When Roman Polanski arrived in Switzerland to attend the Zurich Film Festival in September 2009 he was detained at the request of the US. While under house arrest awaiting extradition on 32-year-old charges the director of Rosemary’s Baby, Chinatown and The Ghost Writer participated in a series of to-camera interviews with his friend Andrew Braunsberg. The result is a revealing documentary about the great director’s triumphs and traumas.
Andrew, you’ve been accused by some of painting Roman Polanski as a victim with this film – what do you say to those people?
He certainly has been a victim at different periods of his life. He was a victim as a child, a Holocaust survivor. He was a victim when his wife was murdered, nine months pregnant. And this incident that occurred nine years after that, this incident with Samantha Geimer – and what he did was wrong, he admits that – has been painted in the most lurid fashion. [Polanski pleaded guilty to the charge of Unlawful Sexual Intercourse with a Minor in 1977, served time, but fled to US prior to final sentencing.] Samantha Geimer herself says that the media did her much more harm than Roman ever did and he paid for what he did. I don’t agree with people who consider this film a whitewash. He’s recounting his story in his own words and he has lived an extraordinary life by any standards.
What were the filming sessions like?
He was in a deep depression. He has just come out of a maximum security prison where he’d been for two and a half months. He was released into house arrest, his wife was pursued by the paparazzi in Paris, the children were being bullied at school, and he had the very real threat of being extradited back to the United States. And I had the idea that we would shoot these memories of his life without any agenda or any idea of making it into a film. This was for his children. I’ve known him for 50 years and there were all kinds of incidents I had no idea about. It was a very moving experience for all of us in that room.
Do you recall when you first met Roman?
We met in London in the early ’60s. He came over to England to make his first English language film, Repulsion, and he didn’t speak any English. I spoke French and a mutual friend introduced us. We hit it off and became close friends very quickly. I was studying law and I had no idea that I would be in the movie business. It was only hanging out with him that I did go into the business and I produced a couple of films and then he asked me to be his partner the year that [Polanski’s wife] Sharon [Tate] was murdered.
It must have been dreadful taking that phone call.
It was. We were preparing a film that Sharon was going to be in with Jack Nicholson. It was a beautiful sunny day in London and suddenly the phone goes and it’s to tell you that your life has fallen apart. It’s very shocking.
Sharon’s funeral took place before it was known the Manson Family had killed her. The media were saying horrible things about Roman.
Yeah, it was a very strange atmosphere because everybody was super-paranoid. From having been this laid-back, hippie, easy going kind of place, suddenly the city was shocked to its very core. People thought, ‘I might be next’ and were carrying guns. No hotel in Los Angeles would have us. The boss of Paramount created a suite for us to stay where we had armed guards protecting us. Wherever we went we had armed guards sitting at the next table.
What kind of guy is the Roman Polanski that you know?
He’s a guy who’s good to be around. He’s fun. He’s a bundle of energy. He’s incredibly fit, he would make a 60 year old envious. He’s full of life and he’s curious. He wants to learn. He knows more about the camera than the cameraman. He knows more about makeup than the makeup man. Because he has a thirst for knowledge and applies himself to learning. If you ask him how a car engine works, he will draw it for you, engine piece by engine piece.
Roman Polanski: A Film Memoir screens from Thu 21 Feb.