Writer-director Roman Polanski talks about his latest film Based On A True Story

Roman Polanski celebrates an illustrious 57 years in the cinema with Based on a True Story  (D’après une histoire vraie), an adaptation of the French novel by bestselling author Delphine de Vignan.

The film follows a writer (Emmanuelle Seigner) struggling to complete a new novel, while followed by an obsessed fan (Eva Green), with Polanski directing from a script adapted by Polanski and Olivier Assayas, a French film director, screenwriter and film critic.

Read more about Roman Polanski /  Polanski’s Feature Films are listed at end of interview

Based on a true story only took a year from the announcement to the Cannes film festival world premiere presentation.  How did you get involved with this project?

It was Emmanuelle who handed me Delphine De Vigan’s novel, stating “you have to read this, this could be a film.” She was right!  I reached out to Wassim Béji, the producer who retained the book rights. We met for the first time days prior to Cannes last year and everything unfolded incredibly quickly from that point on.

What appealed to you about Delphine De Vigan’s novel? One could argue that this story of manipulation, domination, confinement, and suspense was made for you.

What appealed to me first and foremost were the characters and these peculiar and unsettling situations that they find themselves in. These are indeed themes that I previously explored in Cul-Desac, Repulsion and Rosemary’s Baby. This is also a book that tells a story of a book – which I find very interesting. That was also the case with The Ninth Gate and Ghost Writer. It’s my MacGuffin – this ‘thing’ that triggers intrigue, which happens to be an object. Also – and I probably should have started with this – the book gave me this great opportunity to explore confrontation between two women. I have often showed conflict between two men along with a man and a woman, but never two women.

When reading the book, one sees the seductive appeal of the mirroring nature between reality and fiction. Even in Venus and fur, you were never sure if Emmanuelle Seigner’s character was real, playing a game or fictional…

That’s exactly right, I find this subject fascinating.

Why so?

I am not sure, that’s not a question that I ask myself. I know that this ambiguity is instinctively appealing to me. It’s interesting, Venus in Fur is one of the rare films that I have directed where the woman isn’t a victim!

Olivier Assayas

Olivier Assayas

Olivier Assayas wrote the screenplay. How did he come on board?

Olivier’s last two films were about women. I was familiar with his work, I knew that he had written for other directors, and that he was effective. I trusted that he would be able to deliver a great shooting script right out of the gate.

How was your experience working with him?

Olivier had a very clear and concise vision of how to convert this 500 page novel into a screenplay. That’s an incredible skill.  We mostly collaborated over skype, it was a continuous exchange of ideas.

In addition to his efficiency, what did Olivier specifically bring to the script?

As soon as Olivier grasped the essence of the book we started our conversations of how we wanted to adapt it, it was undeniable that we were on the same page. Billy Wilder said it best when asked if it was important for a director to know how to write – his response “No, but it helps if he knows how to read!”

The film is incredibly faithtul to the book…

I always strive to stay faithful to the source material when I am adapting. I believe this stems from my childhood. I was so often disappointed by film adaptations of my favorite stories, films that I was so eager to see – but the characters that I loved disappeared. The stories were never quite the same … I promised myself then that if I ever worked in film and adapted a story, I would remain faithful.


Did you always have Emmanuelle Seigner in mind to play the novelist?

Initially, we debated which role Emmanuelle would be best for, but as soon as we started writing, it became apparent that she was the perfect choice to portray the novelist. We therefore needed to find her counterpart, someone very unsettling.

Did Eva Green come to mind immediately?

Yes, and you only need to see the film to understand why. We had never met, but I knew her body of work. I had been blown away by her performance in Robert Rodriguez’ Sin City: A Dame To Kill For. It was a wonderful experience working with Eva, but even more so working with Eva and Emmanuelle together. From the onset, Eva and Emmanuelle got along extremely well – which isn’t always a given between actors. Their friendship was a godsend.

Do you find it hard to direct the woman with whom you share your life?

