Film Scouts Interviews

Roman Polanski on "The Pianist"
at the 2002 Cannes Film Festival

Q: Why were you so attracted to Wladyslaw Szpilman's book? What was in it that was so important for you and why, as you yourself have said, do you believe in this movie like no other?

Roman Polanski: This book describes the events I remember from my childhood. For many years I've been planning to make a film about this period, but I couldn't find the right material. Szpilman's book isn't just another chapter in the book of martyrdom we all know. In his memoirs, he describes these events from the point of view of a man who experienced them. The book was written shortly after the war and maybe this is why it is so fresh, unlike the accounts written later, 20–30 years after the war. Reading the first few chapters, I knew it was going to be my next film.

Q: Ronald Harwood, the screenwriter, has said: "Roman Polanski's contribution to the script is enormous. Many solutions, which nobody else could have thought of, are taken from his own personal experiences." To what extent is this film your personal creation?

RP: You know, many times I read things that could more or less make a movie on that subject, but they were usually too close to my own personal experiences of the war. I didn't want that. Here, however, we are dealing with the Warsaw Ghetto – I was in the Cracow Ghetto. I could use my own experiences in the script without making it an autobiography. It was easy for me to work on this script because I remember that period all too well.

Q: Speaking of Ronald Harwood, what was the reason for choosing him to write the script, apart from the fact that he is a well-known dramatist?

RP: I needed a screenwriter who already had some experience with this subject. Ronald Harwood has written plays and scripts dealing with this period. I greatly admired his plays, "The Dresser" and "Taking Sides," the play about Furtwängler, the German conductor accused of collaborating with the Nazis. It was after seeing this play that I was convinced that Ronnie was the man.

Q: You treat the story told in The Pianist in a very personal way. Did you ever plan to appear personally in the film?

RP: No, never. I wanted this film to be as authentic and realistic as possible. Playing cameo roles in films is somewhat reminiscent of Hitchcock, and comes across as an inside joke – which I've sought to avoid here. Of course it could have some symbolic meaning, but since a lot of people recognize me it would
take you out of the movie. Some people would murmur, "It's Polanski, Polanski." I didn't want that.

Q: How did you imagine the actor who could play the leading role in The Pianist, and what special characteristics did you look for?

RP: I didn't look for physical resemblance, because in my opinion it doesn't matter. I wanted an actor who could fit the character as I imagined him. It was important that he not be a "name," a well-known actor. This is why we decided from the start to look for an unknown actor. Because the film was made in English, we needed someone who could speak the language fluently. So we looked for an undiscovered talent in London…we didn't find anyone there, so we decided to broaden our search to America.

Q: While reading The Pianist, one gets the impression that Szpilman blames himself for not trying, after the war, to find the German officer who saved him. Do you agree with that?

RP: There is a moment of contemplation in the film where Szpilman visibly feels a pang of regret, but I don't agree with you that one can sense this in the book. I think Szpilman was modest. In fact, he did everything he could to save Hosenfeld's life. He even lobbied the communist authorities to help Hosenfeld, to no avail. Considering the postwar political sensitivities, it was a lost cause. But he managed to locate Hosenfeld's family and stayed in touch. The family subsequently came to Warsaw to see Szpilman. I myself was in touch with Hosenfeld's son Helmut during production, and he came to the film's premiere in Poland.

Q: How did you help your lead actor Adrien Brody to understand the reality shown in the film, the atmosphere of this period?

RP: It's hard to explain. You would have to come to the set. It depends on the moment and on the scene.

Q: The psychological impact of making this movie – how did you feel shooting The Pianist in Poland? It was your first film shot there since "Nóz w Wodzie" ["Knife in the Water," 1962]. Did it add more dimension to the project, especially since the film's subject matter is rooted in your own experiences? How did you prepare for this emotionally?

RP: I didn't have to prepare. It was enough to read the book to get back to those times mentally. Coming back physically certainly helped: the Polish language, familiar sights, the whole atmosphere all contributed. I must tell you, however, that shooting the scenes with the German actors on the stages in Berlin was much easier for us than if we were to have shot those scenes in Poland. Hearing them shout and seeing them in costume, I realized that I could never film those scenes anywhere else.

Q: Did you shoot The Pianist in Warsaw where the events took place?

RP: Unfortunately, nothing remains of that period. Warsaw was destroyed, literally flattened by the Nazis. There is however a district named Praga, on the right bank of the river Vistula, which was not completely destroyed. I lived through the bombing of Warsaw. I stayed there for a while and remember the city looking like today's Praga district: gray streets, heavy traffic, buildings from the turn of the century…That's why we constructed our sets there. In addition, technical progress allows us to recreate things long gone. I'm thinking of computers, so conspicuous in many movies, but hopefully not in ours.

Q: Could you tell us about your contact with Mr. Szpilman? Did you talk about the film, and if so what were his suggestions?

RP: Mr. Szpilman didn't make any specific suggestions. He just told me how happy he was that his book would be filmed and that I would direct the movie. I only met him three times. The first time was in Los Angeles, in the 1970s, during one of his quintet's tours. The second time was in Warsaw, in the press club, around 1990: I was lunching with friends, Mr. Szpilman joined us, and we ate together. I never thought that one day I would be filming his life story. When I decided to make the movie, I visited him with [The Pianist co-producer] Gene Gutowski. We had tea and talked about the movie. He was in his 80s, in perfect health and great spirits. We were all stunned when he died.

Q: Are there any famous Polish actors in The Pianist?

RP: There are indeed some well-known Polish actors who were willing to play small parts, and I am grateful to them for participating.

Q: You accessed your own childhood memories for this film, but were there any areas that you could not revisit?

RP: While looking for locations for The Pianist, we went with [The Pianist production designer] Allan Starski to Cracow. We were walking along the district of the former Ghetto, and I felt that I couldn't and wouldn't shoot there. For very personal reasons, I seldom visit those places that are so meaningful to me, although I had been back to Cracow before. If I were to work in those streets which mean so much to me, emotionally and personally, they would become mere movie sets to me. I wouldn't want that to happen.

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