[Let me warn the reader at the outset that there is no photograph with Roman Polanski at the end of this post. And for weird reasons. Citing contractual obligations, the production staff, rather elaborate and in strength, forbade taking any photographs near the shooting site.]
The chase I refer to pertains to locating Roman Polanski who happened to be shooting his latest in Paris.
Returning earlier one evening to my hotel, the reception gave me a letter with my key. This was a request from a production company to all the guests to bear with “slight” inconvenience on account of shooting of a scene in the hotel lobby of their production, Roman Polanski’s latest titled The Ninth Gate. The dates fell critically to the end of my stay in Paris and I hoped to be able to watch at least a part of the action, but by the evening of 29th, there was no sign of the shooters. I was to leave for Frankfurt by the evening train on 30th, checking out of the hotel in the morning, carrying my suitcases in Monsieur Lorgeril’s car all day as we wound up our appointments.
On 30th early morning, late according to their own schedule by two days, some workers came in a truck and set about working in the hotel lobby. In a matter of two hours they had put up two telephone booths on either side of a passage leading to the interior. The pillars nearby had been touched up too to blend in colour and design with the booths so that when Monsieur Lorgeril came to pick me up he noticed nothing new until pointed out.
The set supervisor told me that they were to shoot there a day or two later but if I wanted to watch Mr Polanski at work, then such and such place was the address to look out for in the afternoon. Monsieur Lorgeril, when I showed him the slip, made out that the place was near the Notre Dam island in the Seine and not very far, nor difficult to reach.
Having found a parking place—Pierre Etaix’s classic short Happy Anniversary, after 30 years, remains an extremely authentic rendition of the parking problem in Paris—we were on the spot at 3 O’clock. Some cables had been laid out and lights fixed along the Seine in preparation for the night shooting. At one point on a double take we noticed that a certain café at the street corner, which we had walked past a couple of times, was in fact a set added to the location, and that it had already been shot in the night before since shooting equipment lay still dumped inside.
On the bridge at some distance, a large crane was manipulating a heavy cross bar in the air. Its position was soon fixed high over a small staircase descending from the main road to the side walk running along the river below. A group of stuntmen then took over and began to rehearse a jeans clad young woman who is supposed to begin climbing down the steps and halfway through takes to floating in an aerial walk, an invisible wire and pulley mechanism suspended from the cross bar carrying her, to land lightly on the side walk.
But still there was no sign of the shooting crew; and no definite information either. Around 6 O’clock I decided to give up and asked Monsieur Lorgeril to drop me at the railway station. As we drove around the block, crossed over another bridge and were on the main road returning for the station, a commotion of shooting around a roadside building caught my attention. Instantly we decided to give ourselves another chance—my train was after all at 9 O’clock—and again returned looking for a place to park.
Approaching the shooting site, we walked past 2-3 humming generator vans parked amidst other vehicles. Intermittently we passed other support vehicles like trucks with shooting equipments, production cars with staff chatting away, etc, until we came to the edge of a small crowd of onlookers. Three or four young men—security staff but without uniform—were posted at different points to keep the inquisitive at bay. I told one of them who I was and asked if he could reach a note to Mr Polanski. I then wrote one out and gave it to him. After a while the man returned and told me that the note had reached Polanski and now it was up to him. But as I raised my camera to shoot atmospherics he stopped me with a surprisingly firm gesture. Another man explained that still-photography rights of the event were given away and therefore no pictures could be taken! That this meant no pictures even with Polanski was something that registered with me only later.
After about 10 minutes, a glut of people came out. Among them was rather a short man, Roman Polanski. The shot was over and he was talking with his staff. Going by their movement they had finished with the location and were shifting across the bridge among the stuntmen where Lorgeril and I had been waiting for them.
“Sorry, we were just taking the shot when your note came,” Polanski said when I presented myself to him. “So, you teaching at Berlin,” he continued, having misread my note, his mind elsewhere.
