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The Restoration of Roman Polanski

Five years after the murder of Sharon Tate, the legendary filmmaker makes his first public appearance

Roman Polanski, Faye Dunaway, Chinatown

The actress Faye Dunaway taking instructions from director Roman Polanski on the set of 'Chinatown',1974

Keystone/Getty

Macabre, unseemly: not Polanski himself so much as his presence two winters ago at the premiere of Macbeth, his first movie since the slaughter of his pregnant wife at the hands of Manson & Company. You have resolved not to allow the specters of Sharon & Jay & Abigail & Voyteck & Charlie to hover over the proceedings like the glum tabloid Eumenides created by the press at the time of the murder, nor to expect that Polanski should make this, his first large public appearance since the crime in August, 1969, an occasion to skulk in wearing black and looking inaccessible; still, the ambiance in the then-new Playboy Playhouse, Manhattan, is jarring. Down in row one is little Roman, in a blood-colored velvet suit, chattering with Hugh Hefner, who has, incredibly, served, from his dark tower in Chicago, as Macbeth’s producer. The screen before them is covered with the pastel heads of decapitated rabbits. After the celebrity audience has rubbernecked at the diminutive, legendary director, the rabbit heads dissolve to the portentous Macbeth titles, which dissolve to a curious movie relentlessly bloody, which dissolves to a garish, Hogarthian gala atop the Playboy Club up the street, featuring the usual Bunnies like Breughel barmaids, medieval crowns of sculptured ice on the buffet tables and Polanski grinning demonically for the flash cameras of Women’s Wear.

Why do you distinctly mistrust him that night? Because his handshake is too firm and his smile like something dipped in instant silver cleaner? Because Macbeth is being hyped like the Playmate of the Year? Because you wonder why, after brilliant work on films conjured from his own obviously unique vision — Knife in the Water, Cul de Sac, the impeccable Repulsion — he would have bothered with Macbeth at all, unless in the cause of some silly classics jerk-off? Because, for a recent piece in Esquire by his friend Ken Tynan, he posed satirically for the photographer with a butcher knife? No matter, except that when you are asked to write about him, you have only these sour memories, and the knowledge that he is back in L.A. making his first large movie since Macbeth, a large, expensive, movie star-sounding project, something with the commercial smell of Sydney Pollack or Peter Bogdanovich. You have no way of knowing then that this picture, called, oddly, Chinatown, will be so perfect a suspense piece and so perfectly a satire of one that it could put Hitchcock out to pasture forever in regional college film-night nostalgia orgies; that watching it, you will be convinced that only Polanski could have made Gatsby exciting or The Exorcist intelligent; that the man himself, this Polish troll, this cunning urchin, will turn out, through his egomania, his arrogance, his grace, his bluntness, his brillance, to alter your focuses and perceptions irrevocably. “That bastard,” a compatriot of his whispers one night at his house, watching him cross a room exuding charm, “that son-of-a-bitch. I would die for him.”

The preliminaries to meeting him are infuriating: a mound of unheeded messages left with his polite but French houseboy, finally the master’s voice, weary, impersonal, somehow challenging, British inflections pock — marked with something harsh and Germanic. He does not like interviews, he allows, and doesn’t do any. OK, let’s forget it. No, no, come round Sunday, this invitation extended as if to an IRS investigator. One arrives purposely late, after a late night, in dark glasses, with Scotch and various stimulants still staining the vocal chords. Beyond the gate, electronically and otherwise locked, awaits an aspect like that which confronted Margaret O’Brien when she found the right door in The Secret Garden: huge carnivorous plants, a deafening waterfall feeding a kidney pool, a house glassy and transparent as a terrarium, with an oppressive view of the enchanted mauve mist of Beverly Hills smog, all the property of Dinah Shore’s former husband George Montgomery, “Actor and furniture maker” of the televised Johnson Wax commercials. The house’s lessee stands resplendent like a small, athletic sunburst in the living room’s merciless light, tensed as if for first serve, effortlessly deep-breathing. He is known to hate cigarettes. One lights one.

“I am awake since nine, I like to take cold showers mornings,” he offers, bounding around the room finding an ashtray, gesturing to the houseboy for coffee, “Ice cold, terrible of course, but half-hour later you feel terrific!” He speaks in a sort of emphatic shorthand, with extra consonants. “I go to fly in an hour, I take flying lessons, I want to go fly last evening, the weather is perfect in Hollywood, but at airport a great bank of greyish stuff is rolling upon me.” Conversationally you remark that that’s probably smog, expecting, if anything, a nod, but he considers sharply. “No! What causes sudden changes of weather is flow of air, constant moving of it, change of temperature within it which is called, in meteorology, fronts! Cold front comes under warm front, great lift occurs… clouds, crystallization into ice!” There is in this something ingenuous and amazed and at the same time something professorial, a more than casual interest in being right; for the moment you miss wicked ironies under these explanations of his, which burgeon unexpectedly from chance remarks, fragments of thought, like lush plants growing from seedlings in speeded-up photography. A half-hour later I ask something about actors who work from instinct and again he starts: “But none of us are born with instinct! We’re born only with certain capacity to develop instinct, some to develop their imaginations, others only their muscles! This is not enough realized! That all peoples on this planet through all the ages, there were never two born exactly alike, every cell of my organism is different from yours, only certain basic things are genetic, all newborn babies will move its arm away if you burn it, will suck at the breast if you put one in its mouth, and do things only necessary for survival. Instinct, which is something which tells you by the tone of your wife’s voice that she has been fucking other man, that is not born, that is accumulated experience. . . ”

Though these extraordinary monologues may spin on indefinitely, they can be instantly terminated: He watches your face carefully whenever he talks and if he detects the slightest flicker of restlessness near your eyes or mouth, he will change the subject with great purpose, with an almost physical will, like a nervous keno dealer.

