BoxOfficeMojo.com by Scott Holleran
Sydney Pollack, an actor, producer and director with a robust and illustrious career in motion pictures, talks about his views on communist Cuba, his relationship with Robert Redford and their 1990 historical epic, Havana, in this exclusive interview.
Box Office Mojo: Why wasn’t Havana a hit?
Sydney Pollack: I don’t know. It got killed. I was always terribly bewildered, to be honest. I mean, usually, if I have a picture that doesn’t succeed, I can kind of tell why�but I thought Redford was great in the movie and I thought the movie had a good look and was exotic in a way. It had this wonderful musical score. I still play the music from Havana. That soundtrack is amazing.
Box Office Mojo: How do you select music for your movies?
Sydney Pollack: I think a lot about the music. I do a lot of homework and script work to music�I play various kinds of music to see if it can help me get into that world. I always know I’m in trouble when I can’t hear what the music should be. When I did The Firm, I had a lot of trouble, and that’s why I ended up doing the score with only a piano�that’s the only time that’s ever been done�with one musician and one piano and that was the whole score. We had an Academy Award nomination for that. I didn’t want a thriller score. It was a potboiler based on a huge bestselling book and everyone had these expectations. The only thing I started with was Memphis, where I shot it. I was thinking about Blues and became attached to Blues. I proposed the whole score in piano-based Blues; you could overdub, you could hit it, use drumsticks on it�but you could only use the piano. I’m always looking for the score to support the picture and clarify something. I do everything I can with words and images and rhythms and pace�I can’t go any farther�then the music goes another way because it bypasses your brain. I hear the words and I hear the music�it’s hard-wired to your gut. I get nuts in pictures a lot times today. They’re trying so hard for a record album and every minute there’s a song playing in the background.
Box Office Mojo: Some have suggested that Lena Olin was miscast. Do you think so?
Robert Redford and Lena Olin in Havana
Sydney Pollack: Perhaps. I love Lena Olin. I ran The Unbearable Lightness of Being and I fell in love with her. I thought, that’s an exciting, slightly mysterious woman�there’s something about her that’s a bit mysterious. She can be that spy on the boat�she can be married to the revolutionary, she just seemed right for me and, I thought, her darkness against his blondness�it looked like a good pair on paper. But it didn’t work as well as it ought to have worked.
Box Office Mojo: How was shooting Havana in Santo Domingo?
Sydney Pollack: Santo Domingo is another island [nation] that’s segmented between rich and poor. You have Las Brisas, you have the hotel where we stayed, like a little Las Vegas, a single high-rise hotel that has its own water well, imports its own food and washes the lettuce, so nobody gets sick. All we did was drive from the hotel to the air force base, which was the only place big enough to build that town. Terry Marsh did an incredible job.
Box Office Mojo: Where were Havana’s Key West scenes shot?
Sydney Pollack: That was Key West. I just went to the tip, found a deserted part of the beach, blocked off the street so there were no cars and waited. I came back after the rains to get that sunset.
Box Office Mojo: You tried to shoot Havana in communist Cuba and you’ve met with Cuban dictator Fidel Castro. From an historical perspective, how do you regard Castro?
Sydney Pollack: He’s one of those guys, like a lot of people, such as [African dictator Robert] Mugabe, who start out with the moral high ground, as freedom fighters. This is kind of a common theme in revolutions and it really illustrates the clich� that power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely. At one time, when I was a kid in New York, I remember everybody was throwing flowers at Castro during the ticker tape parade and he was [treated like he was] a hero. He was on Jack Paar’s [television] show. He was a hero�and, yes, he was an anti-hero. [Cuban dictator Fulgencio] Batista was such a corrupt son-of-a-bitch and that country was so divided in terms of absolute wealth and absolute poverty. The relationship between the American mafia, with [gangster Meyer] Lansky and all of those people and the gambling there was so corrupt. A plane used to take off every night from Havana with hundreds of thousands of dollars coming back to Lansky and the mafia. So in the beginning Castro�and it was an illusion�was there to save everybody. He came on the Jack Paar show and he spoke English. He still speaks English�he won’t speak it, he won’t say it�but I’ve spent time with him and you ask a question, he hears the question, then the lady translator who’s been with him since I’ve been going [to communist Cuba] and I started in 1977�
Box Office Mojo: You broke the embargo?
