Interview: Sydney Pollack on 'Three Days of the Condor'
First of Two Parts
by Scott Holleran
Sydney Pollack
May 16, 2007

Sydney Pollack is one of the few Hollywood artists who can tap the most controversial subject, turn it into a drama, a thriller or a comedy and seamlessly move from acting to producing and directing. In this exclusive interview, conducted in two parts, the legendary director discusses his 1975 political thriller Three Days of the Condor, remaking The Lives of Others and his philosophy.

Next month, Part Two of this interview will cover Mr. Pollack's friendship and creative bond with Robert Redford, Havana and his strong views on communist Cuba.

Box Office Mojo: Describe your upcoming cable television picture, Recount.

Sydney Pollack: It's based very tightly on real events insofar as it's possible and, since I don't think it's fair to use a public platform as a piece of propaganda, I'm trying desperately to be as even-handed as I can. It is about those 35 days from Election night to the day the [United States] Supreme Court stopped the recount in Florida. I think it's about the American character, both warts and grandeur, and a struggle by people who believe desperately in their cause. There are people who believe [then-Vice President Al] Gore tried to steal the election and people who believe [then-Governor George W.] Bush did steal it. I'm still reading and doing a lot of research, but it's a thriller about the 2000 election.

Box Office Mojo: Who's in the cast?

Sydney Pollack: I don't know yet. The "characters" were [Bush adviser and former secretary of state] James Baker, the famous lawyer David Boise, a guy named Ron Klain and [Florida Secretary of State] Katherine Harris. The other guy who came in was [Carter administration adviser and former secretary of state] Warren Christopher, who's a kind of elegant statesman. It's my first HBO picture and we hope for it to air in April of next year. It's possible it will be a feature film in Europe.

Box Office Mojo: Can you confirm that you're doing a remake of The Lives of Others?

Sydney Pollack: We're going to try to do a remake, but it's very difficult to do. It's such an incredibly perfect movie in my opinion but it's a perfect movie that very few people have seen because they don't like to read subtitles and it sounds like [it happened] a long time ago—and it did—and young people are very interested in tentpole movies. [Mr. Pollack's partner] Anthony Minghella and I were very interested in doing this and Harvey Weinstein [financially] backed our bid—there were other studios bidding—and I can't tell you for a fact that we'll do better. But we'll try to do a movie that will reach more people.

Sebastian Koch and Martina Gedeck in The Lives of Others
Box Office Mojo: How many times have you seen the original?

Sydney Pollack: Several. The situation is so beautifully elegant and it becomes about everything without becoming pedantic and pretentious. It's about moral issues and it's about everything, by being so beautifully simple. [The Lives of Others writer and director] Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck is a good friend now. He's the one who decided to sell it to us. We were in competition with several other studios. He chose us.

Box Office Mojo: Why?

Sydney Pollack: Partly because he knew our work. He knew Anthony's films, he knew my films, and he was, in his own way, a fan. I think he felt that we were in sympathy about the material. It's about the power of art and the power of the world to change people and the confines of ignorance.

Box Office Mojo: Let's talk about Three Days of the Condor. Why did you prominently feature the World Trade Center?

Sydney Pollack: I was looking for the logic of where the [Central Intelligence Agency (CIA)] might be [located]. I didn't want to have a building that said CIA on it because I didn't think that would exist. I figured they would want some kind of anonymity and that the best kind of anonymity are these two massive buildings with thousands of offices and you wouldn't know who's where. [Production Designer] Stephen Grimes was great—he had a nose for locations—and he found the Twin Towers. He found the alley, which was spooky and eerie and weird, for the [climactic] meeting in Three Days of the Condor.

Box Office Mojo: Did you shoot inside the Twin Towers?

Sydney Pollack: Yes. We shot the lobby, the second floor mezzanine lobby, the hallways, the elevators, down the hallway to the office. I loved them. I used to go [there] with my kids. My youngest daughter and her new husband came to visit me in New York and it was the first place I took them—the World Trade Center—up to the top. I loved those buildings. I used to occasionally use a helicopter to come in from [John F.] Kennedy [International Airport] or wherever and, coming in at sunset, looking at Manhattan, it was the view of the city—it made the composition of the shot—the skyline—perfect.

Box Office Mojo: What is the theme of Three Days of the Condor?

Sydney Pollack: Suspicion. From a behavioral point of view, in terms of defining and writing the characters, of directing the picture, it's about a man in a paranoid business who trusts everyone—and he turns from that to a man who's suspicious of everyone because of what happens to him. In the process, he meets a girl who trusts no one, who has her worst nightmare happen—a guy kidnaps her at gunpoint—and she finds that she blossoms. So, at the end of this movie, when they say goodbye, he's the suspicious one, suspecting that she may tell on him. That was the way we wrote it, trying to imagine these two separate arcs going in opposite directions.

Box Office Mojo: Isn't it based on a book?

Sydney Pollack: Yes. The book [Six Days of the Condor by James Grady] was about a bad group of guys inside the CIA who wanted to smuggle heroin. It was a potboiler. They hollowed out books and put heroin in the books.

Box Office Mojo: You excised the heroin from the motion picture version.

Sydney Pollack: I wasn't interested in heroin. It was boring. There were a million pictures about dope and, also, I wasn't interested in bad guys and good guys. I was interested in something much more complex. The Sixties were just over and I was remembering what happened when all cops were referred to as "pigs." I thought it must be a bitch if you're a really good cop—suppose you're a really good cop—and you know there's a bomb in that trunk but you do not have the legal right to search the trunk. What would you do? So the metaphor was: suppose there were a group of people inside the CIA that know about an impending crisis but also know they can't do anything above board about it. That they know for a fact that the oil supply, if it was choked off, could bring this country to a standstill.

Box Office Mojo: This was following the 1973 Arab oil embargo?

Sydney Pollack: Yes. But it was before the lines at the [gasoline stations]. We were prescient on this picture by accident, not by design. We were saying, let's find a crisis where these aren't a bunch of bad guys trying to make money for themselves; these are guys that honestly think they're saving America—that's why Cliff Robertson['s character] says: "what do you think [Americans are] going to want us to do when the cars don't start or when there's no food on the table? Are they going to want us to be moral or are they just going to want to get the oil? You know damn well what they're going to want. They're going to want the oil."

Box Office Mojo: Robertson's character also makes a point about what would happen when one of those hostile states gets plutonium—?

Sydney Pollack: That's right. I'm much more interested in the CIA guys who are trying to help us and do something [widely considered] immoral than I am about guys who are just immoral because they want to sell dope and make money. That's boring to me. It's much more complicated to say, here's a bunch of guys whose job it is to protect us and they're saying there's no way we're going to sell the fact that the Middle East [states] control the oil and if we don't get control of the oil and they [seize its production], we're going to end up with what we have now.

Box Office Mojo: That's what happened in reality—what the Three Days of the Condor conspirators predicted.

Sydney Pollack: Exactly. You've got every Middle Eastern country now trying to get an atomic weapon—or they already have them. Our point [in Three Days of the Condor] was that [the oil crisis] is not a simple problem.

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