Marina Zenovich and the Polanski Case
by Paul Fischer
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Talented documentary filmmaker Marina Zenovich admits she picks her subjects by accident. Her latest accident has proved critically fruitful. Her film, Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired, is a fascinating and compelling study into the judicial system and the nature of celebrity. Acclaimed at both Sundance and recent Cannes Film Festival, Zenovich tells Paul Fischer about the genesis of the film and Polanski’s final response.
Paul Fischer: So, let me just start off by asking you, when did you become particularly interested in exploring this particular issue?
Marina Zenovich: You know, it was five years ago. January, February. It was after Polanski had done The Pianist, and there was talk about whether he would be nominated or not for best director. And there was an article in the Los Angeles Times that piqued my interest. I had been searching for a project for about a year. And I thought, “Oh, I remember this. This is interesting.” And then he ended up being nominated, and then the girl from the case and her lawyer went on The Larry King Show, and the lawyer said the day Roman Polanski fled was a sad day for the American judicial system. And it was really that comment that made me kind of scratch my head and think, “Wait, that doesn’t make sense.” So I started calling around. And just a stroke of luck, one friend I called knew Roger Gunson, the DA in the case. Roger Gunson was the bishop in his church, which was an amazing moment for me. Because I had no idea how to find Roger Gunson. And so he put me in touch with him, and we proceeded to have lunch for about a year while we checked each other. And—you know, bit by bit, I got to the girl. The hardest person to get to was Polanski’s attorney, but I finally got him in the end.
PF: Why did you believe that it didn’t make sense when the girl’s attorney made those comments?
MZ: Well, because he’s the lawyer for the girl. And he’s saying, “The day Roman Polanski fled was a sad day for the American judicial system.” It just—to me, I don’t know why he would say that. I mean, it just doesn’t make sense.
PF: When you met her, how reticent was she to take part in this?
MZ: It took a while. I mean, we had to write a couple of letters. We had to talk to her on the phone. She was in Hawaii, so it wasn’t like we could just go and meet for coffee the way I did with Gunson. I initially wanted to interview her in Hawaii, just because I thought it was interesting that she was in Hawaii, and Polanski was in France. But she wanted her lawyer to be present, and he had a very busy schedule. And so we could never really work it out. So she ended up coming to Los Angeles, and we did the interview in his office—which was very difficult. I mean, now it’s fine. But, you know, when you’re doing these very important interviews, location, location, location. You know? We ended up doing it in his study. And I just remember sitting there thinking, “Oh, this is gonna look ridiculous, that she’s in his law office.” But I realized later when I was cutting the film that it didn’t really matter. That what was most important was her facial expressions, and what she was saying. And in some way, her being in a legal office—an office with law books behind her—kind of made sense.
PF: Did you know what kind of a film or direction you were going to take as you were doing these interviews? The film is an exploration, I suppose, of celebrity, and of the judicial system and how it works if you are in that position. I mean, what kind of a film did you want to make as you were doing it? Did you know?
MZ: Well, I wanted to uncover why he said that. And I wanted to get to the bottom of it, so I wanted to explore what he meant by that. And it wasn’t—you know, my first interview was with Roger Gunson, the DA in the case. And I thought, “Well, that’ll be smart. I’ll interview him first, because he’ll give me so many clues.” Right? But I hadn’t really interviewed the lawyers much before. They kind of hold things very close to the vest, you know? The person who ended up—when I couldn’t get financing, I went to Berkeley to interview Richard Brenneman, the American journalist who had worked for the Santa Monica Evening Outlook. And when I called him initially, he said to me, “Oh, I knew one day I would get this phone call.” Which was a great moment for me, and when I was having a hard time finding money, I went there with some young guy to just film him, to keep going. And I hate pre-interviewing, and he gave me better stuff in that interview than he did—and he gave me a good interview the second time. But it was more to keep myself interested in the story. And he kind of gave me a lot of information. He had been thinking about writing a book about it, but he didn’t. So he had all the newspaper articles. So, I’d been discovering it as I go. If you look at the film, at the end of the film, it was very important for me to list all the people that I interviewed that I didn’t include in the film. Because there were a lot of them, because they were from different—you know, I interviewed Polanski’s schoolmates in Poland. I interviewed the DA who has the case now. I interviewed Robert Towne and Bob Evans and Nastassja Kinski. And although they all had great things to say, you discover the movie you’re making while you’re trying to make it.
PF: Will those interviews turn up on the DVD?
MZ: Yeah. If I have time, I want them to. Because they’re all—I’ll have different blurbs from different people, just talking about different things.
PF: What did somebody like Nastassja Kinski reveal about Polanski, for example?
MZ: I mean, just that he had guided her a lot. That he was a good friend to her. I mean, it was nothing that really worked for this.
PF: Did you try to get Polanski?
MZ: I wrote him a letter at the beginning and told him I wanted to make a documentary, and I never heard back. I found out about a month ago from his secretary that he had faxed me back. I didn’t receive the fax. I had a fax machine that I only plugged in when I knew I was getting faxes. And I just was amazed when she said to me, “Oh, we sent you this—I saw your name on a piece of paper.” And I said, “What?” And she said, “Oh, a letter we sent you in 2003.” And I said, “Well, what did it say?” So, I had tried initially, didn’t receive that fax saying, “I do not want a documentary made about me.” And then I didn’t try to interview him until I was finishing the film.
PF: What preconceptions did you have before doing this, and how were those preconceptions altered when you were finished?
MZ: Preconceptions about the case?
PF: Yeah. The case, and about Roman.
