To Celebrate Roman Polanski’s 80th Birthday, A Retrospective

To Celebrate Roman Polanski's 80th Birthday, A Retrospective
Celebrate Roman Polanski's 80th Birthday, Retrospective

Timed to Roman Polanski’s 80 birthday on August 18, Abrams has just published James Greenberg’s picture-packed coffee table book “Roman Polanski: A Retrospective,” which covers all of Polanski’s movies as well as his career as an actor. Part of a series of glossy filmmaker retrospectives (Clint Eastwood, Steven Spielberg) from England’s Palazzo Editions, “Roman Polanski” is the only book of its kind the filmmaker has ever participated in. 

A respected film writer, Greenberg has Variety, American Film and Premiere among his past outlets; he has edited the DGA Quarterly for the past eight years. He not only interviews Polanski but adds sharp analysis and criticism of the films as well as telling biographic details.

Polanski debuted his latest film “Venus in Fur” at Cannes in May to good reviews; it opens in Europe in the fall, and was picked up for stateside release by Sundance Selects. “It’s a two-hander adapted from a well-reviewed but unusual Broadway stage play that played all over the world,” says Greenberg during a phone interview. “It’s kind of kinky, a mysterious sexy story about a director casting a play that’s based on the work of the author who coined the phrase ‘masochism.'” 

Also appearing at the festival was James Toback’s upcoming documentary “Seduced and Abandoned,” featuring a Polanski interview, as well as his vintage 1971 race car documentary “Weekend of a Champion,” which his buddy Bret Rattner has acquired for Netflix release. (Polanski cameoed as a French police official in “Rush Hour 3.)” Here’s Polanski’s Skype interview at a recent San Francisco screening.

Greenberg first met met Polanski over 20 years ago on a cruise ship going from Venice to Athens. The director was shooting exteriors on “Bitter Moon,” and invited a handful journalists and some friends to go along for a week to fill out the depressingly skimpy cast and crew, says Greenberg. “It was November in the Mediterranean, the weather was terrible and the food even worse,” he recalls, “but it was an incredible experience to watch this little dynamo running around the boat having his hand in everything. Of all the sets I’ve been on, I’ve never seen a director who has the full equation of filming in his head. If a wire broke on the camera, he’d fix it. If a light was off, if a tie was not correct, the glasses on the table, he’d go fix it. Everything was very precise. He knew the technical answer as well as the aesthetic. He was quite remarkable, and had boundless energy.” 

He looks more or less the same today, says Greenberg, “a wonder of science, and genetics.” The writer was in Paris a year ago to interview Polanski for four days: “I hadn’t seen him for about four or five years. He looked the same, trim and fit, a full head of tousled hair, the same boyish enthusiasm. There’s something youthful about him in his being.”

I once interviewed the director in Cannes in 1994 for “Death and the Maiden,” riding with him in a festival car down the Croisette from the Majestic to the Carlton, and found him charming–but intimidating. He was in great spirits when I talked to him on the phone after he won the best director Oscar for “The Pianist.” But I watched Polanski walk out on a huge press conference packed with world-class directors who had participated in an omnibus Cannes film, annoyed by an interviewer’s question. Of course he grabbed all the attention that way; and he also doesn’t suffer fools. 

Greenberg insists that they got along fine over the years. He drew on interviews he did with Polanski in 1991 and 1992, and a few more after that including a long one for DGA Quarterly. “He won’t answer what he doesn’t want to answer,” Greenberg says. “He’ll deflect it with humor, telling a joke, that sort of thing. He won’t go where he doesn’t want to go, he knows where that is. I’ve always found him extremely courteous, accommodating and gracious.” 

When interviewing “Chinatown” star Jack Nicholson about his friend Roman, the actor told Greenberg that he had a different view of him from the common perception: he looked at him as an old world gentleman. “In my dealings with him,” says Greenberg, “he has those courteous European manners.” 

