The gift of the nose” is how Jerzy Mierzejiewski, one of Roman Polanski’s teachers from the Lodz Film School in Poland, summed up his young protégé’s uncanny ability to make films that reverberate with audiences on several levels.
Even now, at the age of 76, Polanski knows how to sniff his way to a good film. His 18th feature, The Ghost Writer, which won the Silver Bear at this year’s Berlin Film Festival, is the latest in a long line of Polanski pictures where art and reality have become inexorably entwined.
Yet that was never his original intention. Polanski first contacted the novelist Robert Harris to see if he could make a film out of Harris’s novel Fatherland, an alternative history of the second world war with Nazi Germany as the winners. Told that the rights for Fatherland were gone, Polanski read his way through the rest of Harris’s oeuvre until he got to Pompeii, the English author’s novel about ancient Rome.
Harris agreed to write Polanski a screenplay. But in 2007, just as Polanski was about to start principal photography on the $100m budgeted film, the project became derailed by a looming Hollywood strike. A dogged Harris then sent Polanski his just-finished novel The Ghost, a roman à clef about a professional ghostwriter employed to write the memoirs of a former British prime minister who bears more than a passing resemblance to Tony Blair.
Ten days later Harris received a phone call from Polanski saying he would like to make a film out of The Ghost and asking Harris again to write the script.
“Providence!” exclaims Harris, who altogether spent two-and-a-half years working with Polanski on the two scripts. “It was far more suitable as a Polanski film than Pompeii was.”
Harris points to The Ghost’s isolated setting, its sexual tension and the master/servant relationship between the former prime minister (Pierce Brosnan) and his ghostwriter (Ewan McGregor) as typical Polanski territory. But what neither Polanski nor Harris could have predicted was that The Ghost Writer’s plot – ex-PM Adam Lang, accused of war crimes, becomes a prisoner in his publisher’s compound – would end up echoing Polanski’s own house arrest in Switzerland for a crime he had committed more than 30 years earlier.
Polanski, who fled the US for Europe in 1978 before being formally sentenced for having unlawful sex with a 13-year-old, was arrested in Switzerland last September after travelling to the Zurich film festival to receive a lifetime award. After spending two months in jail, Polanski was granted house arrest at his residence in Gstaad, where he is still awaiting a decision over his appeals to fight extradition to the US.
“Some American critics said, look how he [Polanski] made this film to parallel his own situation under house arrest,” says Harris. “But that was a long way from our thoughts at the time we wrote the film. He’s funny, Roman: things just happen around him. He’s like a kind of whirlpool where fantasy and reality seem to collide.”
Polanski would likely agree. The opening of his (ghostwritten) autobiography Roman by Polanski (1984), is a confession of a kind: “As far back as I can remember the line between fantasy and reality has been hopelessly blurred. I have taken most of my lifetime to grasp that this is the key to my very existence.”
Harris suggests that it was during the second world war, after his parents were deported from Poland by the Germans (his father survived, his mother didn’t), that Polanski, who was on the run, began to fuse reality and fantasy “by hanging around in movie theatres as a kind of alternative reality”.
Filmmaking has allowed the director to evacuate his demons. His extraordinarily bloodthirsty Macbeth was the film he made after his wife Sharon Tate was murdered by Charles Manson’s gang, while the tag line of Tess, which Polanski made in France after fleeing the charges in the US, reads like reverse propaganda: “She was Tess, a victim of her own provocative beauty.”
Polanski finally felt ready to make a film about the Holocaust – The Pianist – after reading the Polish pianist Wladisaw Szpilman’s memoir of the Warsaw ghetto. For Polanski, who had turned down an offer to direct Schindler’s List because it was set in the Krakow ghetto “just too close to home”, The Pianist was far enough away from his own story to make a film possible.
Harris finds Polanski’s current predicament ironic because the director had felt that during the making of The Ghost Writer his legal situation was improving and that he might soon be able to return to the US. Marina Zenovich’s documentary Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired came out in Paris, where Polanski lives, during their collaboration in 2008.
“He heard about it when I was sitting with him,” Harris says. “The film makes clear that a deal was done; he pleaded guilty to one charge (unlawful sex with a minor) and the rest was never tested in court. The understanding was that he [Polanski] would not get a custodial sentence and the judge ratted on that.”
With redemption seemingly just around the corner, Polanski and Harris busied themselves writing a film designed to be a pure entertainment in the Hitchcock mould, for once not driven by any personal trauma. Harris’s models for his original novel were North by Northwest and “the entertainments” of Graham Greene. Polanski also discussed Carol Reed’s The Odd Man Out, which according to Harris is “his all-time favourite film”.
As was his wont Polanski made sure that Harris remained as faithful to the source material of his novel as possible. “Whenever I tried to leave something out in the screenplay he’d say, ‘You’ve left out these lines,’” remembers Harris. “‘Don’t f*** with success!’ he’d say. ‘Leave it in.’”
Although Harris wrote all the new film’s dialogue, Polanski would egg him on to put more dark humour into the script. “His default position is that the world is so terrible you have to laugh,” says Harris. “It was like working with a kind of super-editor. Sometimes I had to rewrite each scene 20 or 30 times until they chimed with what he had in his head.”
The other film of Polanski’s that The Ghost Writer most resembles is Chinatown. There is the same idea of a slightly cynical but inherently naive, young man snooping around in matters that shouldn’t concern him as much as they do. How do you end a story like that? In his autobiography Polanski delivers the rare insight that ending films effectively is always the most difficult.
“The film was going to end on an ambiguous note, with Ewan McGregor’s character just disappearing into a crowd,” says Harris. “But just before he started shooting the final scene Polanski said, ‘We can’t have this, it’s got to end on a darker note.’”
‘The Ghost Writer’ is released on April 16