LOS ANGELES — As Pierce Brosnan and Ewan McGregor describe it, there was no need for the cast of Roman Polanski’s “The Ghost Writer” to have long, philosophical discussions about the movie’s creepy real-life parallels.
It wasn’t necessary, for example, to dissect Brosnan’s character, a hazily sinister British ex-prime minister who’s a dead ringer for Tony Blair, or to over-analyze his seething, neurotic wife, played by Olivia Williams as a cross between Cherie Blair and Lady Macbeth. It was all pretty obvious and pretty amusing.
Nor did the film’s director have to belabor the eerie prescience of Robert Harris’ novel, the movie’s source material, in forecasting the ugly political fallout from the Iraq war torture scandals.
Of course, it did help that the director is a well-known connoisseur of grim ironies and bizarre happenstance, even when it occurs at his own expense. This septuagenarian French-Polish auteur, according to his actors, on set fully lived up to his reputation as an obsessive craftsman, a master architect of paranoid dreamscapes, and a benevolent control freak who repays his colleagues’ allegiance and hard labor by helping them attain their best.
“I’m working with Polanski, I’ve seen everything the man’s done, I know the dark controversy around his life,” Brosnan recalled in a phone interview recently. “And yet he was right there. And once you know that the man works at a very high frequency, and you know that the set is his, and the camera is his, and you are his, then you have a great time.”
Since Polanski started directing short films in Poland, his movies often have invited (or taunted) viewers to read them partly as encrypted diary entries and partly as Kafkaesque parables about the victimization of the weak and innocent by the powerful and unprincipled (or vice versa).
But none of Polanski’s films has more brazenly connected this worldview to contemporary politics than “The Ghost Writer,” a taut psychological drama wrapped inside a thriller with black-comic elements. And few have been more tantalizing — some might say “brash” — in hinting at biographical connections between the film’s story line and the checkered circumstances of the director’s own life.
Yet however haunted the movie is by Polanski’s personal demons, the principal actors found the director to be as supportive and personable as he is notoriously demanding.
“He doesn’t care how long a scene is, he doesn’t care how long it takes you. He pushes you to make it real,” said McGregor, speaking by phone while en route to the Berlin International Film Festival, where the movie had its world premiere Friday. Meanwhile, Polanski, as most of the world knows, remains under house arrest in Switzerland, where he is fighting extradition to California to face sentencing after pleading guilty more than three decades ago to having unlawful sex with a 13-year-old girl. In the latest legal twist, Polanski’s attorneys have said they will appeal last month’s decision by a Los Angeles County Superior Court judge denying his request to be sentenced in absentia. (Polanski was not available to comment for this story.)
“He’s a taskmaster, and he can put the fear of God into you if you’re not prepared, if you don’t know what you’re doing as an actor,” Brosnan said. “It was amazing watching him work. The camera is his alchemy chest, and the viewfinder is his kind of wand, and it’s always there.”
The movie’s premise, involving a fateful collision of politics, celebrity and media, is of a conspiratorially minded bent so severe and dramatically plausible as to make John le Carre read like “Winnie-the-Pooh.”
Its linchpin is the title character played by McGregor, a cynical hack and Everybloke who has landed a blockbuster contract to pen the memoirs of the controversial former P.M. Adam Lang (Brosnan). Lang, a vain, charming, born actor, is living in exile in the United States, on a remote, sublimely bleak New England island (actually shot in northern Germany) to avoid being sued in Britain for his alleged complicity in the mistreatment of prisoners in the “war on terror.”
(Reader, a pause is suggested here to reflect on the similar shadings of Polanski’s own existence.)
As Polanski turns up the flame of suspense, the ghost finds himself sucked into the vortex of the Langs’ difficult marriage and global political intrigue. He also stumbles onto some unsettling signs of what really happened to his authorial predecessor, whose nasty end is depicted in the movie’s opening minutes.
