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Roman Polanski: An Exclusive Interview
Roman Polanski. Where to begin? The very name conjures mixed feelings in anyone who has followed his life or seen any of his films. In his formative years, he was considered brilliant, a genius. Later his sensationalized personal life distracted the media from the merits of his films; they would forever be associated with and eclipsed by the various scandals revolving around his life.
Few in the field of entertainment have been plagued by so much tragedy and scandal. As a child growing up in Poland, Polanski survived Hitler's holocaust. After losing his mother to a Nazi gas chamber, he barely survived the near subhuman existence of a Krakow ghetto. Much later, after he had moved to the States and established himself as a successful filmmaker, the bizarre Manson Family murdered his pregnant wife, the actress Sharon Tate, and several friends in his home. The event immediately brought his personal life into the public eye, making his own grief a national one.
In 1977, Polanski's life took on an altogether different direction when he was arrested for the statutory rape of a 13-year-old girl, an incident that occurred at actor Jack Nicholson's house. Polanski fled the country to avoid prosecution and continues to live in exile in Paris.
Even after leaving the United States, Polanski continued to be the subject of wide media attention, primarily because of his highly publicized relationship with actress Nastassia Kinski, who starred in his acclaimed film Tess (1979), an adaptation of Thomas Hardy's famous novel, Tess ofthe d'Urbervilles.
Despite the media circus surrounding his life, Polanski is preeminently a director and writer who has created an amazing body of work. His first mainstream commercial film, Rosemary's Baby (1968), stands as arguably one of the greatest horror films ever made. With mood, atmosphere, intricate plotting and suspense, he turned what could have easily been a cheap horror show into a masterful essay in suspense and terror years before Linda Blair gained fame spinning her head around and spitting up pea soup in William Friedkin's The Exorcist (1973). Whereas Friedkin used shock effects and stomach turning gore -- all effectively rendered -- Polanski relied on mood and subtle characterizations to create a palpable undercurrent of evil.
Then came his critical film-noir masterpiece Chinatown (1974), starring Jack Nicholson and Faye Dunaway. Chinatown received 6 Academy Award nominations in 1975, including best picture and director, and many consider it his personal best. Though the film clearly works within the well-established detective genre best exemplified by such films as John Huston's The Maltese Falcon (1941) and Howard Hawks' The Big Sleep (1946), Polanski gives his tale levels of meaning far deeper than those earlier detective yarns. A dark, nihilistic ambience runs throughout the story, and the film ultimately stands as a metaphor for an increasingly corrupt America, one still reeling from Watergate and the war in Vietnam.
Despite these mainstream successes, Polanski's earlier work still seems to represent his purest vision, the deepest impression he left as auteur. Films like Repulsion (1965) starring Catherine Deneuve, Culde Sac (1966), and his breakthrough feature, Knifein the Water (1962), which was nominated for an American Academy Award for Best Foreign Film. But even with its critical success, the film was officially attacked by the leader of the Polish Communist Party, who described the film as not being relevant to Polish society or the Communist world. Even at this early stage, a pattern of controversy was being established that would continue to follow Polanski throughout his career.
In recent years, his films have not been met with the same sort of critical acclaim as his earlier work. Death and the Maiden (1995) and Bitter Moon (1992) definitely had their moments but failed to live up to Polanski's best work. And while working on his most recent film, he became the center of controversy once again. In the midst of filming The Double, his star, John Travolta, stormed off the set when Polanski was reportedly less than understanding of Travolta's desire to return to the states because his son had fallen ill. There are other rumors that the conflict arose when Polanski wanted Travolta to do a nude scene. Regardless of what the case may be, the situation continues to remain unclear and the film will not likely be completed. With these latest events, the press continues to prey on Polanski's notoriety rather than focusing on his work as a director.
I can't remember the last time I saw an article dealing with Polanski's films as opposed to the sensationalism that seems always to have followed him. With this in mind, I chose to talk to Polanski the filmmaker not as the subject of personal controversy but as a brilliant artist I deeply respect.
