'Firm' director Pollack bemoans direction toward blockbusters

June 28, 1993|By Steven Rea | Steven Rea,Knight-Ridder News Service

Take away the star salaries -- and Sydney Pollack's directing fee -- and "The Firm" could qualify as a bargain. Shot in Memphis, Tenn., Boston, Washington and the Cayman Islands, Mr. Pollack's adaptation of the John Grisham best seller has been handsomely dressed with evocative sets and photographed with precision (by Australian John Seale). It looks good.

But throw in the director's salary, along with checks for scripters David Rabe, Robert Towne and David Rayfiel, and the tab for Tom Cruise, Gene Hackman, Ed Harris, Holly Hunter, Gary Busey and "Basic Instinct's" Jeanne Tripplehorn, and you've got yourself one costly picture -- $48 million, to be precise.

"That's horribly expensive," concedes filmmaker Pollack, "but getting more and more normal now. When you take a cast like this and a star of the magnitude of Cruise, you're spending over 60 percent of your budget in talent. It used to be a completely reversed equation."

Mr. Pollack, who made his feature directorial debut with the 1965 Anne Bancroft drama "The Slender Thread" and won

TC best-director Oscar for 1985's "Out of Africa," has seen a lot of changes in his four decades in Hollywood. But what he's seeing nowadays is not heartening.

"The Firm" opens Wednesday amid high expectations from Paramount Pictures, its studio, and from a public that gobbled up Mr. Grisham's page-turner. It's the first high-stakes "summer movie" Mr. Pollack has made, and while he still manages to avoid the near-requisite test-screening process -- in which the response of preview audiences has been known to prompt wholesale eleventh-hour changes -- he's feeling the pressures of an industry in which, more than ever, the bottom line prevails.

"Everybody's trying to make blockbusters," says Mr. Pollack, 59, in New York last week for "The Firm's" star-studded premiere.

"It's a horrible atmosphere to make movies in now. . . . Look what this summer is like. It's a blood bath out there. If a movie isn't doing what something like 'Jurassic Park' is doing -- well, OK, nothing's going to do that business -- but you have to do $100 million, $150 million in today's market in order to justify the kind of money that movies cost if you work with stars.

"And that spoils a lot of the fun of making movies. The risks are so high that experimentation is at a minimum, and the fear factor is enormous. So you get this repetitious attempt at odd, high-concept movies."

In today's market, Mr. Pollack says, it would be virtually impossible for him to make a film like "They Shoot Horses, Don't They?" -- his 1969 Depression-era allegory starring Jane Fonda as a marathon dancer. Never mind that the picture

put Mr. Pollack on the map as a serious director and Ms. Fonda on the map as a serious actress. The thing was a downer.

Now it's all "Die Hards" and "Terminators" and "Jurassic Parks."

"It depresses me a little because I don't know how to make those kinds of movies," Mr. Pollack says. "All the movies I've made are essentially character-driven movies about people that I'm interested in. I think there's still room for those kinds of movies, but they're never the big scores."

Mr. Pollack came to "The Firm" after producer Scott Rudin had already hired playwright Rabe to adapt the Grisham thriller, about a young lawyer caught up in a web of corruption and greed. Although Mr. Rabe's name remains on the credits because of Writers Guild arbitration, "the movie that you saw was written completely by Robert Towne and David Rayfiel."

"I admired the David Rabe screenplay, but it wasn't the film I wanted to make," explains Mr. Pollack. "He took a very apocalyptic slant on it. So Mr. Pollack, who shares a producer credit on the film, recruited Mr. Towne ("Chinatown") and Mr. Rayfiel -- who scripted, among other pics, Mr. Pollack's 1975 thriller, "Three Days of the Condor."

As for adapting the hugely successful novel, Mr. Pollack admits that it was a tough job.

"I didn't have the time to do the last act of the book, which is a long chase down into Florida," he says. "So we had to come up with an ending which we hoped wouldn't disappoint readers of the book, but which would be rather different from the book. . . . I really do believe that movies [adapted from novels] should . . . stand or fall on their own as motion pictures.

"But in a case like this where so many people read the book . . . you're always worried whenever you make a change. Are you changing something that's really organic to everybody's enjoyment of the book?"

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