Polanski is not only a small built man—he was speaking up to everyone—but also old by now. [He was all of 65 years I should have known!] Contrary to my image of the man, mainly from The Fat and the Lean I must admit, his handshake was very limp. Throughout the small conversation I made with him, a sense of regret prevailed over me. After a while somebody came and the two of them disappeared among the cars. Later I saw they had decided to walk across to the next location.
[I caught up with The Ninth Gate only in the context of the present write up. The film doesn’t seem to have made too much of a mark in India; perhaps it just came and went.
The Ninth Gate is a relatively minor Polanski, a rehash of a number of his thematic and stylistic concerns from previous films. But that after 15 films and 30 years should be a given. After a point all artists begins to tell varied stories around subjects and worldview developed over earlier films.
Seeing The Ninth Gate in order to correlate with my production notes here should be instructive for a student of cinema. All the location pictures that I have posted here feature in the finished film. [Happily, the film is available on the Internet. Free version is in parts. Part 8, marginally spilling into 9, correspond with the action that I describe here.] Starting in New York, the plot of the film travels to Spain, Portugal and finally settles in Paris. (Since post-78, after his sexual misadventure, Polanski is a wanted man in the US, all his American locations are studio shot in Europe, mostly in Paris where he has since been based.) In Paris, the Johnny Depp character stays in Hotel Cayre where I happened to have been a guest and received notice of shooting. The exterior of the hotel has been kept completely unchanged, with even the odd Burmah Shell logo which is visible in my pictures retained and included in the frame. (Interestingly, the Burmah Shell logo also repeats at the very end of the film when JD stops by to fill up his SUV before once again losing the mystery girl. This would be tying up a loose thread; I would look to do this sort of thing myself in a film.) Considerable action takes place in the hotel lobby, at the reception desk as well as in the two phone booths specially put across from it. The booths I had noticed were fully finished for details and now I know why. They have both been used for extended, close-view shots of Jonny Depp speaking on the phone. His hotel room too presents a familiar ambience and layout from 15 years ago; I’m sure it’s been shot in the same hotel.
Interestingly the period of the film would be ‘contemporary’—even desktop computers, though not prominently used, are in evidence here and there throughout the film—but all gadgetry stops short of cell phone. The entire action in the film is conceived and tied down to landline telephones. During the same tour I can remember students of London Film School flaunting little mobile in all kinds of ways.
The roadside pub, which Johnny Depp slips into while escaping from a toughie is a set added to the location. My two pictures in this regard are not two views of the same set but actually two different sets. But they both have been used for the same single pub scene. One is to shoot the entry and exit of the JD character from outside and the other is for the composite shot of Jonny Depp at the table and the toughie waiting outside. This second set (built at a street corner for gaining some depth) was essential for executing the intricate lighting switch that takes place at that point from evening to night.
My last two pictures showing the crane parked on the bridge and the cables and stuntmen down below reveal the elaborate preparation and effort that went into taking a shot that lasts less than a second on the screen. The shot is where the unnamed mystery girl, played by Emmanuelle Seigner, French actress and Polanski’s wife, comes floating down to Depp’s rescue while he is grappling with a toughie. This she does only twice in the whole film, this being the first time. Apart from this, her character appears and disappears unexpectedly in aid of Depp, suggesting romantic attraction of this girl from ‘the other world’. Finally she consummates her love with him—virtually sucking him up—against a burning castle in the open at night, thus seducing him to follow her into that other world, which he does as the film ends…
Take a second look at my picture of the stuntmen. Caught mid action is a man in the harness who has just taken off from walking down the steps. This action was rehearsed again and again and the overhead cables fine-tuned for its seamless smoothness. The young woman in light blue jeans watching is Emmanuelle Seigner’s body double who gradually began to substitute with the man in the harness before the alignment was finalised for the actress.
The shot in the film is a low, frontal and oncoming view of Seigner which, as I said, lasts less than a second. The second time too it’s an identical view though inside a cathedral.]