almost all the things that won have a
big social theme. Yet the jury voted unanimously for its winner and seemed to
be quite a happy jury, partly because a lot of the social-themed and
political-themed films were well made or interestingly made.
GROSS: Well, let's look at the film that won the top prize, the Palm d'Or,
and this was a unanimous verdict from the jury. Tell us what the movie was.
Mr. POWERS: OK, well, first thing that should be said is that where you
appear at Cannes can sometimes make a difference at how you do. This was the
last film shown in competition. It was shown after a lot of journalists had
left. But it's traditionally a good slot, because in the psychology of
watching film after film, if you have a good one at the end, it often tends to
override all the others. And the film "The Class" by Laurent Cantet is a good
film. It's based on a semi-autobiographical novel by a guy by the name of
Francois Begaudau, who spent a year teaching in a multicultural Paris high
school, where he had Chinese students, Moroccan students, Malian students.
And he was their French teacher. And he had a combative year.
Anyway, the entire movie takes place within the walls of the school, and we
basically watch the guy teach his class, fight with the students, the students
sass him, you get to know the students, you know, discover their problems.
The Chinese kid, who's the best student in the class, his mother's going to be
deported because she's an illegal alien. The Malian student, you know, is a
troublemaker; but when you try to tell his parents about it they can't speak
any French, so you have to tell him your criticism of him and he passes them
on to them. And so what you get is an entire view, I think, of how France
sees its new multicultural society with this one teacher--who's charismatic
and arrogant and not always right and makes lots of mistakes but is very smart
and well meaning--trying to deal with this class.
And, you know, it's enormously entertaining film, incredibly well made. The
guy who wrote the novel who was the teacher plays himself in the film. He's
not an actor and terrific. And the students in the class were students from
that school and, you know, basically they weren't actors either. But the
movie's so incredibly, intensely alive that I think almost everyone who saw
it, you know, was really happy to have seen it.
GROSS: Well, let's look at the runner-up at Cannes. And I think this verdict
was also unanimous from the jury.
Mr. POWERS: It was. It's a really terrific film called "Gomorra." It's an
Italian film that's about the influence of the underworld, known as the
Camorra, in and around the city of Naples. It's actually bigger and more
powerful than the Mafia. And what the story does is it intersects five
different stories of people in the community and how their lives are affected
by organized crime. You know, one of them is a guy who's basically doing
illegal toxic waste dumping, and basically takes contracts and promises to get
rid of the toxic waste and then just puts in places that it enters people's
water. One of it's in the fashion industry where people are trying to
undercut each other because the organized crime actually controls the sewing
of high-fashion articles in that area, and that does most of the high-fashion
stuff in the world. So there's a story about that. There's a story about two
young guys who watch "Scarface" and want to be Scarface.
And over the course of the film, you get this sense of how, in this area of
Italy, there's no escaping the influence of this and everyone is more or less
trapped, and if you try to do anything to escape you can't escape because, no
matter what you do, you're implicated in the power of organized crime. I
mean, it's a really terrific film and, you know, makes a lot of American
gangster films look rather foolish and sentimental, I think.
GROSS: Now, the most controversial and talked about movie, as far as I can
tell, at the Cannes Film Festival didn't make it to the top three awards, and
that's the film "Che," which was directed by Steven Soderbergh. And, you
know, I've been hearing about it on talk radio and reading about it in the
newspapers. Why is this film so controversial?
Mr. POWERS: What makes it controversial is that it starts off being four and
a half hours broken into two parts. Actually at the screening they had an
intermission where they fed the critics, you know, crummy sandwiches just
because it's so long. But what makes it controversial is that if you imagined
all the things you might put in a Che Guevara film--for example, the entry
into Havana; or the moment when they take that famous photograph of Che; or
the moment when he orders some executions after the revolution, if you don't
like Che; or the moment he's killed, the famous photograph of him out on the
table; or almost anything you'd expect to see in a Che Guevara film--isn't
there. The film is two parts. The first part shows him basically in the
jungles fighting to win in Cuba; and the moment they win the movie ends, and
you don't see the arrival in Havana. And then the second part is his failed
campaign to win in Bolivia. And it's all very process-oriented and on the
ground, very undramatic, almost pointedly undramatic. And the two are mirror
images stories. One, it's the success of the revolution, one is the failure
of a revolution. And I guess the movie is about that, the two sides of
When I try to appreciate it on its own terms, I think it's pretty good. But
when I think that this is a story about one of the most influential and
important people of the 20th century, I'm then struck that this basically a
mass hero story turned into an elite art film; and an elite art film for $65
million, which I guess is my objection to it. And I was struck, when I talked
to people from outside the US, in particular Latin America, you know, they
were all thinking, `Well, no one's going to go see this,' you know, this
version of Che, which I think is almost unreleasable in its current form in
any country in the world.
