Film & History Interview with Sydney Pollack
- Film & History: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Film and Television Studies
- Center for the Study of Film and History
- Volume 4, Number 2, May 1974
- pp. 17-22
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- Additional Information
FILM & HISTORY INTERVIEW WITH SYDNEY POLLACK Filmmaker Sydney Pollack, who directed "They Shoot Horses, Don't They?," "Castle Keep," "Jeremiah Johnson," and "The Way We Were," and is currently making a police action crime story in Tokyo, recently visited the San Diego State University campus to talk with history through film students about the content ofhis motion pictures and the relationship between history and movies. Following is the synthesis of a series of interviews with historian Paul Vanderwood who has pioneered in history through film teaching at San Diego State. Vanderwood: You have made a number of films placed within a specific historical context, movies like "They Shoot Horses, Don't They?" and "Jeremiah Johnson." In dealing with the past, what is your commitment to historical accuracy? Pollack: Althoughfilms like "horses" and "Jeremiah" are set in the past, the point ofview deals with the present. I am interested in the relevance ofthe past to the present, and, ofcourse, thefuture. 1 strivefor details ofhistorical accuracy, but I like to think that I am a creativefilmmaker. You cannot be creative with a militaiy uniform; it has to be a re-creation offashions ofthe period in which thefilm is set. 1 try to be as accurate as possible about such details, i can, however, be creative in regard to the style ofa character. It is the complexity ofhuman behavior thatfascinates me as an artist. The director cannot research it all, so I work with a team to make sure that things like costumes and sets are historically accurate. In "They Shoot Horses" evety'thing was real, I mean an accurate recreation ofphysical conditions in the 1930s. The dancehall was built to scale. We had to make it a bit smaller than the original, because the one that existed in the 1930s was huge, and we could not afford to hire thepeople tofill it. Vanderwood: You used the word "research." Do you, as a director, actually engage in historical research? Pollack: Before doing "Horses, " I read a number ofbooks on the period, along with hundreds ofnewspapers published at that time. I talked with people who knew about, and afew who had danced in, those marathons. By the time I started shooting, I think I had a pretty good "fee, "for the atmosphere ofthe marathons. After all, that kind ofexploitation and desperateness is still with us. For "Jeremiah" I read the diaries of mountainmen who traveled into the wilderness in the 1840s What characters. But "Jeremiah" was not a 19th century mountainman. He only wore those trappings. "Jeremiah" was a 20th century dropout. Vanderwood: But Jeremiah was identifiable as a soldier of some sort. At least he did wear soldier's pants. Pollack: You are right, but I honestly do not know why he was dressed in soldier's pants. I did not mean to make him a soldier, or an ex-soldier, although some people read an anti-war message into the movie. Ijust wanted to show that at one time 17 Jeremiah had been committed to something in society, and that he had given up that commitment for another kind oflife. Vanderwood: Then you believe that "commitment" in life is important, the kind of commitment displayed by Barbara Streisand in "The Way We Were." Pollack: Right. Mypersonalfeelings lie with Barbara Streisand's attitudes toward society. Jeremiah sought loneliness as an answer to his problems, whatever they were. He sought loneliness, and his dreams turned to dust. He wanted to go where no living thing existed. Maybe he was headed there at the end ofthe film. Where nothing lives, onefinds only dust. Ifyou live where anything is alive—people, plants or animals—you must discipline yourselfto live with it. Jeremiah would not accept any kind ofdiscipline. In the end he has no physical or mental innards left; he has nothing left but his reputation. The other individuals in thefilm were people who belonged in the mountains. They were Indians living within their culture. They were individuals with whom Jeremiah could not get along. Jeremiah Johnson was humane in a certain way. Evetyone reads into thefilm what they want. Robert (Michael Sarrazin) in "Horses" is a forerunner ofJeremiah. He is innocent. HE is good in...