Author of the 1985 unauthorized biographry of George Lucas, Skywalking, and producer of such films as Blaze and Set It off, Dale Pollock is the dean of the film school at the North Carolina School of the Arts.
From IMDB.com: "Dale Pollock was born in Cleveland, Ohio, and graduated at the top of his class from Brandeis Univeristy, and eventually earned his masters in communications from San Jose State University. In 1977, he began his career writing for the Daily Variety. He became the head film critic for the paper, until he was hired by the Los Angeles Times to be their chief entertainment correspondent, where he formed the Calendar section. He was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize in the early 1980's. He also wrote "Skywalking, " the biography of filmmaker George Lucas. In 1985, Pollock joined David Geffen's company as a development executive. He joined A&M films a year later, and was named president in 1990. He lead the company to financial and critical success, producing such films as "The Beast" and "A Home of Our Own." He is now the president of Peak Productions, lectures often at both the American Film Institute and the University of Southern California film school."
I interviewed Pollock by phone 11/21/01.
Dale's first credit as producer came for the 1988 film The Beast. According to the IMDB.com: "During the war in Afghanistan a Soviet tank crew commanded by a tyrannical officer find themselves lost and in a struggle against a band of Mujahadeen guerrillas in the mountains. A unique look at the Soviet 'Vietnam' experience sympathetically told for both sides."
Dale: "It was based on a play by William Mastrosimone. We had hoped to film it in Afghanistan or Pakhistan but the war was still going on between the Afghans and the Soviet Union so we shot it in Israel. I contacted Columbia Pictures to see if they would consider re-releasing the film because it is so timely right now and they laughed at me.
"When I went to work as a development executive for David Geffen Films in 1985, and I met director Kevin Reynolds and he took me to see the play at the L.A. Theater Group downtown. I thought it was an amazing play but it was definitely not the kind of movie David Geffen was interested in making.
"So when I went over to A&M Films when David Puttnam was running Columbia, I thought it was the kind of film I thought David Puttnam would make. And I was right. He loved it. Unfortunately, he wasn't there when we finished it so the film never got a decent theatrical release. Dawn Steel, who succeeded him, did not care for the film."
Luke: "What type of films does David Geffen like to make?"
Dale: "If you look at the list - from Risky Business to Beatlejuice to Little Shop Of Horrors. They tend to be commercial with movie stars."
Luke: "Does The Beast have implications for our current conflict in Afghanistan?"
Dale: "Absolutely. It shows that any attempt to get into a ground war in Afghanistan is an ill-fated decision and should be avoided at all costs. We have American actors playing Soviet soldiers so it is a very relevant film in terms of imagining Americans in the same situation as the Americans who were playing Soviets."
Luke: "Did you spend much time researching Afghanistan for the movie?"
Dale: "I spent two years researching Afghanistan. It's been odd for me seeing the headlines over the past two months. We visited Kandahar, Afghanistan, what is now the Taliban stronghold. The movie is set in Kandahar. I spent time in Pashalar, Pakhistan along with my director Kevin Reynolds.
"We showed the finished film to some Afghans and they thought we were in Afghanistan. The Israeli landscape doubled well for Afghanistan."
Luke: "Have you been surprised by the successes of the Northern Alliance over the past ten days?"
Dale: "No, but I feel the real Afghan story is just beginning. You see it now with the warlords trying to divy up power and try to form a real central government. The Afghans are great when they're united against a single enemy - the Russians, the Taliban, the United States. But once left to their own devices, there will be incredible tribal conflicts that will not be solved easily by anybody."
Luke: "Did you read Michael Medved's book Hollywood vs America?"
Dale: "I haven't read it but I'd like to."
Luke: "Medved says Hollywood's reluctant to show patriotism. And that's the reason there was no triumphant movie made about the Gulf War."
Dale: "Hollywood's always had a strange relationship with the military in the sense of wanting to make movies with Department of Defense cooperation but it's difficult to do in the wake of the Vietname films, be they Platoon, Apocalypse Now or Full Metal Jacket. These films have so dominated the film mentality - which is that the only good film to make about a war is an anti-war film. You saw exceptions like Top Gun which was patriotic and pro-military. There's another one opening next week - Behind Enemy Lines, which has to do with the discovery of mass graves in Bosnia.
"What was unfashionable was to be pro-war or pro-military. That's changed now. Many films were patriotic - they dealt with what was good about America."
Luke: "Are there a bunch of people with flags on their cars in North Carolina?"
Dale: "Oh yeah. Every other car you see has a flag or decal."
