“Fantasy is always going to be successful,” he says, “It keeps people’s minds out of an often painful reality.
“I’m always surprised to see that so many people refer to me as a fantasy film specialist. I’ve done 15 movies, and only four of them fit into the genre.” Roman Polanski may be right, but The Fearless Vampire Killers (1967), Rosemary’s Baby (1968) and The Tenant (1976) made such a strong impression that you can’t help considering him one of the most important directors to work in the genre—even if he doesn’t agree. “It’s like all these people asking me why I’m always doing stories about the devil,” he laughs. “I only did two of them, and almost 30 years apart.”
The Ninth Gate, his new venture in the genre, was greatly anticipated among fans. Released in France in mid-August, the movie did quite well at the box office, even though the critical reaction was lukewarm; reviewers seemed to be expecting so much from Polanski that they couldn’t help being disappointed when they actually got to see the movie. Based on the novel “The Club Dumas” by Arturo Perez-Reverte, The Ninth Gate is a return to satanic matters for the director who first heard about the project when he received a script by Enrique Urbizu.
Taken by the story, Polanski immediately got a hold of the book to find out more about it, and quickly realized why it had a reputation of being impossible to adapt for the screen: The complexity of its plot was breathtaking. He was nevertheless impressed enough by both Urbizu’s work and the novel to decide to make the screenplay his own, with the collaboration of his long time screenwriting partner John Brownjohn, with whom he had collaborated on Tess, Pirates and Bitter Moon.
“We did quite extensive work on the script,” Polanski recalls over coffee in Paris. “The story was very complex, and we were obliged to simplify it a lot for the screen version. Even if the avid reader in me is sorry we had to cut parts from the book, I knew as a director that it was unavoidable.” The movie’s plot centers on Dean Corso (Johnny Depp), a somewhat unsavory character who’s a kind of “book detective,” employed to track down old, rare and often extremely expensive tomes for a number of wealthy collectors. He’s discreet, cunning and totally unscrupulous, and that’s why book lover Boris Balkan (Frank Langella) sends him on a mission: to find the two remaining copies of “The Nine Gates,” a reputedly very powerful book of satanic spells. As a sorcery fanatic, Balkan wants to compare his own copy with the two others, but it soon becomes clear that he thinks he can summon the devil if he gets his hands on the volumes.
The fact that Balkan gives him unlimited funding makes Corso more than happy to travel to Europe for his generous customer. The literary PI doesn’t believe in demons, but he soon starts to change his mind when people begin dying around him and he has to fear for his own life. Artisan Entertainment opens the film Stateside December 22.
“I loved the idea of a book being the hero of a movie,” says the 66-year-old Polanski. “I don’t believe it has ever been done before. That’s one of the reasons why the script appealed to me.
“I really considered the book as a whole character. I designed the pentacle for the cover, chose its color and size as I would have done for an actor. I kept part of the illustrations shown in “The Club Dumas,” but had the characters’ faces altered for some of them to look a bit like the actors in the film.”
As stated, Polanski had to make drastic cuts in Perez Reverts’s story. A number of literary references, as well as a subplot concerning Corso’s investigation into an unpublished chapter of Dumas’ “The Three Musketeers,” didn’t make it to the screen. For the film, Corso’s adventures have been narrowed down to his quest for the two “Nine Gates” books and the diabolical enigmas he uncovers when he gets his hands on them.
“I’m not interested at all in witchcraft and demonology as a philosophy. The devil makes me laugh,” Polanski says. “If I think that material can be fascinating, it’s when I consider it as a film director. It’s a great element to make movies with, but I find it absolutely boring in real life, and I hope that point is made quite clear in The Ninth Gate.”
Depp came aboard the project as early as 1997. Polanski met him in Cannes, where the actor was in competition with The Brave, his self-directed film in which he co-stars with Marlon Brando.
Polanski was initially reluctant to consider Depp, as Corso was supposed to be around 40 years old and he was thinking of an older actor for the part, but Depp wanted to work with Polanski even before he read the script. As a long time fan of the director’s work, he was determined to fit the part anyway. “He convinced me that age didn’t matter that much,” Polanski recalls. “I came to understand that people like Corso tend to mature very young. Their character and reputation are formed when they’re in their 30s.”
With his hair combed back, a little goatee and glasses, Depp is totally credible, having matured beyond his previous boyish look, and his performance is one of the movie’s best assets. Polanski is full of praise for the actor’s work: “Johnny has an extraordinary and spontaneous way of giving his own rhythm to a character,” the director says. “It seems quite natural for him, and you never feel like he’s making any effort whatsoever. It’s almost fascinating, because he comes on the set and does his thing almost casually, which doesn’t prevent him from being very accurate. His work was brilliant, because the Corso you see on the screen is exactly the one I had in mind before hiring Johnny.”
The Ninth Gate marks a return to the genre for Langella, who first made a big screen mark in the ‘79 Dracula; it was after seeing the actor in Adrian Lyne’s Lolita that Polanski decided to cast him as the morally ambiguous book lover. “I wanted Balkan to have a feeling like Sydney Greenstreet’s character in The Maltese Falcon,” Polanski explains. “Frank has that quality. He’s charming and disturbing at the same time.
“And he also has a great vocal presence, which was particularly important for the numerous phone conversations he has with Johnny’s character.”
