Emotion and Style
Polanski is gracious and soft-spoken on the telephone from Paris. Once notorious
for his eccentricity, ego, and offscreen misfortunes, the Polish
director-writer-actor now seems, at sixty-seven, almost serene, or comfortable,
as if he's come to terms with his genius and his excess. He also demonstrates a
quick wit and sense of humor, which, he insists, ground the new film. The
Ninth Gate is a psychological thriller and detective story, with requisite
fiends and seductresses: Corso (Johnny Depp), who finds rare books for wealthy
collectors, is hired by Balkan (Frank Langella) to locate a book of satanic
invocation, reportedly written by the Devil himself. The search takes Corso all
over Europe and into various conflicts with other maniacal collectors (Lena Olin
and Barbara Jefford), and a mysterious, nameless Girl (Polanski's wife,
Emmanuelle Seigner), who rides a motorcycle and kickboxes.
difficult personal history has been well-rehearsed in the press. Born in Paris
in 1933, he was raised in Krakow by foster parents when his parents were
interned by the Nazis. After World War II, he studied at the Polish State Film
School, acted in several movies (including Andrzej Wajda's A Generation
), and then directed his first feature, the stunning and subtle Knife
in the Water (1962). He revisited and ratcheted up this film's thematic
interests in sexual repression and obsession, in Repulsion (1965) and Cul-de-Sac
(1966). In quick succession, he made the classic horror film, Rosemary's
Baby (1968), Macbeth (1972), and the hands-down brilliant neo-noir, Chinatown,
which won six Oscar nominations in 1975, including Best Cinematography, Art
Direction, Picture, and Director.
this ascent, of course, his career was sidetracked when his wife Sharon Tate
(pregnant with their first child) was murdered by the Manson family. Moving back
to France, he directed and co-wrote 1976's The Tenant (a remarkable study
of dissolving self-identity, in which Polanski starred himself). The following
year, after a party at Jack Nicholson's home, Polanski was charged with
statutory rape in 1977. He fled to Paris, and has since remained self-exiled
from the U.S. His subsequent films have ranged from intriguing (Tess in
1979) to strange (Frantic in 1988, Pirates 1986, 1992's Bitter
Moon, and 1995's Death and the Maiden, based on Ariel Dorfman's
deeply disturbing play). Currently, he's directing a stage musical version of
his film, Fearless Vampire Killers, for production in Germany.
What drew you to Arturo Perez-Reverte's novel, The Club Dumas?
The suspense and humor of it, a lot of colorful secondary characters, the type
of stuff that I know what to do with. There are several plots in it, mainly two,
one of which deals with the lost manuscript for another chapter of The Three
Musketeers. It's all very convoluted, one of those rambling books, enjoyable
and literary, with clever observations, very erudite: Reverte obviously loves
books. I enjoyed it very much; the problem was how to make a movie out of it
because at first glance it really doesn't look like it's possible. We had to
abandon a lot of elements, because a movie must be much more rigorous. But I had
no hesitation, because I knew it would be fun to do.
It's interesting that it is so focused on books and obsession with books, given
It is an original thing to me, because today books have been abandoned to
computers, so it seemed exciting to make a film with a central character in the
form of a book.
also struck by your use of special effects in this film as a way to get inside
are masses of special effects in this film. I was trying to make them discreet,
so you wouldn't notice them. I like all this stuff, what I like the most is
making movies, the process of manufacturing them. It's probably why I'm really
in this profession. As long as it doesn't stay in the way of the story or
diminish the emotion, very often you can use it to enhance emotion, for example,
the Girl's [demonic, catlike] eyes.
Or when she leaps off the stairway.
Exactly. Why is she leaping? Is she really, or is he imagining it? It allows me
to tell the story in the first person, it's a subjective type of movie, so that
you identify more with the central character, who is not that simpatico. You
have to put yourself in his skin, observe more or less from his point of view,
and that was something I explained to Darius Khondji, the director of
photography, right away. And he understood it immediately, and having such a guy
on my side, made it all very easy.
How do you see The Ninth Gate in relation to your other work,
thematically or technically?
Well, that's a question for film critics.
Okay, I'll take it if you want.
(laughing). A movie comes to me like a dish in a restaurant. I pick up the menu
and I don't ask myself why I order something. Of course, there's a certain
element of thinking of my health, but there's no definite reason for why I
choose a dish. At the given time I feel like making a certain type of movie. I
think it comes from what I see around me. I love cinema and I see a lot. I do
films that I would like to see at a given time, somehow I cater to my own
desires. I do things instinctively, even though I'm very analytically-minded as
far as other things are concerned, life in general and philosophy. I'm very
interested in science, I read more nonfiction than fiction. But as far as my own
work is concerned, I don't analyze until I'm asked a question by actors on the
set or by the journalists, when I have to. And I always come up with an answer,
but it complicates my life and my work. It's like the centipede who's been asked
which foot he puts first and which next; he couldn't walk anymore.
