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Roman Polanski Q & A Via Skype on 'Chinatown,' Upcoming 'Venus in Fur' and Dreyfus Affair Film

Thompson on Hollywood By Meredith Brody | Thompson on Hollywood April 7, 2013 at 9:27PM

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.
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Roman Polanski
Roman Polanski

"This is your ending," Mount says.  "Yes," Polanski says, "Bob wanted to finish with some sort of happy ending -- he wrote several."  Polanski wanted the audience to feel the injustice.  If you ask the audience to choose, he thinks, the audience will always choose the happy version -- and the resulting film would be like Muzak in the elevator.  There would be no Greek tragedy if the Greek writers listened to their audience.

They started filming, in fact, without having completed the script -- "'Don't worry,'" Polanski assured them, "'I'll come up with an ending.'  We have to have at least one scene in Chinatown, it won't make sense. As it happens, there was no Chinatown [that looked like that] in LA at the time.  Dick Sylbert [the production designer] was also part of our gang of friends. He created the Chinese street in and around a few Chinese restaurants in Chinatown." 

Polanski wrote three or four pages and told Nicholson that he'd bring him the dialogues and you fix them your way.  'We shot it in one night,' he remembers, 'or maybe two -- it went very quickly.'

Polanski says that women don't mind so much being directed. Men have this fear of being directed, if they are macho-minded.  He had very good relationships with actresses, he says -- except Faye Dunaway.  She's good in the film, even though we didn't get along.  Once he pulled a hair -- a stray hair -- which became a major crisis.  It caught the back light, which complicates your progress in shooting. The hairdresser came and fixed it, but it opposed up again.  After three or four tries, he said "Wait a minute, love," and pulled the hair -- and Dunaway "got a crisis."

The interview wraps up, way too soon from my point of view, after a brief mention of Polanski's next project, about the Dreyfus affair, to begin in a couple of months after wrapping "Venus In Fur" and finishing work on the Dreyfus script, and an equally brief intro to "Frantic," which Mount says was cooked up during a low moment working on "Pirate," in a "dubious restaurant in a dubious Tunisian hotel": "you said you wanted to make a movie in a city where you can eat the food and the telephone works," he reminds Polanski.

Polanski says he was in a wonderful mood, making "Frantic" -- he liked working with Emmanuelle and Harrison, it was a good period in his life, and in the city he was living in.

Polanski thanks the audience and Mount -- "I wish you just happy movies."  He seems sincerely moved and pleased by the long and lusty applause from the crowd.

I look at my watch.  A scant 20 minutes have gone by. "A dollar a minute," I say, cynically, to my companion, even though the $20 ticket included a Blu-Ray projection of "Chinatown," (we're told FedEX muffed a print deivery) and the subsequent screening of "Frantic." I expected a longer, more in-depth conversation, with questions from the audience. I'm happy to have been there, but in a way I think Polanski got just as much from it as we did. (Not that there's anything wrong with that!)

Mount thanks us for our warm embrace of Roman, saying all he sees from his exile in France is a stream of invective. 

After watching the well-made, Hitchcockian "Frantic," in a well-worn 35mm print, which I enjoyed probably more than the first time I saw it, Mount returns for a Q and A, saying we saw the US/WB ending, in which Harrison Ford tosses the McGuffin that rival countries have been trying to collect into the Seine after the final shootout. Polanski's Euro version had Ford discover it in his pocket while en route to the airport and toss it into a passing garbage truck.  (I prefer the US ending -- so shoot me.)

He reiterates that the anti-Roman feeling in the US was strong, and that he thinks the recent attempt to extradite Roman helped them, as it allowed them to tell the story in detail.

Mount also says, about "Frantic," that if he had it all to do over again, he would use a different Director of Photography, and different film stock -- that it's too "Agfa," by which he means too green and grey and blue.  The blacks should have been blacker, more contrast, the colors should have been richer.  And he regrets losing the fight over the ending.  And today he's less inclined to go with a movie star -- he's more interested in authenticity.

I myself think Ford did just swell with the script he was given, and that authenticity would have required a somewhat deeper character than the script provided. I'm glad that I have "Venus in Fur" and "D" (which is the working title for Polanski's Dreyfus affair movie) to look forward to.  Before we leave, my companions and I try to guess Polanski's age, 74, 75? We look it up on a handy iPad, and it turns out he'll turn 80 on August 18th.  We all agree that he looks great and sounds even better. It's both amazing to us  and inspiring.

This article is related to: Roman Polanski


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