Roman Polanski: Interviews

The Dick Cavett Show

ABC television, 22 December 1971

Interviewed by Dick Cavett

C: My next guest's film version of Macbeth is something people have been hearing and talking about for some time. It's his first film since Rosemary's Babyand it's been awaited with terrific interest in the film world - his first film since his life became public in a very tragic way some years back, and it's great to have him working again. His other films have been called enigmatic and macabre, and Macbeth is the perfect film for him to direct. It's a pleasure to welcome Roman Polanski. Kenneth Tynan wrote an article about Macbeth and said that they were going to fire you?

P: On every film they're trying to fire me.

C: How many times has this happened to you?

P: It happened virtually as many times as I've tried to direct a film.

C: Every film?

P: Practically. They take the film away from me, let's put it this way.

C: How do they dare do that? Doesn't it cross their mind that nobody else is going to finish it quite the way you would have?

P: Well, they always say, "We love the rushes, we love the dailies. What you are doing is great, but can you do it cheaper and faster?"

C: It's always over money?

P: Only. I think that in Tynan's article - I don't remember because it was quite a while ago that I read it - he mentioned I had exactly the same problem during the shooting of Rosemary's Baby. I met Otto Preminger on the lot of Paramount and he asked me what I was worried about, and I told him, and he said, "But they never fire a director for going over-budget." I said, "But they've fired many directors before." And he said, "Yes, for lousy dailies, for lousy results, but never for going over-budget. They try to press you this way." And I thought back, and indeed I thought of cases when directors were replaced, and since then I'm not worried about it. And if they take it away, I can do another one. A better one, maybe.

C: But wouldn't it kill you having a film taken away, two-thirds finished?

P: It would have killed me some time ago, but not now. I think you become less sensitive from film to film because you know the agony of it. People think one exaggerates using such a word, but it is an agony to go through a film. Most films are done this way - most go over-budget. In fact, most enterprises go over-budget. Probably the skyscraper right behind here went over-budget because it's very difficult to foresee exactly what materials and working hours you need. Each film is a new experience, it's not even a skyscraper where you can measure the blocks of steel. Each film always turns out a bit better than I was anticipating, and to make it better costs more money.

C: But don't you want some guarantee that two-thirds of your movie isn't going to be taken over by someone else who's going to finish it and call it Polanski's movie?

P: The people who give money for the films are giving money because of me. I managed through years of struggle to create this situation that is quite convenient for me, that people think my movies are going to be a success. They are interested only in the profits of it, so in a sense they buy me as a director. They buy me, not Shakespeare. When I said I wanted to do Shakespeare, they thought it was a disease. They thought I was crazy. My own agent said, "What are you doing to me?"

C: Why did they feel that?

P. They said [West coast agent voice], "Roman baby, you know, Shakespeare is box-office poison."

C: That voice sounded very familiar? Who was it?

P: That's the voice of Hollywood.

C: I'd know it anywhere.

P: It would sound better with a thick cigar.

C: People are always analysing you because of your work.

P: I hate that. They are free to analyse me, but I don't like to analyse myself.

C: Does it bother you when other people say, "In this part of the movie we can see Polanski's childhood"?

P: No, that's wonderful. Let them do it. It creates the legend, and then it's easier to get money to make the next movie.

C: But your own childhood has such dramatic things in it. I don't think that anyone who hasn't lived through Europe during the war can have any idea what it was like. You've been very close to death twice as a kid. I'm thinking of the one incident when you were on the hillside picking berries.

P: I was close to death many times, but there's no point of lamenting about my childhood. Think of any child in India, Pakistan and Vietnam. We just don't have contact with these people. I was living in the countryside since I escaped from the ghetto, just before the liquidation.

C: This was Warsaw?

P: No, this was Krakow. It wasn't as terrible as in Warsaw. In Warsaw people were virtually dying in the ghetto. The Krakow ghetto was liquidated before they started dying of starvation and they were sent to the concentration camps. My mother was taken first, and about a month later I escaped because we knew they were going to liquidate and my father cut the wires. It was quite easy to get out of the ghetto, it was no problem. The problem was to survive outside. He cut the wires about seven or eight o'clock in the morning - I don't remember, it was very early. We could see Germans coming because they used soldiers for liquidation to send people to the concentration camp, and that was the last time I saw him. First I stayed with some friends of my father, and subsequently family friends, and eventually with people I didn't know. Then I ended up in the country. It was my first contact with the country. I was seven and a half and I lived there for a few years. It was a very backward group of people but they were quite good to me. They were not like the people in [Jerzy Kozinski's novel] The Painted Bird which if you didn't read I suggest you do because it's a very similar childhood. Once I was there picking berries and I saw some German soldiers on a horse cart, and I just ignored them. Then I heard the whistle of a bullet. It was the first time I heard such a thing, and then I heard the clap of the explosion. I looked in the direction and saw they were just shooting at nothing to do with me. They just let out a shot.

