Roman à Clef: 'Wanted and Desired' Investigates the Polanski Dichotomy
In 1977, eight years after the brutal slaying of his actress wife, Sharon Tate, and their unborn child by the Manson Family, internationally renowned filmmaker Roman Polanski was convicted of drugging and raping 13-year-old Samantha Gailey (now Geimer), an aspiring young model. Rather than face certain further imprisonment, Polanski fled the US for France, where he still lives today.
Fast-forward to 2002, when the industry buzz prominently favored an Oscar nod for the long-exiled Polanski for his direction of The Pianist. Documentary filmmaker Marina Zenovich, in search of her next project, saw Samantha Geimer and her lawyer on Larry King’s show. When she heard the lawyer say, "The day Roman Polanski fled was a sad day for the American judicial system," Zenovich, who was a teenager during Polanski’s trial, wondered what he meant and knew she “had to find out.” The result is her new film, Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired, which airs June 9 on HBO.
What she uncovered, through interviews with most of the primary figures in the case (including Geimer’s lawyer, the district attorney 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 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 was Polanski himself—“wanted” in the US 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 filmmaker. Polanski’s attorney apologized on his behalf saying that he feared his appearance in the film might look like self-promotion. Disappointed but undaunted, Zenovich 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 the object of her curiosity and craving––the eponymous French politician, soccer team manager, actor/entertainer, businessman, talk show host and ex-con. (Her next film, part of her “French trilogy,” focuses on yet another inaccessible individual: President 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.
“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.”
This counterpoint was exactly the level of filmmaking she was aiming for, but she admits it took a long time to get there. “I never wanted to include dates or movie titles,” she explains. “It makes it too informational. I had struggled a lot with the beginning and ending of the film. Joe Bini cut together the opening––Polanski laughing during an interview with Clive James talking about Chinatown and corruption and the audio of Mia Farrow humming the theme to Rosemary's Baby––with title cards explaining the facts. I was thrilled!”
The juxtaposition of aspects of Polanski’s character with relevant clips from his films is one of the most original and entertaining features in the film. Zenovich says that one of the producers always thought the film warranted film clips. But she never understood how it would work “because the dialogue of the Polanski film always took you out of the doc.” She cites an unsuccessful example of a scene with Noah Cross (John Huston) in Chinatown that she hoped to use as a representation of Judge Rittenband, Polanski’s nemesis. However, a breakthrough came when Bini cut a scene at the beginning of the film where Farrow (in Rosemary's Baby) is talking on the phone, and it appears that she is calling one of the characters in the documentary. “Marrying the two,” says Zenovich, “made me realize my instincts were right—a dialogue scene wouldn’t work, but we could use moments from his films to heighten the scene. We were always looking to add humor and an Eastern European irony to the story because of who Polanski is and who Joe and I are. Once we established that it became fun—it was like, what film moment is going to work here?”
Then Zenovich and Bini found the trailer for The Tenant, where the voiceover says, “Nobody does it to you like Roman Polanski.” “Under the circumstances of the film,” she laughs, “how could you not use that clip?” But the great find was Polanski's short The Fat and the Lean. They’d had editing problems with the final meeting between the judge and the lawyers, and the short served as the perfect sardonic and comical visual commentary of the situation.
For the film’s top-notch crew during the five-year production, Zenovich hired Tanja Koop (director of photography) and Bini (the film’s co-writer as well as its editor), both of whom have worked for years with Werner Herzog. Zenovich allows that Polanski was a difficult film to edit because of the various elements: the complicated legal case, Polanski's life story, his movies and the archival material. She worked with a few editors who added their contributions, but says she “kept calling Joe until he was available.” For the vast archival material from the '60s and '70s (they used 40 minutes of footage and 253 stills), Zenovich worked with researcher Michelle Sullivan.
Getting the project launched was “as usual, a long process,” she says. Originally the film was to be a French production, but after several delays, she resumed control of the project. She gratefully acknowledges that executive producer Steven Soderbergh assisted with developing the story and provided important introductions. (She first met Soderbergh at Sundance in 1996 when she interviewed him for her first film, Independent's Day, about independent filmmakers.) “When you are working on one of these projects that takes a long time, it is always good to have a mentor to help and inspire you,” she advises.
One of the criticisms of Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired is that Zenovich isn’t hard enough on Polanski, that she excuses his “peccadilloes,” or crimes, because of his life tragedies. But she insists she was “very conscious of trying to not go easy on him. It was a great concern of mine. But I wasn't going to make a film about the sex crime, so maybe to some people that is being easy on Polanski.”
“I think the beauty of the film is that you keep going back and forth about whether you feel sympathy for him or not,” Zenovich continues. “Your opinion keeps changing—at least that is what I've been told. It is a quite complicated story, so as a viewer, you have a myriad of feelings. The story was a tragedy for everyone involved. The best way to judge what happened in this case is to see the film. Even the victim in the case––Geimer––talks about how everyone talks about what happened that night, as if they were experts on it. Nobody knows but her and Polanski. We will never know exactly what happened. It is awful that it happened, but my film is not about that night. It is about what happened as a result of that night.”
Cathleen Rountree, Ph.D., is an entertainment journalist, film critic and author of nine books including The Movie Lovers’ Club, which explores the process of creating community through film discussion groups. She covers film festivals and writes extensively about films and directors for print and online publications. Her blog at www.WomeninWorldCinema.org closely follows the work of female directors and global women's issues as addressed in films.