LOS ANGELES - Frank Gehry is smart enough to know he may well be the greatest architect of his time and insecure enough not to admit it - even to himself.
Whenever he accepts a commission to create what will undoubtedly become one of the most talked about buildings in the world, the first thing Gehry does is occupy himself with busy work: making phone calls, arranging meetings, doing seemingly anything he can to postpone the inevitable -actually designing the building.
"I'm always scared that I'm not going to know what to do," he confides to close personal friend Sydney Pollack in Pollack's documentary, "Sketches of Frank Gehry." The film, which opened in New York and Los Angeles in mid-May, moved to theaters nationwide last week.
Sooner or later, though, Gehry must get down to real work, which in his case involves taking pen to paper and sketching out the beginning of what likely will morph into one of the most visually stunning structures of its time, as in the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain; Los Angeles' Walt Disney Concert Hall; or Seattle's Experience Music Project.
Thus the title of veteran director Pollack's first documentary, which actually is much more than a look at Gehry's sketches. The film is also a detailed sketch of the architect himself, with commentary from everyone from Gehry to actor Dennis Hopper (who lives in a Gehry house), to critic Hal Foster (who heads Princeton University's architecture department), to Gehry's 97-year-old psychoanalyst.
It's also a first for both of its principals, the first such detailed documentary on Gehry done with the architect's full cooperation and the first documentary, period, for Pollack.
Although they have been friends for more than 20 years, the director of such films as "Tootsie," "Absence of Malice" and "Out of Africa" initially resisted taking on the assignment, complaining he knew nothing about documentaries and little about architecture.
"I told him 'I do my best work when I don't know anything about it,'" Gehry laughed, then quickly added that lack of knowledge going into a project isn't a bad thing if you learn along the way.
"You worry more about things in a deeper sense (if you don't know)," Gehry said. "And there's models out there and other stuff you can look at as you try to understand what people did wrong and people did right."
Because both men have busy schedules and live on different coasts, much of the film had to be put together on the run. As a result, the director would at times follow Gehry around with a handheld camera. At other times he'd drop by the architect's Santa Monica home with a small film crew and the two would sit around a table talking about movies, art, architecture and other subjects.
Among other things, the Canadian-born Gehry reveals that he changed his last name from Goldberg at the insistence of his first wife, who feared anti-Semitism might be holding back his career. He also acknowledges that behind the "ah shucks... nice guy" persona is a 77-year-old architect who strives for greatness.
As to be expected, the film also contains ample photos of the odd-shaped, colorful buildings that have changed the face of modern architecture and led to comparisons between the architect and pop artists like Ed Ruscha, who also appears in "Sketches of Frank Gehry."
"Now that I've done it I feel I not only learned a lot but I enjoyed making it," Pollack, 71, said recently from his home in New York. "It accomplished something for me, and that was taking a real look into Frank's particular creative process and attempting to talk about how an artist feels at various stages."
Gehry, a friendly but shy man, says he enjoyed the process as well and likely wouldn't have opened up as much to another filmmaker.
"People have interviewed me on numerous occasions on film, but I'm usually so guarded," he said. "You don't know the people, so you sort of hold back."
Even now, he frets that one particularly revealing moment in the film may have armed critics like Princeton's Foster with more ammunition with which to lampoon him.
In it, Gehry is seen cutting up pieces of silver-colored cardboard with a pair of scissors, folding them this way and that, then placing them on the dollhouse-sized model of a museum he's designing. He had to do that, he explains, so he could judge how the light would reflect into the building's galleries when it was completed.
Still, he worries it will prompt comparisons to an episode of "The Simpsons" cartoon show in which Marge implores him to design a music hall for her hometown of Springfield.
He tosses her letter away, only to look at the crumpled piece of paper on the sidewalk in front of his cartoon house and declare, "Frank Gehry, you've done it again."
Next thing, the animated Gehry is designing a building that looks suspiciously like the Walt Disney Concert Hall.
"Some people think I actually do that," he says.