For ‘Venus in Fur’ author, working with Roman Polanski was ‘heaven’

Playwright David Ives
(Timothy Hiatt / Getty Images)

Beyond his many accomplishments as a dramatist, author, humorist and all-around urban wit, David Ives can also lay claim to a reasonably good impression of Roman Polanski.

The lanky, owlish playwright was seated in a cramped coffee shop a few blocks from his Upper West Side apartment, recalling an out-of-the-blue phone message he received two years ago from the Oscar-winning French-Polish filmmaker about the possibility of adapting Ives’ play “Venus in Fur” for the big screen.

“I came home one day and there was a message on my machine,” Ives said. “This was the message: ‘Hullo, Daveed Ives! Thees ees Roman Polanski. I loved your play — I want to do eet as a movie. Call me! Here ees my phone number.’”


“Venus in Fur”: A June 29 article about the play and film versions of “Venus in Fur” said that the stage version is having its Southern California premiere in October at South Coast Repertory in Costa Mesa. The play was produced at San Diego Repertory Theatre in late 2013. —

Ives’ impersonation was made more out of affection than jest. In a conversation that moved frequently between the worlds of theater and cinema, Ives praised Polanski’s directorial skills and went as far as to say that the filmmaker made small improvements on the play, fine-tuning dialogue here and there.

“I wish I had had him at my side during the off-Broadway production,” he said.

Early in their discussions about the movie, Polanski told Ives that he didn’t want to “open up” the play or move certain interior scenes to outside, according to the playwright. “I think one of the things he liked about the play was the claustrophobia.”

Less than a year later, Ives was standing with Polanski on the red carpet at the 2013 Cannes Film Festival, where “Venus in Fur” was competing in the official selection.

“The whole thing happened so quickly,” recalled the writer.

“If this had been a Hollywood movie, I would have done three drafts, a rewrite, and then it probably would have gone to seven other writers. And then it would have sat on the shelf for years and years.”

But, he added, “Venus in Fur” is far from blockbuster material. “This isn’t ‘Thor 5,’” he said.

A meta-comedy of ideas as well as a play about play-acting, “Venus” depicts the shifting balance of power between a stage director and a blowsy actress who crashes an audition for his latest production, an adaptation of the Leopold von Sacher-Masoch novella “Venus in Furs.”

Ives debuted the play in 2010 at New York’s Classic Stage Company, and it later transferred to Broadway in a production by the Manhattan Theatre Club, winning a Tony Award for actress Nina Arianda. The play will have its Southern California premiere in October at South Coast Repertory in Costa Mesa.

Polanski’s French-language movie stars his wife, Emmanuelle Seigner, as the ambiguous Vanda and Mathieu Amalric as Thomas, the flummoxed theater director.

The play’s red-carpet journey to the big screen began at the previous Cannes festival when Jeff Berg, who has been Polanski’s agent for more than two decades, gave the director a copy of the play.

Berg said that he saw “Venus” when it was running on Broadway and that he thought it would make perfect movie material for Polanski.

“Roman does very well with contained dramas and intense situations,” Berg said in a separate interview. “I also thought there was a great role for Emmanuelle.”

In summer 2012, Ives, along with his wife, traveled to Polanski’s chalet in Gstaad, Switzerland, where they collaborated on the screenplay.

“He read me my play out loud, page by page, line by line, and we talked about everything,” recalled Ives.

“His command of the nuances of English dialogue was amazing — he saw how lines could be better and sharper.”

After 10 days, they had a working screenplay. The script was largely faithful to the play, with the one big exception that the action was moved to a Paris theater rather than the original’s New York rehearsal room.

“In France, you audition in a real theater. So they built a theater,” said Ives.

The set was constructed in a former space used by the Comédie-Française in Paris.

The location was convenient for Seigner, who was just coming off a production of Harold Pinter’s “The Homecoming” at the Théâtre de l’Odéon. The actress, who has two children with Polanski and has appeared in three other of his movies, said she hadn’t seen “Venus” before taking on the movie role.

“At first, I didn’t think I could do the part,” Seigner recalled by phone from Paris. Speaking in French, she said she first read the text in English and felt overwhelmed by the size of the role.

“But then Roman convinced me that it would be a good role for me. Once it was translated to French and once we were shooting, it was easy.”

Vanda’s shifting identity — and the mind-warping effect it has on the male sex — arguably echoes another Seigner-Polanski collaboration, the 1992 movie “Bitter Moon.” But Seigner said she doesn’t see the parallels.

“It’s much more like ‘The Tenant,’” she said, referring to Polanski’s 1976 psychodrama set in a Paris apartment building.

Ives would return to Europe to help with rehearsals — the actors made suggestions about making the French more colloquial — and again after the 28-day shoot to assist Polanski with the English subtitles.

“Venus,” which is his first play to be made into a movie, is an atypical work for the 63-year-old Ives, who has specialized in brainy, one-act comedies with titles like “Variations on the Death of Trotsky” and “Philip Glass Buys a Loaf of Bread.”

Lately, the Chicago native has made a side career out of adapting classic French plays for the English-language stage, including a recent production of “The Heir Apparent,” adapted from the drama by Jean-François Regnard, at Classic Stage.

“My French is 18th century French,” he said. “If you’d ask me to go around the corner and buy milk, I might have some trouble.”

Ives has also collaborated with a number of songwriters and is working with Stephen Sondheim on a new musical. He worked on the short-lived 2002 Broadway production “Dance of the Vampires,” based on Polanski’s 1967 movie “The Fearless Vampire Killers.”

He called the Broadway musical “troubled” and said he and Polanski never discussed it.

As a struggling playwright in his early 20s, Ives spent a year in Los Angeles working at a bookstore and honing his theatrical craft.

One of his early efforts was “Canvas,” a comedy about an artist whose paintings talk back to him, produced at the now-defunct Scorpio Rising Theatre in Silver Lake in 1972. Ives was credited as “David Roszkowski,” which is his birth name.

“I didn’t care much for the production,” Ives confessed. But he said the play was seen by someone from New York’s Circle Repertory Theatre, which staged it later the same year, thereby launching his New York theater career.

“Venus” has become one of his most-performed plays and has been seen in productions all over the world — though not yet in London or L.A., Ives noted.

The South Coast Repertory production will be directed by Casey Stangl, who recently staged the play for American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco.

The movie has received largely positive reviews from critics, particularly for Seigner’s performance. Polanski won a César, France’s equivalent of the Oscar, for his direction.

Some of Ives’ fondest memories from working on the movie have to do with Polanski’s idiosyncratic personality. (The director wasn’t available for comment.)

During a meal at a restaurant, Ives remembered Polanski receiving a phone call: “He looked at his phone and said, ‘Oh, it’s my jailer’!” The caller turned out to be a guard whom Polanski had befriended during his time in a Swiss prison in 2009.

Polanski was arrested five years ago en route to the Zurich Film Festival on charges dating from a 1977 U.S. case in which he admitted having unlawful sex with a minor. Swiss authorities eventually released him, but he remains a fugitive from U.S. officials.

Ives said Polanski’s attention to detail on “Venus” sometimes bordered on obsessive. The playwright remembered a frantic call from Polanski asking whether it was all right to move a stage direction from one page to another of the screenplay.

“That is the level of detail he operates on,” said Ives. “But I didn’t mind. For me, it was heaven.”

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