The Ghost author Robert Harris tells Dave Calhoun what it was likeworking with director Roman Polanski
What stage was The Ghost Writer (the film’s title outside of the UK) at when Roman Polanski was jailed in Switzerland last September? Well, Roman finished shooting in Germany in May and edited it through the summer. He asked me to come and see a rough cut in early September and I went to Paris and stayed a couple of nights. We talked it through and agreed various things. Then he worked solidly for three weeks to get it how he wanted it. On Saturday September 26, he’d pretty well finished and dashed off to catch a plane to Zurich. The next thing I knew, my wife told me, ‘Roman’s just been arrested.’ It was really shocking.
Was he able to keep working on it?
He received daily visits from his lawyers and they would bring him DVDs of scenes and he would watch them on his laptop. It wasn’t ideal, but he could scribble instructions to take back to the edit. So he was able to do all the finishing touches. I think they were a welcome distraction.
You and Polanski were first planning to make a version of your book Pompeii together. Was it a blow when that fell apart in 2007?
Yes, it was. His producers had raised US$100 million. Chiefly, it was the actors’ strike: no one would commit. Meanwhile, there were dozens of people building sets. It had to be stopped, it was costing so much. Everyone was shattered. But Roman said: ‘As you know, worse things have happened to me.’
How did you start talking? Entirely out of the blue. Unknown to me, Polanski was looking for a thriller to adapt. My agent said, ‘Would you take a call from Roman Polanski?’ I went home and my wife said, ‘Oh, some foreigner just called for you from a call centre’. I said, ‘I think that may have been Roman Polanski.’ She replied, ‘Really? He sounded very foreign.’ He called back and it was him. I went over, saw him in Paris and talked about it. After lunch I went to his office and he asked, ‘What are you writing now?’ I said I was starting a novel about a ghost writer. ‘Why do you want to do that? It’s a boring idea.’ Then I wrote the screenplay for Pompeii one month, the novel the next.
So when Pompeii collapsed, you moved on to a film of The Ghost? A week or two later I got the advance copies of The Ghost. I sent a copy to Roman with a semi-jokey inscription saying, ‘Dear Roman, perhaps we should make this. No togas. No volcanoes.’ A few days later I was in Dublin and he rang: ‘You’re right, let’s do this!’
Is it naive to think it unlikely that there are such close links between the CIA and Downing Street as the film suggests? Well, yes, it’s fantastical, but it’s not beyond the realms of possibility. I think there is a gradual realisation since the book came out that there’s something strange about Britain’s slavish relationship with the United States. We don’t have an independent foreign policy.
Did the book elicit any amusing reactions from Downing Street? Well, Sky News’s Adam Boulton, who is married to [former UK prime minister Tony] Blair’s former right-hand woman, Anji Hunter, wrote a book about Blair and said that his reaction was to call me ‘a cheeky f***’. When I told Roman, he said, ‘Fantastic, we’ll put that line in the movie!’ And we did. The other thing was to do with the casting. Someone told Blair that [Pierce] Brosnan was in the role and he texted: ‘Phew, I thought it might be Richard Wilson’.
So he has a sense of humour. Well, he did then. But the film is in the legitimate tradition of being an entertaining, satirical comment on our times. It should not be seen as a deep wounding attack on Blair.