Q & A: Director Marina Zenovich on “Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired”

Designer Jay McCarroll

Roman Polanski Photo Credit: Bill Bridges / Globe Photos, Inc. HBO Documentary Films

As part of ZAMM.com’s continuing conversations with independent filmmakers Martin Grove talks to director Marina Zenovich about the making of “Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired”, the documentary about the miscarriage of justice that sent Roman Polanski fleeing to France three decades ago to avoid being imprisoned by a publicity seeking Los Angeles judge. The film has prompted new interest in a possible dismissal of the case against Polanski.

“Polanski”, which premiered on HBO June 9, 2008, opened theatrically July 11 via THINKFilm. The movie shows how 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 of his 1977 trial by both the DA’s office and the attorney for the underage girl with whom Polanski had admittedly had sex.

Zenovich, who presents archival footage and interviews she conducted for the film, leaves moviegoers to draw their own conclusions about Polanski and Judge Rittenband. Since the film came out, it’s been credited with reopening interest in Polanski’s case and the possibility of resolving it so that he could return to the U.S. without running the risk of being arrested.

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.

Q: How did you come to make this movie?
A: 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. I never thought I’d find anything that meant as much to me. It was February of 2003 and I happened to be in Los Angeles. There was (a newspaper) article that talked about if Polanski was (Oscar) nominated for ‘The Pianist’ would he be able to come back. And I just thought, “Oh, that sounds really interesting.” I’m a cinephile and a huge Polanski fan. I called (producer) Thom Mount, who had been quoted in the article and met with him. He knew my work, which shocked me. I thought about maybe trying to get to Roman and being with him while he found out he was nominated.

That never panned out. I still was interested and then he ended up being nominated. Then a friend called me to say that the girl from the case (Samantha Geimer) and her lawyer were going on the Larry King show. 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.” 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.
Q: How did you proceed?
A: (I called a friend) who asked me what I was doing and I said I was kind of sniffing around and wanted to look into this Polanski story and that I’d come to town to meet the three lawyers. He said, “Well, that’s funny because the DA in the case is the bishop at my church.” It was just one of those lightning moments where (you think), “This is too good” because I didn’t even know how I was going to get to the guy or if he was going to talk to me. And then it turned out that the same friend introduced me to a documentary filmmaker who was the godson of Roman Polanski, but I didn’t know it. So in this one phone call I got an entree into the two worlds and that’s when I just decided I’m going to try to make this happen.
Q: I understand that through your friend you met Roger Gunson, who was retired now but had been the assistant DA handling the Polanski case in 1977.
A: It wasn’t like he was that eager to talk to me, but he met with me because of our mutual friend. 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.
Q: How did you manage to do that?
A: Initially, he wouldn’t call me back. 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.
Q: In your film you make a point of not trying to stack the deck in Polanski’s favor.
A: I tried very hard to not be easy on him because clearly he’s the one who put himself in the situation. 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.
Q: On the other hand, your portrayal of Judge Rittenband doesn’t say much for our judicial system at the time.
A: Unfortunately, not. 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 (in Beverly Hills) and that was his life.
Q: I liked your film and I understand it’s been getting good reviews.
A: 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.
Q: Has Polanski seen the film?
A: He saw it this weekend (which would have been around May 24, 2008). We didn’t know if he was going to come to Cannes to see it. He ended up not, but he came to Cannes to give an award and I was still there so he saw the film (in Paris on DVD) before he came. We had lunch there and 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.
Q: Why hasn’t Polanski returned to the U.S. to resolve the sentencing issue now that Judge Rittenband’s dead and doesn’t pose a threat to him?
A: 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. 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.
Q: Is there a new project you’re working on?
A: 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.