A portrait of Roman Polanski at 80
No other contemporary filmmaker has had a career like Roman Polanski. The lauded director, who turns 80 Sunday, has been making feature films since the 1962 thriller “Knife in the Water,” which he made in his native Poland. His most recent feature, “Venus in Fur” starring his third wife, Emmanuelle Seigner, screened this May at the Cannes Film Festival.
Over the subsequent decades, the Holocaust survivor has directed visionary, innovative and paranoid dramas and darkly comedic films, including such landmark pictures as 1968’s “Rosemary’s Baby,” 1974’s “Chinatown” and 2002’s “The Pianist,” for which he won the Oscar for directing.
But his personal life has often made more headlines than his professional accomplishments.
In 1969, his pregnant actress wife, Sharon Tate, and several friends were murdered by members of Charles Manson’s “family.” After Polanski was convicted of having sex with 13-year-old Samantha Geimer in 1977, he fled Los Angeles for Paris in 1978 in fear that he would have to serve prison time.
Polanski is also the subject of James Greenberg’s “Roman Polanski: A Retrospective,” which is both a lavish coffee table book that includes a plethora of archival personal photographs and stills from his films and a serious exploration of his career. Greenberg, who first met Polanski on the set of the director’s 1992 film, “Bitter Moon,” also interviewed the director extensively for the book.
The American Cinematheque’s Egyptian Theater is celebrating the director and the publication of Greenberg’s book with the mini-retrospective, “Dread and Desire: Roman Polanski at 80,” which kicks off Friday with 1976’s “The Tenant” and 1988’s “Frantic.” Greenberg will be on hand Sunday to sign books and talk about Polanski at the screening of “Rosemary’s Baby” and his first English-language film, the 1965 psychological thriller, “Repulsion.”
Greenberg, who is the editor in chief of the DGA Quarterly, the journal of the Directors Guild, recently chatted about Polanski over the phone from his home in Los Angeles.
So how did you get Roman Polanski to cooperate with you on the book? He has never done that before with a journalist.
I have interviewed him several times over the years. It took some persuasion to get him to agree to do it. He felt that so much had been written about him and that people wanted to know about the salacious details. The thing that persuaded him was that I convinced him that it was just going to be about his work. Once ... on board, he was great. He was extremely gracious.
Next month, Geimer is publishing her memoir, “The Girl.” Did you know about that book?
I was aware it was coming out. To be honest, I forgot when it was coming out. Just last week I saw some press about it. It is just a totally different story. My book is concerned with his work.
One of the things in doing the book, which was tricky for me, is that obviously you have to mention some of the events in his life. In some regards, they are the elephant in the room. If you didn’t acknowledge them and mention it, it would be like a glaring omission. I had to figure out a way to acknowledge it and then to move on to what I do want to talk about it. I did that in the beginning that introduces his early life.
You do discuss his difficult early life, including his experiences during the Holocaust, which he vividly re-creates in “The Pianist.”
It was traumatic. He escaped the Krakow ghetto. His parents went to the concentration camps. His mother was pregnant and she didn’t survive. He was living on a farm in rural Poland — he was ignored. It was dirt poor. And then there was one occasion when Nazi soldiers were in the country, and they were firing at him for sport. Certainly, the events of his life have contributed to his sensibility.
You do acknowledge that Polanski can be difficult on the set.
He is in charge. He is domineering. For some actors who have not worked with him before and are not used to that, it takes some getting used to. I know Harrison Ford on “Frantic” was taken aback in the first week with the totality of the director: How to put a cup down. How to pick it up. Where to face when you are sitting. None of it is gratuitous. It is all for dramatic effect. There is not a glass on a table in a Polanski film that’s not there for a reason. This is not to say that he doesn’t work with actors. They have input and contribution, but he has very strong ideas.
I didn’t know he was so reluctant to do “Chinatown” because he didn’t want to return to Los Angeles. It had only been four years since Sharon Tate’s murder.
He wasn’t eager to do it. He was living in Rome. He had a production company there. He had wanted to work with Jack Nicholson for some time, and this material came up. He realized this kind of project just doesn’t come along that often. Robert Evans called him and Jack called him. So he came to L.A.
The script needed a lot of work. He eventually holed up with [screenwriter] Robert Towne and they pared it down. As complicated as the story is now, I believe it was even more byzantine in its earlier drafts.
So after interviewing him and dissecting his movies, what makes him such as a master filmmaker?
There are few people directing that know as much as he does about the intricacies of the details of making movies. It’s just astounding. Look at “The Pianist.” It’s just immaculately made.
On the other level, he embodies a lot of the dread of the last half of the 20th century. He’s been very influenced by Samuel Beckett. He comes out of the theater of the absurd, the Surrealists, the Holocaust. The artistic and historical trends that have influenced artists in the latter part of the 20th century are all present in his work.
I asked him why he keeps working. And he said, “I’m still learning things. It’s still fascinating for me.” I think he’s happiest when he’s on the set. He’s the center and the commander of the universe.
‘Dread and Desire: Roman Polanski at 80'
Where: American Cinematheque’s Egyptian Theatre, 6712 Hollywood Boulevard, Hollywood
When: Friday-Sunday at 7:30 p.m.
Friday: “The Tenant,” “Frantic”
Sunday: “Rosemary’s Baby,” “Repulsion”
It's a date
Get our L.A. Goes Out newsletter, with the week's best events, to help you explore and experience our city.
You may occasionally receive promotional content from the Los Angeles Times.