A mini-retrospective devoted to Polanski at San Francisco’s Roxie Theater yields not only a double bill of “Chinatown” and “Frantic,” but a live Skyped interview with the director of both, Roman Polanski, from his now seemingly permanent place of exile, Paris. Thom Mount, the executive producer of Polanski’s “Pirates” and producer
of “Frantic” and “Death and the Maiden,” conducts the Skype interview.
We’re told that there’s a camera pointing towards the Roxie audience, so
that Polanski can see Mount and us. Polanski talks about editing “Venus in Fur,” a French film starring Emmanuuelle Seigner and Mathieu Amalric.
While waiting in line at the Roxie, I’m handed a flyer containing some facts about Polanski’s 1977 arrest for statutory rape, which ended with him fleeing the country because of fears that his plea bargain would not be honored and a jail sentence imposed instead. THIS IS RAPE CULTURE, reads the bottom of the flyer. I feel that since Samantha Geimer, the victim in the case, has long ago forgiven Polanski, his accusers should, too — although on September 26, 2009, Polanski was arrested in Switzerland, at the behest of the U.S., kept in a Swiss jail for two months, and then held under house arrest in his home in Gstaad until July 12, 2010, when the Swiss courts rejected the extradition request.
Polanski’s life is the stuff of novels, many different ones: reminiscent of the two lists that Julian Barnes famously constructed in “Flaubert’s Parrot,” one containing the highlights of Flaubert’s life, and the other the lows. Polanski’s: a childhood in the Krakow Jewish ghetto, and then separation from his parents, who were sent to concentration camps — his mother to Auschwitz, where she was killed, and his father to Matthausen. Survival by masquerading as a Catholic, sometimes with sheltering families, sometimes on his own (material that he used in his 2002 adaptation of “The Pianist”). The lurid murder of his young pregnant wife Sharon Tate by followers of Charles Manson. The rape arrest and subsequent life in exile. The recent 18-month imprisonment and house arrest.
The highs: a more than thirty-film filmography, with success from his very first feature, “Knife in the Water,” and countless nominations and awards, including the Berlin Golden Bear for “Cul de Sac,” the Cannes Palme d’Or for “The Pianist,” and the Oscar as Best Director for “The Pianist”; a prolific acting career both in film and onstage, including a celebrated turn as the bratty Mozart in Peter Shaffer’s “Amadeus,” a long and happy marriage to his third wife, Emmanuelle Seigner, since 1989, who bore him two children, Morgane, about to turn 16, and Elvis, who is 12.
Polanski has recently been the subject of three documentaries: “Polanski: Wanted and Desired,” (2008), examining the events around the 1977 case, and its followup, “Odd Man Out,” (2012), about his successful battle to avoid extradition; and “Roman Polanski: A Film Memoir,” (2011) by Laurent Bouzereau. He’s also written his autobiography(“Roman by Polanski,” 1984) and been the subject of several biographies — “Polanski: A Biography” (2008), by Christopher Sandford, and “Polanski” (1982) by Barbara Leaming.
Mount says that he’s happy to be talking to Polanski about the work, not salacious celebrity nonsense, and that the last time he was able to get him to do something like this was in 2000. Since then Polanski’s world has been seriously curtailed. Mount says that Steve Cooley, the LA district attorney, attempted to extradite Roman back to LA because he wanted to be Attorney General of California, and was using Polanski as a whipping boy for political advantage. Mount says that he raised more money to defeat him than he had raised for presidential campaigns in years — and points out that Cooley lost LA County by 6%. (He lost to Kamala Harris, who has had her own odd moment in the press recently.)
Polanski suddenly appears on the screen. He’s wearing a navy blue polo shirt under a pale blue v-neck sweater, with his graying hair longish, in a modish and familiar cut. He looks good — even boyish. He appears pleased and thanks the audience — “Well, it’s a pleasure.”
Mount first asks him a little bit about “Venus in Fur,” the movie he’s currently cutting. Polanski wrote the script with David Ives, the playwright, and it stars Seigner and Amalric, in French (rather than the original English). It’s an independent production, currently with French distribution, but nothing set for America yet. For a second, Mount and Polanski agree that it’s the first time he’s worked with Seigner since “Frantic,” but just as I am about to break the fourth wall and shout “Bitter Moon!” (a personal favorite that I think is way underrated), Polanski remembers it.
When Mount mentions that “Venus” was shot digitally, and asks Polanski
“How do you feel about it?”, Polanski jests “I’m fine, how are you?” But
he says, yes, he’s happy with it — he’s always used digital special
effects, a lot of them — there were at least three or four hundred
digital effects in “The Ghost Writer.”
Mount says that Polanski always embraces new technology — that he always has a
subscription to “Scientific American.” And, in my favorite moment of
the afternoon, Polanski bends over and grabs a handful of copies from
his desk to display to his delighted audience.
