Ghost Writer: Interview with Director Polanski

The Ghost," Oscar-winning Roman Polanski ("The Pianist") first contemporary thriller in more than 20 years, tells the story of a former British Prime Minister Adam Lang, (Pierce Brosnan) who is holed up on an island off America’s Eastern seaboard in midwinter, writing his memoirs. When his long-standing aide drowns, a professional ghostwriter (Ewan McGregor) is sent out to help him finish the book.

From Page to Screen
"The Ghost" is a contemporary thriller by the best-selling British novelist and journalist Robert Harris. In early 2007 while working with Roman Polanski on an adaptation of his novel "Pompeii," Harris, a former political editor, started to write the novel. Harris was working on both projects in parallel and believes the novel was imbued with Polanski's influence as a result. When, for various reasons, the planned film of Pompeii didn't go ahead, Harris sent Polanski a copy of his finished novel, prior to its publication. Polanski responded by saying “Let's do this instead, it's like Chandler.” Harris explains. “He'd been looking to make a thriller and had been originally interested in my first novel “Fatherland,” but he discovered it had already been filmed. So in a curious working out of fate, which he strongly believes in, we ended up making something completely different. We then spent another very pleasant few months working on this screenplay instead.”

Polanksi as Collaborator

Harris found Polanski the perfect collaborator. “He is respectful of the original source material and he always said ‘the novel is the screenplay’. So from a writer's point of view he's the ideal director. Our method was to do a draft, which I would write based on the scenes and the structure of the book and then we would go over it remorselessly – discarding, sharpening, improving. One of the curious effects of working with him is to feel one is writing the novel again, but getting it right this time around. There are things in The Ghost screenplay which are better than are in the novel. We worked at it and made it sharper. For example, I think that the movie’s infinitely strengthened by the fact it stays in this environment of trees and coastline and derelict rundown ports and beaches. That works much better.”

Harris found that he and Polanski had a similar approach to storytelling that made their collaboration all the more enjoyable. “ Just as I’m less interested in writing shimmering prose for the sake of shimmering prose, so I don’t think that he’s interested in a particular shot or a particular dramatic piece of cinema happening for the sake of just showing off. It's always story, character and logic. It was such a joy working on the screenplay.”

The page-turning novel that became the script was influenced by the master of the art of suspense. “I hugely admire the thrillers of Alfred Hitchcock,” says Harris. “The way an ordinary guy gets plunged into a completely strange world, yet every step of what happens is completely logical. Yet it becomes more and more crazy. I like that genre and Hitchcock was the master of it. And certainly I tried to put an element of that in The Ghost. This is an ordinary, nameless guy, who happens to do a job that takes him into a completely extraordinary world. And we go into that world with him. What appeals to me, and I think to Roman as well, about the thriller genre is that it has fantastic narrative energy and drive.”

Veiled Story of Tony Blair?

At the time of the book's publication, many commentators interpreted the novel as a thinly-veiled commentary on his former friend and former Prime Minister Tony Blair. Harris explains the genesis of the idea. “The Ghost is an idea I had many years ago. Probably 15 years ago, long before Tony Blair was Prime Minster. I was just very interested in the set up of a former world leader and someone who has to write his memoirs for him. I envisioned from the start a kind of love interest between the ghostwriter and this ex-leader’s wife. I saw them living in some isolated spot, but I could never quite get it right. I could never quite see who this world leader was or where he lived. And year after year I’d look at this idea, then put it away. In the end more than a decade went by. And finally in 2006 I heard an interview on the radio with someone who wanted to have Tony Blair prosecuted for war crimes, who said that the only way he would be able to avoid this would be to go and live in America in exile because he couldn’t be extradited from there. And I almost froze in my seat because I suddenly thought how that could be the central character. Someone based on someone in that situation. And immediately then I also saw the location — in exile, in the United States, like Solzhenitsyn in the 70's. That’s really when it crystallized for me.”

