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Sydney Pollack talks to ANDREW L. URBAN about how Jaws changed Hollywood forever, the biggest challenge in making Random Hearts, 'art' or something of lasting value; and a Sydney barbie (cue).

Whether at a distance (like at a press conference) or close up (like across a coffee table) Sydney Pollack exudes what I'd call a European sensibility, combining intelligence, humour and worldliness with a warmth of personality that transcends the natural bonhomie of Americans.

We meet in the elegant surrounds of a suite at Sydney's Park Hyatt, looking across historic Circular Quay towards the Opera House, his manner informal without being cheerfully chummy. I again (after the press conference) notice the small bump on the upper left side of his brow, where a horn might be - but the thought passes. Pollack is far from demonic and even his harshest critic would agree that he has never displayed the burn signs of Hollywood that mark filmmakers as demons. (I'm stretching this, but bear with me.)

"close to the hellfire of Hollywood without being consumed by it"

But we do, in fact, start by talking of fire, as Pollack generously accepts the invitation to recount the details of the barbecue meal he cooked the previous Saturday evening for his friends Tom and Nicole (Cruise and Kidman) in one of those iconic moments that is larger than the sum of its parts, bringing together the Aussiness of the setting (and of the lamb) with the universality of the participants. (See at left for a link to the menu and recipes; the things we do for you!)

But back to the heat of Hollywood: Pollack seems to have worked close to the hellfire of Hollywood without being consumed by it. We are talking art v commerce now. "When I started making films," he says, "there weren't these divisions. Movies were movies were movies. It was the single greatest decade in American film history, never mind what people say about the 30s and 40s. From about 1965 to about 1975, it stands out . . . there's never been another 10 year period like it. It was a period of social upheaval, with sexual and gender upheaval and the new wave influencing us in filmmaking. There was ferment in the industry."

(A selection of the films made between 1965 - 75: The Godfather, The Graduate, The Pawnbroker, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf, Cool Hand Luke, The Manchurian Candidate, The Sting, 2001 A Space Odyssey, The Conversation, In the Heat of the Night, All the President's Men, Dog Day Afternoon, Bonnie and Clyde, Deliverance, Little Big Man & Taxi Driver [officially 1976])

"something of lasting value"

So what happened? What changed? "When Jaws broke the $100 million barrier, it changed Hollywood forever. Hollywood had often made B movies that became art. But once $100 million was there to be taken, it became a possibility. Everybody said, hey this is an oil well. So hollywood started chasing the bigger grosses and it got harder if you were outside the groove. My films were always just outside their genre…Like Jeremiah Johnson or Three Days of the Condor."

As we talk art and commerce, Pollack becomes a little uneasy, until we find a suitable form of words. "Something of lasting value, yes, I'm more comfortable with that." He makes a valid point when he says "by staying within the genres [that Hollywood knows and understands] and using standard stars, you can try for intelligence, and within that framework you may and up with … let's not say art, that would be pretentious, but as you say, something of lasting value."

Of course, that's what he's done with Random Hearts. Whether it's art or not doesn't matter really, even if we could all agree on a definition of that. But it does have "something of lasting value" to offer the audience, namely a sincere examination of humanity.

And the transparent way Pollack describes the creative process, it is easy to recognise the intelligence behind the screenplay. One of the examples he quotes is a short line of dialogue played on a phone answering machine near the end of the film. "We agonised for months over that line - and we still aren't sure it's the right form of words."

"His shield has been intelligence - and humour"

And then there was Tootsie, with Dustin Hoffman as the out of work actor who lands a part as a female on a tv soap, and becomes a star. A female star. "To me," says Pollack, "Tootsie was a serious movie - I know it was funny but it deals with serious ideas and the parameters of male-female sexuality post the sexual revolution." It's the same anchor of serious ideas that marks all Pollack's works - and explains why he hasn't been burnt in the Hollywood fire. His shield has been intelligence - and humour.