GROSS: In fact, no distributor has picked it up yet.
Mr. POWERS: Yes. No distributors have picked it up. They're going to want
to cut it way down. And it, you know, I'm not sure it'll get much better if
you cut it way down. Because it has an artistic integrity of its own, but
it's a very perverse artistic integrity. I mean, Steven Soderbergh is a very
odd filmmaker, and he's, you know, one of his last films was "The Good
German," which is trying to copy Hollywood stuff. He's made a film that's
like a Fassbender film. He made a remake of a Russian movie, Andrei
Tarkovsky. Here, this is sort of in the tradition of Francesco Rossi and
Roberto Rossellini. It's a very cold, objective outside look at this guy.
The problem is that, you know, in Latin America, Che Guevara is considered
something of a god, and no one wants to go see a version of it that doesn't
take you inside it, doesn't show you what he's like, doesn't talk about his
romantic life, doesn't talk about his fights with Fidel, doesn't talk about
any of that. I mean, almost everything you think would be in a $65 million,
four-and-a-half hour movie about Che Guevara, isn't in the movie.
GROSS: Let me ask you, you know, if they divide it into two separate films,
which seems to be the plan, would it still have an impact if you're not seeing
those mirror images back to back?
Mr. POWERS: Well, it's a completely different film if you see them back to
back; but in addition to that, as a friend said, you can't show them
separately because no one, at the end of the first film, would ever pay to see
the second film. You know, you basically are stuck with the fact that it's
much better if you see both parts. And, you know, when we saw it at Cannes,
at the end of the first half, people are kind of thinking, `What in the world
are we seeing?' And by the end, you knew what you were seeing. Whether you
liked it or not, you knew that it was actually a complete thing. You know,
it's not something like "Kill Bill," where you could actually break it in half
and the first half ends with an amazing teahouse slaughter with action,
action, action, and then the second film is different. They're very much of a
piece, although they're shot in ways that I'm sure will drive people crazy.
Because the first, in the glory of revolution, is shot in widescreen, and then
the second part, where the revolution is failing in Bolivia, the screen isn't
even as wide. So it's going to be a tricky commercial thing. I mean, I
thought of it as, you know, the moment I saw it, I thought, this is a real
folly. You know, with a lot of the upside of folly, but a lot of the
GROSS: We should mention that Benicio del Toro won the Best Actor award for
his performance as Che.
Mr. POWERS: Yes. No. Benicio del Toro, who's a, you know, who's a
wonderful actor, won. I don't think it's anywhere near his best performance
because the movie's so stripped down and minimalist in its way, he's given
almost nothing to do. He does it very well, but you can imagine that--because
he's wanted to make this film for years--him thinking, `Oh, no!' You know?
`Here I am, and most of my acting is like giving a wry smile.' You know,
there's very little of the dramatic, romantic Che that I think most people
would expect to see, even if only to dislike it. You know, because, you know,
Che Guevara did a lot of terrible, terrible things.
GROSS: There were a couple of special awards given at the Cannes Film
Festival, and one of them went to Clint Eastwood for his new movie "The
Changeling," which stars Angelina Jolie. So what'd you think of the film,
what'd you think of her performance?
Mr. POWERS: I think it's probably Clint Eastwood's least good film in
several years. You know, even though part of it was shot a few blocks from my
house, you know, I would see the thing and it became kind of like my version
of "Rocky," you know, where I knew the neighborhood and therefore was excited.
It's a rather dull story about a child who disappears and then the cops bring
him back, and the mother, played by Angelina Jolie, is convinced it's not the
same child. And from that it expands out into something that should be hugely
interesting about corrupt cops and the sexist use of psychiatry and all of
that. But somehow it's just rather flat and off, you know, in the way that
filmmakers should sometimes make a film that's off. And Angelina Jolie is, I
think, not designed to play a working-class mom, partly because she looks so
thin in this film. She's eerily thin, especially for a period film, because
the film is set in the 1920s. And this is maybe the first film where I think
somehow Eastwood hasn't been able to negotiate his way around the huge stardom
of the person at the center of the film.
And so I think, I mean, I find it very disappointing. You know, some people
really, really loved it. I think he got the special award because the French
feel--not altogether correctly--that they invented Clint Eastwood as a star,
and they would want to honor him with something even though, I think, they
didn't particularly think they liked the film. I mean, at the beginning
people thought Sean Penn would give him the Palm d'Or because he'd worked with
Clint Eastwood and won his Oscar with him. But I think you just couldn't give
that film the top prize when there were so many films better than that.
