Polanski film Oscar-worthy

Documentary focuses on French flight

"Polanski" picture: The miscarriage of justice that sent Roman Polanski fleeing to France some 30 years ago to avoid being imprisoned by a publicity seeking L.A. judge is the focus of Marina Zenovich's Oscar-worthy documentary "Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired."

Happily, "Polanski," premiering on HBO June 9 at 9:00 p.m., received the necessary advance theatrical showings in New York and L.A. to qualify for best documentary feature Oscar consideration. Academy members should make a point of seeing it now or when it opens theatrically July 11 via THINKFilm. It's a movie that will leave them talking for hours about the disgraceful way in which the late Judge Laurence J. Rittenband sought to advance his own judicial career by plotting a headline making surprise prison sentence for Polanski that was opposed at the time by both the DA's office and the attorney representing the underage girl with whom Polanski had admittedly had sex.

One of the film's strengths is that Zenovich doesn't approach the controversial subject of Polanski's 1977 trial with an axe to grind. Presenting, as she does, archival footage along with interviews she conducted for the movie she leaves moviegoers to draw their own conclusions. I have a feeling they're not going to be viewing Rittenband as a hero of American justice.

After an early look at "Polanski," which left me enthusiastic about its Oscar prospects, I was happy to have an opportunity to talk to Zenovich about how and why she made the movie. Written by Zenovich, Joe Bini and P.G. Morgan, "Polanski" was produced by Jeffrey Levy-Hinte, Lila Yacoub and Zenovich and executive produced by Steven Soderbergh and Randy Wooten.

"I was having a very hard time finding my next project after I made a film about my obsession with another Frenchman (the former politician and convicted criminal turned actor) Bernard Tapie that took me about four years to do," she told me.

Zenovich said she spotted a newspaper article in February 2003 that noted that if Polanski received an Oscar nomination for "The Pianist," he would be unable to return. After he ended up being nominated, Zenovich said a friend called to say Samantha Geimer, the girl at the center of the case, and her attorney were going on "Larry King Live."

"So I turned it on and I was furiously taking notes watching it and at the end of the show her lawyer said, 'The day Roman Polanski fled was a sad day for the American judicial system,'" she said. "I just thought, 'Wait. That doesn't make sense.' I wanted to try to figure out what he meant. I came back to L.A. wanting to meet the girl's lawyer, Polanski's lawyer and the DA in the case."

Through a friend, Zenovich said, she met former assistant district attorney Roger Gunson, who handled the Polanski case in 1977.

"It wasn't like he was that eager to talk to me, but he met with me because of our mutual friend," she said. "We met several times at a sushi restaurant in Santa Monica where we would just talk. He would try to explain to me what happened and I was seriously taking notes and trying to understand everything.

"So it was a real kind of discovery trying to figure out what exactly happened and who to talk to. I cold-called the girl's lawyer (Lawrence Silver), who I met at the food court at the Beverly Center, and he said, 'Well, you're going to have to write the girl a letter.' And so I wrote her a letter and she finally got on board. Polanski's attorney (Douglas Dalton) was the most difficult to get. I think I worked for two and a half or three years before I got him to talk."

How did she manage to do that?

"Initially, he wouldn't call me back," she replied. "Then he finally called me. Then I kept trying to talk him into it. After I'd been editing the movie for a while without his interview there was an article in the New York Times about the film and I think once he read that he thought he had to talk. He called me and basically said, 'Three people know the story and one of them (Rittenband) is dead.' I didn't know what a hot button topic this was, but people are fascinated by Roman Polanski. They think they know the story and they feel very strongly about how well they know the story. It's been interesting for me breaking it all down and trying to tell another side of the story that people don't really know."

In telling that story Zenovich went out of her way not to stack the deck in Polanski's favor.

"I tried very hard to not be easy on him because clearly he's the one who put himself in the situation," she said. "But if you focus on what happened after the crime when he ends up fleeing the country, you can't help but feel sympathetic. That's what makes it interesting because he starts out as the one who commits the crime and then he ends up being the victim."

Her portrayal of the Judge Rittenband doesn't seem to say much for our judicial system at the time. I asked Zenovich her thoughts.

"Unfortunately, not," Zenovich agreed. "When I was interviewing a lot of people about the judges from the '70s I have to say (I learned) there were a lot of characters. It was a very different time. These were characters and Rittenband was one of them. He had a lot of power, but he was very bright and a good jurist. I interviewed a lot of people to try to get the full story on him. He had a career other than the Polanski case, but it was really this that was the most interesting to me. I found out that he was a lifelong bachelor. He just basically went to the courthouse and (then to lunch at) the Hillcrest Country Club and that was his life."

Asked about the film's unusual release pattern, Zenovich explained, that there is going to be a theatrical release after it's on HBO."

"This is not how it's normally done," she said. "THINKFilm is releasing it July 11. The Oscar rules change a lot. I am actually very lucky because (previously) for a documentary you had to open in several cities, which makes no sense because most documentary filmmakers don't have a lot of money and to open in a lot of cities is very difficult. This year the rule was that you had to open for a week in Los Angeles and New York, but you had to open 60 days prior to your airdate. So HBO put the film in a theater in Pasadena and one in Morningside Heights in New York (and) that qualifies us.

"It's a bit complicated and, hopefully, it will all work out, but I'm happy because I never ever thought the film would be so well received. It was a very, very difficult ambitious film to make where one of my characters is dead. I attempted to get an interview from Polanski when I was finishing the film. He said no, that he thought it would look like self-promotion. I had met Steven Soderbergh on my first documentary and he's helped me when I've needed development money and he told me it would be a huge mistake if I put Polanski in the movie. I so wanted to interview Polanski, but Steven was right. We didn't need him. So just between having the dead judge, no Polanski, a story that's 30 years old told by two lawyers (and) a lot of archives, it was quite an undertaking."

Has Polanski seen the film?

"He saw it this weekend," Zenovich told me on May 28. "…he told me that he thought it was a very good film and asked me the question, 'What's next?' It's a question you always get after slaving away for so many years and you don't want to think about it, but you really have to."

Before focusing on her next project, I asked why Polanski hasn't returned to the U.S. to resolve the sentencing issue now that Rittenband's dead.

"In 1997 he and Roger Gunson went to meet with the presiding judge and he told them that he wanted the proceedings to be televised (and) Polanski declined," she said. "Everyone keeps asking me will this film help him in any way? It wasn't my intention. I really wanted to get a story out that somehow seemed to get lost in the salaciousness of the crime and the fact that he fled. I don't know what's going to happen."

As for her next project, Zenovich said, "The only person that I keep coming back to that I'm interested in is (French president Nicolas) Sarkozy because he's just fascinating to me. I was interested in him before he got married recently and that to me kind of made me lose interest a little bit, but while I was in Cannes I was interviewing people (and) asking them what they thought. There's something there that's really interesting. Is he the man to change France? I'm very much a Francophile and am just fascinated by (him) trying to trying to change a country that is so steeped in its own lovely traditions and trying to make it more American."

Martin Grove hosts movie coverage on the broadband television channel www.UpdateHollywood.com