Luke: "And you?"
Dale: "We have a small flag outside our house and I have a small flag outside my office door."
Luke: "What's your relationship like with George Lucas and how did he like your book?"
Dale laughs. "He didn't like my book after the fact. He liked it when he first read it but the reality of seeing his life on a page disturbed him. Mostly because he wants to control every aspect of his creative and personal life and he didn't control my book. He is not a fan of it and he has made that clear in his public statements. I won a number of awards for the book."
Luke: "Did the book cost you contacts in the industry?"
Dale: "No. I think people respected the fact that I researched the book thoroughly. I felt he came off well in the book. He's the only person who seems to think he didn't."
Luke: "Did you read Dennis McDougal's recent book on the LA Times?"
Dale: "No. Dennis was at the Times when I was there. I'd love to read that book because I knew the Chandler family well, Otis in particular."
Luke: "Did you read the Los Angeles magazine profile of Peter Bart?"
Dale: "No, but I certainly heard about it. I've known Peter Bart for a long time. Nothing that was said there and nothing that happened afterwards surprised me."
Luke: "What was it like working for Variety?"
Dale: "When I was there, in the late '70s, it was wonderful. We were still the old Variety. The paper hadn't been revamped. We still used the old lingo. It was a great introduction to Hollywood. The guy I replaced, Whitney Williams, started working for Variety in 1927."
Luke: "What was it like working for a trade publication where you had to pull your punches?"
Dale: "I never pulled any punches at Variety and I was never told to. Nobody asked me to change a review or to not write something because it would offend an advertiser. The only thing that I couldn't get used to was that we were supposed to encourage people to pay for our meals, our junkets. And the gifts that would come flowing in at Christmas were mindboggling - VCRs and TV sets."
Luke: "Cocaine and hookers?"
Luke: "Nobody tried to directly bribe you for reviews?"
Dale: "Never. But the gifts at Christmas were remarkable - bottles of wine, champage, food. I got a Betamax one year that must've weighed 150 pounds."
Luke: "The profile of Peter Bart was damning."
Dale: "The trades have always had a parasitic and sybaritic relationship with the entertainment industry. I came down as a reporter for a small town newspaper in Northern California. My salary when I started at Variety was $175 a week. And I'm covering people making over a million dollars a year. That's warped. But in my four years at Variety, I never saw anybody take a bribe. I never saw anybody offer drugs or sex to influence a review or a story. I certainly got yelled at by people and got told they were going to pull their ads. And they pulled them and the paper never told me to change anything.
"I worked under an editor named Tom Prior who was a journalist of the old school. And he didn't fuck around with anybody."
Luke: "I read a comment that the former Los Angeles Times reporter who did the LA magazine piece on Peter Bart, if she'd given the story to the Times on a plate, they wouldn't have published it because their entertainment coverage is so weak."
Dale: "I feel proud that I was at the Los Angeles Times during the time when their entertainment coverage was the strongest, 1980-85. I was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize for a piece I did during that period on the Teamsters and the movie business. We did a lot of hard-hitting investigative work. We did a piece on creative accounting with Aliens. We did stories that hold up 20 years later. That may be true of the LA Times now but it wasn't true when I was there. We would've run that kind of story."
Luke: "How many of your peers, when you were an entertainment journalist wanted to work in the business they covered?"
Dale: "Fewer when I came but more now. Unfortunately, that may have been a trail I helped blaze. And I feel bad about it sometimes. Before Charles Schrager and I and a couple of other people left, the trades weren't considered a way in to the business. And we showed that they were. And we've seen a lot of people now make that transition."
Luke: "What was it like working for David Geffen?"
Dale: "An incredible learning experience. That was my film school. I learned more in one year than I had learned up to that point covering the entertainment industry for eight years. Watching him in action. Watching him work the phones. Watching him deal with creative people in the story meetings. I couldn't have worked for him much longer. He was a difficult person to work for."
Luke: "Did he scream at you?"
Dale: "He screamed at everybody. You didn't take it personally."
Luke: "What did you think of Tom King's bio of Geffen?"
Dale: "I wasn't too impressed by it. I thought he soft-pedalled some things and bore in too hard on others. Geffen is a complex guy and has achieved amazing things in multiple fields. He's had major success in three areas - music, film and legitimate stage."
Luke: "What was Tom too soft on?"
Dale: "I thought he was too soft on the issue of how much Geffen's sexuality influenced the decisions he made. Tom King never made any attempt to contact me or any of the people I knew. So I wasn't sure how he really did his research.
