Interview: Director Marina Zenovich
Mon, 14 Jul 2008 12:49:58
Roman Polanski Videos
The Roman Polanski sex case is colored by shades of sensationalism, not only because of the salacious details inherent to the director’s relations with an underage girl in 1977, but also owing to the dramatic court proceedings following his arrest. Polanski fled America in 1978 and has not returned since, and the likelihood of him doing so in the future remains slim. With a case as dramatically loaded as this one, most individuals maintain a fixed opinion about the topic regardless of whether or not they are cognizant of its many layers. Sifting through Polanski’s personal history, interviews with key players, and heretofore unknown details about behind-the-scenes court dealings, director Marina Zenovich sheds new light upon the Polanski trial with her years-in-the-making documentary. Rather than demonizing the director or portraying him as a martyr for the legal system, Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired explores the case with objectivity as its primary aim. Zenovich spoke to ARTISTdirect about the Larry King interview which catalyzed the filmmaking process for her and hearing from Polanski himself after completing the project.
When you began making the documentary, did you just cold call individuals involved with the case?
Yeah, I did. I read an article in the Los Angeles Times that kind of piqued my interest in 2003. So, I had some people from that article who I cold called. The article was about whether or not [Polanski] would be able to come to America if he got nominated for The Pianist. When he got nominated there started to be more press, and then the girl and her lawyer went on the Larry King show and her lawyer said, “The day Roman Polanski fled was a sad day for the American judicial system.” That was really the comment that got me going, but I didn’t know anyone who knew her lawyer. I cold called him. I love cold calling [laughs]. I cold called the judge’s girlfriend. It was amazing; I found the judge’s obituary online and she was mentioned as being with him at his death. This was 2003, and he died in, I think, 1994. It was 11 o’clock when I found her number, and the next day by noon I was in her living room. And I said to her, “You shouldn’t let strangers into your house.” Anyway, that’s part of the fun, trying to find people, and then people hook you up with other people.
When you started getting even more immersed in this world, did it open up the doors for you? Did people start coming out of the woodwork?
I wouldn’t go that far. There’s a story that I tell because it’s such a great story. I read that article and then they went on the Larry King show. I was living in New York at the time and I really wanted to pursue this. I had had a hard time finding an idea for a film and this really interested me. I’m originally from California; I know L.A., I went to college here, so I came to L.A. and the first person I called—it was meant to be—was a friend named Rich Radin. He said, “What are you doing here?” I said, “Well, I’m really interested in Polanski and what happed to him with the case, and I want to look into it and make a documentary about it.” And he said, “Well, that’s really funny, because the bishop at my church was the D.A. in the case.” I’m serious, that was my first call. I was like, “Are you kidding?” And then he said, “Why don’t you talk to Adam?” And I said, “Adam who?” And he said, “Adam Bardach.” It turned out that this other documentary filmmaker who I had met through Rich was Polanski’s godson, but he didn’t advertise it. So I got an entrée to the D.A. through that personal connection. I knew Adam a little bit, so I called him and told him I wanted to meet him. Little by little, you have to infiltrate a world. It’s not easy because this subject is very sensational and people don’t necessarily don’t want to talk because it is already so sensationalized.
How then, as a filmmaker, do you establish a sense of trust between yourself and the interview subjects?
I think that just like in anything you can kind of get a sense of what a person is like. I think that I’m relatively genuine, I’m straightforward. It’s not like I’m hiding some sort of secret mission or something. I think people just saw that I was curious about the story and wanted to tell the truth and didn’t have an agenda. That builds up a sense of trust. When you’re struggling with a project and working on it for so long—I mean, this is not what normal people do [laughs]—people are just amazed that you’re doing something for so long. It’s a passion project. I think they see that you’re trying to do something that’s important to you, and they appreciate it.
Because the case is so loaded and because there are so many fixed perceptions in our culture regarding it, how do you divorce yourself of a certain amount of subjectivity and turn it into more of an exploration?
I didn’t really make an intellectual choice, it’s just kind of who I am. I was just very curious as to why her lawyer made a comment that didn’t make sense to me: “When Roman Polanski fled was a sad day for the American judicial system.” It’s just the nature of my personality. I’m not much of a polemicist, I just want to explore something. I don’t have an axe to grind. I didn’t have a relationship with Polanski or Samantha Geimer or anything. I was an outsider looking in and trying to make sense of something that everybody seemed to think they understood , but it turned out that they didn’t really know all the facts.
When you’re dealing with a figure who’s as prolific as Roman Polanski, is the goal, then, to try and humanize him with your work? Was the prospect of trying to do that with a celebrity figure daunting?
