Interview: Sydney Pollack on 'Three Days of the Condor'
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.

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.


Box Office Mojo: Three Days of the Condor is also a computer-themed thriller with a car bomb and, in some ways, it precedes movies like The Pelican Brief and The Bourne Identity.

Sydney Pollack: I'm just flattered that people are still interested. They had a screening [of Three Days of the Condor] and Brett Ratner was there and they were talking about how influential it is. Michael Apted has always talked about it as one of the most influential of those—what do they call them?—paranoid thrillers. There's The Parallax View, Three Days of the Condor, I guess there were two or three of those movies in the Seventies. It's exciting to have anything that you've done that's 30 years old talked about—or even viewed on occasion, because pictures usually die out.

Box Office Mojo: Why did you use "God Rest Ye, Merry Gentlemen" as the closing song?

Sydney Pollack: That's my little inside joke about the CIA. The precursor to the CIA, the OSS [an acronym for Office of Strategic Services], those were all eastern Ivy League college gentlemen; they were from Yale, Harvard—it was really an elegant man's club. Gentlemen—just the word is ironic. I wanted it to be Christmas. I kept trying to keep it tight, tight, tight. I couldn't follow any of the book's plot other than that [the Robert Redford character] goes to lunch and everybody's murdered.

Box Office Mojo: Why was it necessary for the conspirators to murder everyone in the beginning?

Sydney Pollack: Because they thought he [Robert Redford's character] had exposed this whole plot. He had figured it out. Three [colleagues] in the other room had read his outgoing message, the head had read his outgoing message. If there was an incoming message and anybody there read it, they were done for. The whole plan would explode.

Box Office Mojo: A consistent theme of your work, including Robert Redford and Faye Dunaway in Three Days of the Condor, is that couples don't stay together. What are you trying to say about relationships?

Sydney Pollack: It has nothing to do with what I believe. It has to do with what I believe is most effective as drama or theater. I can't tell you a great love story that I think about over and over again where the people stay together. Every [romantic picture] you want to talk about, like Romeo and Juliet or movies like Doctor Zhivago, Brief Encounter or Gone with the Wind—whatever—it's the almost, the passing. Otherwise, it's closed and you don't have it to worry about. This [inaccessibility] keeps it alive.

Box Office Mojo: Movie ratings are becoming more restrictive. Would you keep Faye Dunaway's "spyf——er" line in Three Days of the Condor?

Sydney Pollack: It was pretty bold in those years and it shocked the hell out of people. I don't have a lot of bad language in the films I make.

Box Office Mojo: How about the solicitation for fellatio in Havana?

Sydney Pollack: Well, that was a big part of that world. That's why [I included a sex scene involving Robert Redford and two women]. Redford initially didn't want to do the scene with the two girls and I insisted because that's that guy—the card playing [playboy.] He picks up the two girls and he sleeps with them.

Box Office Mojo: Then there's the line about getting the "best f—- of my life."

Sydney Pollack: That line was written by a woman. Tough lines. I didn't want to back off though. I don't like to use profanity loosely but I like to use a line like "you can always depend on the old spyf——er" that'll stop the show.

Box Office Mojo: Or when Will Geer's character in Jeremiah Johnson talks about "the meanest bitch ever balled for beans."

Sydney Pollack: I stole that out of a book called Mountain Man.

Box Office Mojo: Speaking of mountain men, according to the Jeremiah Johnson DVD's production notes, their type arose out of a demand for beaver pelts in the early 1800s.

Sydney Pollack: Right.

Box Office Mojo: While the movie has acquired a certain reputation for political correctness, Jeremiah Johnson is killing Indians and hunting deer. Did you use real deer?

Sydney Pollack: I didn't [actually] kill deer. But I used real deer for the hunt. When he shoots the deer, that's not a real animal.

Box Office Mojo: How about when the horse throws Ossie Davis in The Scalphunters?

Sydney Pollack: That was a good horse I used over and over. He had a real good stop. He never did any trick. He just stopped. When you'd say, "whoa," and pulled on him, he dug his hind legs in and skidded to a stop. If you made the sand soft, when he stopped, he'd kick up sand. The only person we did a trick with was Ossie Davis, who just went head over heels over the horse. We didn't do anything to the horse. We did do tricks for when the horses go loco.


Box Office Mojo: Is it true that The Scalphunters' Burt Lancaster got you into directing?

Sydney Pollack: Yes, he did.

Box Office Mojo: When will you direct a movie again?

Sydney Pollack: When I find something that I like and when someone wants me to do something I really like. I have to be able to be curious for two years—it takes a couple of years to make a movie—and it's a different world now. I'm not in the position I was in ten years ago where the kind of movies that I do are what people are making. There are a lot of newer, younger directors coming along and it's hard to find a character-driven movie where I would be the guy the studio would come to. A character-based movie like The Interpreter [which Mr. Pollack directed] doesn't come along very often. Studios have to do these kind of tentpole movies, which are usually big events, with special effects, like Superman Returns or Pirates of the Caribbean. They're event movies where you create sensation quickly—and audiences are hungry for that.

