The Interpreter, directed by Sydney Pollack, will be filmed on location at the United Nations (article from NYTimes posted in the extended entry). Might be a fine opportunity for some media analysis of representations of interpreters. Useful for training purposes, I bet.
And I never watched the West Wing, but James and Vangie recently started plowing through all the episodes, and have been amused by the interpreter’s antics conveying romantic exchanges between Marlee Matlin‘s character and a non-deaf co-worker who wants to be beau. (If I understood James’ summary of the situation correctly.)
A Coup de Hollywood at the United Nations
August 2, 2004
By WARREN HOGE
UNITED NATIONS, Aug. 1 – When it comes to the movies, the
United Nations has long played hard to get.
Filmmakers hoping to wrap their lenses around the
cathedral-like spaces of this icon of midcentury aesthetic
were always turned down, and that included Alfred
Hitchcock, whose request to shoot “North by Northwest” on
location in 1959 was rejected. Officials were not even
swayed by the presence of Cary Grant, a leading man who
could fill a pair of striped trousers more smartly than
When the director Sydney Pollack came calling last year
with his new $80 million film, “The Interpreter,” starring
Nicole Kidman and Sean Penn, he too got the traditional
veto. So he began work in Toronto on a soundstage lookalike
of the grand meeting halls and the stylishly appointed
lobbies, lounges and corridors, but it was a half-hearted –
and ultimately unnecessary – effort.
“I got really upset at the whole thing because I would have
had to use a partial set and do the rest with computer
graphics,” he said. “And it sure wouldn’t have looked like
Eyes alight, he extended his arm in a possessive sweep
across the modernist splendor of the General Assembly
chamber with its green marble speaker’s podium and giant
golden screen bearing the United Nations seal, its
horseshoe-shaped rows of desks in blond wood and canted
walls with gilt fluting, and above, a powder-blue dome –
all gleaming in the blaze of a dozen 20-kilowatt lamps.
“You know, they do a beautiful job with computer graphics –
go see the tidal waves in `The Day After Tomorrow’ – they
do it very well, but in the end people aren’t fooled,” he
said. “They know when you’re really there.”
To get there himself, Mr. Pollack had to go to the top.
“I was finally able to get an appointment with Kofi Annan
right after the first of the year,” he said, referring to
the secretary general, “and I was careful to be honest with
him and say that this is not a commercial for the United
Nations, it is a thriller, it is a Hollywood movie, but
also there is nothing in this picture that will be
embarrassing to the U.N., and in fact the story is an
argument in favor of diplomacy over violence, of words over
Ms. Kidman plays a United Nations interpreter who overhears
a death threat against an African head of state about to
address the General Assembly, and Mr. Penn plays a federal
agent assigned to protect her while harboring suspicions
about her ideals and motives.
“She believes very much in the power and sanctity of words
and thinks if they are used properly, they can be as
powerful as bullets or weapons,” Mr. Pollack said. “Sean’s
character has the mentality of a cop, and he has a contempt
for words, and that argument is at the center of their
Mr. Annan was persuaded, but there remained the need to
obtain unanimous agreement from a famously quarrelsome and
self-regarding group – the ambassadors of the 15 member
states of the Security Council.
They turned into pushovers, however, when they learned that
they might be able to play themselves. “Inocencio Arias of
Spain even sent me his reel,” Mr. Pollack said.
In the end, work rules came between the envoys and their
cameos, but Mr. Pollack got his wish to make the first
feature movie shot at the United Nations. The only
restriction was that filming at the building be done on
To get around any impression that the United Nations was
for hire, the producers contracted to pay all expenses
incurred in keeping the building functioning and staffed
during what are normally down hours. In addition, Mr.
Pollack said, they would be making a “good will gesture”
donation to the organization.
One recent Sunday Mr. Pollack, in jeans, a white T-shirt
and sneakers, hurried up and down the terraced aisles of
the General Assembly chamber, firing off directions to the
600 extras in dark business suits and colorful robes and
headdresses in keeping with the wardrobe department’s
request for “native dress.”
“Where’s China? Oh, there you are. Please, all of you, go
wait in Ireland. What are those people doing in Kiribati?