During our conversation, I found him neither arrogant nor condescending. He was modest, good humored, and above all, he demonstrated his deep love and passion for cinema and a serious concern for its future. We began the discussion with A Pure Formality (1984 ) starring Gerard Depardieu and Polanski himself.
On a final personal note, I would like give my deepest thanks to my friend and colleague John Berner without whom this interview would not have been possible.
Taylor Montague: A Pure Formality was the first time you've had a leading role in a film that you weren't directing. What was it like to work under someone else's direction?
Roman Polanski: Well, I started as an actor in the theater. I have worked under other directors, including stagework a few years ago. I worked under the direction of Stephen Berkoff, the English director of Metamorphosis.
...In the past , I have done small parts in the movies, too. As a matter of fact, my first debut in Poland was under the direction of Andrej Vajna. So I know what it's like to be on the other side. Having experienced the movies or plays as an actor, I know what's essential, and that is to concentrate on your work and to forget everything else around you and know that somebody else is taking care of all the other aspects of the production. As a matter of fact, when I did work as an actor in my own films, I realized that it's much more difficult to act while directing than to direct while acting. Do you know what I mean?
Montague: How would you go about setting up a scene when you were working as both actor and director?
Polanski: Well, when I was in a film by myself, I would have an understudy who would go through the whole motion so I could set up the logistics of the scene? But once I find myself on the other side, I would leave it up to my assistant. I would have to forget that I'm directing and that's much more difficult than anything else because suddenly you see that your partner has not hit the mark or has a shadow or whatever, and you fall out of your character because you see this is wrong. Or for example, I remember when I was really concentrating, I'd forget that I have many other things going around me and the camera would start rolling and then the clapper board would be in front of me, and the assistant says "Scene 42 take 63," and I suddenly I hear "63," and think Jesus, what am I doing? This is insane, and I lose all my concentration. So this is the difficult part, but when you do the same thing under another director's auspices, you just don't care, so you can really forget and let him do his thing. So of course, from time to time, you see that he does things you would not do the same way, but that's his problem and you just have to forget. As a matter of fact, I remember one instance in A Pure Formality where we were shooting a scene and I thought the camera was on my right, and in fact it was somewhere else. It was a long shot of course. I didn't have the camera in front of my nose. The director was sitting with his script and some other people on the right and in front of the monitor; he was always somewhere near, watching the monitor, and he was talking to me from there and I was doing my thing with the part and I just assumed that the camera was somewhere around him and then, when I finished the scene, I realized the camera was in front of me, farther in the left corner. So it's just knowing your job, and that's it.
Montague: How was it working with Gerard Depardieu?
Polanski: It was great fun, actually. Yeah, it was real fun because he's a jovial character, you know, constantly joking. And he's sort of a bon vivant-- likes good life, good wine, vulgar jokes. It's so funny that he gets away with anything.
Montague: He was completely convincing. As if his character could lose control at any moment.
Polanski: Yes, he was very good; he was excellent. I think the film is great, but the director made an error by keeping it sort of secret until the very end that the man is dead. It's somehow metaphysical, and the audience learns it in the last sequence.
[In A Pure Formality Depardieu plays a famous writer named Onoff who is the suspect in a murder investigation. The plot revolves around Polanski's character trying to interrogate Depardieu until it is revealed, in a rather surreal fashion, that Depardieu was the one who had been killed the whole time, and by his own gunshot.]
Polanski: You know, the director lost a lot of people like that. If he said from the beginning that something is amiss, the people would be much more interested. They'd identify with the character of Onoff much more. You know, just for one trick, for one joke, practically, he sacrifices a lot of other things that are really important.
Montague: Do you think it was gimmicky for the director?
Polanski: Yeah, I think this is gimmicky. As a matter of fact, I remember that he asked us not to reveal the end or what it's all about even to the crew, I think that was a bit silly. Otherwise, I think he's a very talented guy with a lot of invention and imagination, but that was a mistake. Some people don't even get it at the end, and they're confused. Do you know what I mean?
Montague: It's as if the main character doesn't even exist. The audience feels cheated in a way.
