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New Polanski film released in awkward circumstances

The Associated Press, Friday, February 19, 2010, 8:35am (PST)

NEW YORK (AP) -- To say the least, it can be difficult releasing a film when your star director is confined to his Swiss chalet awaiting possible extradition to the U.S. for a sex crime committed in the 1970s.

That's the unique situation for Roman Polanski's "The Ghost Writer," which opens in a handful of theaters Friday in New York and Los Angeles before expanding its release. What began as a typical production for Polanski was upended when he was arrested in Switzerland last September in connection with a 32-year-old rape case.

Suddenly, Polanski's past returned to the front pages.

"It's sad for all concerned, but it's also heightened the movie," said Pierce Brosnan, who stars in it. "The movie's in the can, he's in the can."

The 76-year-old, Oscar-winning filmmaker fled the U.S. in 1978 after pleading guilty to unlawful sexual intercourse with a minor. He is currently under house arrest at his Gstaad chalet, where he's awaiting a Swiss decision on whether to extradite him to the U.S. Last month, a Los Angeles judge ruled that Polanski must be present in court to resolve his case. Polanski's lawyers have vowed to appeal.

The arrest interrupted Polanski as he was finishing post-production on "The Ghost Writer." Though he had wrapped principal photography in February and completed a rough cut in August, he had to finish editing the film while in prison before being granted house arrest.

Relaying materials through his lawyers, Polanski edited some of the movie alongside fellow prisoners peeling onions.

The behind-the-scenes drama of "The Ghost Writer" thus sounds like the stuff of movies. In fact, the film itself reflects Polanski's own situation.

Based on the novel by Robert Harris, it stars Ewan McGregor as a ghost writer hired to complete the memoirs of a former British prime minister very much like Tony Blair (Pierce Brosnan). Like Polanski, Brosnan's character is in exile. Beset by a public outcry over his handling of the war on terror and fearful of legal action against him in England, he holes up on a Martha's Vineyard-like island. Germany doubled for New England because of Polanski's fugitive status in the U.S.

"We all said it: `We're playing within Roman's life here. We're playing in the shadow of what's happened to him as an exile, as a fugitive,'" said Brosnan. "Pretty powerful having worked with the man and gone through an exhilarating time with him to then be shocked awake one morning, hearing: `They got him.'"

The film, Polanski's first since 2005's "Oliver Twist," premiered last week at the Berlin Film Festival. Though Polanski was never expected to be able to promote the film in the U.S., he would have normally attended the event.

At the Berlin festival, producer Robert Benmussa acknowledged "not having Roman at the center of this podium seems very strange for all of us."

But he otherwise declined to comment on anything related to Polanski's situation, which has elicited a lot of emotion from Hollywood. His arrest was quickly followed by a petition calling for his release, signed by many luminaries, including Martin Scorsese and Woody Allen.

The petition was questioned by many who reminded Polanski defenders of the nature of his crime: giving champagne and Quaaludes to a 13-year-old girl and raping her.

Benmussa's hesitancy to discuss Polanski was telling. Executives for Summit Entertainment, which is releasing the film in the U.S., are also staying mum — as are publicists and agents associated with the movie.

The theatrical trailer for "The Ghost Writer" hardly mentions Polanski's name, something that might normally be expected for the auteur director of "Chinatown" and "Rosemary's Baby."

The strategy is clear: emphasize the movie and downplay Polanski.

Summit acquired the North American distribution rights for "The Ghost Writer" (made for about $45 million) in December, knowing full well the difficult situation circling for Polanski. Indeed, some believe the publicity is beneficial to the film.

"It's only going to help the movie," said Alex Klenert, a former executive for the production company ThinkFilm and currently a freelance publicist. "People have their set opinion of him already. It's all been said before. It's not like he promoted `The Pianist' any differently because he wasn't in the United States for that, either."

2002's "The Pianist" grossed $32.6 million in the U.S. and won three Oscars, including best director for Polanski. Unable to attend the ceremony, Harrison Ford accepted the award on his behalf.

Klenert speculated that whatever success "The Ghost Writer" finds will be predicated on how good it is. As for any movie in staggered release, it will depend on good word-of-mouth — and people are certainly talking about Polanski and the film.

Reviews thus far have been good, though somewhat mixed. It received warm applause in Berlin, but Hollywood trade Variety predicted a brief box-office run in North America because of the moody thriller's lack of a "wow factor" in terms of surprises.

Associated Press movie writer David Germain praised the performances of Brosnan and Olivia Williams. Rolling Stone raved that "The Ghost Writer" shows Polanski "in brilliant command," a sentiment the Hollywood Reporter echoed, suggesting it was one of the director's most commercial films in years.

"It's quite extraordinary the events that have happened around this film," said Brosnan. "It brings a heightened potency to the work."

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