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Roman Polanski on Rescuing ‘Weekend of a Champion’ From Obscurity and His Advice to Filmmakers

Roman Polanski on Rescuing 'Weekend of a Champion' From Obscurity and His Advice to Filmmakers

In light of the upcoming November 22 theatrical release of Roman Polanski’s restored and re-cut 1972 documentary “Weekend of a Champion,” last week’s New York City screening paid tribute to the film’s decades-long journey by following with a rare press conference that included Polanski himself via Skype as well as Jackie Stewart, the Formula 1 film’s star subject, and producer Brett Ratner, both of whom were present in person.

From “Rosemary’s Baby” to “Chinatown” to “The Pianist,” Polanski’s classic film contributions have left a clear stamp on cinematic history. Yet last week’s discussion moderated by Indiewire’s Eric Kohn shined a light on a little-known part of Polanski’s career. “Weekend of a Champion” was never released in the United States. As Polanski himself related via Skype during the press conference, “I eventually could count on my fingers the number of cities that (the film) was exhibited in and maybe even the number of spectators.” Now restored and re-entering the realm of attention having been screened at the Cannes Film Festival earlier this year, the documentary tells a long forgotten tale of the agony and the ecstasy of Formula 1 race car driving in the early 1970s. The film is both a docudrama on the morbidly thrilling task of competing through the narrow coastal streets of Monaco, and a portrait of the intimate friendship between Polanski and the film’s star race car driver Jackie Stewart.

Flanked by Stewart and Brett Ratner, who helped bring the long hidden film to the U.S., Polanski talked about the film and its revival as well as the nostalgic experience of unearthing a time long gone in sun-swept Monte Carlo. 

Submarine Deluxe will be releasing “Weekend of A Champion” in theaters November 22 in New York.

Here are some of the highlights from the press conference:  

Roman Polanski on deciding to revisit “Weekend of a Champion”:

“It was an accident, pure accident that the technical lab in London was getting rid of their old stuff. They contacted me asking me what I want them to do with the negatives of (‘Weekend of a Champion’), whether they can destroy it or if I want them to send it to me or whatever the instructions from me (are that) they should follow. And my instruction was, ‘hold on wait a second.’ So I looked at the film and I liked it after almost 40 years. I decided I will give it a new life and that’s what we saw today.”

Roman Polanski and Jackie Stewart on taking the film from the past into the present: 

Roman Polanski: “The pace was not satisfying so I thought, it will need some editing, and I would like to add to it a little contemporary part so I called Jackie and his son Mark who subsequently became the co-producer of this enterprise. And I showed them the picture (and) I said, ‘So what did you think?’ They were all very happy.

“When I started editing I realized that there is much more to be done than I was expecting. It took me a long time, (I did) an enormous amount of work on it. You have it in a present shape, you have it in a pace which today is acceptable. And then when I had it all put together–I would not say entirely–but in a good shape to revisit it again with Jackie, that’s what we did, literally. I managed to get the same suite in Hotel de Paris in Monaco, we put the television in a similar position and then we did the conversation that was filmed (in the original cut).” 

Jackie Stewart: “When I saw the film again it was like stepping back in history and I think this is one of the attractive things (about the film). I’ve just done an interview with Sports Illustrated and Road and Track Magazine and I think the appeal that’s causing people to like it certainly in Europe is the fact that safety was totally different in those days. Roman did a lot of this filming himself I mean he was working the cameras in a great many parts of the movie but when you see the cars passing the pits as they are, there was no barrier in front of the pits for example. And there’s hundreds of gallons of high octane fuel and hundreds of people standing there without any protection, whereas today because of what we’ve done in safety that could never have been allowed to happen. So we step back in time and many people you will see in the film are no longer with us either because they were killed because at that time if I was driving a racing car as I was for a five year period, there was a two out of three chance you were gonna die because of the lack of safety which you see all the way through Roman’s film. The curbs are like normal sidewalk curbs, the break, tires and wheels everything in those days. Because Roman saw the logic of rerunning today’s Monaco Grand Prix circuit as it was then, it was a totally different place in many ways but the geography of the track was the same. And I think it took somebody of Roman’s skill and imagination, because he’s got a great imagination, to see that it would still run and be interesting today.”

