Mr. Beaks Interrogates THE GHOST WRITER Novelist-Screenwriter Robert Harris!
Published at: March 5, 2010, 12:51 a.m. CST by mrbeaks
With Roman Polanski's THE GHOST WRITER entering its third weekend of release (and hitting hundreds of more theaters across the country), I've decided it's now safe to release this spoiler-laden interview with novelist-screenwriter Robert Harris. My recommendation: see the movie first, then read this. As I've already said, THE GHOST WRITER is my favorite Polanski thriller since THE TENANT. If it's playing anywhere near you, do not miss it.
Harris is probably best known for FATHERLAND, a speculative historical fiction which imagines what might've occurred had the Nazis won World War II, but it was his series of novels set in ancient Rome that caught Polanski's eye. In 2007, Polanski and Harris were close to embarking on an epic, $100 million-plus production of the author's POMPEII, but that project got scotched due to the threat of the actors' strike. It was then that Polanski decided he'd like to take a crack at Harris's just-published THE GHOST, a political thriller in which a run-of-the-mill writer is hired to "ghost" the memoirs of a disgraced British Prime Minister after the previous writer turns up dead (under mysterious circumstances, of course).
This is your last chance to turn away.
It is impossible to adequately discuss the elegance of Harris's screenplay without acknowledging its two jarring twists, both of which call to mind "He has his father's eyes" from ROSEMARY'S BABY and the brutal, life-is-shit final minutes of CHINATOWN. The difference here is the playful tone, which is partially in keeping with Harris's page-turner panache, but is also attributable to Polanski's delight in toying with the conventions of the thriller genre for the first time in over a decade. Harris's book might've been fueled by outrage over the (potentially) unlawful policies of Tony Blair, but Polanski finds these misdeeds rather amusing: this is what comes of politics; if you're not corruptible, you're dead. And when the wicked triumph, what's there to do but laugh?
I was fascinated by the idea of Polanski working within the political thriller genre for the first time, but, as Harris quickly pointed out, THE GHOST WRITER is as firmly embedded in the noir tradition as CHINATOWN. When you realize that, it's easy to fall in love with THE GHOST WRITER even more. This is an exhilarating return to form, and it wouldn't have been possible without Harris's natural gifts as a storyteller.
Mr. Beaks: [THE GHOST WRITER] feels so much like a '70s paranoid thriller at times. It reminds me of THE PARALLAX VIEW, ALL THE PRESIDENTS MEN and THREE DAYS OF THE CONDOR. Did you discuss these films with Polanski?
Robert Harris: The film we discussed actually was SUNSET BLVD. We got that out and looked at it when we first started because it's narrated by a dead man, and the novel is narrated by the dead [ghost writer]. We wanted to try to get that into the movie. That was what Roman was thinking. I think he wanted to do a noir-ish thriller rather than a straight political thriller. The political elements are, I think, slightly incidental to him to the sheer drive of the narrative.
Beaks: I read in the notes that Chandler was also referenced.
Harris: Chandler, yes. I mean, [Polanski] loved the whole CHINATOWN ambience of Chandler, and he liked the gumshoe-ish hero of the novel - who gradually discovers more and more. I also think, for me, Hitchcock and NORTH BY NORTHWEST, the guy who picks up the wrong suitcase and is plunged into this strange world. It's a thriller and quite scary, but, at the same time, quite urbane and witty; we wanted to try to keep the humor going as well. I think he was just very anxious after THE PIANIST and OLIVER TWIST to do something along these lines, to go back and do a piece of entertainment.
Beaks: It starts off at such a fast clip, and dives right into the narrative. I'm actually pleased that you did away with the narration. I think there's something more exciting about being plunged into a story instead of being given the parameters via narration; you're gathering information and figuring out the story for yourself.
Harris: Because we started with this notion of SUNSET BLVD., we did look at having a voiceover. But it was pointless; it never advanced the story. I think voiceover can work on occasions; it's obviously very good on years elapsed and that sort of thing. But this is set over a very tight timeframe of a few days, so it was silly to have a voiceover. We discarded that and pared down the novel to make it go as quickly as possible. Our aim was that, within about six or seven minutes of the opening of the movie, you're already in the house where it's all set - which I think we bring off.
Beaks: You pared down the story, but did you scale back the scope of it?