"Geffen's films had a sexual quality to them that a lot of films during that era didn't. And I thought that made them interesting. Risky Business is a very sexual movie. Geffen was able to embrace subject matter that a lot of other people weren't able to. And was willing to take chances. I found the script for Beetlejuice. I don't know if any other company would've been willing to make that film other than Geffen."
Luke: "Is there a Hollywood Gay Mafia?"
Dale: "It's like saying, is there a Jewish Mafia? Yes, there are a lot of Jews but do they act in concert to advance their Jewishness? There are a lot of people who are gay. Do they act in concert to advance a gay agenda? I don't think so. I've never regarded that as a gay mafia and I've never felt that it hurt me in my career that I wasn't gay."
Luke: "Are you Jewish?"
Dale: "Yes, and I never felt like that helped me."
Luke: "When did you find you wanted to produce movies?"
Dale: "That was at Geffen when I found two scripts, Beetlejuice and The Burbs (Tom Hanks). And I wanted to work on both of those films. And Geffen said to me, no, no, no. I produce the films, you go find more material. And I said, I want to work on these movies which I found. And he said no, that's not your job. That's when I said, I want to be a producer. And he said, that's not going to happen here. And so I was lucky enough to go to A&M Films."
Luke: "Why did you move to North Carolina in 1999?"
Dale: "Because the kind of films I was interested in producing were becoming more and more difficult to make. I was given films to produce and I did a good job on them but... My last film was Meet The Deedles. I walked off a picture called I'll Be Home For Christmas because those weren't the kind of movies I was interested in making and I was doing it for a paycheck. I was head of the producing program at the American Film Institute and teaching in the USC professional writing program. And I was getting more out of my teaching than out of the frustrating business of trying to produce good movies."
Luke: "Most journalists advise aspiring journalists to not major in journalism at college. Would that apply to film schools?"
Dale: "If I really believed that, I wouldn't be doing what I was doing. I never went to film school and I never took a film class. I never took a journalism class either. I was an Anthropology major as an undergradute and a Commucations Major with an emphasis in statistics for my Masters degree. Obviously you don't need to go to film school. I was lucky enough to work for David Geffen, that was my film school. The advantage we give our graduates is that we give them the same thing. What it would take them six to ten years to learn the hard way by making mistakes, picking yourself up and trying it again, we can shortcut some of those things. We can technique and discipline and professionalism and ways to achieve creative goals in four years.
"We're an arts conservatory. We have a specific and intense program. It's not like a film program within a university. Our mission is to train students for professional careers. We're part of a school that includes schools of dance, drama, music, and theatrical design."
Luke: "How did you go in 1985 from the LA Times to Geffen?"
Dale: "I had written my book on Lucas. I was burned out. The LA Times wouldn't give me a leave of absence to finish my book so I was pissed off at them. I left the Times and then got hired by Geffen. I never wrote a piece on Geffen in whole career.
"I was fortunate to produce twelve movies in ten years. I had a knack for getting movies made. Now, how good they were, how commercial they were? My budgets ranged from $4-32 million (Mrs Winterbourne). Columbia made us cast Rikki Lake for Mrs Winterbourne because they owned her TV show which was really hot when we cast the film. By the time the film came out, the TV show was not so hot. The audience didn't embrace her as a leading woman. I enjoyed working with her but she's not a leading lady. That's the bad side of synergy - when the studio owns two things and decides to combine them.
"Three films have had the most meaning to me - The Beast (1988), A Midnight Clear (1991), and Set It Off (1996).
"A Midnight Clear was the best film I produced. I went to everybody in town to raise the money and nobody wanted to make a little anti-war film. At that time, World War II was not a fashionable subject. Finally, we pre-sold the foreign and video rights and raised the money. That film fell apart five times before we got it made. At one point I was scouting locations in Yugoslavia when there was still a Yugoslavia. We ended up making it in Park City, Utah. A&M would not finance any production. On every movie, I had to raise the money. Either sell it to a studio or do a split-rights deal or raise it independantly.
"I would get calls, like with Set It Off, saying, 'This is material I can't sell anywhere. Are you interested?' I had a reputation for getting tough difficult movies made. I got the script for Set It Off which was incendiary. Everyone was afraid to touch it."
From IMDB.com: "Four Black women, all of whom have suffered for lack of money and at the hands of the majority, undertake to rob banks. While initially successful, a policeman who was involved in shooting one of the women's brothers is on their trail. As the women add to the loot, their tastes and interests begin to change and their suspicions of each other increase on the way to a climactic robbery."