Although there are obvious similarities between Tony and Cherie Blair and the characters of the Lang’s in the film, Harris stresses the universality of the themes. “Writing about power is the thing that I’m most interested in and all my novels, in a way, are examinations of power. I'm particularly interested in the phenomenon of the leader who loses power, be it Richard Nixon or Margaret Thatcher. How do they readjust? What takes a person to the top and then what's it like to lose that power. When I started writing the image of Tony Blair went out of the window, and I created – I hope – this universal political figure.”

As a political journalist who for a time was close to Tony Blair just before and after he became Prime Minister, Harris was in the rare position of having a ring-side seat at the center of British politics. “I acquired a lot of information on the inside track. I got access which no journalist got at that time, let alone a novelist. I was able to acquire information about the way people react under pressure, the way one lives in the security bubble, the relationship with power, the excitement and the adrenaline of it. And it gave me the confidence to imagine is how someone would behave in that situation.”

As producer Robert Benmussa, who has worked with the director since 1992’s Bitter Moon, says, “In all of Polanski’s films, there are many layers, and one of the leitmotifs of all of his films is the struggle to bring the truth that lies beneath to light, to show the reality behind appearances. Justice is something he holds dear. But never without irony.”

The Setting

"The Ghost" is mostly set in America, in an out-of-season seaside town on an island off the eastern seaboard of the United States. The setting and climate were chosen for very specific reasons. “I always like to put weather in my books,” says Harris. “I suppose that’s because I’m an Englishman and we’re famously obsessed with the weather. And it was very important to me to get that whole feel of an exile in a shuttered up seaside town in winter. A place that everyone else has abandoned.”

Isolation: Polanski's Recurrent Theme

One of the film’s key themes is isolation. “The prime minister is living in an isolated environment,” explains Harris. “He’s on an island, he is cut off from the world. He is separated from the world by security. And that is something which I don’t think has really received the amount of attention it should have done. At the height of the Second World War Winston Churchill used to walk from 10 Downing St. to the Houses of Parliament with one police inspector walking behind him. And Churchill would raise his hat to passersby. And this is during the greatest war in history, in which 40,000 British civilians were killed by bombing! As a former prime minister, Blair has, I think, 24 full time armed body guards. He never will be allowed to drive a car, he never goes on a commercial flight, or very rarely. He certainly doesn’t go through a public lounge. He doesn’t have to do all those security shake downs at airports and so on. I’m absolutely fascinated by the way in which our leaders have become a totally separate class from the rest of us. This never happened in the past. Even in medieval times, a king used to lead his men into battle. Now our leaders live behind bulletproof glass. This conditions the way that they behave and distorts relationships. And inevitably they live in an unreal world in which they become very dependent upon their security people and their aides, who become their only link to the real world.”

Disclosing the Truth

The truth at the center of The Ghost comes to light in way that recalls one of Polanski’s most chilling films, which like this and several of his other films–Tess, Bitter Moon, The Ninth Gate, The Pianist, Oliver Twist – was based on a novel. In Rosemary’s Baby, the identity of the evil neighbour is revealed in an anagram in a book. Here, the big reveal involves a riddle planted in the manuscript. While it appears fanciful, the concept has its origins in reality. “Two of my friends have both ghost written books. One suggested that I describe the process of ghost writing. They also said that it often occurred to them to encrypt something into the text in the way someone working on a great cathedral in the middle ages couldn’t resist resist carving their initial letters or a leaving message, hidden high up among the gargoyles.”

Secrets and Codes

“The idea of disguising a secret as a code within the text of a book intrigued me,” continues Harris. “The manuscript is absolutely essential throughout the book and the movie. Its importance grows and grows until it almost becomes a character in its own right. It’s brought out, everybody sits and looks at it. And then it has to be worked on and crossed out; it can’t be taken out of the building. But then the writer smuggles it out and finally it proves to be the answer to the whole mystery. And then it’s the last thing we see as the credits roll.”


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