GROSS: The French feel like they discovered him as an actor because of the
Sergio Leone movies?
Mr. POWERS: Well, I think they think they discovered him as an artist. I
think they think that, you know, `Foolish Americans only liked Clint Eastwood
as a shoot-'em-up guy, whereas early on they liked him as a person doing
complicated things as an actor in things like "Dirty Harry," and then later as
a director.' They feel they got in on the ground floor of Clint Eastwood the
GROSS: I see.
Mr. POWERS: And they think that, you know--they're not completely right. I
mean, I can name American critics who championed Clint Eastwood's directing
from the beginning; but in general, I think his international prestige did
start in France, where they said, `This guy's actually doing interesting
stuff. You probably all think he's a dumb, right-wing gun-toter. But, in
fact, he's in the great tradition of a lot of those Western director, because
that's what he was doing back then. You know, like John Ford, he's a
complicated guy.' And that they then sort of taught American critics how to
look at Clint Eastwood and see what's interesting about him.
GROSS: Catherine Deneuve won a special award at the Cannes Film Festival for
her performance. What was the film she was in?
Mr. POWERS: She was in a film called "A Christmas Tale" by Arnaud
Desplechin. It's one of my very favorite films of the festival. And it will
be released in the US. And it's sort of about the coming together at
Christmastime of a family that one might say is kind of like Salinger's Glass
family: hugely dysfunctional, hugely brilliant, everybody's special. And
Deneuve plays the mom, who likes some of the kids and doesn't like some of her
kids, and doesn't seem to care that she doesn't like some of the kids. You
know, she's really, really good. This movie is kind of classic old style
French filmmaking with lots of good characters. So interesting. Sort of a
little bit of "Fanny & Alexander," but with a French twist. You know, it's a
really good film. I was surprised it didn't win more at the festival, in
GROSS: So what were your favorite films at Cannes?
Mr. POWERS: Yes. My favorite film that didn't get anything was a little
film called "The Woman Without a Head" by Lucrecia Martel, an Argentine
filmmaker who's a really good filmmaker. It's the simplest story in a way. A
woman is driving along, she's a dentist, she's driving along a country road.
She thinks she's run over something. She looks back, and we see that she has
run over something, but she drives off. She's bumped her head when she braked
after hitting the thing. And for the next 80 minutes, you sort of follow her
through her ordinary life as she gradually realizes that she's probably run
over somebody who's poor. And this is how she deals with it. The whole film
basically is just her wandering through her life with a slight concussion.
And the way the film is shot shows you who she thinks is important, who
registers on her consciousness, who doesn't register on her consciousness; and
gradually you realize the whole film is about the way the upper-middle class
people in Argentina more or less take advantage of the poor people around them
and yet keep putting it out of their mind, yet at the very back of their mind,
like the woman who keeps thinking she might have run over something, is this
sense that, `Are we doing something wrong here? Are we doing something wrong
here?' Because it keeps nagging away. And, you know, it's a very brilliant,
sort of Bunuelian kind of metaphor for the way that lots of us in the world
won't notice that there are people around us doing nasty jobs and serving us
all the time.
GROSS: And there's another movie I know you liked a lot that's an Israeli
film called "Waltzing with Bashir." What's that about?
Mr. POWERS: Oh, yes, it's a very daring film. Israeli filmmaker named Ari
Folman had served with the Israeli occupation troops in Lebanon in the '80s,
and he has this haunting sense that he's forgotten what actually happened to
the night of the massacre at the two Palestinian refugee camps at Sabra and
Shatila; and he basically then tells an animated documentary about himself
going to talk to his friends who served with him, flying off as they try to
reconstruct what they were doing at that time. So they all tell their stories
in a kind of rotoscoped animation, kind of what Richard Linklater has done in
a couple of his films, where you see this historical event told
autobiographically and in documentary style, but in animation. And it's all
about his coming to terms with his responsibility for what was the murder of a
couple thousand people.
You know, what was striking about it was that I think this is the kind of film
that would be very hard to make in the US.
Mr. POWERS: I think because Israelis, compared to Americans, feel freer in
talking about the darker sides of Israeli history, whereas I think it's one of
the peculiar political problems in the US that when you try to bring these
things up, you suddenly--names start being called and people being accused of
stuff. Whereas in Israel, this stuff occurs all the time. So it's not
surprising to anybody who sees foreign films that often the harshest and most
critical and most intelligent looks at the downside of things that have
happened in Israel come from Israelis. You know, and, you know, they're far
keener than, you know, there are lots, you know, there are lots of people in
Europe who don't like Israel, but their commentary, I think, on Israeli
problems is never as sharp, as acute or as hard-hitting as the Israeli
GROSS: So you think that if "Waltzing with Bashir" was made in the United
States, it might be accused of being anti-Israel.
