Full & Frank
Sydney Pollack's portrait of Frank Gehry - his first documentary and more than five years in the making - is as much about himself as it is about the architect, writes James Mottram
It's easy to see why Sydney Pollack has come to admire the architect at the heart of Sketches of Frank Gehry, the first documentary in his 45- year career. After all, both men bemoan the difficulties of self-expression 'within disciplines that make stringent commercial demands', as Pollack puts it.
The Oscar-winning director of Out of Africa has more often than not toed the line. 'I always try to work as personally as I can and as close to my own tastes,' he says with a shrug. 'But I've always made big, expensive movies with stars, so in some ways I suppose I have to say I'm Mr Mainstream.'
It's one thing you could never accuse Gehry of. Consider the Vitra Furniture Museum in Germany's Weil-am-Rhein, one of several buildings that brought him fame in the 1980s. An entirely functional exhibition space on the inside, the exterior is classic Gehry: playful, whimsical, even 'alarming', as Bob Geldof - one of several famous fans interviewed in the film - jokingly calls it. Full of curves and spirals, its geometrically anarchic structure would be the equivalent of Pollack allowing Jean-Luc Godard to re-edit one of his old films. It's this radical approach to form, rather than content, that Pollack admires.
'He's sticking his neck out a mile and they're whacking at it with axes,' he says. 'A year ago, in Brooklyn, they were picketing the proposed plan of the new centre that he was building. Thousands of people are screaming at him! You know - he does tilted buildings that look like they're going to fall over. He sticks his neck out ... I'm much more of a coward. I don't think I'll reinvent cinema in some way, the way he's really reinvented shapes and architecture. He's got a lot more guts than I do. I wouldn't have the courage. He's really broken all the rules. I haven't done that, ever. I wish I had the courage.'
Pollack had known Gehry for years before he came to make a documentary about him. He first became fascinated by his work after attending the opening of the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao that Gehry designed. The titanium-covered structure bamboozled Pollack. 'I kept saying it looks to me as if Don Quixote got stoned and dreamed this building - as if he smoked dope and was hallucinating. He made this half-heroic, some-times comical, crazy structure. It has so many qualities - it's strong, it's sensual, it's funny, it's arrogant. It's many things at once, and depending on the light, it changes and changes.'
By this point, Gehry had been approached several times about documentaries, but always refused.
'He's a very shy guy,' says Pollack. 'Just as a joke, almost, he said, 'Have you ever done a documentary? Would you be interested?' And I said, 'No'. That was 1997.'
For the next three years, they toyed with the idea, talking about it at parties, without ever taking it seriously - until a Japanese investor put up the money. Even then, it was nothing like a feature film shoot. 'The fact that there was no schedule meant we only worked two weekends a year for about five years. One year, when I did [2005's thriller] The Interpreter, I couldn't see him at all.'
This approach explains why the film comes across more as 'a conversation than an interview', says Pollack. His editor, Karen Schmeer, who has worked with documentary-maker Errol Morris, pushed Pollack and encouraged the approach. 'I was trying to avoid pre-digested questions,' he says. 'What I found was that when I prepared all the questions, it was boring. As a way of getting inside Frank's head, it didn't work.
'A conversation has its own life, and it takes on a reality. Here I was trying to ask what I was genuinely interested in. In other words, I wasn't working for an audience.'
In many ways, the 73-year-old Pollack has been doing less and less of that in recent years. Since 1995, he's made only three feature films. Long gone are the days when he made a series of hits with Robert Redford, including Jeremiah Johnson, The Way We Were and Three Days of the Condor. 'I don't feel the way I used to feel, which is that if I'm not directing, I'm not doing anything,' he says. Although part of the slowdown is due to his work as a producer for his company Mirage Entertainment (which includes a fruitful partnership with Anthony Minghella), critical and public indifference to recent films such as Sabrina and Random Hearts has taken a toll.
'I know what it feels like to depend on the world's opinion of you, whether you feel you've succeeded or not, and that's a terrifying feeling,' Pollack says. 'Frank's degree of anxiety and terror is the same as mine, so I feel a sense of rapport with him. Anybody who is dependent on other people's opinion - whether they've done something of value or not - is in a vulnerable position. I don't necessarily feel like I'm a high achiever [like Gehry], but I know what it's like to stick a piece of work out in front of the world and have them rip it apart. I get torn to pieces all the time, and while my old pictures are still there, they're not playing any more.'
More than most artists, Pollack seems to understand the fragile nature of creation. Born in Lafayette, Indiana, the son of a pharmacist who was also a professional boxer, Pollack moved to New York when he was 17 to study acting with Sanford Meisner at the Neighbourhood Playhouse. Within two years he was Meisner's assistant and his students included Robert Duvall. He began his directing career on television serials such as The Alfred Hitchcock Hour, but over the years he has continued to act: in the role of a Hollywood lawyer in Robert Altman's The Player, a self- deceiving adulterer in Woody Allen's Husbands and Wives and the mysterious doctor in Stanley Kubrick's Eyes Wide Shut.
This has afforded Pollack the chance to observe other directors at work, and Sketches of Frank Gehry provides as much of an insight into the filmmaker as it does into his subject. At one point he asks the architect whether he sees the world in shapes, just as he sees it in shots. 'That's what I do a lot of the time,' says Pollack now. 'If I'm listening to music, I'll start to see shots, a camera moving.'
Nevertheless, although Gehry has proved that it's possible to buck the system in the world of architecture, Pollack seems to think it's less so in film. 'It's become very, very hard to make good movies in Hollywood because of the economics,' he says. Somehow you suspect that if Frank Gehry picked up a camera, he'd change all that.
Sketches of Frank Gehry screens today, 8pm; Jul 15, Jul 21, 4pm, as part of Hong Kong Arts Centre's Global Visions Documentary Series