Interview from Penthouse Magazine 1974
"Every film I make represents a departure
for me. You see, it takes so long to make a film. By the time you get
to the next one you're already a different man. You've grown up by one
or two years".
Polanski's latest effort, Chinatown, is a detective melodrama set in the
Los Angeles Chinatown of 1937. To prepare for it, he spent several days
screening several great mystery films of the Thirties and Forties. One
of them was The Maltese Falcon, directed by John Huston. In Chinatown,
Huston is the millionaire father of Faye Dunaway, who has gotten into
terrible trouble. Jack Nicholson, an ex-cop who has been taking it easy
as a private eye working on divorce cases, reluctantly agrees to help
her. Polanski says the movie is in the tradition of mystery writer Raymond
Q Do you have any enemies?
Polanski: Marty Ranshohoff [Laughs].
Q He produced your film The Fearless Vampire Killers?
Polanski: Yes. That was one of the most disgraceful experiences I ever
went through, as far as my profession is concerned, my creative life.
After I finished Vampire Killers, he took it away from me and cut twenty
minutes out of it and redubbed it and changed the music. When he was through
no one could understand it anymore. So he added a little cartoon to explain
what the film was about. And that's how the film was presented in America.
Luckily, my version prevailed in other countries. It's still playing in
Europe, while the American version, as you know, was a total disaster.
Until that time, all my films had been made as I wanted them? to be, and
if they were not more successful, financially, it was still important
for me to be able to do exactly what I wanted to do. I often gave up a
lot to retain my integrity. And suddenly, I found I had made a film which
had been butchered. That really gives you the feeling of having a Thalidomide
child - because that film exists and people go to see it and you can do
nothing about it and they think it's yours. You're not even allowed to
withdraw your name, because that's in the contract.
Q Can you accept any weaknesses in your work?
Polanski: No, but even if you don't accept them, you have them sometimes.
Weaknesses are somehow more forgiveable in a feature film than in a short
film. A short film needs tremendously rigorous and strict composition.
That's why there are so few good short films made, although hundreds are
produced every year in every country - less in America, by the way, than
in European countries.
Q What makes the short film so tough to make?
Polanski: Well, if you miss a scene or a shot in a short film, you can't
be forgiven. It's the same as writing a short story. A longer format is
just more tolerant, you see. You have enough material to cover up for
certain things. Let's say that 80 percent right would be acceptable in
a feature film. But in a short form you have to be almost 100 percent
Q How did you come to make Chinatown, your newest film?
Polanski: Paramount acquired the rights to it and about a year ago Bob
Evans, a vice-president at Paramount, called me and I came to Los Angeles
and read the first draft. It had been written specifically for Jack Nicholson
and I have always wanted to make a movie with him. So I decided I'd do
it and I worked with Bob Townes for two months rewriting it. It was his
original script. Already, at that stage, a picture of Faye Dunaway formed
itself in my brain, and I was absolutely positive she was the only person
who could play the role.
Q What was it like working with Jack Nicholson?
Polanski: Jack is the easiest person to work with that I have come across
in my whole career. First of all, he's tremendously professional, and
secondly, it's very easy for him to do anything you ask. I think he spoils
the director, and the writer, because any lines you give him Sound right
even if they're awkward or badly written. When he says something, it sounds
authentic. He never asks you to change anything. Every other actor I've
worked with has said, at some time, "Can I change this?" or
"Can I take this out?" But that never happens with Jack. It's
Q What about Faye Dunaway?
Polanski: With her it was just the opposite. I mean she's hung-up. She's
the most difficult person I've worked with. She's undisciplined, although
she works hard. She prepares herself for ages - in fact, too much. She's
tremendously neurotic. Unflexible. She argues about motivations. She's
often late and so on. But then, when you see the final results, you tend
to forget all the trouble you went through because she is very good indeed.
It's just a price you have to pay for it.
Q How did Jack and Faye get along?
Polanski: Oh, they get along very well. They're great friends. So were
Faye and I before we started the picture. And we are now. But throughout
the production it was fire and water.
Q Does Chinatown represent a departure for you in either theme or treatment?
Polanski: Every film I make represents a departure for me. You see, it
takes so long to make a film. By the time you get to the next one you're
already a different man. You've grown up by one or two years.
Chinatown is a thriller and the story line is very important. There is
a lot of dialogue. But I missed some opportunity for visual inventiveness.
I felt sometimes as if I were doing some kind of TV show. I thought I
had always been an able, inventive, creative director and there I was
putting two people at a table and letting them talk. When I tried to make
it look original I saw it start to become pretentious, so concentrated
on the performances and kept an ordinary look.
Q Isn't that better than having the audience acutely aware of the camera,
like a thumb in their eye?
