An Intuitive Journey
Interview with Ed Harris
interview by Cynthia Fuchs, 23 February 2001

Ed Harris wears all black -- pants, t-shirt, scarf, overcoat. As we sit for almost an hour at the Four Seasons in Washington DC, he doesn't remove any of this ensemble, including the scarf. He also doesn't take a cigarette break, as I was advised he might. He is one of the most focused people I have ever talked to: his famous blue eyes are indeed electric, but it's more than that. Attentive, he's also restless, shifting on the overstuffed sofa, but never in a way that suggests he's bored or his mind is wandering. Rather, it's as if he is intent on containing what seems a tremendous energy, which he does with good humor and much warmth.

Harris is here to talk about his directorial debut, Pollock, a project he worked on for some ten years, on and off. While it was a struggle, to be sure, he now looks back on the experience and is glad -- and also, perhaps, a little surprised -- that he took on the challenge. He's always been one for challenges. Born in Tenafly, New Jersey in 1950, Harris attended Columbia University for two years, then studied drama at the University of Oklahoma, completing his BFA at California's Institute of the Arts. In 1983, he won the Obie Award for Outstanding Actor, for his work in Sam Shepard's Fool for Love, and then more awards for his stage work in New York and Los Angeles. In 1983, he dazzled movie audiences and critics with his performances in The Right Stuff and Under Fire, and has since won Oscar nominations as Best Supporting Actor for Apollo 13 in 1995, and The Truman Show in 1998. At the time we spoke, we didn't know that both he and Marcia Gay Harden, who plays Jackson Pollock's wife Lee Krasner, would be nominated for Academy Awards for their performances.

Cynthia Fuchs: There's so much in the film, but also so much necessarily left out. How did you decide what to include in Pollock?

Ed Harris: That was the hugest thing, what took so much time. I didn't want it to be an art history lesson, full of information. But we weren't only dealing with the life or the times, but also this biography that we had the rights to, [Jackson Pollock: An American Saga, by Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith]. Every page you turned to had something interesting about the guy or the period. Plus, [screenwriter] Barbara Turner had access to all the interviews the biographers had done. The original script, which she started writing in 1991, was 267 pages long (the script that's on the screen is 89 pages). Over the years, I kept going back to it, even when I was working on other things. It was a distillation process. And the more I dealt with it, the more subjective it became. We left out scenes about his childhood that were scripted, and then other material during editing. You start listening to what the film is saying to you on some level. I wanted to be able to take time with certain moments, not to know him but to watch him, in some personal way. If I was bright enough, I would have made a two-hour film about just two hours in his life. But I'm not Chekhov or Virginia Woolf, so I couldn't write that.

CF: The focus on the relationship with Lee Krasner was an interesting choice. She hasn't always been treated so well by Pollock biographers or critics at the time.

EH: She was one tough woman, very opinionated, very smart. But it's Pollock's film, so you don't see her without him. You do see her trying to protect him. And Peggy Guggenheim and Lee had a pretty interesting relationship. Peggy was doing a power trip on it, and Lee just had to suck it up.

CF: How did you become interested in Pollock as a subject?

EH: My dad sent me a book about him for my birthday in 1986. I start reading about this man, and his youth was interesting to me. He's the youngest of five sons, a kid who doesn't have a clue about where to fit in the world, he's really not well-adjusted. His older brother Charles is ten years older and painting, and Jackson sees that. So he starts to paint, then decides that's what he wants to do. It becomes this reason for being alive, a purpose, and a way of expressing himself. which he doesn't do otherwise. He is not a social animal, he has the emotional maturity of a twelve-year-old. He's riddled with insecurity, but he still pushes himself. He gets to New York, gets past the [Thomas Hart] Benton stuff [Pollock was a Benton student]; he's in an asylum for four months because he has a breakdown in his twenties. He's always being taken care of by his brothers or somebody, he can't live on his own. He has a bad drinking problem. And in spite of all this, he keeps doing this art because he has to. And he breaks through to a way of painting that's truly original, truly his own. He understands what he's doing, artistically, he's not a stupid person. He's in control of what he's creating, but he's also painting in a way that's really freeing him up, that's pure.

CF: This trajectory appealed to you.

EH: I was drawn to that, as an actor. It's the need thing that got me. I was basically a jock all my life, a pretty good student, but all I cared about was playing football and baseball. It wasn't until I was around twenty years old that I started acting, because I wasn't interested in being a coach; I liked playing. At first, it was about attention, people applauding. But as I got into it, I saw acting was a way of looking at life. I started listening to different music, trying to appreciate art. Plus, I understood Pollock's almost pathological shyness, that nonverbal aspect. When I began acting, for me to have a conversation with a person I didn't know, that was the most excruciating thing in the world for me. I was just out of school, I was acting, painting houses, and paying about twenty-five dollars-a-month rent. I was not mature and neither did I want to be. I was forced to be.

