Sidney Pollack

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.


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).


Sidney Pollack

There isn't much I can say here that hasn't been said around the internet. Sidney Pollack was a great journeyman and multi talented filmmaker and he will be missed. He'll be missed in ways we won't ever know about as his company 'Mirage Enterprises' was the creative force behind more than just Pollack's films. He was in a partnership with Anthony Minghella who also died unexpectedly earlier this year. The Hollywood Reporter has an article on what was and is in the works at Mirage:

Mirage, which has offices in Los Angeles and London, has a first-look deal at the Weinstein Co., and the company has said that it is intent on moving forward on those projects, including "The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency," which is going ahead at HBO.

Mirage's docket at the Weinstein Co. also includes the high-profile remake of German Oscar-winner "The Lives of Others" as well as the adaptation of Allison Pearson's novel "I Don't Know How She Does It." The latter has David Frankel ("Marley & Me") attached to direct; it recently bought Aline Brosh McKenna on board to do a rewrite.

Other projects, most of which are book adaptations or international-flavored thrillers, include:

-- "The Ninth Life of Louis Drax," which Minghella adapted based on a novel by Liz Jensen.

-- "The Silver Lining Playbook" an adaptation of a Matthew M. Quick book that Pollack was producing with Michelle Raimo.

-- "Bartimaeus Trilogy: The Amulet of Samarkand," an adaptation of a children's fantasy novel that sees the Weinstein Co. sharing the project with Miramax. Sources said "Bartimaeus" had been dormant for a while.

-- At Miramax, Mirage was working on "The Resurrectionists," based on the novel by Michael Collins. Minghella had been attached to direct; the project was put on hold when he died.

-- "Colombian Gold" is set up at Focus, with Mirage producing with Miguel Arteta's Flan de Coco Films shingle. Arteta also was attached to direct the murder mystery.

-- "Liberty," a thriller set in Haiti, is set up at Intermedia Films with Jez Butterworth directing.

-- Mirage also was producing "Turbulence" at Universal, home of Pollack's last big studio picture, "The Interpreter." Tom Pabst is writing the internationally set thriller.


Pollack and his company were passionate about creating great stories on film. It's rare that you have a champion with his clout and that is a great loss to an industry that needs more champions of human stories rather than bland spectacles.

As a side note: Cameron Crowe asked Billy Wilder about Pollack's remake of 'Sabrina' and one of the interesting comments that Wilder made was about the possible casting of Thandie Newton in the role of Sabrina... What a wonderful thought (and a shame it didn't happen).

Too many great losses this year.


Rule Breaking Films

Mr. Robert Mills sent me this link to a bloggers list of 'rule breaking' films. It's a fun read and sparks the imagination to add to the list (which the author declares is by no means definitive).

Here is an excerpt:

Review: 13 Rule-Breaking Films

For all the creativity and innovation that goes into making (some) Hollywood films, there are also a lot of ideas that get recycled time and time again. I’m not referring to stock characters or the sequalitis that hits multiplexes every summer. I’m talking about the basic building blocks of storytelling that are ingrained in the movie-going experience.

Every once in a while, though, a film comes along that takes an assumption about how American movies are supposed to be made and changes it, sometimes resulting in something truly memorable. Producers who want to make a film that breaks one of the unwritten rules of motion pictures risk a lot – studios might not want to fund the film, theaters might not show it, audiences might not respond to it. The reward for taking the chance, though, is recognition for being a really interesting experiment, or, in some cases, taking your place among the greatest films ever made.


Here is the link


More insight from the Well

Mysterymanonfilm had a discussion recently questioning the rigid following of the so called 'rules' that the pundits like McKee preach so vehemently. I found this passage from Wells Root and thought it was a point very well made.

"Remember Shaw's unbreakable rule. For this and all following chapters there is no unbreakable rule.

This three-act design principle is never a rigid structure. It is a generalized framework, elastic and flexible. Almost every great story you can think of will reveal striking variations. Originality lies in creative distinctions. The beginning, the middle, and the end is a concept to start with. Where you go with it is a measure of your creative imagination.

In fact, a number of filmmakers, critics, and intellectuals reject the three-act design. Flatly. Indignantly. They say, among other things, that the tidy, packaged quality of the beginning, the middle, and the end is superficial. It is too patent a manufacture. In life things never happen that way.

Indeed they don't. "No one has ever seen," said Picasso, "a natural work of art." In any field of art, ancient or modern.

In films you start with a concept. You develop it in any manner within your reach and competence. No divine rulebook limits any writer, or director, or producer's game plan. Bergman, Resnais, Antonioni, Kubrick, Fellini, Altman, Cassavetes have as much right to freeborn story flights as Disney has to fantasyland.

The one thing the writer and director must do is to communicate with an audience. Without that audience to watch, listen, applaud, be inspired, or perhaps throw eggs, you have nothing but shadows dancing in an empty barn. How you communicate is nobody's business but your own. But you had damn well better do it in a fashion that will summon bodies to the barn.

Ultramodern, unstructured story design has an erratic record for bringing bodies to the barn. It is even condemned as nonstorytelling —aimless, confusing, and self-indulgent. Modern landmark films have emerged, nevertheless, such as Hiroshima Mon Amour, L'Avventura, Last Year at Marienbad, and 81/2, and many more.

For such films and their makers, there is a devoted audience. Perhaps not in the multimillions, but in loyal and sufficient numbers to sustain their dreams. With the vivid addition of a box-office smash now and then, like Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Radical technique films are as essential to our industry's progress as research is to medicine. They represent the experimental labs where adventurous minds are seeking new dramatic dimension. Allow me to simplify it totally. D. W. Griffith (The Birth of a Nation) was one of the earliest experimenters. In those bygone days, camera angles were almost exclusively medium or longer shots. Working with his cameraman, Billy Bitzer, Griffith, that wild-eyed radical, conventionalized a startling technique. He called it a close-up.

Techniques of today's modernists will seem equally commonplace fifty years from now. By 2030 new radicals will have appeared who will patronize Resnais, Fellini, and our avant-garde as stuffy conservatives.

In the long view, story structure has some kinship to building a house. Architectural inventions in this century have been wild and inspiring. But houses that people will pay for and inhabit still must provide shelter, light, privacy, and facilities for heat and water. The basics.

Worldwide audiences demand corresponding basics in storytelling. Since the craft arose thousands of years ago, listeners have been absorbed by a Prince and a dragon. The dragon captures the Princess. The Prince slays the dragon, and lays the Princess. The audience goes home enchanted.

If that be primitive, make the most of it. The structure of Star Wars and thousands of the favorite stories, plays, and films of the ages are —in their essentials —just that primitive. Often the primitive in an art becomes the perennial."

Three Acts

Here is Wells Root's version of throw a man in a tree and throw rocks at him. It's taken from his very practical book on screenwriting 'Writing the Script'.