There is also this: that he watches intently when you talk, for what you may be, may be concealing or secretly intent upon; this is not to ingratiate, though clearly he is capable of calculated niceness. Ignoring his coffee, he suddenly wants to know about writing, why one does it. “Is writing not a certain special kind of verbal memory? Is it not a lot like film editing? By arranging order of words in sentence, you arrange a meaning? In Chinatown, for example, I just realize that by changing a hand gesture of one very minor character — it takes four frames and there are 36 frames per second — we change whole meaning of scene. Changing series of shots in scene can also destroy picture, an example there is my The Fearless Vampire Killers, made in Europe, but a man called Gene Gutowski was producer and he convinced me he should be in charge of the final cut for the U.S. because he knows U.S. audience. OK, I trust him, and he takes my movie away, cuts 20 minutes from it, redubs it and changes music around, then adds a little cartoon at the beginning to explain what it’s about because now, after the cuts, nobody understands it any more! My version has played almost constantly in Europe since it opens, seven years! His version, which plays here, is a disaster, I tell you, it made more money in Formosa than it’s ever made in U.S. and Canada put together! They show it here all the time on television, I get the shakes, it is so bad, but it is out of my control. So, does this happen to you as writer? Is this cutting done at Rolling Stone?” Never, one explains; well hardly ever. He isn’t listening.

“I learn from that, on this one Bob Evans and I have complete approval of final cut.” He means Robert Evans, goad of Paramount, head of its production; while Evans was largely responsible for Love Story, Rosemary’s Baby and The Great Gatsby, Polanski’s Chinatown is the first Paramount movie he has produced entirely on his own. “Evans, lemme tell you, is no fool: Public thinks of him simply as good-looking former husband of Ali McGraw and so on, but there would have been no Rosemary’s Baby without him. Look, when you are making a picture, you are continually under attack — from your stars, crew and studio with its financial statements. I am publicly called by many of these a megalomaniac and they are absolutely right, you must be one to make a good film! Because you must believe at all times that your decisions are utterly right — even when they are wrong. There is one reason why you do a film at all: to make happen in cinema a vision, a concept, which is totally yours, only in your mind, no one else’s, it is cinema of one human being, I am the only one who perceives my vision! I am known as an expensive perfectionist; truth is, sometimes a certain scene is not quite within your vision correctly yet, but you dunno why, so you must do 50 takes of it to find out. OK, the moneymen do not comprehend this. And here you need a man like Evans, who does. The other corporate big boys, they dunno what Rosemary’s Baby was about at all, they think it is some cockamamie thing like The Exorcist or something, they are screaming at Evans, ‘Make him work fast, throw the fucking little Polack out!’ We have a big meeting, I blow, I tell ’em, ‘OK, I know how to shoot your way, like TV, ten pages a day, I finish your fucking movie in three days!’ They nod happily and Evans gets up, and I swear, he was putting his job then on the line, he tells them, ‘This is just jacking off, Roman, go back to the set and do just what you’ve been doing, making a good movie.’ You dunno the guts that took him then, and he has totally preserved me from such bullshit on Chinatown. . .”

Yes, yes; so what’s this Chinatown about? He’s been up and down half a dozen times in half an hour, rearranging bits of George Montgomery’s shiny handiwork, adjusting minutely the soft complaint of James Taylor from invisible speakers, and this question does not settle him. “Very difficult to say. Having just spent six weeks rewriting Bob Towne’s script with him. I am too close to trees to see forest, is that it, in English? This won’t help you, but it is about a private detective, played by Jack Nicholson, a flashy character working in L.A. in the Thirties in matrimonial cases, and against his will he gets involved in a criminal case, a gigantic swindle in the city’s water supply, you see there is this huge drought. Anyway, that isn’t the mystery at all: There is this very enigmatic woman, Faye Dunaway, and a young girl, and her father, and Faye’s husband, and in them is the real mystery, only you don’t know that, nothing is as it appears!” Delighted laugh, an arpeggio. “That’s the plot. Why I make it? Why of course, for money!” This is almost unbearably funny to him. “Yes, yes! You don’t believe me but it is the truth. That, and that I want to do every genre of film — horror, Western, detective, and this is my latter! Listen, I have less money than anybody knows, for two reasons: First, I have always done in films what I wanted to do, which is very expensive; to make cinema money you must make concessions and I have never done that. I have simple life principle: that money serves to buy pleasures, satisfy desires, and my number one pleasure and desire has always been filmmaking! So I purchase my pleasure with unearned money, you unnerstand? I could have never done Cul de Sac, which is, by the way, my best, the most cinematic of all, if I’d asked ’em for alotta bread. So I never develop a caring for business, I have never thought to set up things like percentage-of-profits for myself, I made nothing on Rosemary’s Baby and the fucker made millions! Okay, I begin to notice all these people around me making fortunes and now I think there is nothing wrong with me having one, and I’ll know how to spend it, don’t you worry. There is the other reason I have nothing, I live very well. I would loathe to be caught dead with alotta money in the bank! Understand: I would now like to buy a small plane, but though I want this, I would still not make trash films. Though I am whore, I am whore with principle. Chinatown is commercial but artistic, and now I must go fly.”

