Team Polanski lifts 'Ghost' over finish line

Director, under house arrest, won't see film's Berlin premiere

BERLIN -- Roman Polanski won't be walking the red carpet at the Berlin International Film Festival when "The Ghost Writer" has its world premiere here Friday, but the director and his competition title are still the hottest ticket in town.

While tabloid coverage is certain to focus on Polanski's arrest in Switzerland in September and his ongoing extradition trial on a decades-old sex charge, the story of how the director and his team finished "The Ghost Writer" is a tale almost as gripping, if less sensational.

Polanski decided to adapt Robert Harris' political thriller in 2007. Production on "Pompeii" -- a big-budget feature based on an earlier Harris novel -- had just shut down amid fears of a U.S. actors' strike. Harris had been flying back and forth between Paris -- where he worked on the "Pompeii" script with Polanski -- and London, where he was finishing "The Ghost Writer."

"When the 'Pompeii' project fell through, I sent a copy of the (unpublished) 'Ghost Writer' manuscript to Roman," Harris recalls. "I said 'why don't we do this project? There's no volcanoes, but it's good.' I meant it as a sort of joke. A few days later, he called and said, 'OK, let's make it.' "

In the book, a ghostwriter, brought in to write the memoirs of a former British prime minister, discovers a global conspiracy that puts his life in danger.

"Roman called me and said, 'We've found our 'Frantic,' " said Robert Benmussa, Polanski's longtime producing partner, referring to Polanski's 1988 thriller starring Harrison Ford. "After doing two big period films with 'Oliver Twist' and 'The Pianist,' he wanted to do a real thriller, return to his origins."

Producers Benmussa, Alain Sarde and Polanski quickly set up the project, deciding to shoot at Studio Babelsberg, where they had made "The Pianist," and have the northern German island of Sylt double for Martha's Vineyard, where the bulk of the film's action takes place.

"Financing the production was not so easy because we got the whole budget, €32 million ($45 million), out of Europe," Benmussa said. "It was tight but we succeeded."

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Despite some annoyingly pleasant winter in Sylt that didn't match the script's oppressive setting, the shoot went like clockwork. Starting in February 2009, the production had wrapped by May and went into post -- mainly in Paris and Polanski's chalet in Switzerland. He delivered the first rough cut by the end of August.

Then, late September, Polanski was arrested in Zurich.

"When I heard, I wasn't worried about my movie, I was worried about my friend," Benmussa said. "I knew the film would be delivered."

Despite his incarceration, Polanski continued to work on "The Ghost Writer." Benmussa kept him informed of the details of the post-production through courier packages sent via Polanski's lawyer, to the director's jail cell.

"He is a director who is involved in everything on a film," Benmussa said. "He received DVDs of the film as it was being finished. He had all the information and was able to give instructions."

Alexandre Desplat, who wrote the soundtrack for the film, had to record his music while Polanski was in jail.

"I couldn't speak with him but he always works with the same team -- the same producer, same music editor, the same mixer," Desplat said. "They have been so close to him for so many years, they know what he wants. ... In his absence, I think the crew became even closer, even stronger. We really wanted to show him and the world that we could deliver a fantastic film."

When Polanski was released on house arrest to his Swiss chalet, he continued working, putting the last touches on film and approving the final cut.

While "The Ghost Writer's" official world premiere is in Berlin on Friday, word on the film has already begun leaking out following pre-release screenings in London and L.A. Industry execs who have seen it are calling it a slick, well-paced thriller and a return to form for Polanski.

"Of course it is a very unforeseen and distressing situation to offer a film to the public without its director," said Robert Harris, commenting on the Berlinale premiere of "The Ghost Writer." "This is a Polanski film and showing it without him is a bit like having Hamlet without the Prince of Denmark. But in a way, it is the best riposte to just show his work. That cannot be confined or silenced. I hope people will see beyond the controversy to the film itself."