CF: As the project evolved, you decided to direct it as well as act it?

EH: After a while, I had spent so much time with it, I thought, I've got to do it whether I want to or not. The decision to direct it was huge for me, as a person. I had to deal with all these people, I couldn't just do my work and go to my hotel and do what I wanted. But I cared enough about it, having grown so intimate with it, that I took a deep breath and decided I could do it.

CF: How did you decide to open with that great moment in the gallery, with the Life magazine?

EH: There were various beginnings, but that fifties show really was the beginning of the end. Lee had gotten what she wanted out of [Jackson], pretty much, he was drinking again, he was starting to feel confused about whether he was legitimate or not. And the Life magazine thing didn't help any of that. It's so contrary to the act of creating, the media thing. It f*cks up so many people.

CF: And yet, media don't seem quite so able to get a handle on artists as they do on rock stars or movie stars. Wasn't Pollock an early version of the celebrity painter?

EH: Yes. And Pollock was so desperate for it, he really wanted it, that success. I think in his being, he thought it was love. He's guileless. He's not trying to be an obnoxious jerk. I think he was really bewildered, but that's my own hit on it. If you made a film about him, it'd be different. It wasn't an intellectual exercise for me. It was more of an intuitive journey.

CF: How did you know intuitively when the film was "working"?

EH: It's like looking at a painting, it works or it doesn't. I've spent enough time painting to know that you can see that. It feels whole or it doesn't. And I love the editing process, it's totally fascinating. It's rearranging things, cutting, working around mistakes, thinking you need to hold onto something, but then knowing you can lose it. [Laughs] Knowing you can put it at the end of the DVD.

CF: How did you decide on the music and composer, which seems so important in making all this work?

EH: Jeff Beal is actually the third composer we had for the film. He really liked it when he first saw it, then we talked about music and he began to write some stuff. It's unique, hard to classify, but again, it works. What I really needed the music to do was to unify the film, which is disjointed. The jumps in time make it an emotional movement. You work so hard on the score and the sound, getting the mix just right, and it's great. And then [laughs], it plays in a theater with a terrible sound system, or in the wrong format. But eventually, you just have to let it go.

CF: Pollock's interviews in the film, even though they're not precisely when and where they took place in life, are useful in this sense of unifying the film. What's your take on interviews, as a means to insight or understanding to an artist?

EH: It was important to have those in the film, because they're the only times when he talks about his work. But generally, as a human being, I don't read interviews very often. I guess they can be helpful, but I know that when you're doing them, you get the same questions a lot. I try to penetrate the questions or my answers to them, so it's not some rote thing. And if someone's genuinely interested in the project, you can have a good conversation. But it's an interesting job you have. I played a journalist in a Victor Nunez film some years ago, and interviewed a lot of people for that. And I know that as an interviewer, you don't have to give away anything, while people are just blabbing on about themselves. It would be nice at some point to make a film and not feel like you have to talk about it. There's nothing I can say about the film better than what it says itself. It is what it is. I didn't make it to hide behind something, it's not a manipulated exercise. The effort was to explore something, not to cage something.

CF: That speaks to what goes on in the film, or in art more generally, that at its best, it can be a way to communicate without explaining, an opening up rather than a definition.

EH: That's certainly the case with Pollock's own progression, as his earlier stuff was more revealing and figurative. And later, he was just not interested in explaining anything. But the film isn't a study of the painting. It's about him and what he's trying to do at some level. During the painting scenes, we decided just to have a canvas, let me paint, and film.

CF: Would you want to direct another film?

EH: I know I was fortunate in this case. I had taken it to studios, the "Classics" divisions at independent film companies, like Fine Line. And nobody was too interested in it, particularly at the budget we needed. It was not huge, but it was not a million bucks, you know what I'm saying? And then [Basquiat producer] Peter [Brant] and Joe [Allen] said they'd put up X amount of bucks, and I had to put up X amount of bucks. It was either try to make it for what they offered and really cut it down, or put in money of my own. In hindsight, if I'd really known what the film was going to be, I could have cut it down, but I didn't know that then. It probably took a little longer to get it financed than I remember, but I just remember them saying, "We'll do it, we'll help you," and me saying "Thank you." But as a result [of this process], I didn't have anybody telling me what to do. I showed it to some friends and got feedback to various versions, but there was no one saying, "I'm going to take the film out of your hands if you don't do this or that." Peter allowed me to make the film I wanted to make. It's unusual, but can you imagine? In the usual process, if you were a painter, it's like, you make a painting, then give it to the gallery and let them paint on it for a while. Most of the time, it's like film by committee.

Click here to read Elias Savada's review.



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