First there are rapid consultations with the house-boy, and with the phone, which now complains from various extensions all over the house, and with Eva, an incredible-looking girl with an accent like his who lives somewhere on the house’s lower level and studies acting with Lee Strasberg, at Roman’s recommendation. Something reminds him of a joke but he can’t get it right. As if playing Chopin, he chooses numbers on the living-room’s touch-tone extension and discusses, without complete success, the joke with Mike Nichols in Connecticut. “. . . 

It is this British TV game show, and the riddle is: What is two feet long, a foot wide and ebony colored? And this old English type like Sybil Thorndike asks, ‘Could the answer be nigger cock?'” The telling dissatisfies him; at the door he says, “Listen, you and me, we do not yet entirely communicate. No? You come tomorrow to watch me shoot the picture. Listen, the movie publicity men, they bring in this article by you from Esquire about Ryan O’Neal and say, ‘Do not have him.’ So I read it, and you are the only one I am having. OK?”

The narrow steep driveway he takes in his leased Mercedes at literally close to 50, smiling — yet there is still in his eyes the thing you have noted all morning, an extreme vulnerability to pain and an equal determination not to reveal it. You assume at work he will play the Tartar, and the atmosphere at his location shooting the next day is sinister, though not because of him: It is a cold nighttime on Hope Street in downtown L.A. where he must complete a short, extremely difficult sequence and the only one in Chinatown that actually takes place in Chinatown. By sundown the street is already crammed with light and equipment trucks; an old tea warehouse covered with gold Chinese letters like mutant insects, David Yee Mee Loo’s Cocktail Bar and the Fing Loy Cafe are rendered older by the cruel movie lights and the lines of the gentle 1937 cars brought downtown for the scene by Paramount drivers. Dozens of crewmen, assistants, extras and mute Orientals, gaping skeptically from behind police lines, wait more or less in freeze-frame for the endless setting of the lights; there is a kinetic energy, a feeling of participants waiting for the start of some bizarre satanic ceremony, a street fair in hell, a party inside the eye of a hurricane that is indigenous to big, nighttime-location movie-shootings. Chilled air steams on the huge hot lights; from this steam Polanski materializes, smaller in the exaggerated scale of the equipment, adolescent in jeans, a long sweater, a short old corduroy jacket. A dozen supplicating technical people hurry behind his odd, slightly pigeon-toed, slightly hunched gait. “You will be cold,” is his greeting. “Gets very cold here, I will get you a big coat.” And he actually does, somebody’s parka sails through the gloom like half a ghost.

And he is gone with John Alonzo, his cameraman. The end of the movie must be shot tonight: One of the main characters must be shot, it wouldn’t do to say which, but this character must be murdered driving away in a gargantuan old yellow 12-cylinder Packard convertible, and Roman and his cameraman and crew bustle around it now like midgets inspecting a buttercup-colored Sherman tank. “No, John, no, blood on windshield is not right, blood on the bullet holes, must be much more, try again, spray more, Mr. Propman!”

“Yes, Mr. Director.” He does this sort of vaudevillian exchange constantly with the crew, most of whom are clearly devoted to him. But before the scene in the bloody car, the street scene leading to it must be finished, a complex one involving Nicholson, John Huston and Perry Lopez who plays another detective. Take one: Huston fluffs a line, Roman is impeccably courteous to the old man; he fluffs a second time and there is a large, friendly laugh from the boy-director. “Now come on, John, we got it right yesterday, come, we try again!” In the pronounced tension, his English is blurring slightly. “Awful good, that time, but what I really want…” And he does what he does, working, his finger strokes his forehead as he strides briskly away 20 feet, considering; he apparently requires this brief physical separateness to think. “OK, now this is important — Jack is to move only to this spot, I want it marked, where’s the man with the chalk? Come on, I’m asking for a simple chalk mark, where’s everyone? Aw shit!” His working method, filmmaking as a team sport with him as cheerful coach, has disintegrated momentarily and he is abruptly unboyish. “I want the mark now! Actors, you must prepare before scene, maintain the internal rage we need here! I want you not wandering off telling stupid anecdotes, I don’t tell you this again!”

Dead silence, total efficiency. In one more perfect take he gets what he wants. “Veddy good, beaudiful!” The lighting must be changed again and he motions to me to come inside his trailer, where an unfinished chess game and pieces of the script wait on the table beside the hot coffee. “Do actors have brains?” he says, pouring, not really asking a question. “There is no answer to that, no rules. Some, like Olivier, are very intellectual, others, like Brando, are organic. Jack! You see how he gets angry in a scene? Unbelievably scary! He cannot stop, he goes into a kind of fit, you dunno whether he is acting any more! He is one distinct acting school, almost opposite to Stanislavsky: You build anger by getting it physically, pounding tables, people, it comes not mentally but by inducing it in your body, with your body, take that, you motherfucker,” and he pounds the Formica counter until the trailer shakes. “Unnerstand? Your glands, endocrine or whatever, they start secreting substances, the blood races. It can be very hard on you physically, it is hard on Jack, but what wonderful results! And frightening: When I direct Catherine Deneuve in Repulsion, after a week I really started worrying, because I see a complete change in her personality; she was becoming the mad girl of the story, literally, she could not, at night, return to her own self. Suppose you pretend for a month to have a limp; you will be unable in one day to stop limping, and it’s the same thing. Now I worry about Dunaway, I have never known an actress to take work as seriously as she does, I tell you, she is a maniac. She spends ten hours learning lines, five on preparation, three on makeup, there is finally no time left for her to sleep! The Thirties, I tell her, was period when women used lots of powder, I wants lots of powder, so she spends two hours applying it and then we have what we call a false start — begin a take and cut after few seconds — and she disappears to redo powder! And her Blistex! It is used on lips to prevent cracking, her Blistex has become a legend!

