Embattled director Roman Polanski may still be holed up hundreds of miles away under house arrest at his chalet in Switzerland, but he loomed large Friday as the first full day of the Berlin International Film Festival kicked into full gear. Berlinale officials yelled, "No pushing!" as accredited journalists swarmed into the press conference for the director's latest, "The Ghost Writer," following the press and industry screening in the morning. The political thriller, starring Ewan McGregor, Pierce Brosnan, Olivia Williams, Kim Cattrall and Timothy Hutton, will have its official world premiere tonight.
Despite Polanski's absence, the energy in the room was palpable as Brosnan, McGregor, Williams as well as writer Robert Harris and a slew of producers arrived in the packed room. Unfortunately, it seemed that the film only received a tepid response after its initial screening. In fact, the ghost of Polanski seemed to upstage "The Ghost Writer" during the half hour or so press conference.
"I must say, it feels weird for us to be here without Roman Polanski at the center of this table," said one producer as the conversation began. One by one, the actors and even gushing journalists asking questions, lamented his detention and inability to attend tonight's debut as the 76 year-old awaits possible extradition to Los Angeles on a decades-old statutory rape charge.
"I was shocked and saddened by his arrest and wondered why after all this time," said Brosnan. "My heart goes out to him, his wife and children and I wish for closure for him and the woman involved."
In the feature, Brosnan plays a fictional former British prime minister (with strong parallels to real-life former prime minister Tony Blair) living in a self-imposed exile in America. The PM is trying to publish a memoir which promises him millions and a new ghost writer (McGregor) is hired to aid in the effort following the mysterious death of his predecessor. The PM, meanwhile, is accused of helping the CIA capture accused terrorists who were then subjected to torture, which puts him under investigation by the International Criminal Court - an organization not recognized by the United States. After accusations come to light, his Martha's Vineyard compound becomes beseiged with protesters and media. His ghost writer, meanwhile stumbles upon information that brings up the PM's dirty past and this discovery suddenly puts his own life in grave danger.
The experience working with the controversial Oscar-winning director became a crux of the conversation, though the subject of the film itself managed to meander its way into and out of the discussion.
"When I first told him I was writing something, [Polanski] asked me about it, and I told him I was doing a story about a ghost writer, and then he said, 'how boring!'" explained Robert Harris, who wrote the novel that inspired the screenplay, which he adapted along with Polanski. "But then after he read it, he was for the story. He liked how the narrative unfolded as the story went along."
"Working with Roman Polanski is intense," Brosnan added. "He's an intense director who has lived an intense life. We went to work [on the film] and had to be on top of our game, and we wanted to be on top of our game."
"He pushes the cast and crew quite hard," McGregor added. "He wants to be the director, cameraman, prop painter, even the actor. He's a maestro of it all." McGregor, Brosnan and Williams commented that Polanski never bothered with niceties on the set, speaking directly and intensely to everyone from the stars to the crew.
"He's very concentrated on the work and it can be off putting," said McGregor. "We actors can be sensitive people and one time he looked at me on set and buried his head in his hands, then started telling me how to do a scene, but then he turned around and saw a prop guy building something and turned to him suddenly and said, 'don't screw it like that! Do it like this...' He does it toward everybody and then it's sort of liberating."
"Roman is the first director who will stop the camera and yell at an actor, 'no! no! no!'," added Williams. Brosnan, McGregor and Williams all added that working with Polanski was one of the most intense experiences of their career, with McGregor crediting him with teaching him more then any other he's worked with. "It's annoying," McGregor said. "Like your mother, he's usually right."
Some initial conversations indieWIRE had with other viewers of the film Friday morning, at least initially, gave "Ghost Writer" mixed reactions, though one polite detractor said, "Look, it's hard when everyone is expecting you to create another 'Chinatown.' You can't just make another masterpiece." Still, there were some moments, albeit seemingly minor, that perhaps confirmed Polanski's absence from America for decades. The throngs of angry protesters outside the prime minister's Martha's Vineyard compound was a bit much. Would a hundred or more American anti-Iraq protesters - aside from the occasional wacko - really camp out protesting a former British PM? It's highly doubtful.
Toward the final ten minutes of the conversation, writer Robert Harris engaged a real-life former British PM - namely Tony Blair - to the fictional prime minister in "The Ghost Writer," saying the recent hearings in the UK on the start of the Iraq War and Great Britain's involvement comes at a coincidence for the film.
"The book was written in 2007, but since then, events seem to transpire to make the movie seem more like a documentary then a fictional narrative. It's been a strange experience," said Harris. "Some people say the verdict of history is written decades after, but I think we have the verdict of history now, and it's quite obvious the war in Iraq was an immoral and illegal war."