How do you see this movie compared to other films you've seen recently?
Well, more and more, there's the fruit salad editing, I react against it because
it's so easy and so primitive. Then there is too much close up: those directors
sit glued to their monitors, forgetting that there is also a normal when people
sit in the cinema. Style is very important to me, the simplicity of the
narration. I just try to tell the story, I care about the emotion and the style.
Johnny Depp seems like he'd be conducive to that project, since he's so
expressive in his face but also in his body.
Yes, and at the same time, he also sort of plays it flat. That's interesting,
particularly because he has so many wild characters around him, so he goes
through this like a Holocaust trip, or one of those, what do you call those
things, ghost trains.
You've written with your collaborator, John Brownjohn before [Tess, Pirates,
Bitter Moon]. What's that process like?
We sit and talk and he types and we laugh a lot. I act it out, and we talk again
and he rewrites, sometimes thirty times. We are always wondering if the people
who will be watching will get it and have the same laughs that we have.
Sometimes humor can be sort of private. For this movie, the book was a
combination of suspense, occult, and some kind of irony, which brings humor to
it. And for this film, the audience laughs. When you show it to producers,
distributors, etc., you think, Christ, it doesn't work, but then you go to see
it with normal people and they get every joke.
Your actors often give extraordinary performances: do you have a special means
There are no secrets. I'm experienced, the fact that I've acted myself helps: I
understand the problems. You can see the directors who started as actors often
get good results with others. As a director, you try to get the maximum out of
people; you try to inspire them. And I think I manage to do that, so that people
feel happy, that they're doing something interesting.
Do you still feel surprised by people you work with?
Oh yeah, those are the greatest moments, when you have good collaborators and
they come up with things that you did not anticipate. When you start the movie,
you have some kind of model, and you meet reality and that original model starts
being replaced by what you're actually creating. And sometimes what you're doing
is better, sometimes it's less good.
Do you do a lot of rehearsal?
It depends on the film. For this we didn't, I didn't deem it useful. For this,
maybe five days, some dialogue with Johnny and Frank Langella. He was a great
sport, I must say, Langella, we almost burned him one time, when his character
is on fire. And I love his voice, which was extremely important since he exists
in this movie over the telephone, for most of it.
movie brings together exoticism and menace, religious and sexual passions, in
That's what the whole movie is about. I can only look at religion with a certain
dose of irony, because I'm not a religious person. And of course, sex and
religion, they're always connected. Each religion has some sort of hangup about
in some of your previous movies, the sex and especially the violence, are
visceral and disturbing, here they seem more outrageous or cartoonish.
I think most of the violence is cartoonish, and some is not really possible. The
baroness in her wheelchair [who goes spinning out of control, into a wall of
flames]: we had a lot of laughs with that. I was seeing it as going overboard, a
parody of the genre, the detective-private eye that we know so well from
literature of the '30s and '40s. Corso seems like a character out of Phillip
Marlowe. You know, cigarettes help, and hit him on the head from time to time.
In every novel by Raymond Chandler, the hero loses consciousness.
It's an efficient way to move from scene to scene.
Yes, and it's fun to use those clichés, and to give them some new aspects,
refurbish them, making unconventional stereotypes.
Who do you think will see this movie?
When I start a movie, it seems to me obvious that everyone should like it. By
the time I'm through with it, I start asking myself questions, whether there
will be anybody. So I can't answer that. I haven't done a movie yet that I can
be truly proud of.
Is that because there are little things about each film that bother you?
Yes, but there are a lot of things I like about my movies. Still, there's no one
that has all elements I like, like content that is important and form that would
be impeccable. I haven't managed yet to put those two together.
What would you consider important content?
Well, I don't always know. But the next movie I'm doing has an important
content: the Holocaust. I've always wanted to do it, but was waiting for the
right time and the right material, and I found a book, The Pianist. It's
a memoir of a Polish pianist and survivor of the Warsaw ghetto. I've always
wanted to go back to these days, but I didn't know which moment, or when I would
be ready to get myself into it. And I thought now is the time:
I can't be pushing it back anymore. A lot of things have changed in
Poland, so shooting over there is easier. And I have grown, I'm married, I have
children, so I can go back there without too much pain.
Have you been back to Poland recently?
Yes, I was there for the opening of The Ninth Gate about four weeks ago.
It's a different country now. It's a normal country, it seems so strange that
you can talk in a taxi and not whisper. Sometimes I look at the driver and
think, “Jesus, can I be saying all these things?”
And the younger people there, they assume this is the way it is and has been?
The kids, yes, they don't even know what was going on. It's amazing how short
the human memory is, how it doesn't penetrate the new generation. I'm glad I'm
doing The Pianist now; it seems timely.
Click here to read Paula Nechak's review.