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The Ghost Writer (also referred to as The Ghost, its original title) is Roman Polanski's newest thriller, a highly anticipated affair about ex-Prime Minister Adam Lang (Pierce Brosnan), whose unnamed ghost writer, here referred to merely as the ghost (Ewan McGregor), encounters unanticipated mystery and danger as he attempts to finish Lang's memoirs on an isolated island. He's surrounded by secrets and cryptic messages, not to mention the specter of the previous ghost writer who was found drowned on the beach, Lang's prickly wife Ruth (Olivia Williams), his protective assistant (Kim Cattrall), countless security people, and an impending political crisis.
A claustrophobic and tense film from the first frame, The Ghost Writer is a story that has much more political parallels than when novelist Robert Harris first conceived of it, or when it was published in 2007. Here, Brosnan and McGregor, fresh from the film's premiere at the Berlin Film Festival, discuss working with a legendary (and controversial) director and their respective roles as a fallen political leader and the man hired to finish a memoir that contains more questions than answers.
Pierce Brosnan: Go on, ask me a question. Give me your best shot. See if I can come up with something new.
You have The Ghost Writer coming out and Remember Me is coming up, and you have supporting roles in both those movies. How much more do you invest as an actor in supporting roles as opposed to leading roles? Is it more of a challenge, in a way?
No, no, not at all. If you support the piece, if you've said yes to the piece of drama... and you've enjoyed the company of all the players and you want to best for it, then you have to support it. Then you should go through and really give it [your] best efforts. So in the case of The Ghost, it's Mr. Roman Polanski—the invitation to play in the domain and the house of Roman Polanski was a great invite, and [I had] a wonderful experience with Roman. Really wonderful.
Knowing his history, what was it like working with him as a director as opposed to your preconceptions?
I knew of this turbulent, brilliant life of the director, and I was totally enthralled and intrigued by the opportunity to play in this film. And then the experience of it was very satisfying. You have to be on your game with Polanski. He is all-encompassing on the set. It's his house, he has his finger in every aspect of the production, the costumes, the sets, almost the weather. He wanted bad weather, and he got bad weather, and when he didn't get bad weather, then he would take his time and wait where some other man might have just panicked and looked at the clock and looked at the finances, but he waited. And the weather is so prevalent in his movies and such a character in this particular film, and the day-to-day.
When I was trying to figure out... the why of my playing this character, this ex-British Prime Minister, with all the ingredients of which I've spoken, I came to it through her character, really—this Lady Macbeth type character. Again, you look at Polanski's work, and you look at the Macbeth he did, which was quite brilliant, and you look at the subterfuge of his life and his cinematic art. I then got some kind of hook on this character of mine through the prism of her character, the manipulation of her character... She's a formidable woman in the life of this man who is kind of a hollow man, whose facade is being pulled asunder. He asks her, kind of flatly, dejectedly, "What should I do?" It's a terrible sentence for a man who then has the facade of power to go out there and give some Churchill-like battle cry to the people. She's [a] laser in this movie. I love the scenes at the beach... the hooded drama of it all. So you felt like you were in this nest of vipers at the end of Cape Cod, this quagmire of beings. No one could trust anyone, and wolves are at the door and the knives are out.
I read that it was mostly filmed in Germany, so it seems appropriate that it would premiere at the Berlin Film Festival. What kind of pressure does a world premiere at a festival like that for a highly anticipated film carry with that as opposed to something that's fun or light?
It's fairly palpable, the expectation of a piece of drama like this where you have a politically charged thriller by one of cinema's iconic filmmakers who's known for thrillers but never a political thriller, who is incarcerated, and like I say, again, a political leader like Mr. Tony Blair who's under investigation... It's exhilarating because you're going up the red carpet [in] a town which is extremely political, in the city [of] Berlin, and at a festival that is 60 years old and has significant prominence in the theatrical world. I think we all took security in the sense that the film works well as a piece of drama and cinema and you step forth, shoulders back, head up, and give it your best shot, really.
In regards to Remember Me, you've dealt with female hysteria of your own with James Bond—
Not quite like Mr. Robert Pattinson! No, I mean I've had my fair share of admirers, and long may it last [laughter], but to be part of that—my god, that was incredible. That was unreal... Being a man of certain years and time in this business and having sons, you want the best for this young man in every possible way. You really do. So I think he's acquitting himself grandly, I think he's got his head on his shoulders, he's executive producer on this film. Grace under pressure. Keep going.
The fact of playing a leading role like this, there is that pressure of carrying the film. But at the same time, it's kind of the pressure you look for all your life. When you read a leading role like this, they come along every once in a while, and they're amazing parts. The pressure becomes a pleasure. And especially when you're got someone like Polanski at the helm, when you're being directed, when you get the privilege of working alongside him every day for what was four months, I think, you're in good hands. And in fact, the ghost was such a part to underplay and so I felt like it wasn't a very heavy weight to carry.
There's an paranoia, total paranoia, almost from the get-go. How did that play out on set? It stays with you after you've seen the film.