Mr. POWERS: I think--oh, it would be accused of being anti-Israel. It's
quite a sensational movie just because it's haunting and it's beautiful and
it's a truly horrible story. You know, I was thinking, you know, that, you
know, one of the things I like about it is it shows, you know, it shows a
willingness to feel guilty about doing something bad. You know, lots of
countries do terrible things and never acknowledge it, whereas, you know,
Israeli culture is filled with people constantly talking about this.
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Our critic at large, John
Powers, is joining us from a BBC studio in London. We're talking about the
Cannes Film Festival, which wrapped up Sunday on the French Riviera. It's the
world's most important showcase and marketplace for films from around the
John, some of the American films by brand-name people didn't get picked up for
distribution. We've talked about "Che" by Steven Soderbergh, and how that
hasn't found a distributor yet. Charlie Kaufman, who wrote the screenplays
for "Being John Malkovich," "Adaptation" and "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless
Mind," he made his directorial debut with a film that premiered at Cannes.
That didn't get picked up for distribution. So what's going on?
Mr. POWERS: Well, I think that people worry more and more about picking up
things that may not appeal to a mass audience. I think the film business is
changing, and people are more and more scared. You know, in the case of the
Charlie Kaufman movie, I think what happened was that everyone expected it to
be fun and light, and all the marketing people saw it and thought, `I'm not
sure how I can sell this.' I think it's a terrific movie. Philip Seymour
Hoffman plays a playwright who's married to Catherine Keener; and then
gradually he starts losing it, and he gets involved with another woman. And
as a playwright, you know, he decides he's going to comment on his own life
and try to figure it out, gradually building almost an entire version of New
York City that is peopled by not only himself and his girlfriend, but an actor
playing himself and his girlfriend, and it's a huge proliferation. Basically
you're caught inside this guy's psyche, which is obsessed with death and
regret and longing.
In some ways, I think it's the best Charlie Kaufman script. If you've seen
the other films, you'll know what that might mean. It's about solipsism and
trying to get out of solipsism. It's about the horror of the self, and yet
the self's infinite ability to imagine itself in different kinds of
situations. I mean, I thought it was a really interesting movie. I was
startled that a lot of people didn't seem to like it. I think it will get
picked up. I think it's now just a question of negotiating the price.
GROSS: You know, Americans tend to think of Hollywood as being the movie
center of the world, and it certainly has been the movie center of the world.
But when you're at Cannes, does it still seem like the movie center of the
Mr. POWERS: One of the things I love about going to Cannes is that I'll be
sitting in a theater, and around me people will be talking about, say, the
Turkish director Nouri Ceylan as if he's the most important director in the
world. They come from that part of the world, he's the most famous director
making films, and probably their best director making films. And the entire
conversation will be about him. And then you move over to someplace else, and
you will have people arguing over which was the best Argentine film in the
competition. And it's a useful reminder, I think, for all of us, because
American culture is so powerful, to realize that, while it's powerful in most
countries, in most countries people care about their own things more than
ours. You know, that no country really gets to be center of the world, no
matter how much it wants to be. It can be the most powerful country.
And I think there's actually something kind of beautiful and moving every time
I go in realizing that, for people from Morocco or Israel or Thailand, their
director is the really interesting story. And it's kind of nice that Steven
Spielberg's there and that Woody Allen's made another movie, but they care
about how their film was received, what it says about their country, what it
says about their film industry, about their world, and they care about the
countries around them. And I think there's something, you know, that's one of
the reasons why Cannes is such a great festival, because every year I have
GROSS: So who were the big celebrities at Cannes this year?
Mr. POWERS: Well, I think Cannes is always filled with celebrities. I mean,
Angelina Jolie, probably among the women, is the great celebrity. You know,
she was there with "Kung Fu Panda." They had little people in panda suits on
the streets of Cannes promoting "Kung Fu Panda." And she was there in the
Clint Eastwood film. Harrison Ford was there, Steven Spielberg was there.
And, of course, I certainly shouldn't mention Angelina Jolie without
mentioning Brad Pitt. You know, Michael Moore was there. He has become, you
know, the Paris Hilton of Cannes. I mean, you simply can't avoid him there.
GROSS: He wears more clothes than she does.