C: Just for fun.

P: I don't know why you and Kenneth Tynan picked that story because I went through much more drastic situations. I was bombed and people tried to kill me, I was in so many things like that. Being shot at is just an innocent thing. I don't know how many things like that have happened to you. Maybe there was a flower pot that fell behind you that you didn't hear because there was a bus passing at the same time, and you didn't hear the noise. To me, a much more dramatic incident was when I was in the ghetto just before the liquidation and I saw a group of old women being led somewhere by German soldiers. One was very old and could hardly walk and was sort of staggering behind. I was on the other side of the street. This German officer was pushing her and shouting at her in German, and suddenly he drew a gun and shot her in her back. The blood exploded. It was all so fast. This woman fell down and I ran into a doorway and hid myself under the stairs and stayed there for maybe an hour. That was a really shocking and terrible experience in my life, not the one when they were shooting at me. For the first time in my life - I was maybe seven, I don't remember exactly - it scared me so much that I couldn't forget it for years afterward. It's much more frightening when you see something than when it happens to you.

C: Who was there to explain that sort of thing? Did you assume that's the way the world was, that people shot people constantly, that people tried to kill people all the time? Or did you know you were going through a particularly bad part of the world?

P: Well you see, the child accepts everything. That's just reality. You can put a child in a white room and it will accept this as reality. Throughout the war I ate boiled flowers, sometimes with milk, for three years, and I thought that was the normal food. Sometimes there was sugar or something. And I wasn't particularly unhappy about this. I know now that people kill and start wars because they like it. We have to accept that it's part of human nature. It's evolutionary. We are built this way. The other part of human nature - the civilised mind - rebels against this. But there wouldn't be wars if people didn't want wars. People enjoy killing and fighting.

C: But did you know that there was somebody your age - me - growing up somewhere else in the world in a completely peaceful place?

P: Of course. I'll tell you another episode which will explain exactly how I felt. About two or three years later I was living in the country and I was picking berries again. It was all we could do - pick berries or mushrooms and help with the harvest - because they had only an acre and a half for the whole family. There was hardly anything to eat. Anyway, I was picking berries on the hill. It was toward the end of the war, summer 1944. Very hot. Summer in Poland is very hot, winter is very cold - like in Canada. I was in a little birch wood, and all you could hear was the summer noise of the insects. Suddenly I heard a different noise. I couldn't understand what it was, and I thought it was an airplane. I looked up and saw hundreds of American planes going east. And then a new noise, and I could see the explosions of the German artillery. This was one of the most beautiful moments of my life. It was bringing such hope and expectations for something to come. And I was just hoping that none of the planes would explode. They did occasionally and I would see the white parachute, and then I was hoping he would come over this way and I would be able to talk with him. It was a moving experience. It was beautiful. This noise is very important for me, and I used it in one film. As a matter of fact I used it in Macbeth, but no-one would notice.

[Cavett moves from his interview chair for a commercial break during which he introduces and advertises various products.]

P: I didn't know you did these things. When I was on your show before you didn't do this.

C: I'm in the big time now.

P: You do the same thing I'm doing now.

C: What's that? Selling?

P: It's sort of a tap dance that one asks you to do in order to work again.

C: A tap dance? Is that what you feel you're doing because your movie's appearing and you're being taken around town and propped up?

P: That's the way I feel. I would rather talk to you in a café.

C: Let's go! Let's take everybody with us! I said to you during the break that somebody who's been through a nightmarish childhood must feel a certain contempt for people who haven't been through it because they've had it so much easier. Maybe you don't?

P: No, I don't have any contempt. Sometimes I feel anger when they come up with issues that seem to be ridiculous in view that they never went through any kind of hardship that could have made them talk differently. I want to be clear that I'm quite sure that this experience does very little to a child, strangely enough, as far as your creative life is concerned. Maybe it can mould your life and character and personality, but for the creative life, the lessons are much more important. I can see that the people who went through the war between eighteen and thirty, I would say, were tremendously marked. Any of my colleagues of the generation that is a little bit older can't talk about anything else but the war in their films and literature.

C: But a child absorbs it.

P: A child absorbs it as reality. He didn't know better before.

C: Maybe you pity yourself more when you're older? I can't really talk on the subject because I've never been through anything quite like it. You said you've faced death several times. Does that give you a kind of feeling - and I'm trying not to make some fatuous comment - that every day you've gotten since then is a bonus?

P: It took me a very long time to come to this conclusion. Strangely enough, I came to this conclusion only two years ago, that every day is a bonus. I didn't have this before. I was very cheerful and optimistic, and I still am. But my personality has changed a little bit. When I was sixteen I was being murdered, literally, by a thug. [Shows Cavett the scars on his head.]

