At Ease

“Sketches” shows the bond of creativity and anxiety between Pollack, left, and Gehry. (Ricardo DeAratanha / LAT)

It started, oddly enough, with an algebraic equation:

X / conventional documentaries = Frank Gehry / conventional architecture

Not the typical jumping-off point for a Sydney Pollack film, but then in all the 40-odd films Pollack directed and/or produced, he had never taken on a full-length documentary. Much less one about a good friend who also happens to be the most famous living architect in the world.

"When Frank asked me to do it, I said, 'Frank, I'm not being coy — I don't know how to do it. I don't even go to documentaries, I don't know anything about architecture.' And he said 'I know, that's why you're perfect.' " Pollack is echoing the words he uses to open "Sketches of Frank Gehry," a film that fulfills his initial equation by being less a portrait, which implies something static and complete, and more a window. Offering glimpses of the artist at work, the work he has done and the impact it has had, with commentary and anecdotes by various artists, architects and critics. (This being Pollack, we also get to hear the thoughts of Dennis Hopper, who lives in a Gehry house; Michael Eisner, who commissioned a Gehry building; and Michael Ovitz who, um, collects art.)

The buildings too, many with the sketches that inspired them, are given time to "speak," from the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao to some of Gehry's less photographed work, including local houses and a cancer patient refuge in Scotland. Disney Hall, of course, makes an appearance, at various stages of construction, lending "Sketches" a sense of movement and continuity.

Beyond that, "Sketches," which opens Friday, is a documentary within a documentary; much of the footage includes Pollack, video camera in hand, not exactly interviewing Gehry but certainly prompting him to take his explanations of the hows and whys of his craft deeper. As much as anything, the film reveals the bond between two powerful and creative men that made it possible.

"I was trying to avoid the conventional documentary style," Pollack says. "Frank says that the only pure image is the sketch, because that comes before anyone else tinkers with it. I wanted to show that as much as I could. And Frank makes use of not disguising the materials he uses, so I thought I would let it be a little bit rough."

Pollack is quick to add that it wasn't his idea to be part of the film as well as its author.

"I felt very self-conscious about being in it," says Pollack, his expressive eyes and eyebrows pulled wide and high for emphasis. "It seemed incredibly narcissistic. But Frank always wanted us to be doing it together. And I knew Frank wouldn't be as candid with a crew. So there was me with a camera and my producer with a camera and he kept shooting both of us." In other words, Pollack learned what many people have learned over the years: What Gehry wants, he usually gets.

"After Bilbao opened, I had five or six people asking to do a documentary," Gehry says. "I've had cameras in my face before, but always people I didn't know, so I was guarded.

"It's hard to know how to be honest," he says, after a pause, his voice noticeably quiet even in the morning silence of the Pacific Dining Car, the Santa Monica steakhouse he has haunted for years. "You never know when you're going to be misconstrued. With Sydney I didn't feel that. I felt safe. There's Sydney, he has a camera because, of course, Sydney's supposed to have a camera."

Gehry is very happy with the film, which he thinks captures the artistic process very well, and he's thrilled with having artists including Ed Ruscha and Julian Schnabel speak so glowingly about his work, but the perfectionist in him can't help wondering....

"The one part of the film that I'm a little concerned about is when I'm crumbling the paper," he says, describing a scene in which he is tinkering with a design that he thinks is boring. "Yes, I was crumbling, but I also was very familiar with what the space needed — how those niches were used. I am always well informed on the basics."

"I think that's clear, Frank," Pollack says gently, offering the assurance that made him Gehry's preferred chronicler.

Common ground

The two met in the early '80s, before Gehry, now 77, was the rock star of architecture, when Pollack was churning out hit after hit — "Absence of Malice," "Tootsie," "Out of Africa." Despite his ignorance of architecture, Pollack was drawn to a fellow maverick and the two men spent much of their time complaining about how difficult it was to remain true to their creative impulses in a world so ruled by commercial interests.

"And Sydney said to me," says Gehry, and now it's his turn to echo a small portion of the film, "that he had managed to find the small sliver of space in which you could do what you wanted. That it was there, it was small but you could find it. I've never forgotten it," he says, shaking his head.

"I do not remember saying it," Pollack, 71, adds with a laugh. "I mean it sounds like something I would say, but I don't remember saying it."

One of the characteristics the two men most obviously share is talented ambition fueled by continual insecurity. In the film, one of the more revelatory moments comes when Gehry admits that although he has chosen to create a self-effacing, gentlemanly persona, a kind of Everyman Genius, he is, of course, very ambitious and very competitive. And also, it seems, pretty much continually anxious.