Roman Polanski: My brilliant career

Roman Polanski recalls his early movies, his struggles with Communism and the brutal pursuit of a vision
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The Independent Culture

When I made my first feature, Knife in the Water, in the early Sixties in Poland, film was run by the Ministry of Culture. It was all highly politicised, and the films had to be approved by the Communist Party.

I was looking for something that would be easily financeable, so I thought of something that could happen on these lakes that I knew well. Then I thought of a film with only three people, on a yacht. So I wrote this little story about a hitchhiker who gets a ride in a car and subsequently on the yacht of a guy who's a bit of a show-off.

Of course, the Ministry of Culture wanted something much more political than that: when the commission read the script, they turned it down. So I left Poland, and went to France to shoot a short film called The Fat and the Lean. About a year later, a friend called me from Lodz and said: "Why don't you come back to re-present Knife in the Water?" So we sat down and re-wrote a couple of scenes, and gave it a little bit of social background - bullshit, mainly, but the atmosphere in the country was better and it passed.

I knew straight away which actor I wanted to use for the older male character, and we found the young guy fairly quickly, too. The girl was the most difficult because the actress I had in mind turned us down (I was not an established film-maker). So I said: "Let's try and find somebody without any prior experience." I thought I would have no problem in directing anyone. We decided that the easiest place to find a good-looking woman with the right physique would be at the public swimming pool - and there we found Jolanta Umecka.

It taught me an immediate lesson: that there is no recipe for directing actors, because everyone is different. The older actor was very easy to work with, but the girl wouldn't do anything. You would have to ask her 10 times to put the glass [down] in the right place. She was very difficult to get emotions out of. We tried to insult her, to irritate her - nothing would do.

There's actually a scene in the film when the boy whom they think has drowned reappears, and lifts himself onto the deck. She's naked - she's wringing out her swimsuit - and she should react to this with surprise - more than surprise! We just couldn't get it out of her. I remember Andre Costenko, my assistant, taking a flare pistol and firing it behind her.

She also started gaining weight during the shoot and that was a problem (the action of the film happens in 24 hours). So we put her on a diet. We were all living on a boathouse together. The production manager, Eugene Laskowski, was ex-military. And he said: "I don't know what's happening, she must have secret food somewhere." So one day he raided her cabin, and under the bunk found the food that she had somehow managed to hoard, and started screaming at her.

When we were about to start syncing the picture, it became clear to me that the girl's voice had to be replaced, and the boy's, too. The actress who dubbed her part thought the film was a piece of shit. But she followed my directions so it didn't really matter. Who cares what the actor who dubs thinks? I decided to dub the boy myself. So it's my voice in the film.

Each time a picture was completed, you would have to show it to the same people who approved the script. Our guy, strangely enough, went along with the film. The only thing that bothered him - and it bothered him tremendously - was that, at the end, the characters stand in the middle of the road and we don't know which way they will go, and whether the older guy will believe his wife's story or not. And he said: "Don't let them just stand there." At that point, the film ended with three shots of different sides of the car, the three of them just standing there. So after much negotiation, I got rid of two of those shots.

After that, the film got sent to the Venice Film Festival and we got the critics' prize, the Fipresci prize, which was a fantastic victory for me. In the States, it was shown at the New York film festival. Time magazine gave us a cover that created a lot of publicity for the film, and it was nominated for best foreign language film at the Academy Awards. Though it didn't win, I lost against one of my favourite films, Fellini's Eight and a Half.

By now, as far as I was concerned, Poland was finished. I had met Jean Kowtowski, and we decided to work together in London. There were two guys there, Michael Klinger and Tony Tenser, whose company - the Compton Group - produced movies that were very daring for that time - virtually pornography. They were looking for somebody like me, who could give them a little bit of respectability, or good press, for very little outlay. So I sat down with Gérard Brach, who was my co-writer then, and we wrote something that we knew would have a chance of being accepted by people like Michael and Tony - a horror movie [the script was originally called "Lovely Head"; later it became Repulsion].

