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Sydney Pollack's Documentary Adventure

Oscar-winning director Sydney Pollack tries his hand at the non-fiction format in SKETCHES OF FRANK GEHRY, his intimate film portrait of one of the world’s most successful and creative architects.

Pollack, whose directorial career dates back to the 1960s, and includes such legendary films as THEY SHOOT HORSES DON’T THEY, THREE DAYS OF THE CONDOR, TOOTSIE and the multi-Academy Award winner OUT OF AFRICA, is one of a handful of directors who is also a prolific producer (THE TALENTED MR. RIPLEY, COLD MOUNTAIN, FORTY SHADES OF BLUE) and an actor (in the films of Stanley Kubrick and Woody Allen, no less).

Pollack now adds documentary filmmaker to his prodigious resume His latest film, which had its world premiere at the Toronto Film Festival, profiles Pollack’s long time friend, architect Frank Gehry, who became an architecture superstar with the widely praised Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain.

Pollack was on hand when the film screened at the prestigious Art Basel Miami Beach (ABMB) art fair held earlier this month. In only its third year, ABMB has become one of the art world’s most interesting and glamorous events, a kind of art world Cannes Film Festival, attracting a who’s who of international gallerists, collectors, artists and art lovers.

Dubbed Art Loves Film, the special screening was co-presented by the Miami International Film Festival (to be held March 2-12, 2006), with Festival topper Nicole Guillemet both introducing the film and interviewing Pollack on stage afterwards.

The film chronicles Gehry’s early life and his desire to be a painter. Blessed with a talent for drawing from an early age, Gehry eventually found his niche by designing private homes and small offices in his newly adopted home of Los Angeles. Known for his buildings’ radical curves, unusual building materials and geometric sweeps, Gehry grabbed the attention of the world press with the Guggenheim Museum in Bilboa, transforming a decaying seaport city into a citadel of arts and culture.

The film showcases Gehry’s creative process, proceeding from vague notepad sketches into paper models, and details the architect/artist’s turmoil in always trying for something new and radical. As much as a primer of how an architect moves from concept to completion, the film details the pressures and anxieties of being a visionary in an environment of conformity, something director Pollack directly relates to with his own struggles for individual expression in the Hollywood movie factory.

The film is accented with witty and disarming interviews with artists Ed Ruscha, Julian Schnabel and John Chamberlain, with additional observations from such Gehry clients as Michael Eisner, Michael Ovitz, Barry Diller and Dennis Hopper.

Gehry’s latest triumph is the Walt Disney Concert Hall in downtown Los Angeles, which he has imbued with the Gehry design flourishes, while creating an outstanding cultural venue for the appreciation of music in an under-used section of the city.

In the post-screening interview and question and answer, Pollack described the challenges and rewards of working in a new film format. “I ended up shooting most of the film myself, with a tiny handheld camera”, Pollack offered. “I was able to move in closely and create an intimacy that is hard to do when you are shooting a multi-million dollar feature film with an army of technicians, actors and staff around.”

When asked why the project took him nearly five years to complete, Pollack demurred that “I needed to work on this when I had time off from directing and producing, which amounted to only a few weekends per year.” The key to his technique was in radically overshooting, and assembling the material in post-production in the editing room. “We had no budget for this film since it was being produced for public television”, Pollack offered. “But because we shot with only one small camera, I had the opportunity to shoot many more hours than I could actually use, and with my editor found a rhythm in the cutting room to tell this story effectively.”

An unusual touch for a film biography was the contribution of Milton Wexler, Gehry’s psychotherapist for the last 35 years. With a candor that was both refreshing and alarming, Wexler detailed Gehry’s psychological blocks and eventual boldness as a key to his eventual success. In a witty aside, Wexler shared how his successful treatment of Gehry caused countless less talented architects to come to him in hopes of making similar breakthroughs; if it were only that simple.

Asked if he would try his hand at more documentary projects, Pollack, who has four films coming out on which he served as Executive Producer, backed away from the idea, at least for now. “I have a feeling that some of my other creative friends will get the idea that I am the perfect filmmaker to tell their story”, Pollack joked. “But most of my friends are not nearly in the class of a Frank Gehry.”

Sandy Mandelberger
Industry Editor


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