Roman Polanski’s new film, The Ghost Writer, is a tense, funny thriller adapted from a novel by Robert Harris (perhaps best known for his seminal alternate history work, Fatherland – which is getting a new adaptation, from Germans no less!). Starring Ewan McGregor as a ghost writer hired to finish former British prime minister Pierce Brosnan’s memoirs after the previous ghost died, the film doesn’t just dabble in standard thriller tropes, it also attacks modern politics with an angry ferocity.
With Polanski in custody and facing extradition to the US, getting the director on the phone was next to impossible. Instead I spoke with Harris, who adapted his own novel, and who worked closely with Polanski throughout the process.
For my review of The Ghost Writer, click here.
The Pierce Brosnan character is, dare I say, a very thinly fictionalized version of Tony Blair. What led you to tell this story and to nail Mr. Blair the way you did?
Well first of all I was interested in the relationship between a ghost writer and a politician, and I wanted to write that 15 years ago. The idea of someone who could only function as a writer by pretending to be someone else suggested a certain kind of character to me, just as a politician who lost power also suggested a kind of character. It didn’t start out being all about Blair but I couldn’t find the character or the setting for this story until in 2006 when there were reports about Blair possibly being taken to the war crimes court and having to go live in America where he couldn’t be extradited, and that gave me the element of the plot and the location. I didn’t want to write something that was just completely about Blair, so there are other characteristics that he doesn’t share with Blair, but nevertheless I take your point. There are, obviously, resemblences, and I did become fascinated by the transformation that came over Tony Blair, the way he seemed to become more and more isolated and cut off. And frankly his rather craven attitude towards George W. Bush and the way he went along with what Bush wanted to do, almost as if he had been elected by the Republican Party rather than the British Labor Party. Why? The fantastic conceit drifted into my head of ‘Maybe he had been recruited by the CIA,’ and so the satire/fantasy element of the story came into it as well.
What’s really interesting about the movie is that while there’s the political elements, they take the back seat to great character work and strong thriller elements. Can you talk about balancing the political message with a film that’s entertaining on its own?
Always go with the entertainment. That was the purpose, that was why Roman wanted to make it. He didn’t care about the politics particularly, he wanted to make a thriller and he wanted to use all those noirish colors from the filmmaker’s palette, which I think he does so well. We concentrated on the characters and on the excitement of the story, and I think the film works because the characters are very well cast. Ewan McGregor is always watchable and believable as this slightly non-descript fellow who is cocky and gets over his head more and more as the movie goes on. Pierce is the famous iconic Englishman who is so famous you could think he was prime minister, almost. Olivia [Williams] gives such a clever, intelligent performance as well. The camerawork, the isolation of the house… I hope it all comes together in an entertaining mixture.
The film’s also surprisingly funny in parts. When you were working on it how much of the sense of humor was on the page and how much was Roman bringing his own touch to it?
Almost every line of dialog from the movie is from the novel. I wrote the novel with Hitchcock in mind, particularly North by Northwest, that sophisticated, witty thriller. It’s a difficult thing to pull off, the mixture of comedy and fear – they don’t normally mix well – but Hitchcock managed it. I tried to set it to that sort of quip under fire [tone], and then Roman added little visual touches like the guy sweeping up the leaves and that sort of thing. We wanted to make it humorous, it was quite deliberate.
One of my favorite scenes, almost on a meta level, is the seduction scene where both of these characters seem aware of the parts they’re playing in this kind of a story, and they’re on a collision course for that inevitable moment in bed.
I’ve always wanted to write a stage play, and for a long time I thought I would try to do The Ghost Writer as a stage play, like Sleuth or Death Trap. Just three characters in an isolated, single location. In those scenes set in the house, particularly the ones between Ewan McGregor and Olivia, the mental birth of the project as a stage play can be seen. A lot of the movie goes through dialog, actually.
Roman’s current situation is going to dominate much of what is discussed about the film. Having your director end up in jail during post – how did this affect you guys?
It affected me less obviously because my work was done. I saw a rough cut with Roman in Paris in the beginning of September and he was arrested at the end of September, and in those three weeks he pretty well made the adjustments he wanted and that he wanted in the rough cut. He virtually finished it, in fact, just before he left for the ill-fated trip to Zurich. The music tracks had been laid, or at least composed, so it was a sound job chiefly. He was able to have access to DVDs, and he had his laptop there that he was able to look at, and so he was able to supervise the film. And of course he was released into house arrest in December, so it became even easier to work. With one or two tiny moments that no one will notice, the film is actually absolutely as it would have been if he had been a free man. Nothing has been lost. If the arrest had been made three or four months earlier it would have been a catastrophe, and I don’t know what would have happened. The film wouldn’t have existed, really.
Since this is your second time working with Roman you must have some strong feelings about his arrest and impending extradition.
Well, it’s difficult for me to talk about it. My instinct was to defend him, and I wrote an article in the New York Times doing so and that’s pretty much all I have to say about it. The woman involved wants it dropped, thirty or more years have elapsed, the trial process was flawed, there was no repeat offense, no one has come forward to ever allege such a thing against him since. He’s not a predatory menace to society. I regret the whole thing has been reactivated now when he’s 76 and been living freely for 20 or 30 years. I don’t condone what happened, I don’t know the full details of it, but I regret that it happened.
You guys had been working on Pompeii, which fell apart during the writer’s strike. Assuming a best case outcome for Roman at the end of all this, could that movie come back to life?
No that’s gone now. That won’t happen. It’s a great loss, as it would have been a gas. Roman doing the eruption of Vesuvius would have been extraordinary, but I fear that’s one of those films that will never happen. I think he’s talking about doing God of Carnage next, the play that’s on Broadway. But I hope he goes on to work again, as it would be a tragedy if he didn’t. I hope The Ghost Writer shows he still has a huge amount to offer.