Tuesday, August 16, 2016

For Polanski's Birthday, My (Mostly) Unpublished Interview With Him on "Chinatown."
Most of my interview with Roman Polanski has never been published, though I used some of it in articles I wrote for the July 8, 1999, edition of The Los Angeles Times (above).

It's film director Roman Polanski's birthday on Thursday -- he turns 83 -- so what a better time to roll out, for the first time ever, my exclusive interview with him about his landmark picture "Chinatown."

How did I manage to get such a get?

Through back channels, with no publicist, agent or manager involved. And then one day -- December 28, 1998, to be exact -- Polanski left a message on my home telephone answering machine agreeing to talk about the movie.

Here's a link to the message Polanski left on my answering machine:
Polanski msg. on Iorio answering machine (audio)

And here's how I found him and got him to talk:

Using search engines Alta Vista and HotBot -- Google wasn't around yet -- I looked up the phone number of Richard Sylbert, the brilliant production designer of the movie "Chinatown" (and of "The Graduate" "Rosemary's Baby," etc.). But I got the answering machine of his brother Paul Sylbert, who forwarded my message to Richard, who then called me.

For more than 90 minutes, Richard Sylbert and I talked about "Chinatown," a movie on which I'd become an expert -- and it showed. I was bringing up things about the film that even he hadn't noticed.

Sylbert was impressed and so at the end of the interview, he asked, "Do you want Roman's number?" And I said, you bet! And he proceeded to give me Polanski's phone and fax numbers in Paris and said he'd tell the director I'd be calling him.

I said, thanks, and then immediately phoned Polanski, leaving a message on his machine. No return call. I was so disappointed.

Then a week later, there was that message on my answering machine from Polanski, who was vacationing in the Dolomites. I returned the call, confirmed his identity with a few people, asked him a couple questions that only he would know the answer to, and then proceeded to interview him.

Months later, after I interviewed others associated with the film, I wrote and reported articles for The Los Angeles Times on "Chinatown" that, according to a senior features editor at the paper, generated more reader response than any story that had appeared in the Weekend section to date. (The paper even put a photo teaser about the story on the front page, A1.)

Some of my Polanski interview was used for the stories in the Times, but not most of it. Here, published for the first time, is the complete transcript of my conversation with him. There were, of course, no restrictions on what I could ask him -- and, yes, I did question him about his ongoing legal problems related to his fleeing the U.S. while awaiting sentencing for "unlawful sexual intercourse."

The interview took place on December 29, 1998, at 9:55 a.m. (PT). I was in Los Angeles, Polanski was in Cortina D'Ampezzo, Italy.

My home phone bill detailing my calls to Polanski and the interview itself! (I've redacted his numbers in France and Italy.)

Paul Iorio: Could you explain [the evolution of “Chinatown”]?

Roman Polanski: The thing that I remember is that I just didn’t want to go to Los Angeles. I had too vivid memories of all those events of 1969 [the murders of his wife and friends by Charles Manson's gang] and didn’t feel like going to work there.

Iorio: Right, right.

Polanski: And besides, I felt really happy in Rome, I was working there and had a great house and friends with whom I worked and it wasn’t interesting to me to go and make a film in Los Angeles.

Iorio: In seeing “Chinatown” again, what really comes across is that you really trusted the audience’s intelligence to an astonishing degree. Like, to introduce a false Evelyn Mulwray –

Polanski: I think that’s probably a mistake I do in all my movies. Otherwise I would have an easier time putting films together.

Iorio: Well, was there ever pressure from people who saw the rough cut of “Chinatown” to make it more obvious?

Polanski: What was it you started to say about Evelyn Mulwray before I rudely interrupted?

Iorio: No, I’m sorry. In the early sequence, Ida Sessions passes herself off as Evelyn Mulwray. Perhaps to a studio person, somebody might think you could lose half your audience with such a –

Polanski: In those times, they allowed more freedom of expression, probably, to the creative people. Nowadays [in the 1990s], it’s all made by the committee and is all predigested and for that reason so insipid. I was lucky enough to work in the times when they trusted more the creative person than [they did] the market researchers.

Iorio: So, “Chinatown” probably couldn’t have been made today [in 1998]?

Polanski: I don’t think it could, actually. It would really have to be someone who has got enough muscle to pull through all those things. Studios now have an enormous amount of various executives who need to justify their existence by meddling into the creative process.

And there’s a great rift between the creative branch and the executive branch. They are sort of envious of not being on the other side. And they call themselves creatives. There wouldn’t be an executive then who would dare to say we have a creative meeting or we’ll send you the creative notes. You receive those “creative notes”; it’s really called so. “After our creative meeting we came up with these five pages of creative notes that we would like you to read.” In those times [the 1970s], no one would actually use that language. The fact that they use it is very meaningful. You understand what I mean?

Iorio: Oh, sure. That they have to label it “creative” because it isn’t.

Polanski: Yeah, they have to label it. It doesn’t [require] a psychologist to figure out why.

Iorio: Veering back to “Chinatown,” was there one point in the making of the movie when you thought, this is turning into a great movie?

