Inside Roman Polanski's Controversial Visit to Polish Film Festival (Exclusive)
UPDATED: Gdynia organizers reveal what was covered in the director's closed-door master's class, including his favorite recent films, saying his visit was planned as a "fantastic surprise."
Roman Polanski's controversial visit to Poland's Gdynia film festival last week had long been planned as a surprise, the event's artistic director says.
In an exclusive interview with The Hollywood Reporter, Michal Chacinski said that organizers did not want the director's master class and attendance of a screening of his new film Venus in Furs at the end of the annual showcase of Polish film to overshadow the rest of the week.
"We kept the master class and the whole visit a secret simply to avoid a situation where it would dwarf the rest of the festival," Chacinski told THR.
"Even members of the jury, such as Christopher Hampton or Agnieszka Holland had no idea the visit was being prepared. We turned it into a fantastic surprise for the very final day of festival screenings."
Polanski's visit stoked controversy last week because the Paris-based director risks arrest and extradition to the U.S. when he leaves France, due to longstanding charges of rape over his sexual encounter with 13-year-old Samantha Gailey in 1977.
Under Polish law, the statute of limitations on his crime has long expired, and the incident did not figure into the festival's invitation, the organizers said.
Polanski was invited to the festival two years ago, but his busy schedule forced him to cancel at the last minute, Chacinski said.
"In May, during the Cannes fest, it turned out his visit could happen this year, since Venus in Furs would be distributed in Poland in the autumn, and the first official screening in Poland could close the festival," he explained
The visit and master class were meant as a treat for the many film students who attend the festival, including those from Polanski's alma mater, the Lodz Film School, which marks its 65th anniversary this year.
Polanski rarely gives interviews to the media, and journalists were not admitted to the event, but Chacinski, who moderated it, said the director was unusually open in his comments to students.
"Polanski was extremely open with the idea. Although he famously hates interviews, he loves situations where he can share his knowledge and discuss practical problems of filmmaking," Chacinski said.
The event was open to around 70 film students, who were informed only on the morning of the master class.
"I'm sure some of them thought it was a prank," Chacinski remarked.
Originally, Polanski was to take one scene from his films and analyze it, but the event turned into a wide-ranging discussion conducted exclusively in Polish.
"People were asking about their favorite scenes and specific shots," Chacinski continued.
"Someone asked why, in Rosemary's Baby, the knife falling on the floor hits it with the tip and stays in the vertical position. (The same shot is repeated in Venus in Furs). Polanski answered, 'Eight out of ten times that would happen if it's a well-balanced knife. And it is a much more interesting and telling image. Imagine how the scene would play if the knife just fell on the floor and slid away. The impact of the shot would be less.'"
Polanski went on to discuss the importance of the first image in a film, saying: "The first frame, the first image, has a purely aesthetic meaning. Do not try to tell a story with it yet -- you have the whole film ahead -- but try to make an impression so that someone will feel compelled to continue watching."
Polanski said he largely eschewed the use of storyboards: "If you start with a storyboard, it is as if a great tailor made a wonderful suit and then started to look for someone to wear it. I only use it for scenes in which it will definitely make it easier for my crew to understand what I want."
The director rarely leaves much material on the cutting room floor, he said.
"If you realize at editing that a large portion of your material does not work, it means that from the beginning something was wrong with your script. But I do have situations where I realize it is better for a film if I cut whole scenes out, even though they are great in themselves."
On setting a scene, Polanski said: "I never start with the camera, I always start with actors. Only if they feel very good about what they should do can you get into the technical matters of the scene."
He remarked that he rarely uses hand-held cameras, which are popular with younger filmmakers, because that is something a director grows out of.
"I think handheld cameras are great when you are a student. But when you graduate and you have tried all those concepts [such as] throwing the camera down from the third floor or spinning it around on a string, you do not need that to tell a story effectively. You can be elegant."
And as for his own favorite recent films, Polanski named Paul Thomas Anderson's There Will Be Blood, and Suicide Room by Polish director Jan Komasa.
None of the students asked any questions about Polanski's personal life or the historic charges against him, Chacinski said. The master class concentrated entirely on cinematographic issues.
At one point, Polanski described how he would shoot a scene of the master class itself, Chacinski said.
"He started by entering the room, showed us where he would place the camera shooting him entering, how he would show the audience reactions, how he would show me as the moderator, and what shots would be intercut during the whole conversation."
"You could say it was a dream come true. Not only did we have Roman Polanski in the room sharing his knowledge, we had him directing us. For a second, we became a part of his movie."
Polanski's visit reopened questions about the degree to which he risks arrest and extradition today in Europe, 36 years after the opening of the U.S. case.
Four years ago, while visiting the Zurich film festival, Polanski was held under house arrest at a chalet he keeps in the ski resort of Gstaad, during extradition proceedings that eventually failed.
His visit last week to Poland, a country for which he holds dual citizenship along with France, was at the invitation of Poland's culture minister Bogdan Zdrojewski. He was not arrested, and U.S. authorities last week told THR that there had been no plans to request his extradition.
The case received fresh publicity this week with the publication of The Girl: A Life in the Shadow of Roman Polanski by Gailey, who now uses her married name of Samantha Geimer. The book gives a full and detailed account of the incident from the perspective of Polanski's victim for the first time..
In 1977, Polanski was accused of rape after giving her champagne and drugging her during a nude photo-session at Jack Nicholson's Hollywood home.
Under a plea bargain, Polanski pleaded guilty to one of six counts he was charged with and spent 42 days at Chino State Prison for psychiatric evaluation. When the judge backed out of a sentencing deal that he had agreed upon with Polanski's lawyers, the director fled the U.S. He has faced arrest and extradition from countries with treaties with the U.S. ever since.
Geimer, now 48, has long maintained that she and Polanski both became the victims of questionable legal wrangling and revealed that she and the now 80-year-old director occasionally exchange emails.
This week, she said that four years ago Polanski had apologized to her, writing: "I want you to know how sorry I am for having so affected your life."
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