Mr. POWERS: He does. He wears more clothes. You know, that all sorts of
international stars are there. And that's part of the excitement of it,
although what's so charming about the festival is whenever you step out of the
Palais, there are always people--dozens, maybe hundreds of people--who are
just ordinary citizens holding up signs as if they're greeting you at an
airport. And it will say, you know, `You have a ticket for' whatever the film
is that day. And it doesn't matter whether it's "Indiana Jones" or whether
it's the small film from the Philippines, people are always standing outside
wanting those tickets. Because there's something about walking into that big
Palais, walking up the red carpet, with the best projection you'll ever see in
the world, that's so exciting people want to be part of it. And because it's
France, the people are so open to all kinds of movies.
GROSS: Well, John, the Cannes Film Festival wrapped up over the Memorial Day
weekend. There was also some sad film news over the holiday weekend, and that
was that the director and actor Sydney Pollack died of cancer. We're going to
be hearing an interview from our archive with him coming up, but I'd be
interested in hearing what you have to say about Pollack and his work.
Mr. POWERS: I think Sydney Pollack was a director who came along at a time
when probably what he did was underrated, you know, that I think he first
became famous to a lot of people around the period of "The Way We Were" and
"Three Days of the Condor." And he more or less seemed to be competing with
the great Coppola, Scorsese, Altman genius period. In fact, he was a
traditional Hollywood filmmaker, and a very good one, of the kind that I think
now almost anyone who knows anything about film really regrets we don't have:
you know, that his films were always well made, well acted, intelligent,
solid. He was actually was, you know, a mark of quality, but of an old school
kind of quality rather than a daring, avant garde or experimental quality.
And, you know, I liked a lot of his films, you know, when he was younger. I
think in later years they've been a little less good, not so much because of
him, necessarily, but because the whole film culture has changed. You know,
Sydney Pollack made movies for grown-ups, and he never fared quite so well
once people started making movies about superheroes.
Curiously, you know, just as Clint Eastwood stopped being so much of a movie
star and became famous as a director, Pollack became an actor in later years.
Now, he'd acted all along, but in fact he was this very sharp presence in
something like "Michael Clayton" or the Stanley Kubrick erotics film. You
know, he would show up, and he had a very grown-up, in the best sense, strong
edge to him, that made him good. He could be warm if he needed to be, he
could be cold if he needed to be. He was a really terrific screen actor I was
always happy to see.
GROSS: And in "Tootsie" he was really funny.
Mr. POWERS: No, he's really funny in "Tootsie." You know, part of it is that
he was the old school guy who knew how to wrangle stars and knew how to bring
everything together in a good Hollywood package of the kind that I think that
probably most filmgoers over the age of 40, you know, wished they could have
more of now. I mean, he was very, very good at classical Hollywood
filmmaking. And, you know, that's something, you know, I say that as very,
very high praise.
GROSS: Well, we're very sorry about his passing, and we'll feature an
interview with him coming up very soon on FRESH AIR in a couple minutes.
John, always really good to talk with you. Thank you so much for sharing your
impressions of the Cannes Film Festival.
Mr. POWERS: No, I'm happy to do it.
GROSS: John Powers is FRESH AIR's critic at large and film critic for Vogue.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Interview: Actor/director/producer Sydney Pollack on how he got
started acting and directing
TERRY GROSS, host:
Sydney Pollack's death took me by surprise. I'd just seen his name listed
Sunday night in the credits of the HBO film "Recount" as an executive
producer. Pollack has a role in the current film "Made of Honor." He had a
prominent role in last year's Oscar-winning "Michael Clayton." Pollack died of
cancer yesterday at the age of 73. He was diagnosed nine months ago. He
started his career as an actor in the late 1950s, then made his name as a
director. He directed Sidney Poitier and Anne Bancroft in "The Slender
Thread," Jane Fonda in "They Shoot Horses, Don't They?" Robert Redford and
Barbra Streisand in "The Way We Were," Paul Newman in "Absence of Malice,"
Dustin Hoffman and Bill Murray in "Tootsie," Robert Redford and Meryl Streep
in "Out of Africa" and Tom Cruise in "The Firm."
We're going to listen back to the interview I recorded with Pollack, but first
let's hear a scene from "Michael Clayton." Pollack plays Marty Bach, the head
of a law firm which is handling a case that's falling apart because the head
litigator, Arthur Edens, is having a nervous breakdown and expressing doubts
about the case. Unless the situation is brought under control, this threatens
the very future of the firm. Bach is talking to Michael Clayton, the law
firm's fixer, played by George Clooney.