MZ: Well, in doing the film, I realized that at a certain point in Roman’s life, he had a lot of hope, which I didn’t really know before. I mean, you never really hear anything about him and Sharon Tate. You never see them having a life. You only hear about her being murdered. It was important to me to show that he had a lot of hope in his life—which only made the fall that much greater. You know, my opinion of him has changed, but not that dramatically. I mean, it kind of ebbs and flows. I think he’s a one-off. And I don’t think they make him like that any more. And I think he’s a fascinating character. I think he’s flawed, like all of us, and made a mistake that night.
PF: Is he a tragic figure, in your view?
MZ: To me, everyone in this film—I think it’s a tragedy for everyone. For the girl, for him, for the lawyers.
PF: Would you like to see justice done? What would happen if Polanski returned to the States, at this point?
MZ: Well, I mean, I don’t think it would be about returning to the States. I can’t speak for him. But interviews that I heard him say, he says, “You know, I’d like to get this over with for a peace of my mind.” You know? What’s funny in doing the research, is, he was in the same position in 1979 when he was nominated for Tess. And I toyed with using it, but he was basically interviewed by the gossip columnist Rona Barrett. And that was, what, a year after he fled? And there was talk about, “Are you going to come back?” He talked about wanting to come back, and he was going to come back. And that was something — I didn’t really know how I was going to show that in my film. And I didn’t know how to end the film. It’s kind of like, it’s something that he talked about, you know, ‘79, ‘80, ‘81, ‘85, ‘90. It’s like, suddenly it’s 30 years later.
PF: I’d forgotten it was 30 years ago since this all happened.
MZ: Oh, yeah.
PF: Which is really quite extraordinary.
MZ: It’s unbelievable.
PF: What do you hope to do as a filmmaker at this point? Do you want to continue doing documentary cinema, or are you interested in branching out and doing narrative cinema?
MZ: Well, I’d like to do both. I mean, I think documentary film is very well-suited to me, because I’m very curious. And I’m dogged, and I think—you know, you need those two traits to really succeed at this. But I also used to be an actress, so I’m curious to work with actors, and see what that’s like. So I’m working on something—working on a fiction film. But at the same time, I love going out and interviewing people. I love interviewing people, and just—I could interview anyone, and try to get them to open up. I mean, it’s a fun skill. And I think acting teaches you to really listen. And I think people aren’t used to people really listening. So when they feel that you’re listening, they open up more than they would normally. Because a lot of people don’t listen. So—you know, I hope to be doing more of the same, and fiction. But who doesn’t want to do fiction? I mean, it’s like being a rock star.
PF: Are you looking to do more acting? You worked with Talia Shire years ago.
MZ: I did! I did. I had a very, very small part.
PF: In that One Night Stand thing that she did. Are you actively looking for acting work?
MZ: Oh, I’m not. But if someone asked me to act, I’d do it in a heartbeat. I miss it desperately. It’s so fun to act. But, I mean, I’m not—you know. It would only be if someone gave me a fun role. I miss it so much. But I think the reason I kind of succeeded in documentary filmmaking is that I had so much energy because I wasn’t succeeding as an actress, that I was able to channel that energy into something else. You know, it’s quite frustrating when you—that’s what’s hard about being an actor. If you don’t get the jobs. It’s like, you have all this energy, and you need it to go towards something. So I was very excited when I got my first idea for a documentary.
PF: Is it tough to come up with ideas as a documentarian? I mean, this one, obviously, came to you almost by accident, I guess.
MZ: Very hard. It’s very, very hard. I mean, my first one was about independent filmmakers and the struggles of independent filmmakers. And that came to me because a filmmaker asked me if he should Slamdance. And I had no idea what he meant. And he told me about this documentary festival that started because these three filmmakers didn’t get into Sundance. And that was called Independent’s Day. Independent-apostrophe-S Day. That was my first documentary. And then I went to—see, I like when these things happen just completely randomly. I went to a screening of a French film at the Director’s Guild in ‘96 or ‘97. And it was a Claude Lelouch film. And Claude Lelouch was there, and he stood up and said, “This film is dedicated to the star of the film, Bernard Tapie, who’s in jail tonight.” And I thought, “Oh, who is this actor? He’s probably in jail for drugs or something.” I saw him on the screen. I thought he was electrifying. I was going to France and started asking people about him. And it turned out that he wasn’t an actor. He took an acting job to play his legal bills. He had owned a soccer team in Marseille, the ON, and fixed a soccer match. So I made this film called, Who is Bernard Tapie? It’s like, it’s those random moments. This, I just happened to be in Los Angeles and read this article. It’s a real struggle between projects, trying to come up with something interesting.
PF: Is it worth the struggle? I mean, obviously when you’re making a film about Roman Polanski, it must be a struggle to get the film made, and to get all the material together and spend the time on this.
MZ: It’s a complete struggle. But for me—I mean, the film was screened at Cannes. And when my name was announced by Thierry Fremaux, as he introduced me at the screening—I mean, it was really—to have a film there, to be introduced as a realisitrice—it was an amazing moment, but it was as if—all the work, every phone call, every person who hung up on me, every person who said you could never do it—I mean, it’s all worth that moment.
PF: Would you like to hear from Polanski? What do you think he would think of the movie?
MZ: He actually saw it this weekend, and he had positive things to say about it. I don’t know if he’s issued a statement yet or not. But he thought it was a good piece of work. And asked me what’s next. [laughter]
PF: That’s cool.
MZ: So it never ends.
PF: And HBO, I guess, is screening it soon in the U.S.?
MZ: Yeah, June ninth.
Paul Fischer is originally from Australia. Now he is an interviewer and film critic living in Hollywood.
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