Box Office Mojo: There are tentpole bombs, too.

Sydney Pollack: Yes, sometimes that happens.

Box Office Mojo: The Interpreter did well, right?

Sydney Pollack: It did very well.

Box Office Mojo: Do you follow box office?

Sydney Pollack: I have to—I live by box office. Pictures that flop hurt badly.

Box Office Mojo: Would you do another epic?

Sydney Pollack: What do you mean by epic?

Box Office Mojo: A wide scope movie like Out of Africa?

Sydney Pollack: What makes you say that's an epic? Here's what I mean: people think it's an epic because it takes place over a period of 13 years. It's not even shot in widescreen. Not only that, there is no story, it's a lot of conversations. A woman goes to grow coffee and that doesn't work and her husband gives her syphilis and she falls in love with a guy and he dies and that's the whole story—it's two hours and forty minutes. I was petrified making that movie. I kept saying to the head of the studio "who the hell is going to see this?" What happens? The best I've got is a lion attack. I had to have something. Epic? Yeah, you feel epic when you sense a long period with change. I would do anything if I wanted to wake up every morning for the next year in my life with these people in my head; go to bed with them, have lunch with them, sleep with them in my brain. There's a lot of stuff I could see [in a theater] that I don't [necessarily] want to live with [in my head during development]. I go to a movie and I have a good diversion, that's fine, my ten bucks is well worth it, but would I feel that way if I had to see it every day for the next year? That's a different feeling. [When considering a project for directing, I have to ask myself:] Do I really care what happens to a character. Otherwise, I can't do it. After six months of talking about it, and writing it and changing the lines, you have to ask at a certain point: who cares? Unless the characters are really interesting—and I don't mean interesting to everybody. I mean interesting to me.

Box Office Mojo: You've talked about having a preoccupation with behavior, which reminds me of your suicide thriller The Slender Thread. Are there stories you want to tell in these times?

Sydney Pollack: Yes. What's happening in the world today is fascinating and I've been wanting to do a Washington [D.C.] story about lobbyists or government people—a thriller or a love story—but to do it well would combine a serious idea with real entertainment and that's what we all try to do, that's what good American films have always done in the Forties, the Fifties, the Sixties. It's changing now. It's more disposable, it's more about a quick escape for an opening weekend and some of those [pictures] are very good, full of talent, full of skill, but it's different than telling a tale, a narrative story about human beings that develops at its own pace. You know, if you don't get the gun out quick or get the clothes off pretty fast… It's a little bit like falling in love with spicy food; at a certain point, you have to keep adding more hot sauce or it doesn't [satisfy] and, at a certain point, you burn your own taste buds so you can't taste anything that doesn't have hot sauce on it. There's a little bit of that going on [in Hollywood] now because everybody is so hungry for [an immediate] sensation and I don't think it's what you'd call the most patient audience in the world.

Box Office Mojo: How do you respond to the criticism that your movies have inconclusive endings?

Sydney Pollack: If that was the worst they say about me, I'd be thrilled. They say a lot worse. They say: "he's boring." I've read some pretty awful reviews of my stuff. A lot of highbrow critics just tore The Interpreter. I read those reviews and try to learn something but it's hard because I don't know what it is that's bothering them exactly. Every once in a while, I can read a review that's very bad [in its appraisal] but very clear in what it is that bothers [the reviewer]. But sometimes I read reviews and I can't comprehend exactly what it is that's the troublesome part [for the critic].

Box Office Mojo: There is romanticism in your movies. Is it important that the audience be rooting for the characters in some way, such as Hubbell [played by Robert Redford] in The Way We Were, whom you insisted not be too unsympathetic?

Sydney Pollack: It's important to me, personally. I don't say it's important to everyone in the audience. You can see a movie about breaking out of prison and it can be fantastic. The Shawshank Redemption—I love that movie. It's not what I would call a romantic movie, though it has some romanticism to it, but I just like romantic movies. I like love stories. Even if it's a thriller or a comedy, it's always a love story for me and that's what I concentrate on because the love stories are my surrogates for the argument; two people in conflict that see life differently—that's what works for me. As far as the endings, when I have trouble with endings, it's usually because I have too many of them and I try to wrap up too many things, so I have too many endings, and I recognize that myself sometimes. I personally like what I call epilogs, like [the] Key West [ending in Havana]. The movie's long over when that scene happens—and that last encounter between Sean Penn and Nicole Kidman in The Interpreter.

Box Office Mojo: Those are good examples of true epilogs.

Sydney Pollack: I call it a coda. Even in The Electric Horseman with Redford and Jane Fonda, there's a goodbye at a bus station with him riding away—though the story's [already] over. In Out of Africa, too.

For Part Two, click here.


• 6/13/07 - Interview: Sydney Pollack on 'Havana' - Second of Two Parts

• More Interviews

• Review - The Lives of Others

• Review - The Interpreter