Get me the U.N. protocol woman. I don’t believe people in
Kiribati are black, are they?”
It was the sound of Hollywood merrily cascading into Turtle
Mr. Pollack encouraged kibitzing because he wanted to make
sure he got things right. “People came running up to me
saying, `You have a woman in that delegation, and that
country doesn’t have any women in its delegation,’ ” he
“Then we had the scene of an emergency evacuation, and we
were told that the only way the delegates would leave was
if the General Assembly president told them to, so we had
to write a quick speech for him.”
When it was pointed out that the actor playing the Spanish
ambassador actually spoke with a Latin American accent, the
script was adjusted to make him the Chilean ambassador.
The sign identifying the delegation from Matobo, the
fictional African country in the movie, was placed between
those of the Marshall Islands and Mauritius in keeping with
the assembly’s strict adherence to alphabetical order.
In one unintended touch of authenticity, some of the extras
playing diplomats fell asleep at their seats.
Except for final scenes filmed this past weekend in
Mozambique without principals, the entire 16-week shoot was
in New York.
“The Interpreter” is scheduled to open in February, and
judging by the comments on the set, the United Nations has
earned star billing.
“The juxtaposition of this architecture against New York
City, the orderliness of this place and the thought that
went into it that you see and then the sort of random
roughness of the streets of New York – it’s part of the
feel of the picture, if not part of the story,” Mr. Pollack
“I don’t think you can be in this room without it affecting
you, and I can tell you that Nic went crazy the first time
she saw it full. She was on the earphones from up in the
interpreter’s booth saying, `My God, it looks so real.’ ”
Taking a break from a session with her dialogue coach in a
side conference room, Ms. Kidman confirmed the account.
“Yes, Sydney’s right, I went `Wow’ because seeing the room
with all the people in their seats, it had all the drama it
did when I was doing my research when the General Assembly
was in session, and I thought it was uncanny how real it
She said that she had never been in the United Nations
before making the film, but that now she found herself
hawking the public tour to her friends. She said she was
also reminded that it was a welcome address for foreigners.
“As a backdrop for a thriller, it’s fantastic, but also
since I’m Australian and I’ve always worked internationally
and this is an international place in New York, I really
like the kind of communication it represents,” she said. “I
know I sound very much like my character now, but I do
believe in this place.”
Even the extras, many of them United Nations employees,
came in for praise. “Usually, when you put extras through a
very long and boring day, at least 50 percent don’t show up
the next day, but all of these people came back,” said Tim
Bevan, one of the film’s producers.
“Of course,” he added, “I don’t know what that says about
what normally goes on in the General Assembly.”
Another producer, Kevin Misher, pronounced them “the best
behaved set of extras we have ever seen.” He added,
“They’re dressed to the nines, and they seem to respect the
space they’re in.”
One of them, Michele Antaki of Syria, a real-life
interpreter, agreed, though, in true United Nations
fashion, with qualifications. “We were excited to be in the
room, but it would be an exaggeration if I told you we were
in awe of stepping into a kind of sanctuary,” she said.
“What we did feel was a responsibility to let outsiders
really see what happens here.”
Excitement of another kind lured Carmen Holmstrom of
Douglaston, Queens. “I’ve been doing this for 15 years and
it’s never boring,” she said. “You do suffer, but you get
hooked. It’s very hard to say no. The payoff is seeing
yourself on the screen.”
She said that she was still hoping for a role with the five
lines of dialogue that would entitle her to a union card,
but that did not keep her from treasuring the high point in
her movie career so far. “In `Prizzi’s Honor,’ ” she said,
“John Huston put me in the balcony scene with Kathleen
The General Assembly hall, which has so delighted Mr.
Pollack and the others making “The Interpreter,” was not an
instant hit with the architectural community when it opened
in 1952, and it is interesting in light of this latest
chapter in its history to see how its detractors chose to
put it down.
“As a home for a great institution,” the critic Lewis
Mumford wrote, “it is a painful simulacrum, the kind of
thing Hollywood might have faked.”
Copyright 2004 The New York Times Company