Steve Daly
April 18, 2005 AT 04:00 AM EDT

Any travel agent in Matobo, Africa, would be incensed by The Interpreter. The movie depicts Matobo as a lethal war zone, pocked with land mines from the anti-insurgency push its government launched in the 1980s. The country is shown to cradle such sociopaths as genocidal leaders, a terrorist bomber, and sharpshooters for hire.

But, of course, there’s no such thing as a Matoban travel agent — because there’s no such place as Matobo. It’s all a conceit to put Nicole Kidman and her flowing blond bangs in picturesque danger. (She plays a United Nations translator who uncovers what she thinks may be a plot to kill Matobo’s president.) The Matoban ”Ku” dialect Kidman’s character translates isn’t real either. It was made up by a Zanzibar-born London linguist. In other words, in the interest of making the volatile, extremely timely story of The Interpreter feel real, its creators decided to fake its culture, its words, its very geopolitics.

But there was one element that director Sydney Pollack refused to fake: the U.N. itself, which had never before been open to cameras. ”There’s music the U.N. makes just by being there,” Pollack enthuses. ”Sean and Nicole do a lot of duets in this movie.” Not literally, of course — this isn’t Moulin Rouge territory. ”When they’re in the U.N., it’s a third instrument. I don’t have to do much except photograph it properly so that it sings along with them.” No question, says Kidman: ”You can’t really make a film that you don’t shoot at the U.N. and pretend it’s the U.N. You can feel that as an audience.”

Of course, Pollack’s ultimate mission was to make sure the complicated backdrop didn’t get in the way of good, old-fashioned popcorn thrills. Along the way, he had to wrestle with writers, wrangle actors, and cajole international diplomats — only to wind up watching his studio release a trailer that, to him, spoils a pivotal sequence.

Given the number of roadblocks he faced, it’s a wonder Sydney Pollack didn’t abandon The Interpreter along the way. He’s 70 now, and hadn’t directed a picture since 1999’s Random Hearts. (That was a dud, but, hey, Pollack also made Tootsie, The Way We Were, and Out of Africa, which got him an Oscar.) ”Every time I am directing,” he says, ”I question why in God’s name I’m doing it again. It’s like hitting yourself in the forehead with a hammer.”

Pollack took up this particular cudgel circa early 2003. He read a script by Charles Randolph, a philosophy professor just getting into the screenplay racket, and loved the main ideas. He pitched himself, unsolicited, to direct and co-produce. (The project had been kicking around at Working Title for years before Universal and Misher Films partnered up to develop it further, and had briefly been a prospect for The Hours‘ Stephen Daldry.) But the consortium nursing Interpreter along wasn’t sure they wanted Pollack. Says Working Title’s Tim Bevan, ”People were a little bit nervous of him because he’s an institution. He takes control — and rightly so.”

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