McGregor said he immediately “got a handle” on his jaded, Fleet Street-hardened character and relished his impertinent humor. “There is mischief in him, for sure, and a lot of that comes from Polanski, because he is a mischievous chap himself,” he said.
The ghost and the British former first couple create a classic Polanskian dramatic triad all by themselves, locked together in their claustrophobic isolation.
But they’re not the only ones rattling around the Langs’ swanky-spooky seaside home, which Williams describes as a “mausoleum of Modernism.” The lip-smacking supporting cast includes Mr. Lang’s curvaceous personal assistant (Kim Cattrall), an enigmatic Harvard professor (Tom Wilkinson) and a mysterious neighbor played by Eli Wallach, popping up in a brief scene in his best wild-eyed mode, hissing cryptic pronouncements like a refugee from a lunatic asylum or a Harold Pinter play.
As if it needed any more assistance from Tony Blair, last month “The Ghost Writer” got a mild PR boost when the ex-prime minister appeared before a British inquiry panel into the 2003 Iraq invasion, firing back at his critics and prompting angry street demonstrations — events that the movie unnervingly foreshadows. For the actors, treading the line between the stylized theatricality of the fictional world and the troubling realities beyond the movie frame was all part of the challenge, and the fun, of making the film. The script made everything “crystal clear,” in Brosnan’s words, so everybody was in on the joke.
Brosnan said that Polanski had given him six photos of Blair, including one that depicted the prime minister with what the actor described as a “clenched-teeth, chipmunk-style, little-boy-lost-in-the-woods, ‘I didn’t do it, I didn’t do it’ ” expression. That helped Brosnan shore up his decision to play Lang as “a tragic, lost, broken man.”
Williams, probably best known to U.S. audiences as teacher Rosemary Cross in Wes Anderson’s “Rushmore,” acknowledged that her initial encounters with Polanski’s directing style could be a bit nerve-racking. “He is the only person I’ve worked with who will stop a take and say, ‘No! No! No!’ It’s sort of disconcerting at first,” she said, laughing.
Then during one scene she noticed that Polanski was sitting with his head in his hands. Uh-oh, she thought. But when she questioned him, the director told Williams that he does that whenever he’s trying to remember what he saw in his mind when he envisioned the scene before filming it.
Williams suggested that it was a too-rare pleasure to perform in a movie where the emotional and thematic currents are cleverly hidden in plain sight rather than announced with flashing neon. “I have a problem with a lot of modern scripts because people say what they’re feeling all the time,” she said. “The age of therapy has kind of killed subtext.”
The most prominent subtext of “The Ghost Writer” involves the possible fate of its enigmatic director, the man characterized in an HBO documentary as both “wanted and desired.” Asked for her thoughts about Polanski’s legal travails, Williams responded with a polite “no comment.” McGregor said that he’d been “very upset” for Polanski, worried about Polanski’s young children, and concerned as to whether the film would be finished. (Polanski reportedly completed the edit using DVDs brought by friends, including while he was being held in jail.)
Brosnan said he and the director “spoke briefly about the loss of wives. I lost a wife, and this man lost his wife in the most barbaric fashion. He spoke tenderly and openly about the light and the love that he still carries for Sharon” (Tate).
“The only question,” Brosnan said, “is why now, after all these years? Why now did they close the door and rein him in?”
But not completely reined in, not yet, according to Harris, who proposed the idea of adapting “The Ghost Writer” to Polanski after a planned screen version of Harris’ novel “Pompeii” fell through. Harris said that in mid-January he brought a finished copy of the “Ghost Writer” film, which Polanski hadn’t seen, to the director’s Swiss residence.
“I took a bottle of champagne and we watched it together,” Harris said. As for the latest ominous twists in the Roman Polanski saga, Harris said the director is dealing with the situation and never complains aloud.
“He’s tough,” Harris said. “I think his view is it’s not the worst thing that’s happened to him.”