When we taught in the UW Screenwriting Program, we were lucky enough to spend a Saturday with the late Syndey Pollack. Pollack, at an invitation from his good friend Stewart Stern, flew himself up from LA in his own Lear Jet to make himself available as a resource to budding UW scriptwriters.
Sydney Pollack is a director-producer, an LA guy who owns his own production company. One of his early movies was They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? (1969) One of his big money-makers was Out of Africa (director-producer, 1986). He directed Three Days of the Condor (1975). He produced and directed Absence of Malice (1981), White Palace (1990), Dead Again (1991), and two dozen others. His production company produced Sense and Sensibility.
The format of the six-hour session at the UW was Q&A. Some of the A’s stretched out, burgeoning with promise, to 15 minutes, 30 minutes, 45 minutes. The depth was astounding. So was the clarity.
Here are some notes and a write-up of that Saturday meeting that we later used in our fiction—novel, short story—classes.
Three lessons from Sydney Pollack that might be helpful for your fiction:
1. Template. When Pollack reads a first draft script, he asks a simple question: What is the story? He’s looking for a template, a simple thematic pattern that he can use to gauge each character, each scene, each setting, each action, each wardrobe item, each line of dialogue. Other metaphors for template are armature and spine. For fiction writers, the template is a prism you hold up, an acid test for each part of your tale. The template determines what stays and what goes.
One of Pollack’s template examples was Possession in Out of Africa. Possession charted the background of the times, British colonialism, as the invading colonials possessed the land and its people. When Karen Blixen (the Meryl Streep character) asked for a bank loan, the bank manager, a Brit, asked her about the land not planted. That land, she said, is for the Kikuyu; it is their home, their rightful place. The Brit bank manager looked at her askance. If she did not meet the terms of loan repayment, the look said, the banker-invader would possess her land and the Kikuyu land along with it.
Possession gave energy to each scene. When her husband gave her syphilis, Karen Blixen drove him away: betrayed by this man (the Klaus Maria Brandauer character), she no longer wanted to possess him. King replacement enters the story with Dennis Finch-Hatton (the Robert Redford character), a white hunter who taught himself to fly a biplane. On safari, Karen and Dennis argued about marriage. Wanting to possess him, she wanted him to ask her; no wanting to be possessed, he didn’t see the point of asking. The dialogue line made the point: “Then,” she said, “I would have someone.” Possession, the template, produces the key verb “would have,” a soft verb of holding, containing, possessing.
When Dennis dies in a plane crash, Karen presides over his funeral. “He was not ours,” she intones. “He was not mine.” Flying his own plane killed him, but Dennis Finch-Hatton refused to be owned.
2. Conflict. In Out of Africa, the writer created conflict between a female who wanted to possess a male and a male who did not want to be possessed. In Three Days of the Condor, the writer created conflict with two dancing templates: Trust and Suspicion.
The Robert Redford character, a CIA employee who reads books to hunt down enemies of America, trusts everyone. He is an innocent with a good brain, trained as a telephone repairman in the Army. He goes to lunch; he brings back sandwiches; everyone in his office is dead. The CIA tries to bring him “home” by using a trusted friend, someone he knows. A gunman shoots the friend. The Redford character, his trust melting away, escapes. He finds the Faye Dunaway character; she doesn’t trust anyone.
She’s a professional photographer. She photographs streets, trees, empty playgrounds. “There are no people in your pictures,” says the Redford character. He ties her up so he can get some sleep. On waking up, she accuses him of rape. He says he hasn’t raped her, he says. “The night is young,” she says, her voice edged with suspicion.
As the story unwinds, the Faye Dunaway character loses her suspicion, drawing closer to the position of Trust; and the Robert Redford character loses his trust, drawing closer to the position of total Suspicion.
Conflict develops character; character development shows a story in motion. It looks easy in final form because the writer wrote and wrote and wrote and kept on writing.
3. Compression. This good stuff — Possession; Trust vs. Suspicion — is buried in the words. If you don’t commit to the words, you won’t write enough words to do the job. If you don’t write enough words, you won’t have anything to compress. Writing enough words might mean finishing a script or a book half a dozen times before you get enough clarity to compress.
Here’s an example the Master, Sydney Pollack, compressing:
In the middle of Out of Africa, Karen Blixen leads a wagon train through a hell of desert, mountain, and swamp. Her mission is to deliver food to her husband, a volunteer colonial soldier fighting the Germans. Possession — she owns the husband — drives her to feed the thing she possesses. Because she is rich, a Danish Lady Bountiful, and because she is a good hostess, she brings enough victuals to feed the boys.
In a tent scene at night, the Klaus Maria Brandauer character scolds his wife, asking her why she put herself in such danger. Her answer, printed for posterity in the published version of the script, is a long monologue about how men define themselves with action. You men, she says, know who you are because you can fight, become soldiers, yadda, yadda, yadda. As a woman, on the other hand, I thought and felt and hoped and knew and realized that, yadda, yadda, yadda, yadda.
In the movie, Pollack compressed the Karen Blixen monologue to three words:
“It was fun.”