Playwright David Ives got a telephone message from Roman Polanski: “I love your play and want to turn it into a movie.” The two didn’t know each other. Imagine getting a voicemail like that.
It would be an oversimplification to say Roman Polanski’s “Venus in Fur” is about sadomasochism, but technically it is. It’s about sex and power and humiliation, yet there’s nothing really sexy about it. It’s more a study of the nature of human relationships — to dominate or be dominated. It’s seen through the prism of two lonely people on the edge, played by Polanski’s wife, Emmanuelle Seigner, and Mathieu Amalric, an actor who looks eerily like a younger Polanski.
When you throw Polanski’s name into this story — that of a man who’s successfully avoided prosecution for raping a minor — the project takes on a new significance. But, as with Woody Allen, Polanski’s supreme artistry can overshadow what we don’t know and don’t want to know.
The Forward’s Dorri Olds landed an exclusive interview with Ives, who spoke about his collaboration with Polanski for their “Venus in Fur” screenplay and to elaborate on his time spent with a genius on the lam.
Dorri Olds: Where did you meet Polanski?
David Ives: It was all very fast and an extraordinary experience. I said, “How should we work?” and he said: “You could come to Paris but it’s so loud; there’s so many people here. Why don’t you come to my house in Switzerland and we can work there? It’s only me and the dog.” So my wife and I flew to Switzerland, then drove to a beautiful chalet in Gstaad, and the door opened up and it was Roman Polanski.
Can you describe him?
He turned out to be generous, charming, funny, insightful, solicitous, and his analysis of the play was absolutely brilliant. The way we worked together was, he read my play over the course of several days, line by line, page by page, and we would talk about it, then ask questions and trim or fix.
Had he seen the play?
No, but his insight into what was happening moment by moment was extraordinary. With only the words in front of him, he could see all of the underlying emotional life inside the dialogue. He and I worked for days, then I stayed up into the night typing. Then we read it out loud to each other again. At the end of 10 days we had a film script.
Did you socialize after work?
Yes, at night we’d go to restaurants and have the most amazing meals looking out over the Swiss Alps — which is exactly how I always wanted to live ever since I was 9 and wrote my first play.
How do he and his wife get along?
They seem incredibly tight to me, like two people intensely committed to making their 15-year-old son a well-rounded human being. Polanski also has a wonderful daughter.
Did you have preconceived notions based on him living in Switzerland to avoid prosecution for statutory rape?
I knew the outlines of that story, but I was a huge admirer of his movies, particularly his earlier movies, like “Knife in the Water,” “Repulsion,” “Cul-de-sac,” “The Tenant.” And then “Chinatown” and “Rosemary’s Baby.” But my perceptions of him were as an artist.
He spoke quite openly about the case with the young woman in California. He said, “You know, it’s been 36 years, and she herself has been petitioning for this whole thing to be ended.” He told me his side of things, which was pretty much what’s been in the recent documentaries about him. I didn’t know enough to make a judgment, and my feelings were about the work.
Did you watch those movies after working with him?
Yes, both came out after we worked, and that’s when I saw them. While we were working I read his biography, “Roman by Polanski.” It’s terrific, and he’s now rewriting it to bring it up to date. My experience of him as a collaborator was amazing, because whatever preconceptions one may have, he works from delight and detail. He loves to laugh and he’s very funny. The work we did came joyfully and in great detail — every word, every period is important. As an artist, working with him was like an eight-year medical school education all the way to surgeon.
Have you spent time with him since you finished the screenplay?
Yes, when he and I finished writing he called and said: “Why don’t you come to Paris and work with the actors? We’re going to be rehearsing in December.” So I went to Paris with my wife and spent a week at his apartment, sitting around the table with Roman’s wife Emmanuelle Seigner, and Mathieu Amalric, talking about the play. I also spent time on the set with them when Roman was starting to block the movie.
How long was the shoot?
He shot it over 28 days in January of 2013. Afterwards he called and said: “I have very good news. We’re going to Cannes with the movie.” But he said: “The subtitles are not very good. I wonder, would you mind coming to Paris for a few days to work on the subtitles?” I said, “Sure, I’ll come to Paris.” [laughs] So in Paris he and I did the subtitles together, which was another step in the education of working with a genius. Then three weeks later my wife and I flew to Cannes and saw the movie, which was extraordinary. It was like being inside “The Great Gatsby.”
Are you going to write about this experience?
Not now. I have plays to write. I’ll have to put memoirs on the back burner.
You sound so good-natured. What do you attribute that to?
I have the most wonderful wife in the entire world. My wife is spun from sunshine. When you’re a writer, that kind of radiance is amazing and inspiring — and I get to sit down every morning with a pen in my hand and make my living at writing.
You don’t mean a pen literally, right?
Yes, a Bic blue medium point pen. I started writing with a pen, and I like the quiet of it. I’m very old fashioned. A page and a pen are very patient. My handwriting comes out in imperfect torrents, but that’s okay with me, and my wife can read it.
What are you working on now?
I’m writing a musical with Stephen Sondheim, which in certain ways is kind of similar because he works from delight and detail, as well. Having worked with Roman on the movie, working with Stephen now is kind of a glorious déjà vu because they’re so similar in their joy at working. I’m also writing a movie. I’m the luckiest son of a bitch in the world.
This interview has been edited for style and length.