(Soundbite of "Michael Clayton")
Mr. SYDNEY POLLACK: (As Marty Bach) I don't know how you're going to take
care of this, but this, this is cancer. This is something, we don't get it
reined in and cleaned up soon, everything's vulnerable. Everything!
Mr. GEORGE CLOONEY: (As Michael Clayton) What're you telling me?
Mr. POLLACK: (As Marty Bach) That I'm counting on you. I'm telling you that
by this time next week Arthur will be under control and everybody who needs to
will have been reminded of your infinite value.
Mr. CLOONEY: (As Michael Clayton) Jesus, Marty.
Mr. POLLACK: (As Marty Bach) Hey. When did you get so...(word censored by
station)...delicate? I'm late.
(End of soundbite)
GROSS: I spoke with Sydney Pollack in 1990.
A lot of our listeners will know the way you look from your role in "Tootsie."
You not only directed the movie, but you played the role of Dustin Hoffman's
agent, and I want to play a clip from a scene here in which Dustin Hoffman
kind of storms into your office, and he of course plays this kind of
difficult, self-absorbed actor. This is a scene before he takes the part of a
woman's role in a soap opera, and he's in your office demanding to know why
you can't get him a decent part, why he's always out of work.
(Soundbite of "Tootsie")
Mr. POLLACK: (As George Fields) You've got one of the worst reputations in
this town, Michael. Nobody will hire you.
Mr. DUSTIN HOFFMAN: (As Michael Dorsey) Are you saying that nobody in New
York will work with me?
Mr. POLLACK: (As George Fields) Oh, no, that's too limiting. Nobody in
Hollywood wants to work with you, either. I can't even send you up for a
commercial. You played a tomato for 30 seconds, they went a half a day over
schedule because you wouldn't sit down.
Mr. HOFFMAN: (As Michael Dorsey) Yes! It wasn't logical.
Mr. POLLACK: (As George Fields) You were a tomato! A tomato doesn't have
logic! A tomato can't move!
Mr. HOFFMAN: (As Michael Dorsey) That's what I said! So if he can't move,
how's he going to sit down, George? I was a stand-up tomato, a juicy, sexy
beefsteak tomato! Nobody does vegetables like me! I did an evening of
vegetables off Broadway. I did the best tomato, the best cucumber.
Mr. POLLACK: (As George Fields) Michael. Michael. I don't want to...
Mr. HOFFMAN: (As Michael Dorsey) I did an endive salad that knocked the
critics on their ass.
(End of soundbite)
GROSS: One of the funny things about that scene is that it almost seems to be
a joke about how obsessive Dustin Hoffman is as an actor, and I've always
wondered if that scene reflects at all what the real working relationship was
Mr. POLLACK: Well, there was an awful lot written about the amount of
arguing that Dustin and I were doing publicly, a lot of it true and a lot of
it exaggerated. There's an element that Dustin is famous for, you know, of
his fastidiousness that can sometimes drive people crazy. And it's true that
we argued and fought, not, oddly enough, about the acting. We fought mostly
about script. We had slightly differing points of view about what the tone of
that picture ought to be, and so we argued. But usually we got our arguments
over with fairly early in the morning; and by the time we got out on the set
and started really working as director and actor within the context of a
scene, we rarely argued after that.
GROSS: Seems to me you were probably the kind of director who'd be more
understanding of a very obsessive actor, having taught actors and having been
the, you know, executive director of the West Coast branch of the Actors
Studio. I mean, you've worked with a lot of, you know, method actors.
Mr. POLLACK: Well, I started out as a teacher, actually. So the only thing
I had as a tool when I began to direct was some understanding of the
psychology of actors, let's say, or a language, a vocabulary to talk with
them. I had no sense of how to talk to a writer, and I didn't know which end
of a camera to look through, because my background had all been theater. But
I was comfortable with actors, and always have been, really.
GROSS: How come you haven't acted more? I mean, at what point--you started
off acting. At what point in your career did you think that, although you
loved theater, that acting wasn't for you?
Mr. POLLACK: Somebody recommended to me--actually, a director named John
Frankenheimer, and then Burt Lancaster, the actor. I'd worked together with
them on a movie as a coach; I was a dialogue coach for a couple young actors
on a movie in 1960 called "The Young Savages." And they both encouraged me
very strongly to direct. And that was a new idea to me. It was not
something--I never had any strong goals to be a director, and they pushed very
hard, and so I thought, `Well, what the hell, I'll try it.' And so I moved to
California and I started doing it. Once I began to do that, I had no thoughts
about acting at all.
Dustin really pushed me into doing that. I never would've played that part.