Polanski: Yes, but I don't think that's ever happened to me. Only when
your camera makes them nauseous do the critics say, "His nervous
camera moved relentlessly throughout the entire sequence" and so
on. I've read those criticisms of some pictures. It's the same thing with
writers. Sometimes a great stylist writes so smoothly that you're not
aware of what you're swallowing.
Q You once said that "directing is like drawing with your eyes closed"-
Polanski: I said that?
Q Maybe not. But you were quoted as saying it.
Polanski: It's very possible. I don't remember. But it certainly sounds
very intelligent and I'm surprised I said it.
Q It was tied into a comment that the audience sees the whole picture,
but the director never can.
Polanski: Oh, that's true. When you say it in that context, I understand
what I must have been talking about. When you make a picture, you make
little segments of it at a time. When you write a script, it's a similar
situation. You then see portions of it in your daily screening. By the
time you start putting it together you know these portions so well that
you don't see the entire thread anymore. By the time the film is finished
you can only have an instinct about it because you literally don't see
the whole film anymore. Your attention is diverted by all kinds of trivia
within 'the film. I sometimes run the picture after I finish it and when
the screening is over I have the impression that there was a scene or
two missing and I have to ask someone, "Was that scene in the film?"
because I don't remember seeing it. But after a few years you are able
to see it again with a fresher eye, because you tend to forget the details
and you can view it as an entire piece for the first time.
Q Have you ever gotten used to how much an audience will miss when they
first see a film?
Polanski: Oh, yes. They miss a lot. It depends also on the depth of the
film and how subtle the things are which the director tried to get across.
Q Does this tend to make you wary of subtlety?
Polanski: No. I prefer to be subtle rather than to be obvious. I would
rather that the audience miss something at the first viewing rather than
be offended by the vulgarity.
Q You often repeat something for comic effect, but you never come back
a third time. In your film What? a man picks up an object and it falls
apart in his hand. A little while later he picks up something else, which
breaks. And that's it.
Polanski: This is a law I learned when I was an actor. If you repeat something,
you don't come back and repeat it again. If you do it a third time, there
has to be a payoff Two seems a lot, already. Let's say, for example, that
someone leaves the room and says, "Okay, see you tomorrow,"
and then he suddenly comes back and says, "And don't be late."
If he returns a third time, something more must happen. He probably has
to stay and not leave at all.
Q What about fictional people you've created? Would you like to meet
any of them in real life?
Polanski: Lets see, people from films. . characters . . well, I'm afraid
only the professor from Vampire Killers. Unfortunately, I don't make films
about admirable people. Probably weakness gives you more material for
Q More than strength?
Polanski: Well, it depends what sort of strength. For instance, nowadays
it's difficult to write a profile in a magazine about someone who is wonderful.
You try to look for his faults in order to have it published. In a similar
manner, you make films about someone you identify with because of his
or her vulnerability or because the character irritates you due to his
weaknesses. I think it's boring to talk about Mr. Wonderful.
Q Is stamina more important than talent in show business?
Polanski: I'm afraid so. I really do mean that. There are people around
you who try to press their points of view and their interests. You need
an incredible amount of strength to survive and to retain your integrity.
Q Do you have any general rules for handling actors?
Polanski: It depends on the individual actor. Some of them are tremendously
sensitive - and even intelligent. Others need this bit of pounding. My
first experience, Knife in the Water, had to do with three actors. The
older man was a theatrical actor with all the mannerisms that theater
gives. He had a lot of experience, a lot of discipline. He was a middle-aged
ham. He was a wonderful man, a great friend, but that's the way I have
to describe him, The other was a young graduate of an acting school who
had all his trembling fears and doubts, and also a different sort of mannerism
that acting school gives you. He was hypersensitive. The girl was an amateur
who never did anything before. She was found in a public swimming pool,
totally dumb, absolutely insensitive, very sensual looking and quite intelligent
looking. Unfortunately, it was only in appearance. I had to deal in three
different ways with these three individuals. To the man, I could explain
certain things and rehearse a lot and ask him to repeat certain motions
or attitudes I would show him. With the boy I would just have to suggest
something to him and let him do it himself. With the girl, I had to pound
it into her head and insult her in order to get some feeling out of her;
and that hardly worked at all. So a performance that really surprised
a lot of people was really the result of blood, sweat, and tears.
Q You have to "play" them to get what you want out of them?
Polanski: Yes, I think so. But sometimes you don't have to do anything
but just leave them alone. For example, Mia Farrow, in Rosemary's Baby.
After a few days she said, "You don't like me," And I said,
"Why?" And she said, "Because you never say anything."
Well, I didn't say anything because everything was all right.
Q Many famous directors seem to feel that actors should be treated as
if they were at best, animals, and at worst, children.
Polanski: Well, what kind of animals? I used to give my actors bananas
in the morning and they liked them very much. I had my prop man bring
them in. After a while, whenever they didn't get their bananas, they became