Roman Polanski
Roman Polanski

A mini-retrospective devoted to Polanski at San Francisco's Roxie Theater yields not only a double bill of "Chinatown" and "Frantic," but a live Skyped interview with the director of both, Roman Polanski, from his now seemingly permanent place of exile, Paris. Thom Mount, the executive producer of Polanski's "Pirates" and producer of "Frantic" and "Death and the Maiden," conducts the Skype interview.  We're told that there's a camera pointing towards the Roxie audience, so that Polanski can see Mount and us.  Polanski talks about editing "Venus in Fur," a French film starring Emmanuuelle Seigner and Mathieu Amalric.

While waiting in line at the Roxie, I'm handed a flyer containing some facts about Polanski's 1977 arrest for statutory rape, which ended with him fleeing the country because of fears that his plea bargain would not be honored and a jail sentence imposed instead.  THIS IS RAPE CULTURE, reads the bottom of the flyer.  I feel that since Samantha Geimer, the victim in the case, has long ago forgiven Polanski, his accusers should, too -- although on September 26, 2009, Polanski was arrested in Switzerland, at the behest of the U.S., kept in a Swiss jail for two months, and then held under house arrest in his home in Gstaad until July 12, 2010, when the Swiss courts rejected the extradition request.

Jack Nicholson Chinatown
Jack Nicholson in 'Chinatown'

Polanski's life is the stuff of novels, many different ones: reminiscent of the two lists that Julian Barnes famously constructed in "Flaubert's Parrot," one containing the highlights of Flaubert's life, and the other the lows. Polanski's: a childhood in the Krakow Jewish ghetto, and then separation from his parents, who were sent to concentration camps -- his mother to Auschwitz, where she was killed, and his father to Matthausen.  Survival by masquerading as a Catholic, sometimes with sheltering families, sometimes on his own (material that he used in his 2002 adaptation of "The Pianist"). The lurid murder of his young pregnant wife Sharon Tate by followers of Charles Manson.  The rape arrest and subsequent life in exile. The recent 18-month imprisonment and house arrest.

The highs: a more than thirty-film filmography, with success from his very first feature, "Knife in the Water," and countless nominations and awards, including the Berlin Golden Bear for "Cul de Sac," the Cannes Palme d'Or for "The Pianist," and the Oscar as Best Director for "The Pianist"; a prolific acting career both in film and onstage, including a celebrated turn as the bratty Mozart in Peter Shaffer's "Amadeus," a long and happy marriage to his third wife, Emmanuelle Seigner, since 1989, who bore him two children, Morgane, about to turn 16, and Elvis, who is 12.

Polanski has recently been the subject of three documentaries: "Polanski: Wanted and Desired," (2008), examining the events around the 1977 case, and its followup, "Odd Man Out," (2012), about his successful battle to avoid extradition; and "Roman Polanski: A Film Memoir," (2011) by Laurent Bouzereau. He's also written his autobiography("Roman by Polanski," 1984) and been the subject of several biographies -- "Polanski: A Biography" (2008), by Christopher Sandford, and "Polanski" (1982) by Barbara Leaming.

Mount says that he's happy to be talking to Polanski about the work, not salacious celebrity nonsense, and that the last time he was able to get him to do something like this was in 2000. Since then Polanski's world has been seriously curtailed.  Mount says that Steve Cooley, the LA district attorney, attempted to extradite Roman back to LA because he wanted to be Attorney General of California, and was using Polanski as a whipping boy for political advantage. Mount says that he raised more money to defeat him than he had raised for presidential campaigns in years -- and points out that Cooley lost LA County by 6%. (He lost to Kamala Harris, who has had her own odd moment in the press recently.)

Polanski suddenly appears on the screen.  He's wearing a navy blue polo shirt under a pale blue v-neck sweater, with his graying hair longish, in a modish and familiar cut.  He looks good -- even boyish. He appears pleased and thanks the audience -- "Well, it's a pleasure."

Mount first asks him a little bit about "Venus in Fur," the movie he's currently cutting. Polanski wrote the script with David Ives, the playwright, and it stars Seigner and Amalric, in French (rather than the original English). It's an independent production, currently with French distribution, but nothing set for America yet.  For a second, Mount and Polanski agree that it's the first time he's worked with Seigner since "Frantic," but just as I am about to break the fourth wall and shout "Bitter Moon!" (a personal favorite that I think is way underrated), Polanski remembers it.

When Mount mentions that "Venus" was shot digitally, and asks Polanski "How do you feel about it?", Polanski jests "I'm fine, how are you?" But he says, yes, he's happy with it -- he's always used digital special effects, a lot of them -- there were at least three or four hundred digital effects in "The Ghost Writer."

Mount says that Polanski always embraces new technology -- that he always has a subscription to "Scientific American."  And, in my favorite moment of the afternoon, Polanski bends over and grabs a handful of copies from his desk to display to his delighted audience.

Mount shifts gears and asks about "Chinatown." Polanski reminisces about his "bunch of friends," including Jack Nicholson and Robert Towne, who wanted to do something together.  Jack called him in Rome, where he was living at the time, and said he had a script by Towne, and that Robert Evans, another friend, was also involved like it. He didn't feel like going back to L.A. -- it was not long after Sharon Tate's murder, and he was happy in Rome. But he came back to Los Angeles and had a long meeting at -- "what's that delicatessen called?," he asks Mount.  "Nate 'n Al's," he replies.  It was a long script, but Towne has a great talent for dialogue, and he sat with Bob for eight weeks during a heat wave to re-write it.

There were disagreements, notably about whether the Nicholson and Dunaway characters should go to bed together, and about the ending.