Roman Polanski -- film director, Oscar nominee and 26-year fugitive from American justice -- was beamed back into town Saturday via satellite for an engrossing and friendly conversation on the craft of making movies and the art of survival.
His appearance at a symposium of the Directors Guild of America in West Hollywood was met largely with collegial admiration -- even awe -- from the standing-room-only audience and his fellow panelists. On the panel were some of the year's most acclaimed directors who, like Polanski, were in the running for DGA awards Saturday night.
Appearing gracious and relaxed, Polanski used the occasion to offer some of his most detailed remarks to date on the making of his movie "The Pianist," an intense film that parallels his own story of surviving the Holocaust in Poland. His televised image, taped in France, where he now lives, appeared on screens next to a panel of the four other directors nominated for the evening's award for outstanding directorial achievement in feature films: Stephen Daldry ("The Hours"), Peter Jackson ("The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers"), Martin Scorsese ("Gangs of New York") and Rob Marshall ("Chicago"), who went on to win.
Polanski's movie, like the others', is up for a best picture Oscar.
It already has captured top honors in British and French film competitions.
On Saturday, though, the focus was not on rivalry -- nor on Polanski's flight from the country to avoid prison time for sexually violating a 13-year-old girl -- but on the pursuit of artistic achievement.
"The real challenge was recreating the world of my childhood," said Polanski, who spoke in a measured cadence with a mixed European accent. The most trying moments came before shooting, he said, when he and his writing partner, Ronald Harwood, had to confront archival footage and re-create its images in the script.
"We went to a country house near Paris and locked ourselves up there, worked 14 hours a day for a month and a half," he said. "I used a lot of my own recollections to illustrate things which in the book were only ideas. We also went through a tremendous amount of archives. The Germans loved filming their work, and we would use this. It was quite painful, much more painful than shooting," he said.
He got through it, he said, with some black and admittedly tasteless humor. "We would laugh a lot, and ask at the end of the day, 'How many Jews did we kill today?' "
Polanski's film was informed by his own childhood horror in Krakow, where he escaped the Nazis who had taken his parents to concentration camps. His mother died in the camps.
"The Pianist" is an adaptation of Wladyslaw Szpilman's memoirs, "Death of a City," and traces the musician's survival, which was helped by several people, including a music-loving German SS officer.
Polanski said he wanted a relatively unknown actor for the lead role, and after a search that drew hundreds of hopefuls, picked Adrien Brody almost immediately.
"It was absolutely clear to me he was the right guy. Sometimes you have to follow your own instincts -- in spite of the studio sometimes."
Brody, also nominated for an Oscar, lost 30 pounds to play the emaciated pianist.
The crowd seemed to contradict any notion that Hollywood wasn't ready to readmit Polanski into the fold.
After the panel, members of the audience spoke reverently about the 69-year-old director, as an artist, separate from his personal life.
"He's fascinating. He's a master filmmaker. He has an approach you don't hear out of anybody else," said Steve Tramz, a first assistant director.
Still, the directors were mixed on Polanski's chances for a directing Oscar this year. Director Bob Birnbaum said he's got his vote. "I think he's a wonderful director. Here's somebody who's made a film about something he's gone through himself. This is a rarity."
But director Martin Guigui said he suspects that, although Polanski may have directed the best picture of the year, the Academy might choose to give the Oscar to Scorsese for his body of work.
Guigui said he has been inspired by Polanski as an artist because of Polanski's authentic storytelling. As for Polanski's past, Guigui said, "The world has grown up in the last couple of years.... Creatively, you can turn the page. Polanski's a pure artist. That's where you can forgive and forget."
Controversy, tragedy and drama have followed the small, wiry director all his life.
He fled from the U.S. in 1977, eight years after his wife, Sharon Tate, had been killed in one of the Manson family's murderous rampages.
Shy of U.S. journalists, Polanski has acceded to only a few interviews with foreign media in the last several years.
The panel, moderated by director Jeremy Kagan, took no questions from the audience. And no questions arose regarding Polanski's self-imposed exile to avoid sentencing for having unlawful sex with a minor -- a situation that makes his attendance at the Oscars extremely unlikely.
Early in Saturday's program, Kagan noted that, in "The Pianist," the character Polanski created transcends political and moral issues.
He asked whether Polanski was offering a message to his audience.
"Obviously, the whole movie is about survival," Polanski said. "It's also a victory of those positive forces that surround us. In this case, it's music and art which helps someone to go through the greatest adversities."