Getting the director to agree to do the book took six months of cajoling from Greenberg: “I pursued him relentlessly. He trusted me as much as he trusts any journalist but he’s still leery of what’s going to be written. He feels so much that has been written about him has been erroneous, he regards it like a snowball that gets picked up and goes on and on. His main concern is going to be about his work.”

Of course Greenberg had to probe into the Elephant in the Room: Polanski’s ongoing struggles with a statutory rape case that has put him in exile from the United States since 1978 and recently led to his controversial imprisonment and eventual house arrest. The director is now a free man but is not yet able to return to the United States. Filmmaker Marina Zenovich has been tracking his travails through two documentaries.

The tantalizing what if question was what Polanski missed by doing European-based projects, from “Frantic” and “Ghost Writer” to “Carnage”? “The thing he missed most was proximity to the people he was working with,” Greenberg responds. “So much happens here in Hollywood at lunch or in the commissary, you run into people at a party. That’s how projects get started. And ideas get pushed along.”

But if he had been able to stay and work in America, Greenberg and I agree, Polanski might have been chewed up by the system. His movies, from Paramount’s “Rosemary’s Baby” to “Chinatown,” are not ordinary films. “They’re idiosyncratic,” says Greenberg. “Back then the studios made more of those kind of movies, but as time went on there was less of that, films that got made became more homogenized and less original. I don’t know that that’s an environment that he would have thrived in. It would have been nice for him to have opportunities to have done things here, but by being able  to work in Europe in some ways it has kept his sensibility intact in a way that might not have happened in America.” 

Mostly though, Polanski talked about his filmmaking, how he remembers each film experience and events and how he did certain things, his inspirations, background and biographical connections. “The Pianist,” for example, has biographic connections to his own experience during the holocaust, which of course the filmmaker wrote about himself in his 1984 autobiography “Roman by Polanski.” He’d remember things in remarkable detail, says Greenberg, “small details from ‘Knife in the Water’ or ‘Fearless Vampire Killers,’ ‘Repulsion.’ He remembers what he ate on the set of “Cul de Sac.'” 

One photo in the book is of a battered old viewfinder that dates back to the filming of 1962’s “Knife in the Water.” Polanski was still using it on the set of “Carnage,” Jodie Foster noticed. “Directors don’t use that anymore,” says Greenberg. “It’s a classical piece of equipment. He uses video, but he likes to look through the viewfinder.”

The filmmaker allowed Greenberg to plow through his archives; the writer spent a week “poring through literally old baby pictures,” he says. The space was disorganized, “with multiple boxes for each movie and from his early life, student days, Lutz film school, pictures of old Polish people before the war, friends of his family, and relatives.”

Back during the war Polanski’s parents were sent to concentration camps. As a young boy he escaped the Krakow ghetto, and lived in rural Poland, having never been out of the city, living with pig farmers. His mother was pregnant when she was killed in the camp. His father did come home, but by that time, Polanski was 12 or 13, and pretty much on his own as he had been during the war. “He was a short man and a short kid,” says Greenberg. “Because of his stature, he became very willful, that was part of his survival skills. As a short little shrimpy kid, very athletic, growing up in those circumstances, in a way he had to become domineering, which he does through the force of his personality.”

That also allows Polanski to control a movie set, where he is “the center of the universe,” says Greenberg. “The horrors he was experiencing, if the Nazis weren’t bad enough, the Communists came in to Poland, the totalitarian regime was no piece of cake. The country was digging out the rubble from the war. It was terribly poor and he was an artistic kid. As it does for so many people growing up in bad circumstances, they take refuge in the life of the imagination. He did that from an early age; he’d go to the movies.”
Polanski’s talent for mimicry led him to perform for his friends and into acting, says Greenberg: “As a teenager he started to get bit parts in movies. He said that being on the set, he understood that these were the people he wanted to be around, the life he wanted to have. I asked if he saw his career going this way when he was younger when he was in film school, did he have the confidence that this was what was going to happen? He said, ‘Yes, I was going to be successful director.’ He does not lack for confidence.”
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