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 American filmmakers won’t be making any worthwhile movies about the catastrophic terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001 for some years, perhaps a decade, says respected producer, director and actor Sydney Pollack. "We need to digest it…look what happened after Vietnam. We didn’t get a decent film from Vietnam for 10 years," he tells Andrew L. Urban.

Speaking in Sydney during his Australian visit last week – as guest of the Australian Writers Guild, the Australian Screen Directors Association, and the Screen Producers Association of Australia – Pollack is emphatic that filmmakers will need to distance themselves from the event to be able to explore it effectively. "All we got were sort of kneejerk films, or rage, or adolescent outcries. We began to get mature, disturbing, complicated, ambiguous movies ten years later. It’s got to ferment a bit. There’s a difference between putting light through a window and putting light through a prism. If you put it through a window, you literally get back what you see.

"when it turn into some sort of art"

"If you put it through a prism, white light becomes every colour of the rainbow, and that’s in a way what it is when it turn into some sort of art. We haven’t got a prism yet."

He also stresses that filmmakers have a responsibility to broaden their outlook on the diversity of human nature.

But this should be driven by creative storytelling imperatives. "Our job is to entertain you – and sometimes that entertainment, by accident, reaches the level of real art and lasts forever. And often it changes the way you think. But it isn’t designed by the filmmaker to do that. Oftentimes if it is, all you get is pretentious crap. Or propaganda. But if you see a film like Grand Illusion or All Quiet on the Western Front, where it takes your cliché ideas about someone you think is your enemy and suddenly see another part of them and changes the way you think about them – that’s healthy. But I wouldn’t know how to do that consciously, how to sit down with a writer and say ‘let’s make a movie about how good it is to be freedom loving Americans and let’s imagine you’re a Muslim guy who hates us and what are we going to show him to make him love us.’ That’s like making a commercial, in a way. It fulfils a different function."

Nursing a cold but keeping to his heavy schedule in Sydney and Melbourne (handing out awards, speaking at seminars, guest appearing at dinners), Pollack displays a calm curiosity and incisive intelligence. He is eloquent without being pretentious and enjoys good company, good food, good wine. He says he accepted the invitation to come here because he likes Australia (he was here two years ago to promote his film, Random Hearts [and whip up a dinner for Tom & Nicole] – see INTERVIEW).

Always at arms length from the major studios, but also always on good terms, Pollack is an independent, but not a rogue filmmaker. For example, The Quiet American on which he serves as a producer, is independently financed, but Miramax will distribute it. Another independent film he’s developing will be distributed by DreamWorks. "I can’t make movies and distribute them in the United States without the majors, because the rest of the world is often dependent on the US distribution deal and there you can only go to majors. It’s too difficult otherwise."

"I can be slightly riskier"

He regards himself as half in and half out of the major club. "It’s a little tougher than working with a studio for an economic point of view but it’s often more interesting. I can be slightly riskier…."

His involvement in The Quiet American for example, was at the invitation of director Phil Noyce. "Originally my interest was in the material. I have since got more involved and have a lot of stake in it. But I was fascinated by the novel and it has never been filmed properly. It was filmed once. Badly. Really badly. Again, part of the cold war," he says referring to the beginning of our conversation. "Total propaganda. Audi Murphy and Michael Redgrave." (Noyce has cast Brendan Fraser and Michael Caine in those roles.)

"The film has taken strange new meanings since the events of September 11, because it is about the price of commitment versus the price of non-commitment, in some way. There is a line in the book, 'Sooner or later one has to take sides, if one is to remain human.' Suddenly that has become a resonant thought. We first previewed the film the night before September 11 – Monday night. Tuesday morning we were on the way to Miramax when the tragedy happened and we were trapped in New York. So we went back to work on the film – and we were seeing it with different eyes, not knowing how it would be viewed, because it is an American, in this case, who does the blowing up of [places.

"When we previewed it next, a couple of weeks later, you could feel a different attitude toward the film. I won’t say better I won’t say worse, but certainly it was different. A bit more serious…The issue of when you have to create damage in order to save lives is a big issue. And this film tries to ask those questions."

"I want to explore questions to which I don’t know the answer"

For Pollack, this is a typical experience; he gets fascinated by films that tackle subjects about which he is uncertain, whether philosophical or physical, international relation or intimate relationships…"I have a short attention span. If I know the answer, there is no sense harping on it. I want to explore questions to which I don’t know the answer."

Published November 22, 2001

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