Brett Ratner on making a documentary with Roman Polanski

“I was in Paris and (Roman) said, “I just finished a documentary that I did in 1971 would you like to see it?” Roman and I sat in the theater, watched it (and) it was amazing. I just thought it was brilliant. I’m a big fan of Mr. Stewart and i’m also a big Formula 1 fan and I had seen a trend of Formula 1 growing in the United States obviously with the “Senna” documentary really performing well and “Rush” and all these films, and it would be great to get distribution for the film and give it an opportunity to see the light of day (as) it had never been released in the United States, I think it was only one theater in Paris and maybe a German film festival. There really wasn’t an outlet for documentaries back in 1971, there wasn’t HBO and Showtime and all these outlets that are playing documentaries today.”

Roman Polanski on why he made the film: 

“The reason I made the film was first because I wanted to make a film about a friend, about Jackie specifically, and two because I like that (Formula 1) very much and I thought (it) was a very cinematic, very visual kind of sport and it was not really being filmed that much because there was no television every week where you could watch the Formula 1 races.”

Roman Polanski on directing documentaries: 

“I never considered myself talented in this direction. I didn’t consider myself a director of documentaries particularly in that period. Documentaries were not as frequently successful as they are now, there are many more of them now because of the television. You see many more documentaries in the theaters, in those times it was very very seldom that you could hope to have any kind of success with a documentary in a general theatrical release. In those times when I decided to make this film I asked my friend Frank Simon to direct it. Frank was a young American director from New York who I met in Cannes at the film festival, he was showing a documentary called ‘The Queen,’ it was about the first drag queen contest in New York. It was a very good documentary, funny and unusual and quite daring. Unfortunately it was famous in May 1968 when there was a kind of student revolution in France and the festival was aborted, so Frank never got the prize, but I got a friend in this festival and we brought him, ‘we’ because we were a bunch of friends in fact, and I decided to make this film, I said I’ll produce it, you direct. And the first ‘Weekend of a Champion’ was directed by Frank Simon, I worked a lot on it I filmed, I often had camera in hand, I helped with the editing etc. But he did the first version of this movie.” 

Roman Polanski and Jackie Stewart on “Rush”:

Roman Polanski: “I’ve seen ‘Rush’ and I can tell you at the beginning I thought ‘Oh my god I think I’m going to walk out of it’ but I somehow sat through and it gets better and better and finally after I would say a few minutes of patience, it gets you really involved and (the film is) very satisfying. I think it (also has) a great couple of actors looking exactly like the fellows we both knew and it’s a very good movie. I think that movie actually doesn’t enjoy the success that it deserves, it’s a really nice motor-racing movie.”

Jackie Stewart: “I think so too, I have seen the movie and I like it. I think the actor that plays Niki Lauda–I think he’s so good I would like to see him nominated because he was better than Lauda at Lauda. He studied him so clearly, and his walk, his expressions, the manner in which he lived his life, this guy really caught him and I hope he gets a nomination.” 

Roman Polanski’s advice to aspiring filmmakers: 

“It’s a question of patience and perseverance, that’s all I can tell you. You can’t teach talent but you can tell someone how to sustain the adversity which is an enemy constantly on set. Whatever you do, whatever type of film you make, it requires a crew, it requires financing, it requires a lot of people around you. And those people even if they are all with you, even if they are all friendly and even if they all agree with the final result, they still have their personal agendas, they see certain things differently than you do. They think that certain things can be done in a different way maybe better in their opinion and then they have their personal problems. They have families and children and girlfriends and they’re horny. So what you really need is to be patient and to be able to withstand all those problems.”

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