PARIS – At 78, Roman Polanski still has that boyish charm.
Arriving in a meeting room in Hotel Plaza Athenee, with a smile and bemused glimmer in his eyes, Roman – one of the greatest filmmakers of all time – said, “I always look young. I think it’s genetic. When I was 18, I looked 14. When I did my first film in Poland, ‘Knife in the Water,’ it was for 18 and older … they wouldn’t let me go see it.”
The director of “Chinatown,” “The Pianist,” “Rosemary’s Baby,” “Repulsion,” “The Tenant,” “Tess” and “The Ghost Writer” pointed out that he maintains a healthy lifestyle. “It doesn’t mean I don’t have a glass of wine in the evening,” he said. “I always did a lot of sports. I eat well so I think that helps. I never smoked … except cigars.”
Born in this city, Polanski has lived here in exile since 1978, when he fled the United States after being convicted for unlawful sex with a minor. In 2009, he was set to receive a lifetime achievement award at the Zurich Film Festival when Swiss police arrested him for extradition to the US. After months in prison and house arrest, the filmmaker avoided extradition. Now free to travel to Switzerland, Polanski received the award last September.
He referred to the time of his house arrest as “my sabbatical year.” It was during this period that Oscar and Golden Globe-winning actor Christoph Waltz visited him to discuss a role in “Carnage,” which the director was casting at the time.
Polanski eventually cast Waltz with Jodie Foster, Kate Winslet and John C. Reilly in his adaptation of Yasmina Reza’s “God of Carnage,” winner of Olivier and Tony Awards, including best play.
Imagine the four talented actors playing two sets of well-heeled New York parents who meet for a polite discussion of their respective sons’ playground squabble.
Soon, verbal warfare erupts between the couples and between the spouses. It’s a biting, black comedy that exposes contradictions and prejudices while a signature purse, a mobile phone and flowers from a vase are tossed about amid the heated arguments.
“What attracted me to the play was mainly the fun that I had watching it,” Polanski said. “I see it as a kind of criticism or satire on conventional middle class values … its hypocrisy and smiles, niceties and political correctness.”
Winner of a Golden Globe best director award for “Chinatown,” Polanski bantered, “I can tell you I will be really sorry, but I won’t be able to attend when you give me (a Golden Globe) for this (“Carnage”). So you better think of another candidate.”
You kept the film close to the play and you did not “open it up,” which worked.
When you adapt a play, you don’t do what they call “break it up” or “take it out.” It always looks phony when films adapted from plays suddenly take you for a couple of minutes to the street … I don’t understand why there’s such a fear of doing something in a confined space. To me, it’s very attractive.
There were some films like that in my youth, even in my childhood, that attracted me tremendously. They remain throughout in all my work like, for example, Laurence Olivier’s “Hamlet.” All of that film happens in that strange castle with corridors, stairs and terraces. It’s all in a confined space. When I did “Death and the Maiden,” I was trying to do the same but it was very difficult to not go at least a little bit out in the garden, etcetera.
Since there are just four actors in the film, casting was crucial. How did you cast the four actors?
Since there are just four actors in the film, casting was crucial. The first to be cast was Jodie. She wanted to do it right away. Next was Kate. We got together and that was it. Then my agent, who happens to also represent Christoph, said, “This guy wants to see you.” I was locked up in house arrest or let’s call it “my sabbatical year.” I said, “Yes that will be very interesting if he comes to visit me.” That would be much more interesting than the chief of Bern police – who also came to have tea with me.
Christoph and I started talking about the play because I was working on the adaptation. The last one (to be cast) was John. It was a difficult role to cast. I had a very good casting director, Fiona Weir. She suggested John. I was really lucky to have four people not only of such great quality as actors but they also liked each other. That doesn’t happen every day.
Were you very specific in your instructions to the actors or did they adapt to you?
I gave them notes, told them what I wanted, but they very quickly understood the way everyone should be. I heard them say that I did not direct much but I didn’t need to. In one of my films, an actress thought that I didn’t like her. I can’t remember who it was. I did not give her any directions because she was perfect.
Was it Faye Dunaway?
No, no … oh my god.
Do you keep in touch with the actors in your previous films?
Those I have a good relationship with. I saw Adrien (Brody) a couple of weeks ago. He was in Paris after a long spell. I see Harrison (Ford) every time he comes. Jack Nicholson used to visit quite a lot. But I haven’t seen him for a good couple of years. I saw Mia (Farrow). But she now lives far from the madding crowd.
What do you miss about Hollywood?
In the beginning, there were certain things I missed. But nowadays … if you go to a studio here, you see technicians using the same methods and machinery. In Hollywood, there’s the connection with the people who finance the films because you lunch or dine with them, whereas here, you never see them. Other than that, I miss friends. I miss Nate ‘n Al Delicatessen.
What other films do you want to make?
I would like to do a period film of the pre-war times, on the psychology of aging. Plastic surgery, creams and pills – it has become a total craze. I’d like to do this but not in today’s era, because it will become a comedy. I’d like to set it in a period when you don’t have these tools. It will be about how one person, a woman, goes through the stages of life and deals with it. It’s something that I observe. There’s a total obsession with aging nowadays.
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