'Rosemary's' daddy is back

Roman Polanski returns to a satanic theme, despite his desire not to be pigeonholed as a horror director.

March 05, 2000|By Chris Kaltenbach | Chris Kaltenbach,Sun Staff

Yes, Roman Polanski's new film returns him to some of the satanic themes he so masterfully handled in "Rosemary's Baby" 32 years ago.

But before you start thinking, "There he goes again," think for a minute. His satanic reputation notwithstanding, "The Ninth Gate," which opens in theaters Friday, is only the second Polanski film with the devil as its central -- though offscreen -- character.

It's amazing what one astonishingly successful film early in your career can do. Especially when that film, about a submissive New York housewife who is secretly impregnated by Lucifer himself, is still giving audiences the willies.

"I just have this reputation for some reason of dealing always with horror or the supernatural," Polanski says over the phone from Stuttgart, Germany. "In fact, I think it's a good theme for a movie. But in my life, it's a theme that interests me the least."

Certainly, the 66-year-old Polanski can claim masterpieces in several movie genres. "Tess," with Nastassja Kinski as the doomed heroine of Thomas Hardy's novel of 19th-century manners and morality, was nominated for both Best Picture and Best Director Oscars. So was "Chinatown," with Jack Nicholson as a private eye tracking down water rights and murder suspects in 1930s L.A.; it's one of the few classics of film noir made since the 1950s, and certainly one of the 10-best films of the 1970s.

Horrific details

However, while "Rosemary's Baby" may be the only true horror flick on Polanski's resume, elements of horror have appeared in many of his films -- including two of his first three. He spoofed the genre gloriously with 1966's "The Fearless Vampire Killers, or, Pardon Me, But Your Teeth Are In My Neck," then used Catherine Deneuve to plumb the depths of psychological horror in 1965's "Repulsion," a film perhaps even more chilling than "Rosemary's Baby."

There's also a certain unholy flavor to Polanski's life. A survivor of the Third Reich, he narrowly escaped being removed from the Krakow ghetto by the Nazis, spending much of the war with a Polish peasant family. In 1969, he was not at home when his wife, actress Sharon Tate, was butchered by followers of Charles Manson. And a conviction on charges of having sexual relations with a minor forced Polanski to flee the U.S. in 1978 rather than face sentencing; he has not set foot in this country since.

Still, labeling him a horror director because of "Rosemary's Baby" is like calling Steven Spielberg a war film director because of "Saving Private Ryan." And Polanski bristles at such a one-dimensional tag.

"I've also made films that have nothing to do with horror, like 'Tess' or 'Knife In the Water' or 'Chinatown' or 'Death and the Maiden.' You name it. Still, for some reason, it's a problem with people sending me scripts. ... Most of the propositions I get always somehow deal either with the devil or with horror."

But given a reputation he's clearly unhappy about, why return to things satanic? "The Ninth Gate" stars Johnny Depp as a New York rare books expert hired to track down copies of a centuries-old tome reputed to have been written by the horned fellow himself.

"I was aware of the fact that may be brought up," says Polanski, who's in Germany preparing for the March 31 opening of "Tanz der Vampire," a musical adaptation of "Vampire Killers" that recently closed a successful two-year run in Vienna. "On the other hand, I thought this was so different in tone than 'Rosemary's Baby.'

"'Rosemary's Baby' did not have any humor in it, or very little. This one has much more irony. Every character is almost a caricature, or at least some kind of parody of what we've seen in this type of movie. ... It's very much a detective type of film, with some type of supernatural in it."

"The Ninth Gate" is based on Arturo Perez Reverte's novel, "El Club Dumas." Unfamiliar with the story until he received a script from Spanish screenwriter Enrique Urbiz about two years ago, Polanski says he was attracted to the project as much by its difficulty as anything else. For one thing, he notes, it's not every film where the central character is an inanimate object.

"I liked the challenge of making a film [in which] an object plays the lead," Polanski says. "And I liked the tone of the book, which allowed me to make sort of a horror-comedy.

Reverte's novel, "at first glance, seemed quite unadaptable," he explains, noting the book has two main plots -- the one used for "The Ninth Gate," and another one, concerning a lost chapter of Alexandre Dumas' "The Three Musketeers." "He picked up the right thing," says Polanski of Urbiz's initial script.

Outside the script, which is credited to a three-way collaboration between Urbiz, Polanski and John Brownjohn, the biggest problem was the location shooting. "We were constantly changing locations between France, Spain and Portugal," Polanski notes (although the film opens in New York, Polanski's legal troubles prevented location filming there). "We were hardly for two days on the same set."

Up next: 'The Pianist'

Polanski says his next film project will be an adaptation of Wladyslaw Szpilman's "The Pianist," a memoir of his years as a musician living in the Warsaw Ghetto during World War II. This will be the first Polanski film set in the war-torn Europe of his youth.

"It's something that I always meant to do," he says. "I was just waiting for the right time, and for the right kind of material. I knew that the time would come when I feel ready for it, and I think it's now."

But for this moment, it's time to see how American audiences react to "The Ninth Gate." Maybe it would help if its director could pin a label on the film, give folks some idea what to expect?

Polanski happily declines. "If you really need to call it something, I think it's probably closest to call it a comedy. It's a thriller with humor in it. I don't know how to categorize my pictures. I have a hard time trying to pigeonhole any one of them."

The same problem audiences seem to be having with its director.

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