Polanski: Yeah, exactly, exactly. That's the mistake of the film. Imagine the same film if from right at the beginning when he shoots himself and you are suspecting and you start feeling intelligent that you know, rather than just being aware that the filmmaker is more intelligent than you.
Montague: Did you see The Usual Suspects?
Polanski: Yes, I did.
Montague: There's a similar twist at the end where Kevin Spacey's character reveals that he is indeed the character and he's been lying about it the whole time. Do you think the device works in that film?
Polanski: In that film, it works perfectly. You can tell someone he is the great bullshit artist, but you can't tell people that he is dead. This is just too far out as they say to tell people at the beginning. You can say that it was a dream; you can say it like in Living in Oblivion. You've seen that film, haven't you? You can say it was a dream, but you can't say this guy is dead and this is some kind of purgatory where it's happening. Oh yeah, I understand now; no, that doesn't work. You know. Pity. Other than that I think it was a quite interesting movie.
Montague: Did you know that there has been a resurgence of interest in Rosemary's Baby over the last year?
Polanski: Oh, I didn't know that.
Montague: Even Robert Evans, who worked with you on Chinatown, said that executives all over town were re-screening the film and trying to get ideas for new devil possession or good vs. evil type films. (After I conducted this interview, Paramount announced plans to release a sequel to Rosemary's Baby.) What's your take on that nearly 30 years after Rosemary's Baby was released?
Polanski: Is it 30 years already? You take me back. It must have been '67, or '68. [pauses thoughtfully for a moment]. It was '68.
Montague: What do you think about the film now that it's inspiring a new generation of filmmakers?
Polanski: I think it's quite neat, quite slick, you know.
Montague: It's definitely got some of the most chilling moments you've put on screen.
Polanski: Yes, because it was quite an original concept to present in a very realistic and believable way something that is virtually supernatural.
Montague: The dream sequences are especially striking. The images seem to have no logical connection at times -- especially that curious shot of the Sistine Chapel.
Polanski: Well, dreams are hardly explained in the rational way, aren't they? You know, she has a Catholic upbringing, so there's always the resonance of it in the dreams, or also in her behavior, in her acting. I don't remember exactly what I wanted to accomplish then, but it's too late, and I truly don't think much about it. I would have to see the film again.
Montague: Have you not seen it in a long time?
Polanski: No, no. I haven't seen it in a long time, a very long time. Being rationally minded, I ended it [the dream sequence] in such a way that you can interpret it in a rational way as well.
Montague: Many consider it the greatest horror film ever made.
Polanski: I feel very flattered by it, but I feel that there are a great deal of good horror movies.
Montague: Are there any horror movies that you especially like?
Polanski: Old horror movies. I always liked Psycho very much.
Montague: So you were a fan of Hitchcock?
Polanski: I was a fan of some of his movies. Generally, it's not the type of cinema that appeals to me greatly, but I liked Psycho. I like a good scare in the theater. Offhand, I can't remember, but I know that I've had many great moments watching horror movies.
Taylor Montague: I know that -- like Hitchcock -- you lavishly prepared for the scenes that you were shooting.
Roman Polanski: Except I don't storyboard.
Montague: What do you usually do to prepare for a scene? I've read that you take meticulous notes on actors expressions and the way they're supposed to react in every little situation. Do you work with that kind of detail?
Polanski: No, my direction comes from actors' rehearsals. I rehearse and I let them free in the beginning rather than the other way around. I hate having a storyboard and coming on the set and trying to fit people into the mechanics.
Montague: Is it too forced?
Polanski: No, it's like ordering a first class suit by a leading tailor in Paris, then trying to find a person that will fit it. I do it the other way around.
Montague: Hitchcock used to work that way.
Polanski: Yeah, I know, and that's why his films are somehow cold.
Montague: Do you think his characters are mechanical, too external?
Polanski: I think sometimes they're quite mechanical. Don't you think that early Hitchcock movies had much more charm and atmosphere than the late ones?
Montague: They definitely have more personality, especially in The Lodger (1926) or even the first The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934).
Polanski: Yeah. I wonder whether in his first movies if he used storyboards to such an extent as he did later in things like The Birds (1963) or whatever.
