Artist Spotlight August 2021

“I only act because I’m curious about other directors… I always learn something watching other directors work.”

– Sydney Pollack

Sydney Pollack ~ Filmmaker (Director, Actor, Producer)

Sydney Irwin Pollack (July 1, 1934 – May 26, 2008) was an American film director, producer and actor. Pollack directed more than 20 films and 10 television shows, acted in over 30 movies or shows and produced over 44 films. For his film Out of Africa (1985), Pollack won the Academy Awards for Best Director and Best Picture. He was also nominated for Best Director Oscars for They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? (1969) and Tootsie (1982). 

Some of his other best-known works include Jeremiah Johnson (1972), The Way We Were (1973), Three Days of the Condor (1975) and Absence of Malice (1981). His subsequent films included Havana(1990), Presumed Innocent (1990), The Firm (1993), The Interpreter (2005), and he produced and acted in Michael Clayton (2007). Pollack also made appearances in Robert Altman‘s Hollywood mystery The Player (1992), Woody Allen‘s relationship drama Husbands and Wives (1993), and Stanley Kubrick‘s erotic psychological drama Eyes Wide Shut (1999). Pollack is probably best known to television viewers for his recurring role playing Will Truman‘s father on the NBC sitcom Will & Grace (2000–2006). – Wikipedia

All photos of Sydney Pollack and crew on set of The Interpreter (2005) in Africa from a proof sheet of photography by Sandi Higgins

Many moons ago, I had the extraordinary occasion to work full-time with filmmaker Sydney Pollack for nearly 6 months on his last feature film while I was still just an undergraduate film student at NYU Tisch School of the Arts. He literally showed up in person at my apartment (which belonged to my father and stepmother) in the East Village of NYC with his producers, cinematographer, and production designer during a pre-production location scout for The Interpreter (2005). So what did I do with him and his Hollywood film crew standing in my living room? What would anyone do? I asked for a job.

Not only did Sydney and his crew choose my apartment as the set for superstar Nicole Kidman’s character, they also gave me a job on the film. At that time, I already had 3 film credits to my name: as a production assistant on two documentaries by Oliver Stone, and as an additional videographer for the internationally award-winning documentary, The Corporation (2003). Along with my camera and production experience, I even spoke French and had an instant connection with The Interpreter‘s French cinematographer, Darius Khondji, who just so happened to have an opening for a camera production assistant on the camera crew. Eureka! The stars aligned. It was a match. Thanks to my parents hold on NY real estate, I had been dealt a lucky hand. Really I don’t know whether it was a match made in heaven or hell though as it became one of the most challenging periods of my life.

Working on The Interpreter, I was payed the then-minimum-wage of $5 / hour. Fortunately, I wasn’t in it for the money anyway. I was in it for the education. I had just moved back to New York from Paris in order to finish my Bachelor’s degree at New York University where I was majoring in Film & TV Production. NYU agreed to let me skip the rest of my classes that semester in order to work on The Interpeter as long as I completed my course work (exams, papers, and one short film). I didn’t know nor care how challenging that would be! Who could pass up an opportunity to learn from Sydney Pollack, Sean Penn, Nicole Kidman, and some of the best film crew in show business.

Simultaneous to my once-in-a-lifetime “career” stroke of luck, my best friend from New York University, Kemdi, was suddenly struck with a once-in-a-lifetime total misfortune. From being a happy, healthy, beautiful star athlete, fashion model, and promising singer/songwriter, she had become a blind, paralyzed, and neurologically terrorized young woman thrown at the mercy of the American medicare system. Kemdi was suddenly caught in the midst of a devastating battle with a rare form of Multiple Sclerosis. As her best friend from college, it was terrifying to witness, and especially difficult to balance alongside my first marathon run with film stars.

While many of The Interpreter crew members were no doubt catching up on much needed sleep on their days off, I was completing my university course work as well as caregiving for my best friend and documenting her ultimately fatal health crisis in hospitals and nursing homes around NY. The stress gave me actual seizures. This is where, when, and why I started yoga.

Anyway, back to Sydney Pollack!

He gave me a sense of official belonging on the set. He really ran the whole ship and kindly acknowledged my presence onboard, even when I felt like a total stowaway. For the most part, he just let me observe him without asking for anything from me in return. We often worked grueling hours on set and it was challenging to find my place in it all when I was clearly the lowest animal on the totem pole. Some of the crew were more than happy to remind me of my lowly rank whenever possible, but Sydney himself was always kind to me and never showed me anything less than a ground of basic goodness.

When people shouted “Sydney” it often sounded like they were shouting “Sandi”, so I sometimes eagerly responded to the call of his name, much to my embarrassment. He never got rude with me when I accidentally got in his way. And yet, he could become rather moody when things weren’t going the way he wanted on set which made everything feel very tense and intimidating. Even so, his almost formal acknowledgements and polite exchanges gave me some sense of professional recognition and respect that was otherwise rare in the ever-shifting boundaries of my rookie position.

I remember once at the Hotel Polana in Maputo, Mozambique, where we shot the opening portion of the film at the very end of the production schedule, I saw Sydney sitting all alone at the hotel bar. From a distance, I thought about going over to say hello. I thought to tell him how magical it had ultimately been to be a part of his film, to tell him more about the documentary I was trying to make about my friend Kemdi and why it really should interest him too, to ask his advice on my own professional aspirations… However, I also thought about what he was experiencing in a rare moment of aloneness at the end of all these months. He seemed uniquely at peace. I wanted to respect his choice for solitude. I was probably afraid of rejection too. So I walked on and let him be.

Without romanticizing any “good old days” that I really can’t attest to, I do feel like I got to witness one of the last of an endangered species of filmmakers, and of filmmaking, before their final bow.

* Speaking of endangered species, artists and animals alike, did you know? As of 2021, there are now 41,415 species on the IUCN Red List, and 16,306 of them are endangered species threatened with extinction. *

Disclaimer:This video is an interview with talk show host Charlie Rose, whom I used to adore as a kid watching his show. I was sad to discover that Charlie is one of the many media figures who have fallen from grace in the #MeToo/#TimesUp avalanche of the last few years [see article in the Washington Post]. This interview also references producer Scott Rudin whose abusive behavior at work has only recently come to surface [see article in the Hollywood Reporter].

The video posted at the top of the page is from the Dick Cavett Show featuring directors Sydney Pollack, Sidney Lumet, Alan J. Pakula, Ivan Reitman and Doris Dörrie. I haven’t heard any related controversies about these artists but please feel free to leave a comment or send a message if you feel more discussion is needed.

All photos of Sydney Pollack and crew on set of The Interpreter (2005) in Africa from a proof sheet of photography by Sandi Higgins

Sydney Pollack (1934 – 2008)

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