C: I've read about these scars.

P: Later on in the hospital my father and everybody was lamenting and how stupid I am and about how I could have been killed. I could not believe it. When you escape close death, you don't believe it.

C: As I understand that story, a guy was going to sell you a bicycle and said to meet you in a certain place?

P: I was sixteen and I was racing bicycles. A very popular sport in Europe. That was my future - I really wanted to be a racing champion. It was very difficult to get racing gear and he offered to sell me a bicycle for a very cheap price that from his description sounded like a marvellous racing bicycle. We had this appointment in this old German bunker. We walked down there, I had the money in my pocket. He was holding a torch made out of newspaper. It was raining outside. My friend was waiting on the other side of the double carriageway where the street was, in a doorway. I don't remember exactly how it happened. We were talking about the dirt on the floor and how people are terrible - these were his last comments. I was looking for this bicycle, I could hardly see the end of this long bunker. He said it was around the corner, and I said, "There is no corner." Then he struck me. It was so unexpected for me. In the brief short moment before I lost consciousness - I know I lost it so quickly because I felt only one blow and I have five scars - I thought I had touched a live cable and was electrocuted. Then I thought, "No, somebody hit me." I could not believe that it was this guy whom I had met a couple of weeks ago and had walked around with a little bit. I treated him as a friend, he was a very young man. Only when I saw him above me asking for the money, I understood it was him. He took my money and my watch and ran away. I got out through an escape window, and there was my friend.

C: The guy had left you for dead?

P: No, no, no. My head happens to be very hard, and probably it was the moment when I became either an idiot or a genius. Something has happened since then that my career went straight up in a line to the Dick Cavett show.

C: You may even go higher. Who knows?

P: You never know, indeed.

C: Didn't the man turn out to be a murderer that they wanted?

P: They caught him. I said to my friend, "Run after him." There was a rubbish truck that was passing. They grabbed him and pulled him in, and he happened to be a murderer. He had killed three people before.

C: You never used those actual incidents in a film?

P: Actually the very first film I did when I was in film school - which was never finished because the lab screwed up the negative - was about this incident.

C: There are so many things I would love to talk to you about.

P: Don't be shy.

C: Do you hate certain members of the press for the way they treated you after your wife's murder?

P: Well, yes. To be honest, I do. But I wouldn't call it hatred now. It's somehow evolved into indifference. I simply don't read it. I try to avoid it.

C: I don't know what you think people deserve to know or how much business people have knowing about what's called 'The Sharon Tate Case' - though there were other victims. Is there anything good that has been written about it?

P: Well, I just don't read, for my own good. It would be silly of me to say that absolutely everything written by the press is obnoxious. This is impossible. I'm philosophically orientated and I know that there are always mutants. It's the principle of life and evolution. But in general I despise the press tremendously for inaccuracy, for its irresponsibility, for its often even deliberate cruelty. And all this for lucrative purposes.

C: Every time the subject comes up there are people who claim they know something that never came out in the papers. The way people descend on an event like this is sort of strange.

P: Well, this is part of human nature. I was accused of being one of the accomplices. It was like a great psychological test. Everybody saw it from his angle, his point of view, and was looking for the culprits in the area which would be somehow related to the way he was thinking. You know what I mean? I don't want to be more specific about it.

C: I think I do. Did it seem that you could never go into public again?

P: Yes, it lasted for a very long time. It lasted for a good eight months, I would think. And then when I started working again, I didn't want to do anything like this show for example, or any interviews. Somehow under the pressure of the people who gave the money for the film and took a great risk, because it cost several million dollars - three million dollars, let's be specific - for their sake I thought I have to do it. And I'm doing these things. But I would feel better if I did not have to talk and feel part of the public life. I was desiring it when I was young, when I was in film school and later.

C: The celebrity part of it?

P: Yes. I wanted it. I wanted it very much. It was part of this history of cinema, part of Hollywood.

C: I wondered if at the time you just felt, "I can never go back to work."

P: You see, right after that everybody was saying, "Go back to work." At the time I was in the middle of a film. Not shooting, but in the middle of preparation of a film called The Day of the Dolphin. Everybody said, "Work, work. That's the best medicine." I remember talking to Stanley Kubrick on the telephone. He was the only person who said, "I'm sure everybody tells you go to work." "That's right." "I know you can't work. Why don't you just go away, do some sports or something. And there will be a moment when you feel like getting out of the room." Incredible - I remember that. You know, he's very interested in everything - like I am, by the way. We'd spend endless hours talking. I could see he was trying to understand my feelings and I don't blame him for it. It's part of being a film director. He's a very wise man.

C: I thought you gave a very good answer when people ask you how on earth could you do bloody drama like Macbeth after what you went through. But you pointed out that anything you did they would have said was absurd. If you'd done a comedy, they would have said, "How could he do a comedy after that?"

