Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Interview w/ Marina Zenovich, Director

Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired


In 1977, eight years after the brutal slaying of his actress wife, Sharon Tate, and their unborn child by the Manson “Family,” Roman Polanski (the Polish-born Holocaust survivor and internationally renowned director of Repulsion, Knife in the Water, Rosemary’s Baby, and Chinatown), was convicted of drugging and raping 13-year-old Samantha Gailey (now Geimer), an aspiring young model (driven to the rendezvous by her own mother who arranged the tryst). Rather than face certain further imprisonment, Polanski (with a loan from producer Dino De Laurentiis) fled the U.S. for France, where he still lives day.

Fast-forward to 2001 when the industry buzz prominently favored an Oscar nod to the long-exiled Polanski for his direction of The Pianist. Synchronistically, documentary filmmaker Marina Zenovich, in search of her next film project, caught Samantha Geimer and her lawyer on Larry King. When she heard the lawyer say, "The day Roman Polanski fled was a sad day for the American judicial system," Zenovich, who had been only 14 during Polanski’s trial, wondered what he meant and knew she “had to find out.”

What she uncovered, through interviews with most of the primary figures in the case (including Geimer’s lawyer, the DA in the case, and, eventually, Polanski’s own attorney), was the little-known fact that the hunger of the presiding judge, Laurence Rittenband, for a share of his 15-minutes of media celebrity, swayed him to rule unfairly and unjustly against Polanski’s admitted unlawful sexual intercourse with a minor.

In addition to Rittenband (who died in 1993), the most important character of course was Polanski himself, who is “wanted” in the U.S. as a criminal, and “desired” in Europe as an artist and survivor. Zenovich’s initial fax to him remained unanswered, but she forged ahead until, close to the film’s completion, she wrote a letter asking if he would be willing to meet with her. After several weeks without a response, on her way to a directing job in Italy, she booked a ticket through Paris, hoping for an encounter with the elusive one. Polanski’s attorney apologized on his behalf saying that he feared his appearance in the film might look like self-promotion. Disappointed but undaunted, she decided to call him anyway. He agreed to meet –– off the record. “I think he was quite appreciative of the work I had done to bring the legal story to light,” she says. “He apologized for declining the interview. He seemed more vulnerable in person. He had been living in my head -- through archive -- for many years, so it was satisfying to meet him.”

Making a documentary about a living person without his involvement can be a complicated procedure. In fact, Zenovich had already made a film about someone who declined participation. In her sometimes comical, often self-revealing, always entertaining 2001 doc Who is Bernard Tapie?, Zenovich (as compelling an onscreen personality as her subject) obsessively pursues (“I’m not a stalker!” she shouts at the camera) the object of her curiosity and craving –– the titular French iconic politician, soccer team manager, actor/entertainer, businessman, talk show host, and ex-con –– with the abandon of an adolescent school girl. (Her next film, part of her “French trilogy,” focuses on yet another inaccessible individual: Nicolas Sarkozy.)

Zenovich’s dense psychological portrait of Polanski is less the standard bio-doc than her attempt to understand the particular historical moment of the late-1970s, which has always intrigued her. The level of her sophisticated filmmaking is a good match for her subject and even reflects the style, intelligence and humor of Polanski’s work through clips of his films.

What were some of the more important stylistic decisions she made, I wanted to know. “Stylistically I wanted a lot of archive and the look and feel of a dream,” she recalls. Very early on, she cut together the airplane shot of Polanski landing in France (after fleeing certain imprisonment in the States) with the voiceover of Polanski’s friend Pierre Andre Boutang: “I think he has a dark side, a sad side, a veiled side. Given his childhood he has a relationship to life and death he can’t talk about. It’s impossible. He has a strong vision of death and sadness inside him but since he has such energy, such working power, such desire to do extraordinary things, he prevails.”

Originally published in Documentary Magazine, Summer Issue, 2008

Labels: , ,