It’s easier than … living together! [Laughs] What surprised me, with one much like the other, was how prepared both actresses were. And yet, they would receive the script piecemeal, which we were still tweaking whilst in production.  Emmanuelle and Eva were both consummate professionals and came to the table with excellent ideas. Emmanuelle was specifically interested in constructing a character which was a departure from her past roles.

How are Emmanuelle and Eva both different and similar to their characters?

In her everyday, Eva is reserved and guarded and one could easily have expected that to transpire in our working dynamic. But it was the opposite. She was open, never complained, and very smart – she understood all the nuisances of the script and what was expected of her. Honestly, thanks to Eva and Emmanuelle this production was a true pleasure, despite the short production schedule.

How long was the shoot?

We shot the film in 12 weeks, but this was a challenging film.

How so?

It was challenging as we didn’t have time for rehearsals, and as such I would have to explore each scene with the actors as we were shooting. The scenes where it’s just the two actresses were easier, as they could play against each other. That said, all the scenes where Delphine is alone, I had to find ways of crafting compelling moments with nothing: I had to create a very specific mood, be very meticulous with the details – I had a very precise atmosphere in mind. Contrary to what one may think, creating this setting is what takes the most time. Same goes with the birthday scene where our two protagonists are alone and no one shows up. We had to convey time passing without it becoming lackluster and it’s certainly not easy to create time lapses with only two characters and just one room… especially, when we did not want to use repeated fades.

Instead of relying on a voice over, a device used in the book as it is written in the first person, you chose to portray this mirroring game between reality and fiction (the heart of the story) through staging, imagery, and most importantly your directives for Eva green’s performance.

Isn’t that the role of the director? That’s precisely the challenges of this film. We had to feed these characters with a certain ambivalence. It’s one of the key ingredients for a strong performance, which has to provoke doubt, incertitude and suspicion within the viewer. This reminds me of puppet shows growing up, where the children were both paralyzed by fear and happiness all at the same time – the intrigue always unfolded as they feared but also as they expected. Recreating that feeling for adults, is fun for me. I hope the audience finds it equally rewarding.

In all your secondary characters – the downstairs neighbor; the book editor; even François, Delphine’s partner – we are reminded of your characters in The Tennant – which are also dark and sarcastic. 

A little, I guess, but to be honest I hadn’t thought of it. It’s most likely because the Cannes Festival presentation for The Tennant is a tough memory. We were destroyed by the press and Gerard [Brach, the screenwriter] never recovered. It took time before the film became a ‘cult classic’ as they say.

Based on a true story starts off as a dark comedy and turns into a thriller when the heroes find themselves in the country house… all of a sudden we are in misery!

Isn’t that country house great? When we were shooting the interior sequences, I would forget that we were not on location but on a set in the Bry-sur-Marne stages designed by Jean Rabasse! The exteriors of the house are real, of course, but the interiors – as with the apartment – are movie sets.

In this film, you were truly able to assemble the ‘dream team’: Pawel Edelman as the DP, with whom you have worked with since the pianist; and composer Alexandre Desplat, who you have collaborated with since The Ghost Writer…

We all share the same love for film. We get along so well! When you work with people for as many years as we have, you develop a shorthand, you speak the same language and everyone knows exactly what to expect. Our conversations are purely technical, as some things are now just evident to us. With Pawel, for example, we only ever discussed the format of the film. We chose to shoot in Scope to escape a closed door feeling. The film is less so the story of intimacy than it is confrontation, a struggle for dominance and manipulation. Shooting in Scope allowed us to expand the world and further exploit certain situations.

And with Alexandre Desplat, did you give him specific instructions?

Not at all, I gave him the screenplay and described my vision for the film. I wanted suspense along with the unexpected. It’s hard to relay what we discussed, as I often speak in onomatopoeias: “in this scene, it could go… wouuuh!”

What made you think of casting Vincent Perez as François, Delphine’s partner?

I have long been looking for an opportunity to work with Vincent Perez, he’s a friend. In the role of François, I wanted someone who resembled Delphine De Vigan’s real partner in life [François Busnel] who reminds me of Vincent. I thought of him immediately. We met and he quickly accepted the role. He instinctively knew how to balance the kindness and the distance that the character required.

