This is an excerpt from Laurent Tirard's excellent book, "Moviemakers' Master Class":
Master Class with Sydney Pollack
I never chose to make films, really, and, in a way, it is only after I became a director that I started to learn filmmaking. So I did it backwards, in a way. I had been teaching acting for four years or so when somebody suggested that I become a director, and before I knew it, I was making films for TV, and then for the big screen. Given my background, I wasn't drawn to sweeping, visual films. To me, everything was in the performance, in the acting. The rest was just . . . photography. But then, over the years, I began to understand filmmaking as a syntax, as a vocabulary, as a language. And I discovered the satisfaction that could be drawn from giving the audience the right sequence of information through the way the shots were framed, or the way the camera movements were set up.
What I realized, in fact, is that filmmaking is essentially storytelling. I wouldn't say that I make films to tell stories, though. Not really. My principal interest is in relationships. To me, relationships are a metaphor for everything else in life: politics, morality . . . everything. So basically, I make films to learn more about relationships. But I don't make films to say anything, because I wouldn't know what to say. I think there are basically two kinds of filmmakers: those who know and understand a truth which they want to communicate to the world, and those who are not quite sure what the answer to something is and who make the film as a way to try and find out. That's what I do.
FINDING THE SPINE
It's important not to intellectualize the filmmaking process too much. And particularly not during the actual shooting. I might think a lot about the film before I make it, and certainly after, but I try not to think too much when I'm actually on the set. The way I work is that I try to determine as early as possible what the theme of the movie is, what central idea is being expressed through the story. Once I know that, once I have figured out a unifying principle, then any decision I make on the set will be influenced by that and will therefore fall into a certain logic. And to me, the success of a film depends on whether or not the choices you make on the set, as a director, remain true to the original idea.
For instance, Three Days of the Condor is a film about trust. Robert Redford plays a character who trusts people too easily and who will learn to be more suspicious. Faye Dunaway, on the other hand, plays a woman who trusts no one, and who, through this dramatic situation, will learn to open up. In Out of Africa, the central idea is about possession. It's about England trying to own Africa, and it's about Meryl Streep trying to own Redford. If you take both of these films and analyze them, sequence by sequence, then I should be able to justify every choice I've made, as a filmmaker, in regard to their respective themes.
It's a process I often compare to sculpture: you start with a sort of spine, like a skeleton, and then, little by little, you cover it with clay and give it a shape. Now, it's the spine that holds everything together. Without it, the sculpture would just collapse. But the spine must not be visible or it would ruin everything. And it's the same with a movie. If someone walks out of Three Days of the Condor and says, "Oh, it's a film about trust," then I have failed as a filmmaker. The audience must not be conscious of it. Ideally, they will understand it in an abstract way. But what's important is that every aspect of the film be coherent because it is motivated by that theme.
Even the set must reflect the central idea of the film. Which is why I used to love wide screen. Most of my early pictures were shot in wide screen because I feel that it allows you to use the background as a reflection—as a metaphor, I would even say—of what is going on in the foreground. When I made They Shoot Horses, Don't They? I insisted that it be shot in wide screen, and nobody understood why, because it takes place almost entirely indoors. But it's a mistake to think that the purpose of wide screen is to shoot big scenery. The real purpose of it is to compose frames that have enormous tension and movement in them, to shoot pictures that need a sense of place. Because even if you frame two people in close-up, you still have space to see the background behind them. If I had shot Horses with a flat frame, you would have seen two people dancing and nothing else. You would have lost sense of all the madness around.
Ironically, the first film I did not shoot in wide screen was Out of Africa. It may seem odd, because this is certainly a film that demanded as big a frame as possible, but by then, it was the mid-eighties, and I realized that most people were going to see the film on video. I didn't want it to be butchered on the small screen.
I couldn't agree more with Mr. Pollack and every screenwriter should take his advice on finding the spine. It unifies the work and gives the writer direction. It adds the layers and texture to your story. It's very easy to see why he and Minghella got along so well.
The book that this excerpt is taken from is quite informative and has these great little tidbits from filmmakers like Pollack as well as the likes of Martin Scorcese, Oliver Stone, Wim Wenders, David Cronenberg, Woody Allen, Pedro Almodovar, Jean-Pierre Jeunet (and many many more).