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
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.
There's so much in the film, but also so much necessarily left out. How did you
decide what to include in Pollock?
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.
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.
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.
did you become interested in Pollock as a subject?
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.
trajectory appealed to you.
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.
the project evolved, you decided to direct it as well as act it?
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.
did you decide to open with that great moment in the gallery, with the Life
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.
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
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.
did you know intuitively when the film was "working"?
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.
did you decide on the music and composer, which seems so important in making all
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.
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?
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
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
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.
you want to direct another film?
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.