PARIS — At 73, Roman Polanski, once the pre-eminent enfant terrible of world cinema, has reached the sort of respectable age where lifetime achievement awards start to line up like dominoes.
After he was honored for his career at the Jerusalem Film Festival last July, Polanski’s next stop-off will be in his native Warsaw, where he will receive the European Film Academy’s lifetime achievement honor Dec. 2.
“Each time I get one of those lifetime things, I get the impression that they are trying to get rid of me,” Polanski says in a telephone interview, before adding with typical feistiness, “but I’m not ready yet.”
Indeed, it is only three years ago that Polanski became the oldest filmmaker ever to win an Academy Award for best director, for “The Pianist.” The fact that Clint Eastwood has since broken that record for “Million Dollar Baby” merely encourages Polanski to carry on directing.
“The last two pictures that I did (“The Pianist” and “Oliver Twist”) were totally independent, which made the work much more attractive for me,” says Polanski. “I could really devote all my time to moviemaking and not so much to all the accessory functions: the meetings with lawyers, producers and executives. In the past, 50% of my energy went into areas which only have a little to do with filmmaking.”
Based in Paris for the last 28 years, Polanski — who shot to fame with classic Hollywood pics like “Rosemary’s Baby” (1968) and stayed there with “Chinatown” (1974) — is beginning to see encouraging developments in European cinema that he believes are indicative of a growing sense of ambition. Both “The Pianist,” which cost $35 million, and “Oliver Twist,” which cost $50 million, were major European co-productions.
“I think the last few years in Europe have been much better, and it will become even more interesting next year when Germany introduces a new law which will bring back about 20% of producers,” says Polanski, referring to plans by Bernd Neumann, Germany’s federal commissioner for cultural and media affairs, to develop financing opportunities for local filmmakers in an effort to boost private capital for the local industry.
At the moment, Polanski is taking time off between pictures — though that is not to say he has not been busy. After triumphing in last year’s libel case against Vanity Fair, Polanski returned to his first love, the theater (he debuted on the stage at age 13), and directed a French production of John Patrick Shanley’s play “Doubt.” He also recently completed a cameo as a sadistic French cop in Brett Ratner’s “Rush Hour 3,” an experience he described as “fun.”
“We’re looking for something, but Roman’s very picky,” says screenwriter Ronald Harwood, who won an Academy Award for “The Pianist” and also adapted “Oliver Twist” for Polanski. “He once jokingly said to me, ‘In order to make a film, I have to get an erection.’ But once he knows what he wants, he goes out and gets it.”
“When I make a film, I ask myself very few questions,” Polanski explains. “I do things more instinctively. I don’t calculate and think about whether something is going to be right for critics or audiences.”
It is an approach that has frequently paid dividends for Polanski, not least with “The Pianist,” but it has just as often left him and his collaborators open to vicious criticism not always to do with a film itself.
“Some of my films were really put down, so much so that it had a personal effect on myself and others,” says Polanski, whose longtime screenwriting collaborator Gerard Brach passed away in September. “I remember Gerard at Cannes when we showed ‘The Tenant’ — he was completely crushed morally and physically. It somehow affected his health, and he changed a lot from that moment. Now look at the film: It’s some kind of a cult movie. Whenever I’m invited to some kind of festival or other, they want to screen ‘The Tenant.'”
Resilience, a quality Polanski forged as a child growing up in the Krakow ghetto, is something the director understands better than anyone. In his 1984 autobiography “Roman by Polanski,” he describes a pattern of dismissal toward his work, writing that “critics have always preferred my penultimate film to my latest” — and yet his films endure.
The trend continues with Polanski’s last film, “Oliver Twist,” which had a tiny audience in the States compared with the millions who saw “The Pianist.” “I think some critics are simply surprised because it’s not what they expected, and sometimes they just don’t know how to respond to it,” Polanski observes.
Frenchman Alain Sarde, who has more than 150 producing credits to his name (including Polanski’s “Bitter Moon,” “The Pianist” and “Oliver Twist”) and was given his first big break by Polanski at age 22, as an exec producer on “The Tenant” (1976), observes: “Critics have always been slow in recognizing the quality of his films. It’s always the same. Even with ‘The Pianist,’ which ended up winning the Palme d’Or and the best director Oscar, I remember right after it first screened at Cannes that there were a few reviews which were not that great. Then when it won all the prizes, there was this curious shift in perception.”
If there is one lesson to be learned about Polanski, Sarde says, it is never to write him off: “When he’s gone, I think people will finally grasp that he was one of the finest directors of all time.”
Speaking to both Harwood and Sarde, it is also clear just how extraordinarily loyal they are to Polanski. As a filmmaker, Polanski has continued to thrive in the most trying circumstances more often than not by finding creative collaborators in whom he could trust.
“Working regularly with someone is an extremely important thing for me because, with time, the work becomes much more intimate,” Polanski explains. “If you spend hours, days, months together with someone, you have to feel comfortable with them if you don’t want your creativity to be hampered.”