That was another source of irritation, is he started insisting that I play
this part. Dustin believes that there's enough to make up on a set that
anytime you can get close to the truth, you should do it. And what he kept
saying was, `I don't know why I put the dress on. In "Some Like It Hot," the
guys put the dress on because of machine guns. They're going to die if they
don't disguise themselves. You've got to really give me a reason.' And I kept
saying, `Well, when your agent says to you, "You're never going to work
again."' And he says, `Well, I would put it on if you said it to me, but I
wouldn't put it on if a peer said it to me.' Because I had a very good actor
all set to play that part. And he kept saying, you know, `I want you to play
that part.' And I kept saying, `Dustin, you're crazy. I got enough to do. I
haven't acted in years, and I don't want to do it.' And finally he started
sending me flowers, dozens of roses, saying `Please be my agent. Love,
Dorothy.' You know? And I really ended up doing it basically to mollify him.
GROSS: Well, you know, him wanting to know like why is he putting on a dress,
reminds me of him in the scene wanting to know, you know, `How can a tomato
Mr. POLLACK: Yes, exactly. Exactly.
GROSS: Were there other explanations you had to give him in the movie?
Mr. POLLACK: Not so much explanations, but...
Mr. POLLACK: But, yeah, motivations. Well, no, it's very hard to do what an
actor does, and it's very subjectively driven, and it's very, very hard for a
very good actor--and Dustin is a very good actor--it's very, very hard for
them sometimes to see in third person, which is really the director's job, of
how this is going to work. Because to do the part well, you begin to see the
world from inside of the role. And sometimes you can get confused, or you
misunderstand intentions which are coming from the outside in, which is, you
know, the director trying to have some sort of overview of it. So
occasionally, sure, there are always--I wouldn't say fights, but discussions
about, `How can I do this?' or `How can I do that when this happened?' And
then you have to carefully explain it, not so much with intellectual logic,
but with some sort of behavioral logic.
GROSS: You were explaining that your transition into directing was working as
a dialogue coach for a movie Frankenheimer directed, "The Young Savages."
Mr. POLLACK: Mm-hmm.
GROSS: And that starred Burt Lancaster and Shelley Winters.
Mr. POLLACK: Mm-hmm.
GROSS: What did you do as dialogue coach, and did you work directly with
Lancaster and Winters?
Mr. POLLACK: No, What I did--well, my job originally was to--there were
three young men in that picture who were very inexperienced, they were kind of
novice, new actors. They were playing juvenile delinquents, and my job
basically was to kind of coach them in their acting and work with them on the
roles. I had done that once before on a television show called "The Turn of
the Screw," a "Playhouse 90" that John Frankenheimer had directed. He had
used me in that capacity, and I was able to do it without getting in his way.
It's a tough job to do, to try to kind of direct actors and not get in the way
of the director.
But in this case, my job was to help these novice actors act, and Lancaster
got curious as to what I was doing, and he used to say, `Hey, kid, come over
here. What are you telling those kids?' You know? And he started kidding
around with me, so finally I began to talk to him about what I was talking to
them about. And then he would occasionally talk to me about a scene himself,
and we started to talk it over. And when the picture was all done and I was
supposed to come back to New York, I got a message from his secretary--he had
a big office at Columbia--said `Mr. Lancaster wants to talk to you.' And I
went over there, and he sat behind his desk and he said, `You know, you ought
to be a director. You really should. What do you want to be told what to do
when you can be telling everybody what to do for?' That was the way he put it.
And he picked up the phone and he called Lou Wasserman and said, `Lou, I got a
kid here. I don't know if he could direct, but I think he's talented. I want
you to talk to him.' And I'm quoting verbatim now, and he said, "In any case,
he can't be worse than those bums you got working for you now," he said.
So I had to go see Lou Wasserman feeling like an absolute dope, because Lou
was clearly doing Burt a favor. He couldn't have cared less about me. And I
must say he was a wonderful man. I went to see him in the office there, and
he said, `Burt says you should be a director.' And I said, `Well, I guess.' He
says, `Well, have you ever directed anything?' I said, `No.' And, you know, I
just sort of sat there like a dope. And he said, `Look, here's what I do.
You come to California and I'll let you come and observe for six months out at
Universal Studios. I'll put you under the wing of a producer, and we'll go a
step at a time. If they think you're talented, we'll see if we can get you a
television show to do.' And that's, in fact, what I did.
GROSS: There's something very New York about you. I mean, in "Tootsie"
you're the New York agent. You said that, you know, that Burt Lancaster
thought of you as the New York acting coach. You're from Indiana. How did
you get to be so New York?