In a scene, she will raise a drinking glass at a different moment in each take, imagining that I can somehow splice all this together in the cutting room, and of course if you tried that it would come out looking like fruit salad. Perry Lopez, tonight by mistake he calls Jack ‘Lou,” his character’s name, and instantly breaks the take, which was a wonderful one; I could easily have post-synched this error, but now the take is ruined. You must, as director, forgive them, I suppose: He is so right for his part, and Dunaway, though clearly insane, she has exactly the quality of mystery, the unexplainable. . .”

Edgy now, he essays the trailer door, checking without on the technical progression. “She is quite easily insulted, Faye: If she is guest in my home, I say, ‘Faye, please sit over here,’ but on a set, there is no time! A surgeon doesn’t say, ‘Scalpel, please,’ and when I’m working I say, ‘Sit here!’ And she is most wounded. Actors! I detest having to analyze my intentions for them, I don’t want to think why I do a scene so-and-so way, and they will demand to know, and I must give answers, so I have to start looking for answers and this is not good for me, I don’t always know or want to know my reasons. My God, when painting, you don’t think before each brush stroke! When I question what you call my instincts, I fail, not just in cinema but in life. Dunaway will sometimes give impossible readings, and when you start fussing with them, it goes on literally forever, and one can’t afford that time! Jesus, the understanding an actor has for his part should be, I maintain, enough motivation for reading lines properly. Just say it this way, Faye! And she bursts into hysteria!”

He picks methodically at his wristwatch, as if this would speed time, the delays outside. “I learn something interesting making this film: Always before, when I’m telling a story cinematically, there isn’t special need to follow the thread every instant; you abandon it from time to time, you set up something intriguing for viewer, then you veer from it, then come back, but in this type movie, this detective-suspense genre, this thriller, you are not allowed to do so! You must stay with story every moment, which is to me simplistic, but it pays off. Think of good detective books you’ve read! Why do you love them, why is Raymond Chandler so terrific? Because he won’t let you rest! Maybe the best scene in Chinatown is one where finally Jack lies down to go to sleep — and here again is Nicholson’s genius, here would be such a temptation to act for the camera, which he never does, only for his internal self — anyway, he’s in bed and finally we are going to get a breather, and the telephone starts, and keeps on and on. He doesn’t touch it for minutes yet you know he’s going to have to! It’s that moment when, as kid, you are into a detective book and mother is calling you to table, and you call, ‘One more moment, one more page!'”

From outside there’s a call for him and he is gone instantly. The monstrous yellow car waits, still not properly bloodied. “Where is chair for Mr. Huston to sit? Get one!” Sitting, Huston falls flat, Roman singlehandedly rights him. “Where is Faye?” Still in her trailer, it turns out; portable electric heaters are being arranged around her chair. “Ain’t hot enough for her out here,” a crewman offers malevolently, aiming the heat lamps like ray guns. Bob Evans has arrived for the important scene; abruptly Dunaway materializes in costume and powder and jokes sotto voce with her producer. “Evans, you bastard,” she says loudly, laughing, punching him; ignoring them, Roman hops into the driver’s seat of the Packard, distressed. “Blood is still wrong!” He smears it about with his fingers, then flicks it on with a paint brush. “No, wipe it off, it isn’t real, try other color, this one looks like puke.” There’s blood all over the car seat now, on crewmen, on Roman. “Let’s try that little thing,” he suggests, and a tiny cannonlike device is produced, which explodes, with a miniscule blast, gore against the windshield like blood from an exploded skull. “Yes, yes, more! It looks like shot-out brains! Wunnerful!”

Nearby a swarthy Oriental, his small eyes feverish with mercantile wisdom, complains to one of the A.D.s that people can’t get through the police barriers to his “social club” down at the end of the street. “I got my job, you got yours,” he insists, not inscrutably Eastern. “We all gotta eat, am I right?”

Saturday Roman goes to fly; one goes instead to see Evans, whose Beverly Hills place is properly spectacular, though one sees little of if; you’re shown through the oval entrance hall by David, the British houseboy, right out past the oval pool to a sort of poolhouse-game-lounging room — the tennis court is through the far door — where, at a fine antique oval table, Evans, tanned in tennis shorts, sits with Warren Beatty and Jack Nicholson. Clearly, they’ve known each other well a long time; there’s an easy, ironical camaraderie between them. Somebody puts down Gatsby. “Don’t blame me for it,” Evans says, laughing. “David Merrick produced it.” He and Nicholson tell Beatty they didn’t like McCabe and Mrs. Miller because they couldn’t hear the soundtrack. Like that. A model Evans had known has recently overdosed; her picture has been in Vogue, and he wants Warren to look through the issue and guess who she is, a test he fails. Nicholson, not customarily garrulous, is obviously proud of Chinatown; when Evans and Beatty wander outside to talk to a couple of Vogue-type women taking the sun by the pool, one asks him how he rates his performance in it. “One of the three best,” he says quickly. “Maybe the best. There is no director alive with Roman’s genius. What I’d like is to work with him again, soonest. . .”