You also cast Josee Dayan, Brigitte Rouan and Noemie Lvovsky – who are all directors. Was that a coincidence?

I enjoy working with directors, as they are often very good actors and also generally very easy to work with. When writing a screenplay, I have a very clear idea of what my characters look like. So once we start casting, I seek actors that most closely resemble the image in my mind. Josée Dayan reminded me of a ‘tough’ book editor that I had once met. With Brigitte Roüan, it took longer. The actresses that we met with for this role didn’t fit my exact vision. One day, I fell upon a photo of Brigitte which perfectly corresponded with what I had in mind.

Have you met Delphine De Vigan?

Yes, of course. I met her as soon as Olivier and I started working on the adaptation. And then again, towards the end of the shoot. We wanted to shoot during the actual ‘Paris Book Fair’, and in order to do so we had to wait until March of this year to capture these scenes in question. Whilst we were there, the organizers invited Delphine, Olivier and myself to meet with the readers. We experienced a warm welcome. The panel was very well attended – there were a lot of people – and when we asked who had read the book, two thirds of the room raised their hands, mostly all women. Delphine de Vigan wrote a story that spoke to women and it was not only important but also satisfying for me to create a film for them.

Roman Polanski’s Feature Films

1961 – Knife in the Water. Script written by Polański together with Jerzy Skolimowski and Jakub Goldberg. Polański also dubbed the hitchhiker’s voice. A psychological drama. A married couple invites a hitchhiker to their yacht. Three people in a dramaturgically closed situation: an attractive woman and two men of different age and social status. The presence of the woman makes them rivals, each seeking to get advantage. The older man wants to impress others with his financial status, the younger pretends to be independent and contemptuous of material goods. While seemingly winning the rivalry, the younger man turns out to be a poser. The older man, in turn, proves a coward shunning responsibility. Interpreted in the context of the generation gap, Knife in the Water was received enthusiastically for its universality, while being attacked by the Polish authorities.

1964 – La riviere de diamants ou Amsterdam (The Diamond Necklace or Amsterdam). A story within the film Les plus belle escroqueries du monde (The Most Beautiful Frauds of the World). Script by Gerard Brach. A young woman commits a brilliant fraud to get into possession of a piece of jewellery, using a man she has just met. Pretending to be the man’s wife, she misleads the gullible jeweler, orders the jewel delivered to the man’s house, then runs away with the necklace. The theft is clearly not just art for the art’s sake, for she goes on to swap the necklace for a … parrot. The story directed by Polański was considered the most interesting of all, but the critics found some similarities with the plot of Frank Borzage’s 1936 Temptation, and Polański had to repel accusations of plagiarism.

1965 – Repulsion. Polański wrote the script together with Gerard Brach. The world is seen from the point of view of the central character (played by Catherine Deneuve), whose mind is being increasingly attacked by a mental illness. Alone in the flat after her sister has left, she gives in to obsessions that till then were suppressed. The fear instigated by the sick image of the world created by her imagination pushes her to committing a crime. Repulsion was compared to Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho, and the carefully dosed suspense and claustrophobic scenery contributed to its success.

1966 – Cul-De-Sac. Script written by Polański together with Gerard Brach. The life of a married couple (George and Teresa) living in a secluded castle is interrupted by the arrival of two gangsters, brought here by their own problems. The gangsters are waiting for the arrival of their mythical boss.The ‘cul-de-sac’ applies both to the castle dwellers and to the criminals. Using black humour, Polański entertains the viewers with his favourite topic – the analysis of the relationship between the dominant and the subjugated. The characters’ fight for domination is reduced to absurdity. Critics have pointed out the movie’s kinship with Ionesco and Beckett. Awards: The Golden Bear at the Berlin Festival, 1966.