You're not that aware of it when you're shooting the film because he really does just make you look at the truth of it. He pushes you, pushes you to find the reality of the scene, to just find the real details of it, and it's all quite performance-based, in that there's only just you and the other actors. There's no great other methods employed when you're shooting it. And he doesn't allow you to take your time, and that might be quite suspenseful, but at the time it just feels like you're playing these scenes as they might actually happen.
He only uses really wide lenses, and it has a strange effect on us because it's quite similar to the human eye. Usually on a movie set, for a close-up, the camera would be quite far away on a big long lens, and it would make the background go all out of focus and your face would be sharp here and not sharp here; it's very beautiful and it's kind of what gives film its beauty. But he doesn't do that; he has like a 35mm lens or 27mm lens or something, which is quite wide, and he has the camera right up in your face, and it means that the world isn't all fuzzy and beautifully out of focus behind us, and it makes you feel more like what we see—it's more reflective of our human vision, so perhaps that as well makes us slightly feel more tense because we feel like we're in it and we're not watching a film.
I think my attitude towards it has changed slightly in that I think you can stand by a movie, whereas in the past... I might not have felt that that was so important or maybe I didn't believe that it made much difference whether you did or not, but I think it does. And also the films I make, I want to stick by them more, maybe now. Phillip Morris is a film that just has taken a long time to come out, which is funny in itself, but hopefully it will do [well]. It's a good film.
So do you like making smaller movies like that? If this movie has enough going for it, they don't necessarily need you to go out there...?
God, I hope that's not true because I really have been talking about it for days and days and days! I hope it makes some impact. Otherwise, I wonder what I'm doing! No, I think it's just part of the business. You have to stand by them, so that's been said, but you can do it in degrees, and The Ghost is a good film for me, a film that Roman isn't able to go out 'round and promote the film, and I'm not sure that he would anyway. He strikes me as not somebody who does a great deal of publicity. But I'm sure he would have been at the premiere in Berlin. He probably would have been involved in the press conference. And because he's not... then I think we're doing more than our fair share of it to help open the film.
The way the film smuggles in what's happening politically—it's a thriller, but is also says a lot about where we've been the last 10 years.
It's just become more and more current, as we've got closer and closer to the film coming out. [It's] like the British politics are trying very hard to mimic our movie, you know? It's been suggested that the CIA are running our publicity campaign, which is also possibly true. [laughs] It's really interesting, because the book was written three, four years ago; we made the film a year ago, and one of the central elements in our plot is that Adam Lang, the ex-British Prime Minister, is accused of having committed war crimes and is going to have to go in front of a committee at the Hague and explain himself and be put on trial.
If our film says states that politicians and even those that hold the highest power in politics and the British government have to be accountable for the decision-making and aren't above the law, then I'm very proud of that. I'm happy to be in a film that has that message. I think it's right.
I didn't know an awful lot about him as a director; I knew of a lot of his films. I was very familiar with his Macbeth film, Rosemary's Baby, Tess, Chinatown—those are probably the ones I was most familiar with. The Pianist I was aware of because of the Oscar but I hadn't seen it. And then when I knew I was going to work with him, I got as many of his films as I could and saw Knife in the Water and Repulsion, Cul-de-Sac, The Ninth Gate, and I watched The Pianist and I watched his Oliver Twist. So I got a real good sense of his film language, if you like.
The one thing I've heard is that he's very fussy with props and set dressing and that he would spend a lot of time organizing things on this table even when it was slightly out of shot. And he is like that. He is very fussy about everything, so if there was a bookshelf there, and the shot's like this, he'd spend 20 minutes in the right order, even if it might be slightly out of focus, it didn't matter to him. The details are really important, in what we see and the frame itself.
He sets every shot up, he set up with his little viewfinder and he gets them to mark the floor under the viewfinder, and then the camera crew come in and they set up—they measured it, it's definitely exactly the same height, the right lens, on that spot—they put the camera there and then very often he'll come and look through it and he'll go, "No," move the camera, and they'll take it away again and he'll reset the shot. He's a total perfectionist. And then with the playing of it, he's very particular in how we play the scenes, and I feel like he's really wrapped up in my performance more than normal, more than is usually the case for a director. I feel like he's responsible for how I'm playing the ghost, not just the direction of the ghost through the film but actually how I'm playing it, which is not always the case with directors.
And I really love him, I'm very fond of him. I think he was an extraordinary director to work with and a great collaborator and certainly quite unique and kept you on your toes and we worked very, very hard. The first day we shot for 22 hours, and, you know, I knew I was on every day for 4 month, and all these other actors swanned in and out, I [was doing] the 22 hour day and I looked at my watch and [said], "F*ck, I've got four months, I've got four months of this!" And he did. He worked us hard. He worked us really hard.
The Ghost Writer opens on a limited basis on February 19 and expands nationwide on March 3. Visit the official website for clips, photos, and more information on the cast, director, and author.