This is what Evans wants too; when he comes back and the others go out to the pool, he settles with his brown legs stretched. He is concentrated when he talks, like Polanski, more edited, more precise. When questioned he says, “I was sitting with Bob Towne a few years ago in Dominique’s restaurant telling him I wanted to do, produce, a good man-woman story, because I was looking for something for my then-wife Ali. He said he and Nicholson were working on something called Chinatown, right away I loved the title. I don’t know why. I said what’s it about; he said I don’t have that yet, just this idea. It’s got nothing to do with Chinatown except that this woman in it, she is almost Oriental, something about her you never grasp; she’s like Chinatown. Well, Bob was busted at this time, really broke, I gave him some money to develop the story, but Paramount wasn’t paying him much and he had to take other assignments and the script was a long time coming, about 16 months actually. I’d done Rosemary’s Baby with Roman and he was the only person I wanted to give it to. We’d gotten very close. He is not an easy person, as I suppose you know now — very difficult to crack, but once you do, there is no man and no filmmaker like him. We’ve gone through a helluvalot together. Jesus, my marriage; and the post-funeral of Sharon was here at this house, meaning that everybody came back here afterward. Roman stayed here with me then for a good while; it was a horrendous time. Later I told him that the first picture I produced on my own I wanted him to direct, and he wanted to do a literary property, to adapt a book, like Rosemary’s Baby. That script was Roman’s, and we wanted to try the same procedure again. I sent him a number of things that weren’t right. “I’m not equipped to do that,” he would always reply, but as soon as Chinatown was in rough draft I made him come over here; this was last April. He loved it. He started working like hell with Bob Towne, so did I; the picture now follows the script almost literally to the word. That’s how Roman is, gets the script dead right and is then very meticulous with it. I don’t mean that Chinatown reads as well as it plays, but neither, believe me, did Rosemary’s Baby; he adds that indefinable, inexplicable thing of his. Not with ease. God, the bitter fights we all had finishing the writing. One night we were in here with the whole thing spread on the floor, yelling at each other; Roman walks out, ‘I will stay here no longer!’ It has not been a passive set. He’s tough as hell with actors no matter what impression he gives you; it must be what he wants — that’s strength in a director and I love strength. His nature is high tension, if you don’t know how to take that, with him you’re finished; if you do, my God, you’ve got everything. You’ve got the original. Who else could you honestly say that about?”

Yes, he has the next one for Roman, “and he’s getting his ass back here from Europe early in the fall to do it. A book by Bill Goldman called The Marathon Man, he’ll be working with Goldman writing the script. Me, too, maybe.” Oh? “I would love to write. Love it. Did it as a young man. Right now, there is literally not time or freedom. In my present position, I can only get a movie made once every 18 months because when you’re head of studio production, you are involved in every fucking picture and every fucking one has large problems. And you’re responsible. Budgets! I’ll tell you something, with Polanski I don’t worry; I happen to know he is going to come in under the shooting schedule, the number of days the studio allows him to work. As opposed to the past, as opposed to a few other recent nightmares I’ve had to worry about.”

Meaning Gatsby? His teeth, against the tan, are as if just scrubbed with Pearl Drops. “I think if I’d produced it I could have done something, but David Merrick produced it.” What about Merrick’s recent interviews, venomous against Paramount, and Evans in particular? “Apparently he was uptight because he thought I was getting credit as producer, which I was not and was trying to deny at every opportunity. Eighty percent of what he said in print was lies, I don’t want to go into it. The result of the picture proves his movie-producing talent. Look, I could fill your paper with stuff about Merrick and Gatsby, but why? I would rather. . .um, remain a gentleman by not commenting.” And he repeats his satiric grin, squinting into the sun, which is blessing him now through the glass.

One has been too easy on Roman and allowed him to postpone the discussion of his wife too long. He’s said, “We’ll talk about it, not today, it’s too nice out,” and so on. Now the picture’s finished, soon he’ll be leaving for Spoleto to direct the opera Lulu; there can be no more reprieves and he knows it. But you get to his house to find, first, that a dinner is planned, that one of his girls is coming to eat, a young blonde named Tish, the sort he prefers: fresh, pretty, healthy, studentish, almost totally uninterested in filmmaking and movie-starring; and second, that his father has arrived from Poland for a visit and will eat with us, too. Over the food, turbot served invisibly by the houseboy, Roman conducts a lively conversation in English, and Polish for his father, an old gentleman with long gray hair who smiles perpetually and almost never speaks. In English Roman tells the story of what has become “the famous meeting,” a dramatic gathering demanded by Faye Dunaway to air her profound grievances against her director. “You have, I guarantee, never seen such certifiable proof of craziness. Working with Faye, I might eventually have actually questioned my own methods had I not known that she has had the same confrontations with all her directors, and gained the reputation as a gigantic pain-in-the-ass. I finally tell her this, she screams, ‘Who said that, Preminger? He is an asshole anyway!’ One day last week she flatly refused to give the reading I required and walked off the set and then comes famous meeting, within an enormous mahogany conference room at Paramount, with Bob Evans exhausted and trying to stay awake at one end of big table, and her agent unsure of where to sit because his position might indicate misbalanced loyalties, and Faye wild-eyed, and me, running in from editing in my old clothes looking at my watch!” This memory especially delights him. “Dunaway starts screaming instantly, I would not even repeat for print what she called me. After 20 minutes or so of this, I remark, ‘But Faye, you must understand, you are not completely normal. For example, the hair business.’ And she stands and sobs, ‘Yes, Yes, how about that Goddam Hair!’ She meant, there had been a close-shot of Jack’s face over her shoulder and one strand of her hair was sticking out, it was back-lit and looked awful, I said, ‘Hold it,’ stepped to her and quickly not pulled, merely plucked at one inch of the hair careful not to hurt her and she went crazy. I did not know she had a hair fetish. So at meeting she screams, ‘Yes, you do not do such things to people!’ So noisy poor Bob Evans woke up.”

His laughter gets him up from the table, moves him around it. “You must picture all this! These are the things I love about Hollywood, this total improbability, this playing of endless children’s games in an intellectual Sahara, a seductive place in which glorious child-toys called movies are made!. I want to work much more with Evans, with Jack, I think I am ready to move back here, to buy a house, sell my London place, become one of them! Delightful insanity!”

