FRESNO, Calif. - Marina Zenovich became interested in documentary filmmaking in 1995 because of the Slamdance Film Festival. The festival was started to protest how the Sundance Film Festival allegedly did not represent true independent filmmakers. Zenovich’s documentary “Independent’s Day” took a look at the festivals.
This year, Zenovich became part of the Sundance festival. Her documentary “Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired” was in contention for the grand jury prize. It didn’t win but the film was noticed; it also was shown at the Cannes Film Festival in May. Now, it will air Monday on the premium cable channel HBO and then released theatrically in July.
“I know I am very lucky. To be at both festivals was unbelievable. This doesn’t happen with every film,” Zenovich says during a telephone interview from her Southern California home.
Being part of the two biggest film festivals in the world, getting a theatrical release and having the work appear on television is a grand slam for a documentary filmmaker.
“I had been to Sundance many times. But to have a film there was pretty amazing. I had been to Cannes several times and then to have movie there, you just don’t know what it is like until you get there. Sundance was a dream come true. Cannes was the French icing on the cake,” Zenovich says.
Zenovich has made several documentaries over the past decade, but none has garnered her the kind of attention as her current film about the controversial film director.
Polanski was found guilty in 1977 of having sex with Samantha Geimer, who at the time was 13. Zenovich spent five years collecting archival footage and doing interviews with the major players in the case that became a legal circus.
Zenovich, who also was 13 at the time Polanski committed his crime, has long been a fan of the director. She calls his “Chinatown” a “perfect movie.” The idea for a documentary on the case was triggered by a Los Angeles Times article in 2003. Polanski was an Oscar nominee as best director for his film “The Pianist” (for which he won).
“His lawyer said the day Polanski fled was a sad day for the judicial system. That made me think that doesn’t make sense. So I started calling people,” Zenovich says.
Through friends and contacts Zenovich began to pull together the interviews she needed. The one interview she desperately wanted, Polanski’s lawyer Douglas Dalton, was the hardest to land. Her parents are George and Vera Zenovich, and her father is a former California state legislator and jurist. So she asked Walter Karabian, a lawyer friend of her father, to call Dalton and vouch for her.
Eventually, Dalton agreed to be part of the documentary.
Despite being around lawyers and politicians when she was growing up in Fresno, she was more interested in theater, ballet and acting. She opted for a career as an actress but landed only small roles.
“I found that I had so much creative energy but no place to use it because I was not getting that many acting jobs. I wasn’t making a living as an actress,” Zenovich says. “So I needed to channel that energy into something creative, which was directing.”
Zenovich switched to the other side of the camera when she made that first documentary in 1998.
One of her acting roles was a small part in the Robert Altman movie “The Player.” Despite working on the movie only one day, Zenovich found the veteran director to be inspiring.
But her mentor is Steven Soderbergh (“Sex, Lies & Videotape”). She met him at the Slamdance festival. He has been advising her ever since.
The move behind the camera opened up more chances for her to be in front of the camera. The subject of her documentary “Who Is Bernard Tapie?” - a study of the former French politician/convicted criminal turned actor - would not talk to her.
“I had to put myself in the film. That was first time I had done that but by the time the BBC hired me to do a documentary I was mostly known for being in my films,” Zenovich says.
“Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired” has been well received by the critics. But what does Polanski think about the documentary?
A Wall Street Journal story about the film includes a statement from Polanski: “I’ve seen Marina Zenovich’s film and, for the most part, it accurately depicts the facts as I understand them. In addition, there is important information which has not been disclosed before.”
There is no new interview with Polanski in the documentary. He fled to Europe 30 years ago and has not returned to the United States because of the threat of incarceration. But Zenovich did bump into the director at this year’s Cannes Film Festival.
“He told me that it was good filmmaking. Then he asked me what I am doing next,” Zenovich says.
She’s not quite certain what she will be doing next. Zenovich is a new mom. She found out she was pregnant during the making of “Polanski.” When she starts her next project it will probably be an examination of a political figure with a colorful history. She’s leaning toward either French President Nicolas Sarkozy or former California governor and current state Attorney General Jerry Brown.