Published February 12, 2010
BERLIN – Roman Polanski missed his own party, but was still the center of attention Friday as his first movie in five years made its debut at the Berlin film festival.
"The Ghost Writer," based on a novel by Robert Harris, stars Pierce Brosnan as a former British prime minister, Olivia Williams as his wife and Ewan McGregor as a ghost writer hired to complete his memoirs on a rainswept island off the U.S. east coast.
The movie, Polanski's first since "Oliver Twist" in 2005, was near-complete by the time he was arrested in Switzerland in September, producer Robert Benmussa said -- leaving him confident that it would be ready as planned for the Berlin festival.
"Roman continued to work on the film through courier packages that we sent to him in prison through his Swiss lawyer," Benmussa told reporters ahead of its world premiere. "Then, when he was in his chalet, he continued to work on the movie, putting the last touches."
Polanski is under house arrest at his chalet in Gstaad, awaiting a Swiss decision on whether to extradite him to the U.S. to face possible further sentencing in a 32-year-old sex case.
He has been trying to resolve his U.S. case in absentia for having sex in 1977 with a 13-year-old girl. Polanski fled the U.S. on Feb. 1, 1978, the day he was to be formally sentenced.
"Not having Roman at the center of this podium seems very strange for all of us," Benmussa said.
Harris, who wrote the screenplay along with Polanski, said the director had been keen to make a thriller, changing gears after his previous films, "The Pianist" and "Oliver Twist."
He wanted "to do another 'Chinatown'-like movie where the plot gradually unfolds, and I think that that above all was what drew him to it," Harris said. "He wanted to tell a story, and his greatest insult, I discovered, was 'an arthouse movie."'
Brosnan's character, Adam Lang -- a former leader dogged by allegations of authorizing the illegal seizure of suspected terrorists -- has unmistakable parallels with Tony Blair.
Harris said he had thought for 15 years of writing about a former leader's relationship with a ghost writer; and a 2006 report that Blair might face efforts to prosecute him for war crimes helped provide the scenario for his book, "The Ghost."
"The Ghost Writer" is one of 20 films competing for the Berlin festival's top Golden Bear honor, being awarded Feb. 20.
Polanski's team portrayed the director as a perfectionist who involved himself with every aspect of the movie, filmed on two German islands -- Sylt and Usedom -- and at the Babelsberg studio outside Berlin.
"Polanski uses the weather like another oppressive character in the film -- it's always raining, it's always gray and damp," McGregor said.
"He'd like to be the props man, the set painter, the actors, the sound man, the cameraman -- he puts his print on everything," he said. "It's a great pity he's not here to launch the film with us, because I feel like he's as responsible for my performance in this film as I am."
Polanski's crew largely steered clear of the director's current situation.
However, Brosnan said: "I was shocked, I was very disappointed and saddened by his arrest and wondered, why now after such a long time?"
"I was very upset for his family, for his children," he said. "I wish for closure for him as a man and for the woman involved and her family."