But he still can't quite explain why the same year (1982) that he made Tootsie, Barbra Streisand made Yentl and Blake Edwards made Victor Victoria, also dealing with people finding themselves in gender switching circumstances. "There was a Zeitgeist - I love using that word, but I'm not sure I know precisely what it means - something perceived in people's concerns that was universal," he muses.

He also explains (via an extended and amusing anocdote) why he played Tootsie's agent, George Fields: Hoffman insisted; "he said he would only believe the Field character if it was me . . ." Acting, as he said at his Sydney press conference, was never really his bag. "But there was the bonus of watching other directors work, 'cause we directors get to see actors work, but never get to see other directors work." (He also plays a support character in Random Hearts - for reasons of economy, as the character was required for four months and it was cheaper this way, he says, wearing his producer's hat.)

"why he stopped shooting in widescreen format"

Referring to the film's aspect ratio, Pollack explains why he stopped shooting in widescreen format - ironically, when he made Out of Africa in 1985 - "because I realised then that more people were seeing my films on video than in cinemas and the pan and scan method of duplicating films completely changed the films." So he now shoots in 1.85 with a 1.33 mask in the camera so he can frame his shots for both the big screen (1.85) and the tv screen (1.33). "Luckily," he added, "now there's DVD, a wonderful new medium that at least gives you a choice of formats as well as sound and picture quality more like film."

(In April 1997, a Danish court ruled that the pan scanning conducted by Danish television was a 'mutilation' of the film Three Days of the Condor (1975) and a violation of Pollack's moral rights and his legal right as an artist to maintain his reputation by protecting the integrity of his work. Nonetheless, the court ruled in favor of the defendant on a technicality.)

"Random Hearts is a film for grown ups"

Random Hearts is a film for grown ups, a story that throws together two people after a tragedy that is deepened by revelations that shatter their lives. 'Dutch' Van Den Broeck (Harrison Ford) of Washington Police Internal Affairs, is devoted to his wife, Peyton (Susanna Thompson). Kay Chandler (Kristin Scott Thomas) a New Hampshire Congresswoman running for re-election, is devoted to her husband Cullen (Peter Coyote) and their daughter Jessica (Kate Mara). Their busy lives are gatecrashed when a plane on the way to Miami plunges into the ocean, killing all passengers - including the couple in 3A and B, traveling on Mr and Mrs tickets. As the real identity of this couple is revealed, the trust on which the two marriages have been based dissolves. Dutch and Kay are thrown together in a tramuatic moment of their lives and grapple with the consequences of their loss in a unique way.

It's about truth, lies and trust, and Pollack tackles the story with verve while keeping the humanity and the focus balanced. "The challenge to me was how to jump all forms of courtship, in a scene that takes place in the front seat of a car, in a way that is quite inappropriate. We didn't have a reason to make this film unless we could see their anger and lust confused, humiliating both characters. The story explains how they get pushed together by tragedy …"

"as focused and passionate about food and cooking as he is about filmmaking"

If you heard him describe the meal he cooked for Tom and Nicole, you may conclude that he is as focused and passionate about food and cooking as he is about filmmaking. It's just few of us get to enjoy the former, compared to the latter.

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PRESS CONFERENCE - Sunday, September 19, 1999



A founding member of the Sundance Film Institute and President of the Board of Directors of the American Cinematheque in Los Angeles, Sydney Pollack was born in July 1934 in Lafayette, Indiana - and went on to become one of America's most respected filmmakers. His 18 feature films have gathered 46 Academy Award nominations, including four for Best Picture. You'll remember Jeremiah Johnson, Out of Africa, Tootsie, They Shoot Horses Don't They, The Firm, Havana - and now, Random Hearts, released in Australia October 21, 1999. In September, Pollack came to Sydney to promote the film, and cooked a BBQ dinner for Tom Cruise and Nicole - he also met with Urban Cinefile editors Andrew L. Urban and Louise Keller, with whom he shared THE RECIPE for that now famous evening.

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