When the phone calls him from the table, his father says to Tish, with a wry smile, “I am 70. Soon, I think, I’m invited upstairs.” She misunderstands. “You’re invited, um, to a party?” “Upstairs,” he repeats, gesturing gracefully toward the ceiling beams. When Roman comes back, sensing something, he spends most of dessert talking Polish. After it, he and Tish go into his big bedroom, with the enormous rented Sony TV-taping outfit on which he recorded endless cassette hours of Kathryn Kuhlman and Cal Worthington Dodge commercials, which fascinate him. “That call,” he offers, “from Spoleto, I must go soon, you been? Oh, it’s wunnerful, this festival, no money but a marvelous, supercilious, gay, snobbish atmosphere, very much fun. No such exact thing could come about in America! Interesting: Years ago this school in Paris granted me some kind of little stipend to go there. I was unheard of, saw plays, concerts, but knew no one and was totally alone. Next time I go was two years ago, and three places I am very big, don’t ask why, are Germany, Brazil and Italy, so they all recognize me in Spoleto, and bow and flirt. I thrive on my popularity as if it were physical nourishment! Very amusing! I don’t mean it is all the time: It can often be a terrible drag, you can do nothing but it is publicly known. Question: Was I happier now, or when I was unrecognized? I try to figure this, because I am in truth mixture of introvert and opposite. To come to a party when I was unknown, it was sickening, I felt always totally superfluous, that I was somehow an intruder. No more. It is very nice, when very rarely in a gathering anybody asks, ‘What do you do?’ You unnerstand? Very convenient.”

Tish is not fascinated with this subject, and with gestures and grand-opera delivery he tells of not quite the first time he got laid, “But I was very, very young and naive, this was in Vienna, I had made only short films but knew this mad Viennese promoter who took me out one night with a man whom I call ‘The King of Laundry,’ as he controlled all laundromats of Salzburg. We go to nightclub which was once ornate old opera house, the dancing girls were available, and at end of evening the King of Laundry makes arrangements for me and I find myself with tall girl upstairs in one of the old theater boxes, the drapes of it drawn, the orchestra still playing below. She orders champagne, then washes herself with it, then washes me with it! Incredible! She then applies to me a rubber. And afterwards, I will never forget this visual detail, she drops used rubber into the ice of champagne bucket! And abruptly, the King of Laundry comes in, draws open the drapes so that all could see, and begins throw money, great wads of it, large bills, in an elegant, slow shower, down to the performing musicians. . .”

Tish leaves hot long after that. He knows he cannot remain the raconteur now; that he is supposed to start remembering. “Let’s go downstairs to the office,” he suggests, not happily, and we do, to sit in the plain chamber with a desk where he and Towne worked on Chinatown. We start with his childhood, which he describes in a subdued, almost militaristic way. Born, Paris, August, 1933; father a Polish Jew employed by a recording company. Three years later they move home to Cracow. Early recollection: the Nazis constructing a concrete wall across the end of his street, to seal off the ghetto. Next year, both parents vanished into Auschwitz. “I then go to live in the country,” he offers, “I was eight.” He means that he escaped from the ghetto — he does not want to go into how — to a farm outside the city belonging to friends of friends of his father’s, devout Catholics who did not instill in him awe of Mother Church. He slept in “a sort of garret, on hay,” sharing his bed with all manner of parasitic insects. In the fields one day, German soldiers started shooting at him; this was only the first attempt on his life. When Cracow was liberated, the only bomb of the last German air raid of the war blew him through a bathroom door. His mother never returned from Auschwitz, but his father did, and remarried, and helped Roman to find a room of his own in the city and start in art school. “Then, an unbelievable thing happened: I was absorbed with bicycle-racing, and I met this guy, slightly older, he said, ‘I’ll sell you a racing bike very cheap,’ and told me to meet him next day at this German bunker near the park. He said the bike was inside, it was pitch dark in there; I step in, he was behind, he hit me with a rock he had rolled in a newspaper, five times, very hard. When I woke up, my money and watch were gone, blood was pouring over my face into my eyes, to this day when I get under a shower and the water starts, I can feel that blood. I stagger out of bunker, a woman asks me what’s wrong, I push her away, leaving a bloody hand print on her coat, which I also still see. . .”

He still has five harsh little scars under the hair on his skull; the story he has actually somewhat enjoyed recalling, the fact that he was a bit later almost a Polish child-acting star does not seem to impress him. “Yeh, I was fascinated with radio when a little boy, built a crystal set, there was a children’s program on the radio and they invited kids down to see it, I could hardly wait. I told them the actors were too stiff and showed I could do it better and they engaged me.” He was also in a hit play in Cracow, and though he still acts — he is briefly and spectacularly in Chinatown — what he wanted was a power over the work far beyond that available to actors. “My big thrill as kid was going in cinema, they played American films with subtitles in Cracow during the occupation. When they sealed off the ghetto we couldn’t go, but the Nazis would show newsreels on a screen in a marketplace just outside the wall and I found a place to see, through the barbed wire. Of course all they showed was German army victories, but even that fascinated me, and as soon as I get out of the ghetto, I work selling papers to go to films. They were very cheap; Germans wanted people to go. Poles considered it very unpatriotic to do so, you would see written on walls, ‘Only Pigs Go To Cinema,’ but I didn’t care, fuck it. Politics bore me even then, very mediocre people always enter politics.”