Mount shifts gears and asks about “Chinatown.” Polanski reminisces about his “bunch of friends,” including Jack Nicholson and Robert Towne, who wanted to do something together. Jack called him in Rome, where he was living at the time, and said he had a script by Towne, and that Robert Evans, another friend, was also involved like it. He didn’t feel like going back to L.A. — it was not long after Sharon Tate’s murder, and he was happy in Rome. But he came back to Los Angeles and had a long meeting at — “what’s that delicatessen called?,” he asks Mount. “Nate ‘n Al’s,” he replies. It was a long script, but Towne has a great talent for dialogue, and he sat with Bob for eight weeks during a heat wave to re-write it.
There were disagreements, notably about whether the Nicholson and Dunaway characters should go to bed together, and about the ending.
“This is your ending,” Mount says. “Yes,” Polanski says, “Bob wanted to finish with some sort of happy ending — he wrote several.” Polanski wanted the audience to feel the injustice. If you ask the audience to choose, he thinks, the audience will always choose the happy version — and the resulting film would be like Muzak in the elevator. There would be no Greek tragedy if the Greek writers listened to their audience.
They started filming, in fact, without having completed the script — “‘Don’t worry,'” Polanski assured them, “‘I’ll come up with an ending.’ We have to have at least one scene in Chinatown, it won’t make sense. As it happens, there was no Chinatown [that looked like that] in LA at the time. Dick Sylbert [the production designer] was also part of our gang of friends. He created the Chinese street in and around a few Chinese restaurants in Chinatown.”
Polanski wrote three or four pages and told Nicholson that he’d bring him the dialogues and you fix them your way. ‘We shot it in one night,’ he remembers, ‘or maybe two — it went very quickly.’
Polanski says that women don’t mind so much being directed. Men have this fear of being directed, if they are macho-minded. He had very good relationships with actresses, he says — except Faye Dunaway. She’s good in the film, even though we didn’t get along. Once he pulled a hair — a stray hair — which became a major crisis. It caught the back light, which complicates your progress in shooting. The hairdresser came and fixed it, but it opposed up again. After three or four tries, he said “Wait a minute, love,” and pulled the hair — and Dunaway “got a crisis.”
The interview wraps up, way too soon from my point of view, after a brief mention of Polanski’s next project, about the Dreyfus affair, to begin in a couple of months after wrapping “Venus In Fur” and finishing work on the Dreyfus script, and an equally brief intro to “Frantic,” which Mount says was cooked up during a low moment working on “Pirate,” in a “dubious restaurant in a dubious Tunisian hotel”: “you said you wanted to make a movie in a city where you can eat the food and the telephone works,” he reminds Polanski.
Polanski says he was in a wonderful mood, making “Frantic” — he liked working with Emmanuelle and Harrison, it was a good period in his life, and in the city he was living in.
Polanski thanks the audience and Mount — “I wish you just happy movies.” He seems sincerely moved and pleased by the long and lusty applause from the crowd.
I look at my watch. A scant 20 minutes have gone by. “A dollar a minute,” I say, cynically, to my companion, even though the $20 ticket included a Blu-Ray projection of “Chinatown,” (we’re told FedEX muffed a print deivery) and the subsequent screening of “Frantic.” I expected a longer, more in-depth conversation, with questions from the audience. I’m happy to have been there, but in a way I think Polanski got just as much from it as we did. (Not that there’s anything wrong with that!)
Mount thanks us for our warm embrace of Roman, saying all he sees from his exile in France is a stream of invective.
After watching the well-made, Hitchcockian “Frantic,” in a well-worn 35mm print, which I enjoyed probably more than the first time I saw it, Mount returns for a Q and A, saying we saw the US/WB ending, in which Harrison Ford tosses the McGuffin that rival countries have been trying to collect into the Seine after the final shootout. Polanski’s Euro version had Ford discover it in his pocket while en route to the airport and toss it into a passing garbage truck. (I prefer the US ending — so shoot me.)
He reiterates that the anti-Roman feeling in the US was strong, and that he thinks the recent attempt to extradite Roman helped them, as it allowed them to tell the story in detail.
Mount also says, about “Frantic,” that if he had it all to do over again, he would use a different Director of Photography, and different film stock — that it’s too “Agfa,” by which he means too green and grey and blue. The blacks should have been blacker, more contrast, the colors should have been richer. And he regrets losing the fight over the ending. And today he’s less inclined to go with a movie star — he’s more interested in authenticity.
I myself think Ford did just swell with the script he was given, and that authenticity would have required a somewhat deeper character than the script provided. I’m glad that I have “Venus in Fur” and “D” (which is the working title for Polanski’s Dreyfus affair movie) to look forward to. Before we leave, my companions and I try to guess Polanski’s age, 74, 75? We look it up on a handy iPad, and it turns out he’ll turn 80 on August 18th. We all agree that he looks great and sounds even better. It’s both amazing to us and inspiring.