Mr. POLLACK: I guess it was the age that I was when I got here. You know, I
was 17, I'd just gotten out of high school, and I spent those years, those six
years, seven years between the time I was 17 and 24, and I guess they're sort
of formative years. And I took to New York like a guy who'd, you know, been
missing it all his life. I don't know, I just felt at home here from the
first day I got off a train and settled in at a YMCA and sort of, you know,
went to school and began making friends. It still feels like home in many
ways to me.
GROSS: Do you have any cameos in movies from your acting days that we could
look for you in? I mean, small parts. I shouldn't say cameos. You weren't a
star doing a little star turn there.
Mr. POLLACK: Well, no. No, no, I didn't do--well, I'm in a lot of my
movies, but not in anything recognizable. I'm in "Three Days of the Condor."
I'm in "Electric Horseman."
GROSS: Oh. Uh-huh.
Mr. POLLACK: But usually that'll happen because, sometimes the hardest thing
to do is, if you have one line, you have a character, let's say, that's got
one line and it's with one of the stars, and it's during movement, let's say.
The scene is a dollying shot or a tracking shot, or something that's difficult
technically, and you need somebody to hit a mark and say one line. Well, it
really gets tough sometimes because actors that are playing parts that small,
it's really unfair to them to rush them in and have them do it quickly.
They're nervous; they're much more nervous than somebody who's got a bigger
role to play and can get accustomed to the star. They're nervous in front of
the star, they're nervous in front of the director, and sometimes you just
lose an enormous amount of time. And rather than go through it all, I stick a
mustache on sometimes and comb my hair funny and just jump in and do it. Not
because I like acting, but just in the interest of efficiency.
GROSS: Most of your movies, including your new movie "Havana," were shot in
Panavision. What is Panavision, exactly?
Mr. POLLACK: Well, Panavision is a brand name. We think of it as synonymous
with widescreen; actually, it isn't.
Mr. POLLACK: Widescreen, the real name is scope. It's a ratio of the height
of the screen to the width of the screen; and the Panavision, or scope ratio,
is, it's very wide, it's 2.33 to 1. The length from left to right is 2 1/3
times as long as the height is high. In other words, it'd be 2.33 inches wide
to 1 inch high in that ratio. And it has a very different feeling than
standard film ration, which is 1.85 to 1, which is what "Havana" is shot in.
I love the widescreen, not for any other reason than you can get more
information per second on the screen. When I did a film like "They Shoot
Horses, Don't They?" which was all interiors, everybody argued with me about
why in God's name I would want a widescreen process inside on a dance floor.
And the answer was, because I could see all of the other couples and still be
in close-up on Jane Fonda and Michael Sarrazin, or that I would always have a
sense of the background, or a sense of environment.
So I always loved this widescreen process. The problem is, as more and more
revenue began to come in from ancillary markets like television and
Mr. POLLACK: ...it's a horrifying experience to see a scope picture on
television. You see two noses, one on each side of the screen, talking to
each other. It's a terrible experience. So the last two films, "Out of
Africa" and "Havana," I've shot in the standard ratio.
GROSS: What were the movies that you really loved growing up that made you
want to act?
Mr. POLLACK: Well, I used to--the movies that I remember very vividly as a
young man were movies like "A Place in the Sun" and "Shane," "The Best Years
of Our Lives," all the Kazan movies, I think, were the ones that made me think
a lot about acting.
Mr. POLLACK: By the time I was watching Kazan's movies, I was occasionally
in some small plays in school. And watching "Viva Zapata!" and "On the
Waterfront" and "East of Eden" and, you know, films like that, I was very
aware, for the first time, of the--that was the first time I was really aware
of a director, I think.
Mr. POLLACK: And I always identified him with these great performances.
GROSS: I was reading about you in Current Biography, and it described you as
being known as a lion tamer because of your success with temperamental,
big-name stars, you know, because you've worked with Streisand and Streep,
Redford and Hoffman. Do you think you have to be a lion tamer to work with
temperamental, big-name stars? I mean, do you think of yourself as having to
deal with temperament a lot?
Mr. POLLACK: Not at all. Really, not at all. I mean, I don't find them to
be any more temperamental or any more difficult. I don't know why you would
refer to them as a lion tamer, but I suppose the conventional picture of a
star is someone who's got a big ego and bosses people around and therefore is
difficult to work with. That's really not true. To be honest with you, I've
found more temperament among the people that aren't the stars than I've found
with the stars that I've worked with.
GROSS: Actor, director and producer Sydney Pollack, recorded in 1990. He
died of cancer yesterday at the age of 73.
Sadly, we have another death to note. The organ player Jimmy McGriff died
Saturday at the age of 72.
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