Sydney Pollack: I always found some way to do it legally. I went to Mexico. Once I went from Toronto. Once I went to the State Department and asked for permission when I was going to shoot Havana [in communist Cuba]. Redford and I both went to the State Department and were turned down. Redford got all the way up to the Vice-President [Dan Quayle] and I got to the Secretary of Commerce and they kept saying “it’s trading with the enemy and we can’t let you do that.” They said “you can’t spend any money there,” and I said “what if I take a boat out of Miami, a Princess Cruises boat, and put a crew on it, and we anchored there in Havana harbor, live there [on the boat], the [Cuban state] will let me shoot for free, [and] I will not spend a nickel?” They said no. Our [U.S. embargo] policy against Cuba is so stupid. Castro would be long gone if we didn’t have the embargo. All the embargo is doing is shoring up support for a guy who is being bullied by the United States. For what reason? He’s no threat to us. There’s no threat coming [from] there. We would be much better off to have trade relations with [communist] Cuba and let the Cuban people go back and forth, let our people go back and forth, they would get sick of this crazy guy who’s ranting and raving�it would happen by itself.
Box Office Mojo: One could dispute whether Cuba is a threat; Cuba is allied with the ayatollahs and Soviet missiles in Cuba were aimed at American cities.
Sydney Pollack: I’m not talking about when [Soviet dictator Nikita] Khrushchev was in power. I’m talking about now. Cuba is no threat to this country. I dare anybody to show me what danger they are to us and how we are hurting anybody [with the embargo] except the Cuban people. Innocent people. If you think for one minute that the Cold War wasn’t won with the importation back and forth of popular culture and seeing what it’s really like to live in a [free] country, that’s all that would happen. We would travel there on vacation and make friends with them, and they would come here. There’s a bunch of angry Cubans in Miami and this is what it’s about; it’s about a lobbying group. I understand their anger, it’s just that it’s wrong-headed. You want to win over a country. He’s outlasted nine presidents.
Box Office Mojo: Isn’t Fidel Castro hurting the Cuban people first?
Sydney Pollack: I’m telling you right now, if there were no embargo, there would be no Fidel Castro. He would have waned by himself. All we’re doing is making everybody feel sorry for the Cubans. Castro lost his mind a long time ago. He’s a dictator. He started out like a lot of them with probably genuinely good impulses to create a revolution that was fair and then he got in power and look what he did. No criticism, no criticism from the newspapers, his speeches now are three and a half hours of ranting and craziness. I went there first in 1977 with Mary Hemingway�the last wife of [writer] Ernest Hemingway�and she wrote a book called How It Was, the story of their last years. [Hemingway] was very friendly with Castro, they used to go fishing, and MGM bought the book and sent it to me, and we got official permission to go, going in through Mexico, and there was a group of us, with a CBS News crew following along, because no Americans had been allowed [by Castro] into Cuba, but because it was Hemingway, Castro said it was OK. We went and, as almost always happens when you go there, at some point, if you’re in any way prominent as an American, the cars will arrive and you’re taken to [Castro’s] palace, and then you sit and have an audience with him. You ask questions and he asks questions. It used to be interesting for me to go there because of the jazz festival and the film festival. Later, I went to scout locations for Havana.
Box Office Mojo: Similarly to Cliff Robertson’s speech in Three Days of the Condor, isn’t there truth in the Meyer Lansky speech in Havana that there wouldn’t be Havana in all its pre-communist glory if it weren’t for American commercialism?
Sydney Pollack: Yes, but the essence to me of all good drama is argument. I can’t say that either side is a thousand percent right. If you didn’t have a strong, opposing argument in life or in art, you’d lose a kind of centeredness�it would tip, one way or another. So, when I argue with you about the embargo, I’m not in any way telling you Castro’s a good guy, that’s not at all what I’m saying. Castro’s a demonic guy�it’s just too much power. He’s a dictator. He’s corrupt. He’s terrible. He’s ruined people’s lives.
Box Office Mojo: Was the opening gun incident scene in Havana, which predisposes the audience to the communist rebel side, based on a real incident?
Sydney Pollack: No.
Box Office Mojo: It was eight days in 1958 and you’ve said there was a certain innocence about Havana that was ending, never to return. What caused it never to return?
Sydney Pollack: Castro.