A few years before, Gérard and I had both known a girl who looked tremendously innocent, but then we learnt certain things about her that surprised us, and that was somehow the starting point: a girl who looks very innocent, but who's got some kind of a mental problem and can be dangerous.

I asked for Gil Taylor [who shot Dr Strangelove] to be my director of photography. He defended me tremendously. We went over-budget right from the beginning - and behind schedule. It was so tight, it was totally unrealistic. In fact, we went 100 per cent over budget. That means that the film cost, I think, £93,000. So you can imagine what the original budget was.

I can't remember whether Compton was against using a French actress. Catherine Deneuve was not well-known at that time. It was not like getting a starlet who would allow you to sell the picture worldwide. But I felt Catherine was right for the part. I have only good memories of working with her. It was like a tango. She would do exactly what I wanted. There was none of the animosity that sometimes develops with actors - mainly with men, because you tell them what to do, and they resist, because men have their pride. There was only one problem: Catherine wanted to wear panties under her nightgown, because you could see through it. Anyway, after a lot of persuading, she was prepared to get rid of the panties, so that was fine. There was also one nude scene, where she's lying on the floor, when she wakes up naked, and she was a bit difficult that day. But these were all minor matters.

I wanted to have a feeling of distance increasing throughout the picture as if madness was overwhelming the girl. But since it was a cheap production, we didn't have a special effects man - just a prop man. Most of the effects were improvised during shooting. I wanted to have these hands coming out of the wall. It would be fabulous today; digitally, it's a dream, this type of effect. But we had to do it for real on the set, and that was a bit of a struggle, because of time.

Union rules were very strict then, so they would just cut off the light at 5.20pm. The whole atmosphere at that time was very gloomy, because of the unions. Everybody believed that they were making it impossible to make films in England. But I had a good crew; they stood up for me when I had problems with Compton.

Because Repulsion did so well, Compton was open for new adventures, but Cul-de-Sac [filmed the following year] was definitely a movie we made for ourselves. It reflected our taste in cinema. We knew that we wanted a certain type of girl - capricious, difficult, attractive, free. And that we wanted a gangster, or a couple of gangsters.

In terms of casting, I believed then - even more than now - that the most important thing was the physique of the actor. They had to be the way I imagined them. The gangster needed to be a Wallace Beery type. We were still looking when Jean, who was the producer, called me one night and said: "Turn on your television." I turned it on and saw Lionel Stander on a talk show, and yes, that was our guy.

But we hadn't got our female lead. Luckily, someone told us that Catherine Deneuve's sister was in Paris, so we went to see her at the Connaught Hotel. What I remember from that visit is the hassle we had getting in. Lionel was dressed with incredible elegance, but the doorman wouldn't let him in because he was wearing a cravat, not a tie. Lionel virtually had a fight with him.

Acting is a very unhealthy profession. First, you hire an actor for certain characteristics. When you need a hysterical woman, say, you will look for a type who is more or less hysterical. When you need a bore, you will look for a bore. Then, for 10 hours a day, minimum, you try to magnify these elements of his or her personality. And when there's a break, you're surprised that the person doesn't just switch and become lovely within 10 seconds. Lionel was truly impossible throughout the shoot. He was lazy and didn't want to rehearse. Also, he was quite nasty with Françoise. When we did the scene where he whips her, he really did whip her with his belt buckle.

It was a very, very difficult shoot. Yet again, we didn't have enough money and the weather was dreadful, constantly changing- it was north-of-England weather, so those who live there know it, but we weren't ready for it. Even with Gil it was difficult on Holy Island, and I was a bit sad about that. There were days when the whole crew was against me.

At the end of the shoot, a skeleton crew stayed on, including a director of photography because Gil wasn't available. I had to show this new guy the film so he'd know what I wanted, and he told me that it was no good. Since then, of course, people have come up with their own interpretations - they think they know "what it means". That's fine - it's a free country. All I say is this: don't ever ask me to explain any of my pictures.

This is an edited transcript of Roman Polanski in discussion with the Polish journalist Daniel Bird; the NFT Polanski season begins on Thursday