Montague: I'm not sure about his earliest work, but I've seen some of the storyboards for The Birds, and there are scenes where he has planned every last detail of every shot. The craftsmanship is amazing, but because of the labor he puts into every little camera move and setup, it seems manufactured. I love the way he can manipulate the audience this way, but there is definitely the feeling that you're watching him directing as opposed to watching the story effortlessly unfold.
Polanski: Yeah, I agree with you totally. Sometimes it just doesn't work at all in films like Frenzy (1972) or whatever that other film he did in Berlin or Germany. I can't remember the title.
Montague: I think that was Topaz (1969). Anyway, Frenzy was one of my least favorite Hitchcock films.
Montague: But I'm a big fan of Psycho.
Polanski: Yeah, me too. It's got good atmosphere and it's scary as hell.
Montague: The music in Rosemary's Baby is reminiscent of Bernard Herrmann's work in Psycho at times in terms of shock tactics or developing mood. Did you work with the composer a lot?
Polanski: You know we started together on one of my first shorts at the film school -- a short called Two Men and a Wardrobe (1958). I gave him his first job; he was a musician in a group quite popular in Poland at the time, a jazz composer with a sort of groove, cool, like Miles Davis or such. And I gave him his first job as a film composer, and then I made several short films with him. Then I did Knife Inthe Water. From Knife in the Water he started getting a lot of assignments and many movies in Poland. Then later I did a film in France, a film made of four sketches by four directors. I used him again in The Fearless Vampire Killers (1967). So we already had a history together. I brought him to Hollywood to make Rosemary's Baby. He made one more film in Hollywood and then unfortunately he had an accident and died soon afterward.
Montague: Did not having him as your composer make an impression on the remainder of your films?
Polanski: Yeah, I missed him a lot. Although before that I did Repulsion with Chico Hamilton, so I already did work with other composers before his death. But I think he's really terrific, this guy. He really served the movie. His ambition was to serve the movie, not to show off his music in spite of the film as some of the composers do.
Montague: Death and the Maiden was the first time you've worked on anything where you haven't had a part in the writing in quite a while except for....
Polanski: Well, except for Chinatown. On Chinatown we worked for eight weeks with Bob Towne locked up in a little room at the top of Chez Mar. Even though I don't take credit, I work extensively with the screenwriter.
Montague: I've read horror stories about how difficult of a time you had working with Robert Towne at times.
Polanski: Yes, it was really [laughs]. It was tough but we both have very fond memories of those weeks spent in that hot room.
Montague: So you're still good friends?
Polanski: Oh, very much so. Yeah, very much so. Yeah. We keep in touch.
Montague: How was it working with Sigourney Weaver and Ben Kingsley in Death and The Maiden?
Polanski: Oh, fantastic!!
Montague: Did you bring the same sort of perfectionism into that film as you had in your earlier work? I know that you've been known to do numerous takes until you get the scene just the way you want it.
Polanski: Well, but I was lucky to have them early in each take [laughs] . Now I feel that after a certain amount of takes, if it doesn't work, you have to change. I remember that John Ford said that if it doesn't work in so many takes for him that he changes the scene and tries to get a different angle. And I think he was right, you know. I was more stubborn when I was younger . Now I know that if I don't get it in a certain time, then I'm not going to get any better and there must be something wrong, and I have to revise my approach.
Montague: When you were younger you wouldn't revise? You'd just keep on doing take after take?
Polanski: I would keep on doing takes. But even now sometimes I have that feeling that like the TV game where the guy could either quit or double the amount of money with the next question -- you know what I mean? So that's how I feel sometimes. You know, I think, Shit, should I do another one and try or should I quit? You know, that's my feeling after a certain amount of takes. The tension is tremendous; everyone is waiting around and time goes over schedule. You think, Shit I'm still not there. Should I try another one or should I go to the next? I have this feeling, but I don't have movies where I have 50 takes, or something like that -- not anymore.
Montague: Do you feel that you've mellowed as you've gotten older?
Polanski: Well, to a certain extent, maybe gotten mellowed [pauses, considering the possibility]. Uh, no. I wonder... but certainly wiser.