He thought they’d keep him out of the famous State Film School at Lodz, however. “This was Fifties, Communists had taken over Poland, my father was running small plastics company, this was considered by the Party to be ‘private initiative,’ very bad, that stuff mattered a lot when trying to get into the school but somehow I made it. Soviet Union was very interested in film as Lenin luckily had said that among all the arts, cinema was most important to Communist State, and at the time, Lodz was undoubtedly best film school in world. Wonderful practical training in camera operating, editing, optics, even still photography, which is most important if you wantta understand cinematography. The course was five years, each year you made your own film, first a short documentary, in final year a diploma film which could run up to 20 minutes. Mine was named When Angels Fall, a fantasy about an old woman who is attendant in public toilet, ran five minutes too long and naturally was over budget. We were shown an unbelievable number of films, all sorts, there were fierce schools-within-the-school. Older students were into Social Realism and devoted to Potemkin, others devoted to The Bicycle Thief, young kids like me worshipped Citizen Kane. There were savage arguments, I also bear scar from one of those. Does this occur now in American film schools? It should, ’cause from this you get strong, specific goals of what movie should be: It was from all that arguing and thinking that it first occur to me, movie is thing which must have a distinct dramatic and visual shape — a thing almost tangible which can be touched, felt, like piece of sculpture. . .”

His frown is apologetic: He knows this isn’t what he’s supposed to be talking about. “You are forcing me to become a man of words, which I am not,” he asserts, and laughs, without humor, at what he has said. “But I don’t think you grasp importance of what I’ve said: Without that training I would never have made Knife in the Water — which was great accomplishment because you had to get your film money from the government, and they didn’t want me to make this, they rejected it again and again, finally they give me a tiny budget, which I exceeded. Why I was intent upon it, I don’t know. Gerard Brach, who wrote it with me, also Repulsion and Cul de Sac, we had nothing really for it but verbal concepts. I knew I wanted to do film in Poland’s lake country; I knew I wish to do picture with only four people in it and nobody in background, no extras. When we start, I have nothing more in mind than a scene in which there are two men in sailboat and one falls in water. Why? Don’t know, except I am fascinated early by mood, atmosphere, people reacting to some heightened situation such as terror.”

The word stops him. Abruptly he grabs the phone and makes a prolonged, apparently unnecessary call. When he hangs up, you can feel him reinforcing a practiced discipline within himself. He folds his hands quietly; the emotion is left to you. “So ask me questions if you want to know something,” he directs, not cruelly, not warmly. “Meeting Sharon? When I hired her for Fearless Vampire Killers, of course. We get married in 1968. By summer of ’69, she was very pregnant and I was very busy, working on film script in London, it seemed best she go home to house we rented in L.A. and I stay on and finish film and get to L.A. soon as I could. Everyday we talk on the phone; when it rings, one day, I thought it was her. It was my agent, in L.A. He is crying. My reaction first, naturally, is no reaction, stunned disbelief, I suppose you call it. Friends came to me quickly, I think we went out for long walk, they called a doctor who gave me something, a shot, I sleep. Then I take plane to L.A. You must understand, there is much which now I can’t recall, which I’ve blocked out of recollection. After the funeral, I stayed on in L.A. because I had the ludicrous notion that finding the murderer would somehow ease my grief. I worked very close with the police for long time, who, I’ve got to tell you, were quite human and wonderful, I had no idea that cops could be like this. Sharon’s parents worked with them, too; yes, I’m still in touch with the Tates, naturally. What a question! I don’t think this is known: that just before the police found Manson and all of them, I offered a reward, $20,000, for public information leading to arrest of killers. It wasn’t collected, no. As soon as police discover Manson, I get the hell out of L.A. immediately, I could take no more, there was no more point to staying. I had begun then to accept Sharon’s death, which I’d really never done before, which is really all that matters to me about it at all any more, that she is gone. The worst started: I went to Switzerland and tried to ski and become very jet-set, the idea of work was impossible. Everybody kept saying to me, get to work immediately. Idiotic. Only Stanley Kubrick understood, he told me, ‘You cannot and must not work now.'”

It is clear that he wishes to get up, pace the room, break it up perhaps, but he remains quietly seated and purposefully motionless. “See, I attempted for a while there, before starting Macbeth, to become a hedonist, as the papers had said we all were. Jesus, I hated the press for a long time after it, because, I swear this, although I already well knew how press exaggerates, especially in sensational matters, I could not believe what was printed about Sharon! My God, ‘The Sharon Tate Orgies.’ Interviews given by people whom Sharon and I had never met! I swear, I could not find one word of truth in any story printed about us anywhere, and I would not and could not lie about this fact! If there had been anything to any of that shit, I would admit it to you now. My God, it was, is, unbelievable. The murder was all a horrible mistake, you know, Manson’s people were after somebody else entirely, who’d been renting the house before us! What was actually going on there was this: Gibby Folger and Voyteck were staying in the house with Sharon to keep her company, we’d agreed on this, they were good friends, the place was big and it seemed a good idea since she was eight and a half months pregnant. Gibby was working very hard as social worker, getting up at dawn everyday to go work in Watts and studying speed-reading at night. I was planning a film involving dolphins — like Day of the Dolphin — and Voyteck wanted very much to work in movies and was devoting lots of time to research on dolphins for me. Jay Sebring was another friend who came up often but never stayed one night all night at the house. I was dying to finish work and get there; the last time I talked to Sharon, only hours before murder, I told her I’d get there the following Monday even if work wasn’t finished. Things had been so perfect between us: We’d had some nice times in that L. A. house, Sharon would cook dinner for friends and after we’d all sit outside and look at the sky, the constellations, and talk about everything. Just quiet, pleasant evenings. Sharon and I would make plans, we had a wonderful future extensively mapped. . .”

