Sydney Pollack

A highlight of my currently non-thriving screenwriting career was working on a script for the delightful and neurotic Sydney Pollack, who died yesterday at the age of 73. My writing partner, Richard Taylor, and I had pitched Sydney a story about high-level corruption in Washington, which was just chum for Sydney, who was fascinated by Washington, and therefore fascinated by sleaze, greed and moral failure (see: Absence of Malice, Michael Clayton, etc.)

We wrote a first draft, and then Sydney and his executives brought us out to L.A. to review our progress. It turned out that we hadn’t made much progress. We met at the offices of Mirage Enterprises, the company he ran with the director Anthony Minghella, who, strangely and horribly, died just two months ago. The office, in Beverly Hills, wasn’t over-adorned. I’ll always remember the photograph, hanging in the bathroom, of a very young Sydney taking instruction from a very round Alfred Hitchcock, and, of course, it’s not easy to forget the Oscars placed indifferently on Sydney’s shelves.

Sydney ordered salads from California Pizza Kitchen (you’d think he could do better, but there you are) and then he took us to school. The script at that point was 132 pages long, and, weirdly, there was something wrong on every page. We emerged from the conference room five hours later, completely wrung out. For a while inside, we had fought back:

Sydney: “Fellas, I just don’t get this. How could she be flirting with a guy you told us three pages ago was dead?”

Me: “Well you see, Sydney, he wasn’t really actually dead, the death was just a metaphor--”

Sydney: “Yeah, okay, now on page four….”

After a while, we stopped fighting, because he exhausted us – the Sydney Pollack you see on screen (Ross has an excellent, and illustrative, clip) was the Sydney Pollack we saw in his office. And also because he was right.

It wasn’t all misery, of course. He was a wonderful storyteller, and also a world-class obsessive. He took a fifteen-minute break to explain how he packs for overseas trips. I started writing down the monologue, it was so captivating: “You see, fellas, what I do is I check the weather averages for each place I’m heading, and that way I can know exactly what sock I’m going to need for each destination, so I don’t pack any more socks than necessary, just the socks of appropriate weight for the prevailing weather conditions…” And so on. The business with the socks struck me as unnecessary, by the way, because he flew his own plane and could bring three suitcases of socks, but never mind.

We saw him several times after that, and each time the movie got better. Once, early in the process, I visited him on the set of The Interpreter, which was being produced by a friend of mine, Kevin Misher, and we talked a bit about screenwriting. The most exciting part of that visit was my encounter with Nicole Kidman (she gave me a piece of gum – Orbit Sugarfree Bubblemint, which is really the world’s best gum, and not because Nicole Kidman gave me a piece), but the next most exciting was watching Sydney work. His energy and enthusiasm were astonishing.

Things happen in Hollywood and Sydney didn’t get the chance to make our movie. Rich and I are cautiously pessimistic about its chances. We hope, of course, that it gets made. If it does, and if it’s any good, it will be because Sydney Pollack laid his hands on it.