Robert Harris on Roman Polanski and 'The Ghost'
Roman Polanski’s film of Robert Harris’s novel ‘The Ghost’ is in cinemas. But what was it like to finish a film with its director in jail? Dave Calhoun meets Harris, the former New Labour insider who turned on Tony Blair
‘Well, Roman finished shooting in Germany in May and edited it through the summer. He asked me to come and see a rough cut in early September and I went to Paris and stayed a couple of nights. We talked it through and agreed various things. Then he worked solidly for three weeks to get it how he wanted it. On Saturday September 26, he’d pretty well finished and dashed off to catch a plane to Zurich. The next thing I knew, my wife told me, “Roman’s just been arrested.” It was really shocking.’
Was he able to keep working on it?
‘He received daily visits from his lawyers and they would bring him DVDs of scenes and he would watch them on his laptop. It wasn’t ideal, but he could scribble instructions to take back to the edit. So he was able to do all the finishing touches. I think they were a welcome distraction. Once Roman came out and was in his chalet, we talked a lot.’
You and Polanski were first planning to make a version of your book ‘Pompeii’ together. Was it a blow when that fell apart in 2007?
‘Yes, it was – and a great surprise. His producers had raised $100 million. Chiefly, it was the actors’ strike: no one would commit and studios were using all the actors. Meanwhile, there were dozens of people building sets. It had to be stopped, it was costing so much. Everyone was shattered. But Roman said: “As you know, worse things have happened to me.”’
How did you start talking?
‘Entirely out of the blue. Unknown to me, Polanski was looking for a thriller to adapt. He had read “Fatherland” and wanted to do that, but it had already been made. Then he came to “Pompeii”, and my agent said, “Would you take a call from Roman Polanski? I went home and my wife said, “Oh, some foreigner just called for you from a call centre”. I said, “I think that may have been Roman Polanski.” She replied, “Really? He sounded very foreign.”
‘He called back and it was him: “Hey, are we going to make this movie or what?” I went over, saw him in Paris and talked about it. After lunch I went to his office and he asked, “What are you writing now?” I said I was starting a novel about a ghost writer. “Why do you want to do that? It’s a boring idea.” Then I wrote the screenplay for “Pompeii” one month, the novel the next.’
So when ‘Pompeii’ collapsed, you moved on to a film of ‘The Ghost’?
‘A week or two later I got the advance copies of “The Ghost”. I sent a copy to Roman with a semi-jokey inscription saying, “Dear Roman, Perhaps we should make this. No togas. No volcanoes.” A few days later I was in Dublin and he rang: “You’re right, let’s do this. It’s fucking Chandler!”’
How was it adapting your novel?
‘Roman always does faithful adaptations. I would go through the novel and put it into screenplay form and occasionally miss things out. Invariably, he’d go, “But where’s this line? You left out the line! You left out the fucking line! Put the line back in. How many times do I have to say? The novel is the screenplay!”’
How far did you want the former British prime minister of your novel, Adam Lang, to resemble Tony Blair?
‘We took a view that Lang should not be a lookalike and should not imitate Blair. There are a few things, maybe, like his grin. There are crucial differences between the Langs and the Blairs. Nobody would say that Cherie was politically more shrewd than Tony. No one would say that Tony didn’t have a clue in his pretty little head. There’s no religious motivation in the Brosnan character either.’
Is it naive of me to think it unlikely that there are such close links between the CIA and Downing Street as you suggest in the film?
‘Well, yes, it’s fantastical. But it’s not beyond the realms of possibility. I think there is a gradual realisation since the book came out that there’s something strange about Britain’s slavish relationship with the United States. We don’t have an independent foreign policy.’
Did the book elicit any amusing reactions from Downing Street?
‘Well, Sky News’s Adam Boulton, who is married to Blair’s former right-hand woman, Anji Hunter, wrote a book about Blair and said that his reaction was to call me “a cheeky fuck”. When I told Roman, he said, “Fantastic, we’ll put that line in the movie!” And we did.
‘The other thing was to do with the casting. Someone told Blair Brosnan was in the role and he texted: “Phew, I thought it might be Richard Wilson”.’
So he has a sense of humour.
‘Well, he did then. But I suspect that since the Chilcot Inquiry he and Alastair Campbell are starting to twig that Iraq is not going to go away. This is the judgement of history. This is posterity. It’s not just the media. But the film is in the legitimate tradition of being an entertaining, satirical comment on our times. It should not be seen as a deep wounding attack on Blair.’
Read our review of 'The Ghost'.
Author: Interview: Dave Calhoun
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