Using authentic ambassadors as a backdrop and possibly journalists as well, director Sydney Pollack began filming at U.N. headquarters this week his new movie — “The Interpreter,” starring Oscar winners Nicole Kidman and Sean Penn.
“I am enormously sympathetic to the United Nations,” Pollack, himself an Oscar winner for “Out of Africa,” told a news conference Tuesday. “But I know better than to try to spend $80 million to make a propaganda film. It’s boring.”
Filming in New York is not unusual. But doing it at U.N. headquarters is unique because no one could remember the world body ever giving Hollywood permission. It rejected Alfred Hitchcock’s 1959 movie, “North by Northwest,” starring Cary Grant, which opened with the assassination of a diplomat in a U.N. lounge, scenes not considered conducive to world peace.
Pollack, too, was first turned down by the U.N. legal department, diplomats said. But Shashi Tharoor, head of U.N. public information, who read the script, convinced Secretary-General Kofi Annan and others the film would be seen by millions the organization could never reach itself.
Kidman plays a U.N. interpreter from a fictitious African nation, who overhears an assassination plot against her troubled country’s leader and becomes a target herself. Penn, like Kidman an Academy Award winner, plays a secret service agent suspicious of her claims.
“The interpreter ... believes very much in the power and sanctity of words and believes if they are used properly they can be as powerful as bullets or weapons,” Pollack said.
But Penn’s character has “the mentality of a cop” and a ”contempt for words and it is that argument that is at the center of that relationship,” he said.
Pollack denied the plot was a symbol for the U.S. attack against Iraq after France and other U.N. Security Council members refused to support the invasion.
“It doesn’t deal with any of the political problems that arose from that Iraqi war,” he said, acknowledging however, that “influence is a subtle thing, like smoke in the air.”
Pollack said the movie emphasized peaceful alternatives to nations killing each other.
“Good films are arguments. The better the arguments, the better the victory of the argument,” he said.
Pollack, a New Yorker, said he had never been inside U.N. headquarters until the filming began even though he had walked by the building “1,000 times.”
Filming started last weekend and will continue in off-hours for about 14 weeks with the picture expected to open around Thanksgiving. The production company intends to pay the world body for costs incurred and make an appropriate “donation” to a U.N. cause, Pollack said.