Ghost Writer: Making of Polanski’s Thriller–Part Two

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Ewan McGregor

The narrator of The Ghost, played by Ewan McGregor, provided another great challenge for the writer and director – an unnamed writer who is at the center of the story and yet remains an elusive bystander to the main events, but one who nevertheless solves the riddle at the centre of the story.

Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard

Scribes Robert Harris and Polanski began by seeking inspiration from Billy Wilder’s seminal film Sunset Boulevard in their quest to find a voice for the lead character who is dead before the action of the movie begins. (Sunset Boulevard, is famously told from the point of view of a dead man.)

“Roman’s suggestion was that we should tell a lot of the story, as Wilder does, by using voiceover,” explains Harris. “But the problem with that, we discovered, was that the story unfolded perfectly well simply using action and dialogue and the voiceover added nothing. It slowed us down, in fact. So in the second draft of the screenplay we dropped that device. We did not, however, want to lose the dark undertone to the story that comes from the audience realising at the very end that The Ghost is just that – a ghost. It was a problem that we still hadn’t solved when the movie started shooting – I guess we must have spent more time puzzling over that than anything else. And then Roman came up with this extraordinary ending which I suspect may well become one of the most memorable things about the film, but it was almost ad libbed. Just as Chinatown needed a dark ending, this film also cried out for a hard ending.”

Killing Off Character

Ewan McGregor explains how he heard about the ending. “Roman essentially kills off my character at the very end of the movie, off screen, so it’s quite a brave moment. It wasn’t in the script and in fact Roman told me about it at one of the first days of rehearsal. He came up with it really causally to me and said he had an idea. It’s one shot and it finishes the film. It’s brilliant, brilliant!”

With the screenplay now fine-tuned, the film-makers turned their attention to chosing their cast. The biggest challenge was the character of the narrator, who remains nameless.

“I was influenced by the famous novel Rebecca by Daphne Du Maurier, in which we never know the name of the narrator, and the idea of a ghostwriter fits perfectly with that,” explains Harris about the inspiration behind the novel’s central conceit. “He takes the viewer into a world and describes it for us. He’s just a very ordinary guy, who just happens to do a job that means meeting extraordinary people. “

The sense of narrative perspective is central to much of Polanski’s work. As producer Robert Benmussa clarifies,“There are always many layers in Polanski’s work but there are constants. All his films are seen from the point of view of a character. Here, we are with The Ghost from the first frame to the last – it is all seen from his point of view and the viewer goes forward with him. This is characteristic of Polanski’s films.”

Ewan McGregor was cast in the role of The Ghost. With no description of the character or back story detail in the script, it was up to the actor – with the help of his director and screenwriter – to find a way into his character, to find a way to discover his traits and ticks, to develop his manner and characteristics.

“It was quite brave of Ewan to take on such a part,” says Harris. “He really did have to completely flesh it out himself. Very early on Ewan was the name that came to mind, as someone who was both an everyman, but also glamorous in a believable way. And he had to be sympathetic. “

Likeability and Credibility

Producer Timothy Burrill adds. “Ewan brings a likeability to the role and you have sympathy for the character, largely due to the way Ewan plays him. He has the charm and the sense of humour that brings a lightness to the movie that was so important.”

Ewan McGregror was thrilled by the prospect of working with Polanski. “I expected that I would be challenged by Roman and I really wanted to be. He’s always giving actors really interesting notes on their performance, really, left of field comments that brings things to life. It’s wonderful. He puts in massive amounts of details in the performance and what you see and how you move and what the set looks like and what’s lying around. It’s the detail that makes it strikingly real I think. I’ve watched most of his films now in preparations for this and that’s what I was struck by and I was excited by.”

The political element of the script also attracted McGregor and the necessity to examine our leaders. “Politicians make monumental life or death decisions on our behalf and then retire and wander off into a world of speech-making and money-making and are not held accountable for the decisions they made or the lies they told and they get off scot free. It drives me mad and this film is very timely.”