I was never trying to humanize him. I think you can’t help but humanize people by telling their story, because he is a human. I don’t think of him as a “celebrity.” I think of him as a man who’s had a long and varied life filled with more ups and downs than most people. I wasn’t trying to be sympathetic, I was just trying to understand what got him to that night. I wanted to go backward in time to tell some of his history. I would have [told] more, but we had to keep to the story. I would have wanted to show maybe a little bit more of his childhood, but people know about his childhood, at least the people that I’m telling the story for. To me, he is very human. We’re all flawed human beings. If you tell a story about someone, you can’t help but make them human. I have archive[d footage] of him where he’s being very human. He’s very real. He’s not like—I can’t think of the male equivalent of Britney Spears. If I was to make a film about her, I would try to humanize her. I’ve never seen her do anything that seems particularly humanizing except for maybe when she was really, really in trouble. I remember reading something about her, like she got on an airplane, sat in coach, sat in the last row and was shaking all the way to L.A. That was the most human thing I’d ever read about her. She’s presented as a celebrity and you don’t even think of her as a human. To me, Roman Polanski is a full-blown figure and human being.
At the same time, you explore the idea of celebrity and sensationalism and how that collides with judicial proceedings. What did you find surprising about that intersection as you were making the film? Did you emerge with a different viewpoint of your own about the process?
Just how everyone is kind of seduced by the limelight. Polanski came to Hollywood to be a director and Samantha Geimer wanted to be an actress and judge Rittenband wanted to have his picture taken. I was very surprised to see that a judge had a press conference. To someone now that doesn’t seem so shocking, but back then it had never happened before. To learn about the backroom dealings in the judge’s chamber and the fact that no one really knew about this was quite shocking to me. The sensationalism has always been there. People are interested in celebrity.
How do you perceive the climate surrounding the case to have changed from the ‘70s to today, especially around the time of his Oscar win and nomination?
I can’t really compare the two because he wasn’t here [in America]. You could compare it to something like Michael Jackson going to the courthouse and everybody watching live on CNN. They’re essentially the same, but back then, there weren’t cell phones, people didn’t have [other] people to check in with. They went on a mad goose chase trying to figure out how Polanski had fled. Did he go to Santa Monica airport? Did he go to Mexico? Did he go to LAX? It was much more everyone working together as a team instead of working against each other because they didn’t have anyone to call, really, and see. It wasn’t as electronic.
I know that he’s seen the film and he’s praised it, and you’ve had a personal interaction with him. Can you describe that a bit?
It was rewarding that he liked the film. I can’t speak for Roman, but I feel that he appreciated that this part of the story had been told, because, for some reason, it’s gotten lost. You can read about the story if you go downtown and request to see the court files, but that wasn’t even fun for me [laughs]. It’s very Kafka-esque to go down there and try to find a file, which is quite ironic, because I thought the whole film was like Polanski being stuck in one of his own movies—being directed by the judge, who’s dead. He had been living in my head in archives, so when I met him it was great to see him and talk to him about the film. His attitude was kind of like, “Can you believe this?” Which I completely understand having made the film, but you go online and it’s very controversial because everyone thinks they know exactly what happened and everyone thinks that he should be locked up—not everyone, but a lot of people. It’s just interesting. It’s almost like you can’t win because people have such strong feelings about this because it’s a sex case.
Do you feel like his non-participation in the film was actually an asset to the story that you were trying to tell?
Yeah. My last film was about a French guy named Bernard Tapie. He wasn’t in the film, so it wasn’t that odd for me to make a film about someone who wasn’t in it. I wanted to do an interview with him because I think Roman would be a great interview. It ended up being an asset. I didn’t really think I needed him. Did I want to try to get him? Yes. Did I try to get him? Yes. Did it take him a long time to decide? Yes. Did I finally say, “Look, I’m coming to Paris because I’m going to Italy for another job. It’s this day, or forget it.” I had to finish the film. He apologized and said, “I don’t think it’s right for me to be in the film.” I agreed, and my executive producer Steven Soderbergh told me that he thought it would be a mistake if Roman was in the film. I had to tell Roman that, because he was right. But when I went to Paris, he agreed to meet with me. I think he just appreciated the amount of work that I did. It wasn’t like this was easy. That’s what’s so interesting about documentary. When you get the idea, you don’t know how good it is. It not always necessarily good. But this is kind of like the story [where] people would say, “Why this story now?” I don’t think like that. I was intrigued by something and the more I started investigating, the more interesting it looked. Only for that reason did I continue. Initially no one wanted to fund it, no one wanted to help me. It was a real struggle, and it took a long time and it was a very complicated story, so it took a long time to edit because it’s a court case. That’s not really what I make movies about. That’s not what makes the most compelling movies. What’s more compelling is his life. At a certain point we almost had a biography of him and the court case, then it was merging the two. It was very ambitious.