Harris: No, not at all. In the original version of the script, we did go to New York, as the novel does, but budgetary constraints made that impossible in the end - and I think that worked in our favor. The project we had been working on, POMPEII, collapsed; it was a hugely expensive film. So I sent him [THE GHOST], and we decided to do this instead. And when I sent it to him, we thought we might just specifically go with everyone involved in POMPEII to some remote house and just film something on location, just do it in one place like CUL-DE-SAC. And when I saw [THE GHOST WRITER] a few weeks ago with Roman at his house in Switzerland, and he saw Ewan McGregor wobbling off on his bicycle across the island, he turned to me and said, "You wanted CUL-DE-SAC? You got it." (Laughs)
Beaks: (Laughing) That's very true. The film does allow him to work these muscles that... I mean, we didn't know if they'd atrophied or what. But he's so spry for a filmmaker who's as far along in life as he is. Were you on set much, and was he as vigorous in the directing of this film as it plays?
Harris: Oh, he was a real live wire. The first day on set... I was talking to Pierce Brosnan earlier today, and his first day, he said they shot for twenty-two hours. Roman's energy level was phenomenal. It is like a young man's film, actually; he's got all the wisdom and tricks of his prime. I think that gives it a certain quality. And working with him was just marvelous. He's very clever and quick. It was like having this supercharged rocket strapped to you.
Beaks: How locked in was the screenplay? Did you have much license to rewrite on set?
Harris: There was very, very little rewriting, and he is very reluctant to change lines once they are on the page. He might occasionally put in a bit of business on set. He likes to complicate things, actually: if a character crosses a room, they generally have to step around something. It's small things like that, just to give the fabric of life to the movie, to give it that texture. Otherwise, he stuck very close to the script; I didn't have to rewrite anything. The one thing which was in doubt, even when filming started; we couldn't ever quite decide how to end it. Actually, the ending was never written down. Only just before Christmas, he rang me and said, "Summit needs the screenplay." So I had to quickly write the end scene. At one time, the Ghost was going to disappear, just merge into the crowd outside - but we agreed it needed to have a more emphatic ending than that. So we came up with what you see.
Beaks: That punch to the gut which you're not entirely prepared for. That's Polanski.
Harris: Utterly. One might say, "You want noir, you get noir."
Beaks: I actually laughed out loud when the ending hit - and then later realized that it might've been an homage to Kubrick's THE KILLING,
Harris: I don't think so. Roman might've thought that, but he never mentioned that to me. The novel ends with the ghost writer dead, but there is some hope in the novel; the mere fact that you're holding the novel means that he told his story. The end of the film is therefore bleaker: not only do we assume that the ghost writer is killed, but the actual message is dispersed in the manuscript. It's a very bleak ending.
Beaks: Hope is extinguished. (Laughs) I tend to like those endings.
Harris: It's a bit like CHINATOWN. It's like the ending he fought for with Robert Towne, that the character has to die in the end.
Beaks: John Huston pulling the girl away from the car has the same effect as the pages fluttering away.
Harris: (Laughs) Yes.
Beaks: You mentioned that it was important that the film have a sense of humor. I like that the characters are sort of aware that they're caught in the gears of a political thriller of some sort, and they're almost resigned to playing their roles. Did you think on that meta level as you were writing? That the characters are aware, perhaps in a Pirandellan sense, that they're caught in a play?
Harris: I think I did, actually. Because the movie comes from a first-person novel, there's a knowingness about the narration, a cynicism about it - and that is transferred to the screen. I've always liked those Graham Greene entertainments, where there is a certain knowing quality to it. Everybody - the audience, the characters, the writer, the director - knows what the form requires, and the value of what you produce lies in pushing those walls. It's rather like formal poetry. It's making it scan and rhyme - and the tension between that and the content gives you the feel of it. That's the great argument, I think, for genre and fiction movies: it's playing with the expectations and pushing the barriers of the genre you're working in. It's something like that that Polanski's managed to pull off. I think the score is very witty; it helps with that. It's simultaneously thrilling and slightly jokey. It's tongue-in-cheek.
Beaks: It's very much a character in the film.
Harris: Yes, it is. Also, the other thing Polanski does brilliantly is make the manuscript a character in the film. It undergoes its own character arc. (Laughs) it starts off as this pristine thing in a box, and goes and gets more scrawled upon and dog-eared and handled around - and by the end, it's completely tattered. It ends up disintegrating and dying in the street. I thought that was a very witty touch. It holds the answer.
Beaks: The whole time. I think it is an angry film to a degree, but that anger is muted. It's more sarcastic.
Harris: I think that's right. That is why the ending is part of a piece of it. It's the ending that gives it that punch, as you say. You have to laugh, really. When you're confronted with what happened in Iraq and the realities of power, what can you do? You just have to laugh. It's not at all preachy.
