The clicking never stopped. The photographers never paused during Roman Polanski's press conference at the Jerusalem restaurant 1868 yesterday, even when asked by the Oscar-winning director himself. And at a reception afterwards, as film students and young directors surrounded him, there wasn't a moment that wasn't captured on film.
Polanski, 73, was in Israel to accept the Life Achievement Award of the 23rd Jerusalem Film festival. An old friend of festival founder and director Lia van Leer, Polanski is no stranger to press conferences and answered reporters' questions affably and often with self-deprecating humor. Most of the queries focused on his latest film, a new version of Oliver Twist that debuted last year and will be screened at the festival.
The director, who achieved fame with early classics like Rosemary's Baby (1968) and Chinatown (1974), said that he had tried to make "a new Oliver Twist" that was "very faithful to the book, and to a certain degree, we succeeded. I wanted Oliver to be a real boy... not corny and cute or a beautiful handsome cherub." He and his collaborators also attempted to present the other characters "as Dickens intended them... [especially] Bill Sykes as a brute and a murderer, not a romantic character.
"We wanted to recreate the period, the epoch of London in its worst time, when masses of people flocked into London hoping for a better life and in fact were finding themselves without a roof over their heads, a time when children were begging and sleeping under bridges."
Polanski confirmed that he had made Oliver Twist partly so that his children could see one of his films. "I realized at some point that my work is totally remote from the world of my children, that they know that... I make movies, but they cannot relate in any way to what I do. So I wanted to make a movie that somehow will be closer to their world. The only film they can see and relate to in the history of my professional life is The [Fearless] Vampire Killers," he said. "My daughter, she liked [Oliver Twist] very much. She's almost 14. My son, who is 8, told me it was fine, but that he prefers Spider-Man."
The director, who was born in France and raised in Poland, said his experiences in the Krakow ghetto during World War II an in the Polish countryside after the ghetto's liquidation helped him depict the hardships experienced by the film's title character. Polanski said that his memories "helped me to relate to the situation - like his long walk, for example, to London. I went through it exactly at the same age, even a touch younger; it was when I ran out of the ghetto and to the country in shoes that were falling apart and feet that were bleeding. Masses of little things like that, finding yourself suddenly among people you don't know, waking up in a strange place that is absolutely foreign, masses of things like that."
Asked whether he had prettified the countryside in some of the scenes in the movie, he recalled "the beauty of the village" where he hid out during the war, and added, "Why shouldn't I show the beauty of that?"
Polanski's life has been a strange mixture of beauty and darkness, but reporters refrained from asking about the incident in the late Seventies that led to statutory rape charges in California. He pled guilty to the lesser of six charges and served six months in a psychiatric hospital for observation. He fled the US before his sentencing, however, convinced he was going to be given a long prison term, and has been living in Paris ever since.
Also absent from the press conference was any mention of his first wife, the actress Sharon Tate, who was murdered by members of the Manson family in 1969. He is currently married to French actress Emmanuelle Seigner, who starred in his films Frantic (1988), Bitter Moon (1992) and The Ninth Gate (1999).
Although Polanski would face arrest if he returned to the US, his surprise Oscar win for best director for 2002's The Pianist proved he is no longer an outcast in Hollywood. (Fearing arrest, Polanski skipped the Los Angeles ceremony in which he received the award.) He visited Israel in 2002 to celebrate the release of The Pianist here, and said that that visit was such a "moving experience" he couldn't imagine anything this time that could compare to it.
Asked whether he was disappointed that Oliver Twist did not attract more attention in America, he said, "Of course it was disappointing that Oliver Twist went almost unnoticed in the US," adding that he felt the film wasn't handled well by its distributor there.
A film student in the audience mentioned that Polanski's short early film, Two Men and a Wardrobe, is shown at his film school ("I am very grateful to the teacher," the director said), and asked whether the director ever teaches. He occasionally returns to the film school in Poland where he studied, Polanski replied, but he doesn't care for French film schools. "The French film schools deny the existence of technology and technique. They think it's all about talent and inspiration. Well, you can't teach talent, but you can teach where to put the camera."
As the conference ended, Polanski sipped mineral water with reporters and Israeli directors and joked about a press release that described him as the recipient of 121 Academy Awards. "Not bad!" he said, laughing, as the photographers kept snapping away.