Did you find the story changing in post-production? How did you work with your editor?
I had a couple different editors. I wanted Joe Bini from the beginning. I got pregnant in the middle of filming, so I was putting together a rough cut—an extremely rough cut—while I was eight months pregnant, and then I had to take a break. Joe saw that and saw that there was something there. At that point I didn’t even have Polanski’s lawyer because he didn’t want to talk to me. It was kind of nuts. I just had cards that said, “Quote from Doug Dalton,” and I finally got him to call me back. We started talking and then I asked him to come to the editing room when I was eight months pregnant to see how badly I needed him. Then we just kept continuing.
It depends on the editor, how I work. I like to give an editor room. An editor is kind of like love—you don’t know how good it is until you get a good one [laughs]. It’s very true. I work a lot on shorter projects and I work with different editors. When you work with someone good it raises your game. It’s like tennis. I let the editor do what they want to do, then I come in and make my changes. A perfect day would be us working and them coming up with something and that inspiring me to come up with something, and then maybe based on what I’ve come up with, they come up with something. There’s nothing better. That’s the zeitgeist for me of making the film. Shooting the film is a pain, but once you’re in the editing room and it’s a place of total trust, and you’re working with someone who you respect and who pushes you, there’s nothing better. Joe Bini ended up [editing], after I went through a couple different editors who had their own takes and brought their own gifts to the table. For me, Joe was just the perfect person to edit this movie. I kept calling him and he ended up being available at the end. He was able to finish the film for me and I’m just thrilled because the film was for us to make together.
As a documentarian, do you feel that documentary work can be both personal and objective at the same time? To what extent was this project personal for you?
I’m sentimental, so projects are always personal because you put your heart and soul into it and your characters become a part of your life. That’s just who I am, so I can’t answer for other documentary filmmakers. For this film in particular—I usually make funny films, so this is a real departure for me—I wanted to be as objective as possible. I tried very hard not to apologize for Polanski. I tried very hard to not give too much blame to the mother because I didn’t have an interview with her. It was tough. I wrote a couple letters to the mother through Samantha to try to get her to talk, and she didn’t want to. Once she saw the film, she wished she had talked. But I had already processed it, so I didn’t need her. At the time it would’ve rounded out [the film]. [I didn’t] want to character bash. With Judge Rittenband, he was an extremely bright jurist who people either loved or hated, but he was incredibly powerful and, I think, wasn’t really fair in his handling of this case.
My feelings changed about Polanski day by day depending on who I talked to. It’s all moving until you really face it and decide what you’re going to do. I was most interested in being as objective as possible and not having any kind of agenda. I think other people would have—not everyone, but that’s how some people are. Not that it’s a bad thing at all. It’s just not who I am.
It seems like it would be so easy to do, especially with a case like this.
When I had a cut of the film I showed it to my neighbor and he said to me, “God, don’t you have a point of view?” I was just like, “Oh my God.” I didn’t really feel like it was my place. I just wanted to present the facts. Maybe that comes from journalism; I studied journalism initially, but I don’t consider myself a journalist. Documentary filmmaking gives you a [certain] freedom. You don’t really have to answer to anyone. You’re making the story you want to make.
In some ways your friend’s comment is the highest compliment you can get at the same time.
I thought so, but it didn’t do wonders for our relationship [laughs]. Everyone would tell the story differently. You read reviews; people are like, “Why didn’t she do this?” or, “Why did she do that?” or, “She should’ve done this,” or, “She’s too sympathetic.” Everyone goes in seeing the film they want to see, and what’s so great is when people are surprised. The biggest compliment for me is when people come up [to me] and say, “I thought I knew this story and I didn’t.” That’s just mind-blowing for me. Whether people end up liking Polanski more or less after seeing the film is irrelevant. I just want them to know all the facts. I read something—I had to do something online and I looked at something and someone had said, “I thought Polanski was a coward for fleeing, and after I saw this movie, I realized he wasn’t.” I just love that. It’s true—clearly he got himself in the position. It’s not anybody else’s fault but his own, but I always come back to, “How long do you have to pay for the crime?” He went through the system. He ended up fleeing because of what Judge Rittenband did. It’s very black and white.
Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired is now playing in New York and has been airing on HBO. It opens in Washington D.C., Boston, and Los Angeles on Friday, July 18, and expands nationally throughout the summer.