Polanski: No, never, no. I finished the film and looked at the rough cut and the rough cut is usually a very depressing moment for the director. It’s close to a suicide at that stage. But even knowing that it’s a difficult moment that will pass, I still was tremendously depressed seeing the rough cut. I showed it to a friend of mine…and I was so ashamed when the lights came up, but he said, “What a great movie!” And I thought, Is something wrong with me that he could be right? Hold on one second.

[Polanski goes to tend to his one-year old child Elvis.]

Iorio: Why didn’t your friend like it?

Polanski: Going back to when you’re looking at the rough cut, you are depressed. It’s because it no longer has the magic of the rushes of the dailies – and it’s not a movie yet….It does not yet have the fluidity of a movie, but does not work as daily material anymore. It’s true with any picture. But a picture that has a very important plot, the way you have to really follow the story, it’s even more difficult to digest in the form of a rough cut….

Iorio: Do you sometimes watch “Chinatown” for personal pleasure?

Polanski: Actually, purely by accident, I watched it a couple of weeks ago because my wife turned on the television and it was playing in French. It was pan and scan and a bad print and I said, “Jesus, what is this?” I didn’t even recognize the movie. So I said, Christ, I must really look it up in the original form. I have a laser disc of it and I put it on and I wanted to watch it for a half hour, but she got excited and we just watched it until the end. So I’m quite familiar with the subject of our conversation! [laughs]

Iorio: What do you think of it today?

Polanski: I like it a lot more now than I did then.

Iorio: In one way, were you trying to tell the myth of Noah’s Ark? With all the references to floods, and the Pig ‘n’ Whistle, and the sheep, there’re mentions of dogs and chickens and fish and albacore and horse sounds that accompany Noah Cross –

Polanski: That is really more Robert Towne. He had a lot of terrific ideas of this sort. I did more of the construction and the shaping of the plot. As they say in Hollywood lingo, “Streaming it.” Also, as far the dialogue is concerned, I worked on the dialogue in a way that people can go crazy because I like to eliminate every unnecessary word.

Iorio: And Towne didn’t like a lot of your changes. I hear that you barred him from the set?

Polanski: No, I never barred him from the set. He just didn’t come because we were no longer on speaking terms anymore by the time I was started the picture.

Iorio: What parts of the actual script are solely yours?

Polanski: [seemingly referring to his previous response] I remember now. When we started shooting the picture, there was no ending. We were arguing about the end and we could not agree….
As you know, Robert [Towne] didn’t want the girl to die at the end; he wanted the bad guy to die. I was adamant about it. I thought that the film would have no weight…

Also, he didn’t want [Jake and Evelyn] to fuck. I said it was important that they sleep together, so it would be more painful when she dies. I did not believe in a happy ending with this type of movie. And I was lucky enough to work with a studio run by an intelligent man [Robert Evans]. So we started without those things…

Then we started coming close to the ending and Bob Evans was asking practically daily, “What’s with the last scene? What’s going to happen? When are you going to write it up?” So I was so busy with shooting and I was finally [pressured] into doing it.

So, I asked Dick Sylbert to build a Chinese street. When went [location[ scouting and there was no Chinatown there whatever. [There was] one street with a few Chinese joints, three or four restaurants and other things. I said, we’ll just pick up that street and he added stuff.

And meanwhile I had to write something down, so I just wrote that last scene the way it is now. And in the evening I went into Jack {Nicholson]’s Winnebago -- trailer they call it now – and I gave him what I wrote down and said, “Fashion it into your speech.” And Jack very quickly jotted and crossed out a few things and then we shot it. It was literally like five to midnight.

And I also wrote the conversation that [Evelyn and Jake] have in bed.

Iorio: The thing that is similar in those two scenes are the words “as little as possible.” So you wrote that.

Polanski: I wrote that but it was Bob’s line. I don’t remember in what context it was, but it was his. A very good line…

Iorio: There must have been some resistance to that ending.

Polanski: No, there was no resistance. Bob Evans really trusted some people and he trusted me. He would discuss it with me, of course, but he was never dictatorial about it. He was like this on “Rosemary’s Baby” and was like this on “Chinatown.”

Iorio: One of the things that makes a lot of your movies work is the point of view, the fact that you put the camera over the shoulder [of a character].

Polanski: Well, that depends on the type of narrative. When it’s a subjective narrative, that’s the way you express it. That’s not the case in a movie like “Tess.”

Iorio: Right, that’s not the case. But several of your films do use that. And “Chinatown” is certainly right over Nicholson’s shoulder –

Polanski: Yes, of course. It’s told from his point of view. The events that happen are really only seen by him. From time to time you cheat a little bit, because it’s difficult to tell this sort of story. But you never show things that happen in his absence.

Iorio: Is it true, I heard this one story where Jack Nicholson once said, “Will you get that camera off my shoulder!”

Polanski: I really don’t recall anything like that. I think it was a bullshit recollection. Jack was one of the easiest actors I’ve ever worked with. Everything seemed natural to him, he never ever interfered with my directorial decisions. The only fight we had was about something else, which had nothing to do with the film. It had more to do with basketball….