Montague: Do you think the numerous takes you would do would hurt your older films?
Polanski: I think certainly I could get better things if I gave up and tried to change the approach.
Montague: Were there any things in particular looking back over your older films that still bother you today?
Polanski: Oh, masses. Every film. If ever I see one of my films on television, I have a hard time sitting through it, because it seems like all the sins of youth. Truly, I don't think I did my picture yet. I don't feel like I did anything that was totally satisfying to me.
Taylor Montague: Are there any new films or directors that you admire?
Roman Polanski: There always is; there're always admirable films. I even enjoy very much some of those old exploitation movies. I enjoyed films like Independence Day.
Montague: Independence Day?
Polanski: Yeah, it's fun. I'd rather see this than be bored by somebody's pretentious pseudo-intellectual work.
Montague: Many felt if was very shallow and nothing but a rip off of Star Wars or a Spielberg film.
Polanski: I don't think so. It's not a rip-off. It's a film of the same category, but it's fun. The same time, you have films like Secrets and Lies (1996) coming from England or Trainspotting (1996) or whatever and even in America some of those independent films like the one I mentioned. That simple low-budget movie Living in Oblivion -- it's fun and simple. I think there's always room for artists who have ambition and integrity. It's much more difficult for them to be financed, but they struggle and they exist.
Montague: I'm surprised to hear you have such a light-hearted view and don't take the success of films like Independence Day that seriously.
Polanski: As long as there are other movies around, that's fine. If it all becomes an attempt of Independence Day then we are in serious trouble. I think that there is some indication of it.
Montague: Well, if this craze for the top-grossing effects films does continue, what kind of future will independent filmmakers have?
Polanski: It's already getting more and more difficult to make an ambitious and original film. There are less and less independent producers or independent companies and an increasing number of corporations who are more interested in balance sheets than in artistic achievement. They want to make a killing each time they produce a film. They're only interested in the lowest common denominator because they're trying to reach the widest audience. And you got some kind of entropy. That's the danger; they look more alike, those films. The style is all melting and it all looks the same. Even young directors -- for most of them, their only standard of achievement is how well their films do on the first weekend or whatever. It worries me. But then, from time to time, you have a film like The Usual Suspects or.... I'm trying to think of something American with some kind of originality... Pulp Fiction.
Montague: What did you think of Pulp Fiction?
Polanski: I enjoyed that film very much.
Montague: It definitely caused a stir over here.
Polanski: Yeah, you know, whenever you do something new and original, people run to see it because it's different. Then, if it happens to be successful, the studios rush to imitate it. It becomes commonplace right away. But it's been like that before, I think. Now, the stakes are so gigantic that they cut each other's throats. So if most of the films are failures, then those that succeed so spectacularly, so commercially, become the norm. It's like a roulette for the studios. The problem with it is that it becomes more and more of a committee. Before, you dealt with the studio. It had one or two persons and now you have masses of executives who have to justify their existence and write so-called "creative notes" and have creative meetings. They obsess about the word creative probably because they aren't.
Montague: It destroys the notion that a director is the author of the film.
Polanski: Right, it's incredible what they do now. The things they ask you about, the details that nobody would dare ask about -- what kind of shoes is the central character going to wear, and who is going to play that guy that comes and delivers the letter, etc. The more you do it , the less you have creativity. That's why it seems like it's all pre-digested.
Montague: How much did you concern yourself with the potential profitability of your films? Did you actively think of what kind of audience you might draw?
Polanski: Well, you make films for people, so you enjoy it when it's a success. Who wants an empty theater? But you can't think of that when you're doing it, because you have to satisfy your own artistic taste, and not trying to extrapolate it, asking whether they're going to like it or not, because it doesn't work this way, unfortunately.
Montague: As for the film you were working on with John Travolta, The Double, is that on the shelf for now?
Polanski: As far as I'm concerned, it's the past.
Montague: Did you not want to talk about that at all?
Montague: Anything you're planning that you might want to do in the future?
Polanski: Well, I can't tell you what I'm going to do now because I don't know myself.