1967 – Dance of the Vampires (the shortened version also called The Fearless Vampire Killers). Polański wrote the script together with Gerard Brach, and played Alfred, the professor’s assistant. A brilliant parody of a classical vampire horror, the movie tells the story of a professor and his assistant, Alfred, seeking to destroy the ancient tribe of Transsylvanian vampires. Their adventures abound in funny as well as terrifying situations. Although the professor and Alfred fail to defeat the vampires, viewers should not leave the cinema terrified. Words of praise were said for Polański the actor and for Sharon Tate, Polański’s then fiancée and playing Alfred’s beloved.

1968 – Rosemary’s Baby. Script written by Polański after a novel by Ira Levine. A young couple are expecting a child. The young woman, played by the delicate Mia Farrow, is a victim of perfidious cunning. She does not know that her husband, a member of a devil-worshipping sect, has signed a pact with the devil and that her baby will be devil’s offspring. Viewers find out the truth gradually, learning about it from the woman’s perspective and, like her, are suffused with lingering and seemingly unfounded fear. “Polański is not after sensational plots. What he wants is an engrossing, overpowering climate”, writes Adam Garbicz in The Cinema: A Magic Vehicle. Rosemary’s Baby was considered a innovative movie, Polański having achieved the climate of a horror using novel means. Awards: The French Film Critics’ Association Award for the best foreign film, 1970.

1971 – Macbeth. Script written by Polański together with Kenneth Tynan. Another film based on Shakespeare’s tragedy, after the movies by Welles and Kurosawa. Polański has cut the text short, gave up the poetic form, shifted the apportioning of guilt and changed the psychological portraits of Macbeth and Lady Macbeth. The first movie made after the murders of his wife and friends in Polański’s house, it was found too gory by the critics, although the film’s failure should be attributed to Polański’s biographical context rather than to its faults.

1972 – Che? (What?). Polański wrote the script together with Gerard Brach and played the role of Mosquito. A frivolous movie made in Italy, this is a story of erotic adventures of a young hitchhiker stopping at a villa full of eccentric characters. Considered Polański’s biggest disaster, the film was not redeemed by Marcello Mastroianni nor Polański as the buoyant Mosquito. Not shown in Poland.

1974 – Chinatown. Script by Robert Towne, with Polański playing the man with the knife who slits the detective’s nose. Polański’s return to the U.S. after his European failures proved fortunate. Chinatown is a movie of the traditional thriller genre with elements of pastiche, with a melancholic detective, a beautiful woman and a ruthless man. Step by step the plot unveils a corruption affair related to the construction of a river dam as well as gruesome, guarded family secrets. Superb acting by Jack Nicholson an Faye Dunaway. Major awards: The Oscar for the Best Screenplay, 1974; The Golden Globe for the best directed film, 1975; BAFTA Award for Jack Nicholson in the Best Actor category.

1976 – Le Locataire (The Tenant). Script by Polański and Gerard Brach based on a novel by Roland Topor, with Polański playing the part of Trelkovsky. After Repulsion, it is another study of a mental illness and Polański’s favourite topic of the amazing pleasure that people take in tormenting others. Trelkovsky, a lonely émigré, does not realize the danger he is in when renting a flat in an old Parisian tenement. Soon he will commit suicide, just like the previous tenant, but first, driven into illness by other tenants, who, filled with xenophobia and dislike of foreigners and émigrés, he will masochistically submit to oppression.

1979 – Tess. Script by Polański, Gerard Brach and John Brownjohn based on Thomas Hardy’s novel Tess of the d’Urbervilles. A story of frustrated love, pain, wrongdoing, revenge and well-deserved punishment. Asked why he reached for a 19th-century novel, Polański answered that he wanted to talk about “the deepest, most important human feelings of which we have been ashamed for many years for fear of being called simpletons”. Awards: The Los Angeles Association of Film Critics’ Award in the Best Director category, 1980; the Oscar Awards for the best cinematography, best set decoration and best costumes, 1980; BAFTA award for the best cinematography.

1986 – Pirates (the director co-wrote the script with Gerard Brach and John Brownjohn). An adventure lacking in genre-specific dynamics, with slow narration and protagonists who fail to win the audience’s sympathy. Found too gory for a movie targeted at teenagers.