Emmanuelle Seigner, previously seen as Harrison Ford’s French sidekick in Polanski’s Frantic, plays The Girl, an angelic yet enigmatic young woman who becomes Corso’s protector. Even though Seigner has been Polanski’s companion for more than 10 years, she was the last to be cast. The actress has been quoted admitting that the director probably thought about her while writing the role, but only actually hired her at the last minute after being impressed by her performance in Place Vendome, a French movie with Catherine Deneuve.
On the other side of the good vs. evil battleground, Lena Olin is ravishing as Liana, a very dangerous book collector with no respect for human lives. “In the novel, she was described as a Hollywood vamp,” Polanski explains, “and I tried to portray her this way before deciding that the head of a Satanist convent must be a little bit more sophisticated. That’s why I hired Lena; I needed an actress who could give the impression that she’s an intellectual and, at the same time, a very sensuous woman capable of great bursts of violence.”
The shooting took place in France, Portugal and Spain during summer 1998. Darius Khondji, one of the world’s best cinematographers and most acclaimed for his work on Seven and The City of Lost Children, had considerable influence on the film’s look, both in the studio and on location. “He’s brilliant,” raves Polanski. “I love his lighting, because he knows how to make it both sophisticated and realistic. It keeps you on the fringe of fantasy so when you tip over into the supernatural, it doesn’t feel artificial at all. Darius is also very meticulous when he gets ready for a film. He was very active in the preproduction process. We had decided on most of the movie’s atmospheres as early on as during the location search.”
The movie equally owes its impressive look to Dean Tavoularis’ astonishing production design. The Oscar-winning artist’s contributions include such stunning sets as Liana’s library and Balkan’s lair. “You can almost smell the books,” says Polanski. “Most of the sets were made from scratch in the Epinay Studios, near Paris, but they look incredibly accurate. Dean’s contribution was priceless. He’s not only a great professional, but a wonderful human being.”
The Ninth Gate’s postproduction was also quite extensive, as Polanski had to work with four special FX teams (Duboi, Sony Pictures Imageworks, Eclair Numerique and Mikros Images) to achieve the 200 EX shots seen in the movie. “You won’t be able to notice some of them,” says Polanski, “as they’re perfectly integrated in the film.” Some others will be easier to spot—particularly a baroness’ corpse that’s both hideous and hilarious—but the gore has been kept to a minimum in The Ninth Gate, as it is more of a supernatural mystery than a true horror film. While shooting, Polanski was heard describing it as “Chinatown meets Rosemary’s Baby,” and that seems quite accurate, if you add a pinch of The Name of the Rose to the brew.
Whether the film’s American version will be the same as that released in Europe, however, remains to be seen. A review published in Variety suggested that some changes might be in order for the U.S. release, but Polanski reacts with shock when the idea is mentioned. “I’ve read the article, but I agreed to nothing of the kind,” he says. “As I get final cut, no one will be able to decide on such a thing without my direct approval. I really don’t know what Variety meant. The Ninth Gate is supposed to be shown the same way everywhere.”
While the movie prepares to face its audience in the States, Polanski is already working again. It may be a bit too early for a new movie, but his theatrical career is going full throttle, as he’s staging a new version of Amadeus in Italy. He also took time to record audio commentaries for the DVD versions of Chinatown and Rosemary’s Baby. If that’s good news for his fans, Polanski admits that he doesn’t care too much about home cinema for himself. “I love to watch movies in a theater with an audience,” he insists. “That’s the way they’re supposed to be seen. Not slumped on your couch alone in your living room.”
Polanski is also less than enthusiastic about commenting on his past genre work. It’s not that he doesn’t like horror films, or that he refuses to acknowledge his contribution to the field. He just doesn’t feel comfortable reviewing his movies, because he’s too sensitive to their mistakes and flaws. After a bit of cajoling, however, he admits to a fondness for The Fearless Vampire Killers.
“It may be the only movie I’ve made which I can see without wanting to change things in it,” he says. “It’s so refreshing, and I’ve kept so many good memories of the shoot. It brings me back to an extremely happy period of my life.”
The director is less enthusiastic when he discusses The Tenant (“I’d be embarrassed to watch it again, but I understand that it’s quite a cult movie among horror fans”) and Rosemary’s Baby. “That film was important in my career,” he says, “because it was the first time that I wasn’t on a shoestring budget. You can see that I had money for that one.”
A film sequel, based on Ira Levin’s book “Son of Rosemary,” was offered to him, but he immediately declined what seemed to be a photocopy of the first story. “What’s the point in working on a sequel?” he asks. “I would only have considered it if both projects had been conceived together. The way it was done seemed much too rehashed for my taste.”
Rosemary’s Baby also brings back painful memories for the director, who was bothered regularly by Satanists who took the movie too literally and couldn’t believe the director didn’t share their interest. With his charming smile and warm presence, Polanski has too much of a sense of humor to consider witchcraft seriously, but he complains that audiences don’t always notice his films’ tongue-in-cheek elements.
“Humor varies between people and civilizations,” he explains. “What the French consider hilarious won’t be the same funny for Americans. I love English humor, but I understand that it’s not always well-perceived, and I was really surprised to see how some people reacted to The Ninth Gate: they just didn’t get the jokes.”
As for a new genre excursion, the director admits that it’s too early to say even if he has nothing against the idea. It’ll depend on the scripts he’s offered, or the books he’s going to read. “Fantasy is always going to be successful,” he says, “It keeps people’s minds out of an often painful reality. It’s also a good way to play with scary or taboo notions without taking real risks. It’s exciting, so I’m sure the genre has an ample future in the movies.”