P: Precisely. Everything is related to your life. That's how people see it. People see this film more bloody than it really is. I mean, it's much less violent than the average so-called violent film. Much less. It's as much as we can expect from Macbeth. That's about all.

[Henry Morgan joins as Cavett's next guest]

M: Let me ask Roman a question. I was fascinated while you talked. You said you discovered - or that you believed - that people like to kill. Then you said you saw the American planes coming over head and you felt so marvellous or relieved, or whatever. Do you think the Americans in the planes liked to kill?

P: I think that war exists because it's part of human nature. Looking at it from the evolutionary angle, I think that when men had no more serious enemy in the animal world, the only enemy was another human being. That's the way it worked. Our history for the past two million years was killing. That was the men's sport. I think, incidentally, that if you got rid of all males, there would be no wars.

C: Why do you say that at a moment when Golda Meir and Mrs. Indira Gandhi are quite warlike?

P: You can talk only about averages. You can't take one woman as an example. You can talk about male and female personality only if you talk about averages.

M: You saw the American planes coming by overhead and you felt a thrill. You knew they were killers. Are there good killers and bad killers?

P: At that time, I didn't have the necessary knowledge to be able to philosophise this way. To me they were the saviors.

M: I just wondered, because I think you're quite right. So many people have this overpowering aggressiveness and they have to get rid of it somewhere.

P: Imagine you are a Martian observer just sent here, in a kind a space ship from which you can watch this civilisation. You'd think that war was inherent, that this is a very primitive species. And when you look at history, hardly any war makes sense. In the Renaissance you could talk about just wars and unjust war. Now you can't even talk about it in these terms. The only thing you can do is to end up with knowledge, ethical knowledge, with ideologies and vitalism, with religions.

M: They've tried all that for two or three thousand years.

P: No, they didn't try that, I'm sorry. Objective science and knowledge has existed only for three centuries. Before that, all knowledge and philosophy was subjective. It's only when you start doing it abstractly, with mathematics, that you can have certain knowledge about the world, when you are not emotionally involved.

M: But you can't mathematicalize human emotions.

P: Certainly you can. Why not?

M: Well then you're going to live in a police state you've never even heard of.

P: But that's what you do. You math… how did you say?

M: Math… mathe… I wouldn't say it again. This is what I really meant. [Indicates Cavett.] Look at him. Now here is an intellectual. I don't mean it pejoratively. A bright, aware, quiet, peaceful man. Do you think he could become a killer?

P: But you cannot talk about one person. I wonder how would he act if he had five hundred people around him involved in some kind of uprising. He would run with them. He would maybe step on someone. It's entirely different. I think that the only problem is the population explosion, because man did not kill so much of his own species when other species were his enemies in this early evolutionary era. He killed just to eat. But at one stage other men became his enemy and he began to kill his own species. Other species have very strong inhibitions about killing themselves. Even rats don't kill themselves. But when you put them into a confined area, then they start eating themselves and fighting each other.

C: Speaking of violence, how do they decide what rating a movie like yours gets?

P: In the United States, first it had an 'X' rating. Nobody would touch it. The major company that distributes the film - Columbia in my case - would not release it with an 'X' certificate, so I was forced to discuss and argue with the ratings board. Eventually they said if I do some cuts in the film, they will give it an 'R' certificate. Strangely enough, in England it had an 'AA' certificate without any problem, which means that anybody older than fourteen can go unaccompanied. I must say that when I was showing this film to the board, some nine or ten people, and I discussed it with them, I could feel a strange prejudice. They were looking at this film not as a film made by a director. They were looking at it through the filter of my particular predicament. Somehow I could feel they felt uneasy, and things which otherwise would not seem violent looked a bit indecent to them. I know they were prejudiced because a friend of mind flew on a plane with the head of the ratings board. Apparently a long time before I even finished the film he said to my friend, "You know how many gallons of pig's blood they used?" And he said the number - seven or eight or twenty. Which of course is an idiocy because we never used pig's blood. We used a mixture of Nescafé and food coloring and milk and glycerine. That's my invention - it looks better than stock blood which looks like ketchup. And no-one will ever know how much of it was used because you do as much as you need for a particular scene. You just make it in the morning. But the fact that he mentioned something like that shows that he was watching for me, waiting for me around the corner.

C: Do you feel that wrecked the film?

P: No, it didn't in all honesty. It even it helped the film. Maybe those two or three areas where I made cuts were a little bit too explicit. But in general, the film as I told you is not that bloody. Right after the short prologue of the three witches, the action proper starts with the line 'What bloody man is that?' Any production trying to go away from this would be a necessary false one. But people are just thriving on the fact that it's me and I have this reputation, and that I've tried to make it more bloody.

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