When Roman Polanski sat down with producer Andrew Braunsberg, his friend of more than 40 years, to record two days of interviews, neither had any thoughts of turning the footage into a theatrical documentary.
Once we started our conversation, he didn’t hold anything back
At that time in 2009, Polanski was under house arrest at his holiday home in Gstaad, Switzerland, after being released from jail and he was fighting extradition to the US to face sexual misconduct charges dating to 1977.
The purpose of their extended conversation, Braunsberg relates to SBS Film, originally was to place on record the story of the director's chequered life and career, starting with his childhood in Poland.
“It was to be a document for him and his family, not something that would be shown to the public, “said Braunsberg from his home in Vienna. “He loved the idea immediately but he took a couple of months to think it through because, having been the centre of scandal and tragedy and the subject of thousands of stories, some true, some not true, he knew that once you put something on film you don't really know where it's going to end up.”
So Polanski rang his friend and frequent collaborator Laurent Bouzereau, who looked at the 15 hours of footage, wrote a screenplay and turned it into the feature-length documentary Roman Polanski: A Film Memoir.
Polanski bares his soul, speaking candidly about painful episodes in his life including living in a ghetto in Krakow under the threat of Nazi terror during WWII; his mother being deported to a concentration camp where she perished; and the murder of his wife, actress Sharon Tate, in their Los Angeles home at the hands of Charles Manson and his Satanic gang.
On camera he acknowledges he was wrong to have sex with an under-age girl and he apologises to the victim. “It was a very emotional few days, cathartic,” said Braunsberg, an Englishman who produced several of Polanski's early films, Macbeth (1971), What? (1972) and The Tenant (1976). “Once we started our conversation, he didn't hold anything back.”
When the French-born Bouzereau first saw the raw footage at Polanski's house in Switzerland, he figured it needed a third act. That came after Polanski was freed from house arrest and he and Braunsberg filmed a follow-up conversation.
Polanski also talks extensively about his most significant films, nominating 2002's The Pianist as his favourite, and his marriage to French actress Emmanuelle Seigner.
If Bouzereau felt nervous when he first showed the film to his subject, he needn't have worried. “His response was very enthusiastic,” he said. “I think it was very hard for him to look at it because not only does it reflect on painful times in his life, it's looking at himself at a very challenging time.
“There has been so many different tales of what really happened with Sharon Tate or the Holocaust or the situation in America, but he had never really told his side of it. In editing all that material down to 90 minutes, we had to be careful that we did not take out the one essential sentence that linked it all together.”
Most of the reviews after its Cannes premiere were positive. Some, in Bouzereau's view, unfairly criticised the premise of Polanski being quizzed by an old friend. “It was always going to be a subjective discussion,” he said from his home in Los Angeles. “He's not being interviewed by Barbara Walters or Oprah. No one is out to get him, which is why he opened up to us.”
Bouzereau and Braunsberg were fans of Marina Zenovich's 2008 doc Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired but neither has seen her follow-up, Roman Polanski: Odd Man Out.
As for the pursuit of Polanski by the US judicial system and some politicians, Braunsberg said, “The original judge lied [about granting Polanski probation with time served] and was removed from the case. The Californian Supreme Court delivered a 70-page judgment criticising the way the case has been handled over the years.”
Bouzereau first collaborated with the director when he shot the DVD on his 1999 film The Ninth Gate and later compiled feature-length docs on Tess (1979) and Chinatown (1974). He hopes his film will help change perceptions of Polanski in some quarters and was encouraged by the feedback from an industry screening in Los Angeles organised by his agents at ICM: “I had people tell me that they walked in with a very strong idea against Polanski and they came out understanding the man.”
The Braunsberg- Polanski filmmaking partnership ended in 1977 after Polanski was arrested and moved to Paris, while Braunsberg continued his career in Hollywood with films such as Being There and The Postman Always Rings Twice.
Finding a distributor in the US for the doco after its premiere at the Cannes International Film Festival last year has been a long and difficult process. “I screened it for distributors who said they loved it, but Roman is still very controversial in the US and it's a hot number to handle,” said Braunsberg. “A deal will be done but I was very surprised at how reluctant people have been to take it in the US.”
In 2009, Braunsberg was due to produce a remake of The Diary of Anne Frank, set in Israel in the present, to be written and directed by David Mamet for Walt Disney Pictures. But a change of guard at the studio kyboshed that project.
Bouzereau has since directed Don't Say No Until I Finish Talking, a full-length doco on legendary producer Richard D. Zanuck, executive produced by Steven Spielberg. Zanuck saw a rough cut just three days before he died aged 77, from a heart attack last July. The film will air on TCM in the US in May and presumably in Australia after that.
Roman Polanski : A Film Memoir is in limited release from February 21.