….He could stay out till six in the morning and he would be there at eight or nine knowing his lines like nobody else. There was never any kind of problem with him. There was a lot of problems with Faye Dunaway, but never with Nicholson. He was comfortable with any lines. The thing about Jack is, you give him the lousiest line and when he says it it sounds right….

Faye would always try to change things. Some nights I would find some [dialogue[ to remove, and she would say, “Why are you taking It out?!” I’d say, “OK, leave it [in]. It’s not worth the fight.” And she’d come back a half an hour later and say, “Maybe you’re right Maybe we should remove it.” It was like this every day! Or she would try to add something.

Iorio: Do you think the film would’ve been better with Jane Fonda as [Evelyn Mulwray]?

Polanski: No, Absolutely not. I thought [Dunaway] was perfect. Nobody wanted Faye [for that film]. Bob Evans didn’t want her because he told me she was trouble. I knew Faye, she had a fling with a friend of mine, and stayed in my house in Rome for a long time. I knew her for years… did not expect to have any problems, so I fought for her.

And I’m still very happy that we had her, because whatever problems we had on the set, who cares?...What she brought to the picture was really worth it….I don’t think anyone else would’ve done it better. Same with John Huston.

Iorio: Even some of the minor players, they may be on the screen for a brief time, but they’re very vivid. Ida Sessions, Loach…And there’s enormous detail…Were they more fully drawn in an earlier draft?

Polanski: No, they were really done in production, not even in the script….Some of those little players were people from the crew. Like in the barber shop, the line producer –

Iorio: Doc Erickson, the guy in the barber shop.

Polanski: Yeah, Doc Erickson was the line producer. And the other guy, the one actually shaving Jack. He worked for the studio. He was a nice guy, I don’t remember his name, all I remember is I liked him very much. And the guy in the old folks home.

Iorio: Yeah, Jack Vernon.

Polanski: Yeah, Jack Vernon. What happened to him? He was running a boutique on the Sunset Strip.

Iorio: I watched “Cul de Sac” the other night and I noticed some similarities [to “Chinatown”] in terms of the visuals.

Polanski: Well, it’s made by the same person!

Iorio: And I saw “Two Men and a Wardrobe” and there were some parts that pointed visually to “Chinatown.”

Polanski: Well, you know when I make movies, now and then I think I’m original and inventing something really new and then I realize that I’ve done it already two or three times.

Iorio: Is there anything you regret about “Chinatown”? Is there anything you would change?

Polanski: Oh, plenty of things. Little details here and there.

Iorio: Like what?

Polanski: I don’t know, I would have to watch it again. You write, don’t you?

Iorio: Yes.

Polanski: When you read some of your old pieces, there are always bits, even if you still like it, you would change. I can give you an example. The lousy reflection in the lens of his Leica.

Iorio: When he’s filming Hollis and Katherine –

Polanski: When he’s photographing Hollis and Katherine from the roof –

Iorio: At the El Macondo.

Polanski: Yes. I wanted to put [the reflection] upside down and [the reaction was], “No, they will never understand.” Why is it upside down? Because something reflected in the lens is always upside down. Should be upside down, should be slightly concave. Little bits like that.

Iorio: How about parts of the movie that, while you were re-watching it, you said, “This is really good.” What parts impressed you?

Polanski: For example, when [Jake Gittes] comes up to the door [of Evelyn Mulwray’s house] and flat on the door is a very sort of graphic composition. And nothing happens. And we hold that for a long time. I thought that was good.

Iorio: With Khan?

Polanski: Yeah, that’s right. And I like the scene when [Jake] walks out of the Brown Derby and says, “I like my nose, I like breathing through it.” I like that shot with the page going to fetch the car and doing it in two profiles.

[a child is crying in the background]

Polanski: My son, I brought my son.

Iorio: Oh!

Polanski: He’s eight months [old]. I thought it played very well in a profile in one shot. Without cutting to two close-ups. As people would do nowadays.

Iorio: A lot of people still wonder at the Pig ‘n' Whistle, What was that argument about? Was it about the water or was it about Evelyn?

Polanski: It was probably about Evelyn. They had a lot of things to argue about! It’s not necessary to know what they were arguing about….

Iorio: Do you think that your experience, you had a personal tragedy four years before the movie, when you almost had to become a detective, for a time there. Do you think that sort of informed your movie?

Polanski: I can only tell you that every experience helps you with your work. And this did to a certain degree, to which I am unable to tell you how much better the film is because I had certain things happen to me. Whatever you do, you learn, and each next movie has that one layer more to make it richer.

Iorio: Last year, in the newspapers, it was reported that you might be settling the legal problems --

Polanski: Yeah, but how can I with the actual state of the media. I don’t want to become a product, you see, like – I don’t want to give examples, but you know what I mean. Can you imagine what it would entail showing up suddenly in Los Angeles. It would take a long time before the thing called closure happens. And I don’t think I want it now. I have a family to look after, I don’t want to be in every fucking tabloid.