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

Interviews
by Anne Thompson
August 18, 2013 7:55 PM
2 Comments
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Roman Polanski in 1963 at the first New York Film Festival, where he screened 'Knife in the Water' Jerry Schatzberg

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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2 Comments

  • Tim | August 22, 2013 1:33 AMReply

    Chinatown is one of my favorite movies. The madness the mystery oh corrupt silly amerika. You helped me grow up with your movies. Thank you.

  • PRESIDENT MAO | August 19, 2013 10:26 AMReply

    HAPPY BIRTHDAY, FUCKING RAPIST! THE LORD WILL JUDGE YOU, BE SURE!

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