Everybody knows about Roman Polanski sexually assaulting a 13 year old girl at Jack Nicholson’s house 30 years ago. Everybody knows that he fled the country and has not been back to the United States since. But did you know that he spent time in prison for the rape? That even the prosecuting DA thinks that Polanski got badly screwed by the judge in the case? There’s the part of the story that everybody knows, and then there’s the whole story.
Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired tells the whole story. Directed by Marina Zenovich, the film opened to strong reviews at Sundance, where HBO picked it up. The movie played on the channel last month and is now, in an unusual release strategy, hitting theaters. It’s a great, fascinating movie that may change the way you look at the Polanski case; if you didn’t have a chance to catch it on HBO, keep an eye out for it at your local theater.
The Roman Polanski story – everybody thinks they know it. When people hear there’s a Roman Polanski documentary, they think they know what the story is going to be, but the truth is that they have no idea at all. Why do you think it is that there’s such a gap in our collective pop culture memory when it comes to what really happened?
I think it’s the combination of Polanski fleeing the country coupled with the fact that it’s a crime of a sexual nature makes people just blank out to anything else. You have sex – not just sex, a horrible act – and the fact that he fled…. it’s like people are blinded by those two events, I think, and they don’t focus on anything else.
It also seems like for Americans once it’s a sexual crime, that’s it, there’s nothing else to talk about anymore. There’s just that crime and no grey area, the way that he was treated never gets brought up.
I don’t think all Americans, but certainly a good portion. It’s like it’s not even talked about, it’s like ‘He should be thrown in jail and throw away the key.’ It’s this barbaric treatment instead of ‘This is the crime, this is the plea bargain, this is the probation report, this is what is said, this is the punishment, this is the judge pulling out the rug from under him’ Basically Roman Polanski going through the system and doing everything he was supposed to do, and having the rug pulled out from under him.
How did your interest in this case get started?
I’m a fan of his films. I was looking for something to do, and it was early 2003 and there was talk about whether he would be nominated for The Pianist; there was a big article in the Calendar section of the LA Times about whether he would be able to come back or not if he was nominated. That kind of piqued my interest, and then Samantha Geimer, the girl in the case, started doing press and it came alive. She went on the Larry King show with her lawyer, and her lawyer said the day that Roman Polanski fled was a sad day for the American judicial system, and I thought that doesn’t make sense. That was when I thought, ‘I want to investigate this.’
I started cold calling people and I called a friend who happened to know the DA in the case because they’re both Mormons, and the DA was a bishop at his church – which was just like an amazing coincidence. It made me think, I have to do this film. With something as sensational as this, it’s hard to get people to talk. You have to build relationships and trust. You have to do that in any kind of project, especially a documentary, but with something like this – A story has been told to death, but it’s not the whole story.
I assume you reached out to Roman Polanksi in some way.
I wrote him a letter in the very beginning. I never heard back so I assumed he didn’t get it. I found out a couple of months ago that he did get the letter, and he faxed me back, but I only had a fax machine that I would turn on when I knew I was getting a fax. I haven’t seen the letter, I want to get a copy of it, but it said, ‘Please do not make a documentary about me -‘
Yeah, I love that. When his secretary told me that, I was calling her for something and she said she saw my name on a document, and I said ‘What?’ She said it was a letter he had written in 2003, and I thought, ‘Would I have continued…. would I have started the project if I got that?’
It turns out I knew his godson, who I didn’t know was his godson, a documentary filmmaker named Adam Bardach. Adam would give me email addresses of Roman’s friends, and I would email them and little by little they would say yes. They would ask him – he knew all along I was making it, but I never approached him again until I was almost finished with the film, and I thought I have to, and I approached him. It took him a long time to get back to me and I forced the issue because I had a job in Italy, and so I sent a letter saying ‘I’m going to be in Europe, I’m coming through Paris on this day, can you do it or not?’ His agent called me and said he was sorry, but he thinks it would look like self-promotion. So he wasn’t in the film.
But I went to Paris and we met and he said he was sorry he wasn’t in the film.
How did his absence from the film affect the film itself?
I had made another documentary, my documentary prior to this, was about a guy named Bernard Tapie, and he wasn’t in the film. I had already made a film about someone who wasn’t in the film, so it didn’t feel odd to me. I didn’t think that we really needed him, I just wanted to get an interview with him. I liked the idea of us being stuck in the 70s and then you don’t see him now, and then at the end you see him and it’s 30 years later. It worked for me, but I just wanted to interview him. I don’t even know what he would have said, but I think it would have been an interesting interview.
You don’t expect a documentary like this to stir up a hornet’s nest, but that’s just what happened. You had to change the end title card from what it was at Sundance when the film played on HBO, but circumstances have again changed – have you changed the title card twice now?
It’s kind of a long, involved story. I don’t want to give away the end of the film, but the LA Superior Court denied that what happened in the meeting between the two lawyers and the judge happened. We had to change the card – it’s been changed twice – the changes are minimal tweaking. I didn’t want to change it a second time, but we had to change it the first time so quickly that the second change, which is what’s on there now and will be in theaters on Friday, is more true to the film. It’s more ironic.
Basically what happened was that I was told that when the two lawyers – Polanski’s lawyer and retired DA Roger Gunson – went to see Judge Larry Fidler, who is now presiding over the Phil Spector case, I was told that he told them that Polanski could come back if [the court appearance] was televised. Basically the lawyers are saying it’s true and the LA Superior Court spokesperson is saying that it isn’t. We’ll never know, since there were three people in a room, but what’s ironic about it is that it’s the same thing that happened 30 years ago [during Polanksi’s trial] – you have the judge and two lawyers in room, and the lawyers come out saying one thing happened and the judge comes out saying something else happened. It’s a very interesting exercise in the legal system and our judicial system and truth and lies, and who’s telling the truth and who isn’t.
This film had been so well-received from the beginning that, being a paranoid catastrophist, I was always waiting for the other shoe to drop, and it did. It was quite shocking because being a documentary filmmaker and having it put online that the LA Superior Court was calling something I worked on for five years a complete fabrication was grounds for a lawsuit, pretty much. But then Polanski’s lawyer and Roger Gunson came together to write a joint statement disagreeing with what the LA Superior Court said, and it was a great moment.
But it’s just sad to me, that this is where we still are, 30 years later.
Your film got very positive notices at Sundance, and then it ended up playing on HBO before it opens in theaters. What do you think of that release pattern?
I don’t really know. It’s never been done before… I think it’s been done with one other movie. People are talking about indie movies being dead, and documentaries being dead theatrically – I just read an interesting article in the LA Times about The Visitor still playing after 13 weeks, and how the Werner Herzog film opened well and how Gonzo opened well. For me it was quite rewarding having… I didn’t understand the power of television. So many people have seen the film, and they’ve seen it twice. There’s a big discussion going on about where documentaries belong; I prefer to see my film on the big screen, and I believe it holds up on the big screen, but it’s more about the audience. Do people want to leave their house? People don’t. I’ve never realized that so much as seeing people watching TV; they have DVR, TiVos, so people can watch whenever they want.
So I feel like I have the best of both worlds – a gazillion people saw it on HBO and now people have a chance to see it in the theater.
But how does it work for the Oscars? Is the film going to be eligible?
When HBO bought the film, they didn’t know when they were going to put it on the air. They ended up putting it on the air within six months. There’s a rule – the rules change quite frequently – but the Academy rule for documentaries is that you have to play either in Los Angeles or New York or maybe both, I can’t remember, 60 days prior to your airdate. HBO put it in a theater in LA and New York 60 days prior, so we qualify.