Still he sits perfectly calm, though his eyes are such that it is uncomfortable to meet them. In a little while, you go home. Countless hours now he has been locked up in a close, sunless Paramount editing room with Sam O’Steen, a fortyish, bearded, congenial film editor who did Rosemary’s Baby and most of Mike Nichols’s films and is considered in Hollywood, and by Roman, to be the best in the trade. Polanski is at his best with him, ingenuous again, vigorous, verbal and very feisty, as is O’Steen. They are nearly done, except for details, tiny moments of Chinatown narrative.

“We play that shot on Curley, for the line,” Roman says to Sam, as if this were taken for granted, knowing full well it isn’t.

“Can’t do it, Roman, Jack overlaps him every take.”

They are shouting over the projection machine, which plays over and over a six — second sequence.

“I bet you there is room, Sam, listen to me once!”

“I already know what you’re going to say.”

“No, no, no, we do not understand each other, do it exactly as you did it this morning, except you use — “

“Can’t.”

“Lemme finish! Do same, except you add bit in front of cut and play her line off screen!”

“Then how do I get a pick up?”

“Aw Shit!”

It is all very friendly, this. O’Steen enjoys it and proceeds to edit as he was going to anyway. Roman strides happily around. “See what I told you, that it’s like writing? The vital use of one word! We have here an important scene that doesn’t play well with a certain line that is vital. A few frames and we are days on it! You have a work of art or a fuck-up, depending on what is accomplished in this room! The same shots here, in different order, it’s a different movie. Sam is superb, we argue all day, I go home, sleep on it, wake up and think, ‘Shit, Sam was right again!’ I realize here, the hardest thing of this picture was having two people just sit and talk. Jack and Faye are having iced tea, nothing visual is happening, you are powerless as director, you try everything and know that whatever you do, it will simply look fake, like you’re trying to jazz it up, and this is amateurish. Experience teaches you stuff like that; also, to leave in little mistakes, which young directors fear. We have scene in which Jack attempts to light cigarette and lighter doesn’t work. Good, he had sense not to break the take, to just keep struggling with it, finally giving up, and what you’ve got there is something small, funny, wonderfully visual which you could never have planned.”

He beckons me to the outer office, very excited. “Listen, you want to see the movie tomorrow?” This is whispered. “I want you to, and listen, don’t tell nobody, we have to do it in big secret as they would shit here at studio did they think I show it now to anybody, anybody, especially the press, but you gotta see it, so I arrange it in secrecy!”

One has the sense, the next day, of gaining entrance to Paramount by deception; one parks unobtrusively and follows his phoned directions to the screening room. Still, he whispers. “Music is not in yet, there’s a couple of sound flubs I must still over-dub, but watch it, watch it! I cannot stay, I have. . .an appointment.” He grins to himself; clearly he’s perceived that his presence would be a distraction.

He is right, anything would be. The first shots are in Nicholson’s office: As matrimonial detective, he’s going over some photos taken by a cohort of a couple fornicating elaborately in the woods. What is there about this that is so comic and yet foreboding, that so correctly sets the tone? Hilarious, yet sinister. Very soon, an overdressed woman enters the detective office, to engage Nicholson to spy on her cheating husband. What is there about her that is like the photos in the woods? Absurd, foreboding. Everything’s already subtly tilted off axis, and you have got to know why. Nicholson begins following the woman’s husband, who is the Los Angeles water commissioner, who seems interested only in how the water supply is being used; he will spend all night patrolling water mains. Sometimes he is seen with a young girl, not his wife, but apparently there is nothing romantic between them. Weird. This continues interminably; Polanski is having great fun with the edges of one’s boredom, building slowly with what will turn out to be precise visual care. Then Nicholson is telling his office sidekicks a dreadful dirty joke he just heard in the barbershop, about Chinese sex, and behind him, out of eyeshot, enters a stunning beige and gray apparition who just pauses, poses, and listens to him, Faye Dunaway. She says nothing but you know that the core of the mystery has been introduced. It’s a mesmerizing scene, one of the most spectacular star-entrances ever devised, and every subsequent scene between her and Nicholson tops it. Now you cannot stop questioning or waiting for a finale as devastating as anything Polanski, or anyone, has ever put on film. One has had to urinate when the projectionist had begun the movie, and it is not possible to get up and go out and do it; the pain is preferable to missing something, and, finally, worth it.

After the end, one pees; the picture has been so scary that even being alone in the men’s room is sinister. Polanski, not surprisingly, is waiting outside, and seems more overjoyed when you explain about not being able to get up during the showing than anything else you say about his work. “Terrific, wunnerful, wunnerful,” and he jogs to the waiting Mercedes. “I know you tell me the truth! So I do it, huh? I really do it! An audience movie! See why I want to show it to you? You like her, you see why I am tough with her? Because I got it! Because she is worth all the trouble! You see now why I wish to do my detective story, why I do this genre? I will do all of them! Listen, every man thinks, ‘I want to have fucked black girl, Chinese girl, Japanese!’ A gay guy thinks, ‘I would like to fuck a chimney sweep!’ “Giggling wildly, he is starting the car. “Why chimney sweep?

Oh, that is old joke, about guy who has fucked everybody, every possible combination, and he is asked, ‘You ever fuck a nigger?’ He thinks. ‘No,’ he replies, ‘but I once fuck a chimney sweep!'” And he roars off the Paramount lot laughing, as though the cumbersome auto were the means to a new, unexplored asteroid.

In This Article: Coverwall

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