Dale: "I spent a year meeting with every single black film director in the business. Then I met a young music video directed named Gary Gray... Just about every black person in America has seen that movie. I can't go anywhere and if I'm talking to an African-American person and I mention Set It Off, they've seen it."
Luke: "What are you working on these days?"
Dale: "I'm working on trying to make the best film program in the world. And I'm working with a documentary here in North Carolina called Grits, Tits and Burning Rubber: A History of the Southern Exploitation Film." I may get involved in some small projects but running my school is really a fulltime job.
"When I taught at AFI and USC, all the students cared about was getting an agent, a development deal and making a lot of money fast. And the students we have at North Carolina are more interested in artistic expression. We're an arts conservatory. We have a four-year undergraduate program. The North Carolina School of the Arts is one of the 16 campuses of the University of North Carolina. It's the only state-supported arts conservatory in the country. Such conservatories are common in Europe and uncommon in the United States.
"We pay for all of the student film work, which distinguishes us from most of the other student film programs, where students usually have to raise their own money. We fund 250 productions a year, from five-minute video to 15-minute 16mm films.
"I loved making films. I hated getting them made and I hated getting them released. I miss making films. I miss being the producer who's putting it all together and making it happen. And I miss my friends. But I don't miss the business which has changed in negative ways. There's a much bigger reliance on blockbusters and opening weekends and tent-pole movies. If it can't be sold in a 30-second spot, it's not going to get made. I was never going to make big commercial blockbusters. The marketplace for the arts film has become exceptionally crowded. You're competing with everybody's film who gets into Sundance, Cannes and Venice film festivals.
"You're trying to do these films in Hollywood when you have more currency if you're foreign, independent and in your 20s, than a producer who's almost 50."
Pollock appeared in this Time magazine article:
Not everyone in Hollywood was surprised by the Federal Trade Commission's report Monday on the entertainment industry's marketing practices.
Producer Dale Pollock says he was troubled by how his film Set it Off was marketed. The movie was rated R for strong graphic violence, language, some sex and drug use, but the film's distributor aimed for a young audience.
"We were buying some ads on children's programming because Queen Latifah, who was the movie's star, had a loyal young female audience," he says. "I protested, but they gave me the usual look: 'Are you crazy? Don't you want your movie to do as well as it can?' "
Luke: "Did you get heat from your peers?"
Dale: "No. I got people calling to say, 'Thanks for saying what I wish I could say.' I can say those things now because I'm not trying to get back into the business."
Luke: "You couldn't have said them when you worked in Hollywood?"
Dale: "No, that would've been a suicidal thing to do."
Luke: "There are many things you can't say when you're in the business."
Dale: "That's right. Because your words come back to haunt you."
Luke: "That neuters people."
Dale: "It neuters them publicly. As you know, everybody says everything privately."
Luke: "Which actors were the most difficult to work with?"
Dale laughs: "I shouldn't go into that. If you look over my credits, it shouldn't be that hard to identify who were the most difficult. I never worked with an actor who didn't try hard."
Luke: "Did the reviews on any of your movies upset you?"
Dale: "Yes, on Crooked Hearts, written and directed by Michael Bortman. I liked that film but it got some nasty reviews that upset me. The film still makes me cry every time I see it. And also House of Cards, which was also underappreciated.
"Crooked Hearts was about a dysfunctional family and I discovered that people are really sensitive about their own dysfunctional families. And that film touched a chord in people that they didn't like, which was probably why it wasn't successful at the box office. People went to it and thought, boy, I thought my family was dysfunctional. That's probably why the reviews were so bitter.
"I used to write those reviews. I know how nasty people can be because I used to be that nasty. I stopped reviewing because I got tired of finding new ways to say the same damn thing."
Read another interview with Dale Pollock here.
Will writes: I had an altogether different experience as a journalist. I travelled with a hockey team, and like Dale made less than 5% of the money the lowest paid player earned. I was told that I had to please the advertisers: In one case the General Manager of the team told me not to take shots at a player who sucked because the team did so much advertising with the paper. He said the advertising revenue was the only way the paper could afford to give me a job. In other words, it was his opinion that I should write the story as he saw fit or he would pull the plug.
I ignored the man, now president of the American Hockey League, and wrote as I saw fit until the pressure built and I left the job. Pollock certainly was able to do real journalism, despite covering an industry that advertised heavily in his trade paper. He was fortunate to have such an experience. I hope The Beast does get re-released. I have seen the film and it is not all that great but certainly is poignant to those who feel Afghanistan will become another Vietnam for America.