The other great thing about Roman... you can't say this of many Oscar-winning directors in their late '70s: he doesn't take himself seriously. I mean, he's a serious craftsman, but this is not some great message movie, is it? It's not that he's come up with these serious views that he now wants you to hear. He wants to entertain you! That's a very young and vigorous approach actually.
Beaks: And preferable to everything that's come out of the confusion and anger of the war in Iraq. People have been wanting to drive home their point and send you home invigorated with a sense of purpose. I think this is a smarter way to go about it.
Harris: He's a subversive character. (Laughs)
Beaks: I may never get the chance to talk to him. What kinds of films does he enjoy nowadays?
Harris: He watches all kinds of films. He spends a lot of time with his children, actually. He does their homework with them in the afternoon - and he used to take them to school every morning. We couldn't ever start work until after he dropped off the children at school in Paris. That's important to him. And he reads a lot.
But I've watched quite a few movies with him - including THERE WILL BE BLOOD. (Laughs) We had to watch it in his bedroom because the big screen in his house in Switzerland wasn't working. And when Daniel Day-Lewis started speaking, Roman said, "It's fucking John Huston in CHINATOWN! He's doing his voice!" And he is! "Well, Mr. Gittes..." (Laughs)
Beaks: (Laughing) Oh, god! When the film came out, people were constantly remarking on that. When did you watch it with him?
Harris: It must've been January 2008. He gets the Oscar screeners, so we watched a DVD of it. But I remember that very clearly.
Beaks: That's the perfect reaction. That would make Paul Thomas Anderson very happy.
Thinking about how the Iraq Inquiry is proceeding as this film is released, do you have any feelings on how firmly Blair should be held responsible?
Harris: Well, I think the ultimate responsibility he will face will be history - and unless something turns up, I think the judgment is going to be pretty damning. I think he's starting to know it, and others around him, like Alastair Campbell, the press secretary, are also beginning to realize that their fate is going to be remembered for this war like LBJ is remembered for Vietnam - but in Blair's case, there's no Great Society to go with it. If something happened that was a prosecutable war crime, if we were signatures to this sort of legislation, then I suppose the process has to take place. Of course, it never will. I'm sure it won't. But we'll wait and see.
One of the things that has happened since the book was written is that much of the story has started to come true. The demonstrations, the chants of "war criminal", the inquiry, the headlines about legal advice that was overlooked, the revelations about torture and rendition, and CIA flights that did actually land on British territory (even though we were told there weren't), use by British Intelligence of information extracted under torture... that would be collusion. That would be a war crime. Lots and lots of evidence has come creeping out that substantiates the central thrust of the film. But I am pleased about the film in that it's not a glib liberal left take on it - even though I may be glib and liberal and left! Brosnan does get to deliver the great speech about the two queues at the airport; he makes that point. To that extent, I think this film is quite even-handed.
Beaks: I agree. That scene in particular gives the film some weight - and is then followed by his assassination. Because we are so closely identifying our reality with your fiction, that's a very shocking moment. That you choose to do this in the book and the film is itself a political act.
Harris: Yes. Exactly. And I would hate it to be thought that I am saying that's what I'd like to see happen. That's monstrous. No one, I think, would make that suggestion. Also, in the end, it turns out the Brosnan character was completely innocent. It twists and turns. And I think Polanski shows his skill and genius in the last four or five minutes of the movie as the whole plot twists inside-out, the music rises, and he marries this with the amazing shot of the note being passed to Olivia, who does this extraordinary freezing expression when she gets it. Then it's the bang, and the manuscript flutters away. That goes at an incredible speed. I'm knocked out by that every time I see it.
Beaks: It's hard to avoid this in discussing the film, but the parallel - or coincidence - of the Prime Minister fighting extradition, and what is now going on with Mr. Polanski's situation is obvious. Do you have any sense how Polanski is holding up under these circumstances, and where do you think this whole thing will lead?
Harris: Well, I don't know where it will all lead, but I was talking to other people who saw him in jail, and I do know that Roman has never once complained. He's never once moaned about what happened. And he's made the observation that worse things have happened to him. That's the sort of man you're dealing with. He certainly hasn't gone to pieces. I just hope it gets resolved in a way... without condoning what happened, I'm not sure the interests of justice or anything else are going to be achieved by dragging it out too much longer.
Hopefully, this is all sorted out soon to the satisfaction of the wronged party. In the meantime, let's concentrate on the art. THE GHOST WRITER is in theaters now, and is well worth seeing. Skip the full-scale failure that is ALICE IN WONDERLAND and check this out instead.