1988 – Frantic (he co-wrote the script with Gerard Brach). Harrison Ford as a surgeon arriving in Paris for a medical conference fighting with his wife’s kidnappers, gangsters and spies. A thriller which does not aspire to much and has a banal story, but with superb acting by Harrison Ford and photographs by Witold Sobocinski, the Polish director of photography.

1992 – Lunes De Fiel (Bitter Moon) (he co-produced and co-wrote of the script with Gerard Brach and John Brownjohn, after a novel by Pascal Bruckner). Two married couples are left with each other’s company while on a ship journey. Like in many other of his films, Polański penetrates the murky areas of the human mind and analyses its penchant for cruelty, humiliation of others and perversion. The film tells the story of an attempt by the degenerate couple, its past full of mutual cruelty, to deprave the couple who, slightly bored, are an easy target to manipulate through sex.

1994 – Death and the Maiden (he co-wrote the script with the Ariel Dorfman and Rafael Yglesias, after Dorfman’s play). A psychological drama set in South America. After the ruling regime has been democratically overthrown, the hunt for oppressors begins. The story of a meeting of the torturer and his victim has been staged in the manner of a thriller, with the usual suspense, mystery and an unexpected solution, skillfully telling a universal truth about the dark side of the human nature.

1999 – The Ninth Gate (producer and co-writer of the script together with Enrique Urbizu and John Brownjohn, after the novel Dumas Club by Arturo Perez-Reverty). A horror in which a secondhand bookstore owner who traces rare books assumes the role of a detective looking for a book written by Lucifer and opening the gate to the Kingdom of Shadows. The film was found lacking in suspense and using stereotypes and cliches.

2002 – The Pianist (he co-wrote the script with Ronald Harwood, after Władysław Szpilman’s memoirs). A true story of the pianist Władysław Szpilman hiding on the Arian side of Warsaw after the city’s ghetto is closed down and the Warsaw Rising collapses. Lonely as a Robinson Crusoe in the city ruins, Szpilman – ‘a tragic lucky man’, to use the words of the film critic Tadeusz Sobolewski – survives, helped by a music-loving German officer, while all his family and relatives perish. Szpilman’s memoirs inspired a movie directed by Jerzy Zarzycki in 1951. The script, loosely based on the book and written by Jerzy Andrzejewski and Czesław Miłosz under the title of The Robinson of Warsaw, turned politically unacceptable to the then authorities, and the changes that were made, including a new name, The Untamed Town, left it having nothing in common with the original, so much so that Miłosz withdrew his name from the credits. Major awards: The BAFTA Award in the Best Film and Best Director categories; The Oscar Award of the American Academy of Film Art in the Best Director category and nomination in the Best Film category; The David di Donatello Italian Academy Award in the Best Foreign Film category.

2005 – Oliver Twist. Screen adaptation of the Charles Dickens’ classic novel.

2010 – The Ghost Writer (co-writer of the script with Robert Harris). Screen adaptation of the Robert Harris’ novel. Awards: 2010 – Silver Bear in the Best Director category at the 60th Berlin International Film Festival.

2012 – Carnage. A screenplay adaptation of Yasmin Reza’s stage play The God of Carnage, it’s a hilarious take on societal prejudices, underlying aggressions and attempts to cover them up.

2013 –Venus in Fur. Starring Emmanuelle Seigner and Mathieu Amalric, the film is an adaptation of the off-Broadway and Broadway play by David Ives of the same title. The plot revolves around the cat-and-mouse game between a director and an aspiring actress.

2017 – Based on a True Story

2018 – D. In 2018 Polanski continued preparing to direct D, a film about the notorious Dreyfus affair in the 19th century, in which one of the few Jewish members of the French Army’s general staff was wrongly convicted of passing military secrets to the German Empire and sent to Devil’s Island, only to be acquitted 12 years later. The film is written by Robert Harris, who is working with Polanski for the third time.