Not many documentary filmmakers tap a vein that yields such rich and controversial material it merits a sequel, and certainly even fewer find themselves and their work part of that sequel. But that’s what happened to Marina Zenovich, who in 2008 directed Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired, an Emmy award–winning HBO documentary that exhumed the disturbing 1977 statutory rape case involving the renowned European director, Roman Polanski, a judge who appeared to have celebrity inclinations of his own, and an innocent 13-year-old girl who kept pet rats and wanted to be a movie star. After pleading guilty to a bargained-down charge of unlawful sex with a minor, Polanski fled justice before he was sentenced.
In Wanted and Desired, the former prosecutor, David Wells, said he had had ex parte communication with the judge in the case, Laurence Rittenband, pushing him to hand down a more severe sentence. After that bombshell and other new evidence of judicial misconduct prompted a fresh effort on the part of Polanski’s lawyers to try to get the case dismissed, Wells admitted to The Daily Beast’s Marcia Clark that he had lied in the film. But it was too late: the fuel had found the smoldering ashes of the past once Polanski was arrested in 2009 by Swiss officials on his way to accept a lifetime achievement award at the Zurich Film Festival.
Zenovich had been filming courtroom scenes of Polanski’s lawyers in late 2008, nine months before the Swiss arrest. She had originally planned to make only a short film: “Even my own mother was like, ‘Why are you still working on this?’ But, as difficult as this project was, I’m really happy that I did it because I would be upset if I didn’t, if I wasn’t following it. How could I not?” she says. The short quickly turned into a feature film as she scrambled to capture the arrest and its fallout, unfolding before her eyes in three cities on two continents.
While that sequel, Odd Man Out, does not boast the big reveals of Wanted and Desired, it is a tense courtroom drama that examines the game between the Swiss and American halls of justice and posits that Polanski’s potential extradition was a bone offered to appease a U.S. that was, at the time, eager to get its hands on the details of thousands of tax-dodging accounts at Swiss banking giant UBS. After being held in jail for two months and then under house arrest in his Gstaad chalet for another eight months on $4.5 million bail, the 76-year-old auteur was declared a “free man” by the Swiss, and the L.A. district attorney’s office was left fuming once again.
The Daily Beast caught up with Zenovich at the film’s U.S. premiere at the 50th annual New York Film Festival—the documentary is still seeking distribution. This conversation has been edited and condensed.
The drama stems from the moment you heard he was arrested.
I got a phone call from the son of Polanski’s lawyer, who said, “I’m just calling to tell you Roman’s been arrested in Switzerland,” and it was just unbelievable. I never in a million years thought something like that would happen.
How did you feel?
It was shock, and surprise, and I wrote it out on a piece of paper and held it up for my husband to read while I was on the phone and my son was like, “Why was he arrested?” and it was really—complicated.
Complicated: that’s a word that comes up a lot. How did you deal with the challenges of condensing all that information and getting it across in a way that people can easily understand?
My editor was really helpful in that, Chris Peterson. P.G. Morgan, who’s also a writer on the film, used to be a journalist so he’s used to doing that kind of stuff. I need help with that. It was complicated on so many levels, because we had a first film so you don’t want to copy what’s in the first film.
Despite your effort to put forth the details, the nuances, to get people to focus on what happened, it seemed like after the first movie it was still black and white. It was the pro-camp and the anti-camp. Were you frustrated by the public’s reaction?
I was, but what could I do about it? I couldn’t believe just how much venom it brings up in people.
How did feel to go from being an observer to being a participant?
It was very strange. He got arrested on a Saturday and my husband said, “You know tomorrow is going to be insane.” And the phone started ringing. I heard from everyone. NBC News showed up at our front door. It was—far be it from me to say that I felt like Samantha Geimer [the victim] felt, hunted by the media, but I got a taste of it. Then when I went to Zurich and saw pictures of myself in the newspaper, it was surreal. It was something that I never imagined would happen.
You said it was easy to get people to talk for Wanted and Desired about a case that was so dormant. Now that it was major international news, people weren’t talking so much.
It’s so funny because the DA’s office said, “We’re not talking because that’s a pending case.” It’s like, “Pending case?! You talked to me four years ago. I don’t understand!” They brought out the box for me and went through the file with me [in 2008]. I mean it wasn’t everything in the file but ...
I remember someone came to town and said, “Oh, I heard there’s something you’re not supposed to talk about right now at Hollywood dinner parties: Roman Polanski and Mel Gibson.” And I was like, ahhh, I get it. I felt like I went from being the girl who made the film that everyone loved to the girl who made the film that got him arrested. That was complicated, for me.
And certain people didn’t want to talk to me—I had an interview scheduled with someone from his camp and I was flying to Geneva to meet him, and then the ash cloud happened. Then he had written a piece in the newspaper and he had gotten so much hate mail that he’d written to me and said, I’m sorry I can’t do this. It was quite extraordinary, the people who would stand up for [Polanski] and then—it was ugly.
The UBS thesis is plausible—in that Polanski had been openly traveling in and out of Switzerland for years but is arrested just as the U.S. was really beginning to turn the screws on UBS. But, as you said earlier, you’re not going to get anyone in an official position to confirm that.
No. When we went to the Bundeshaus [in Bern], someone who worked there said to me, as an aside, “The U.S. thinks they can come here and change our laws. How dare they?” But they would never say that [officially]. Even that was like a tiny little crumb for me to suck on. When it was announced that he got arrested, the AP, instead of writing an article, sent out an interoffice exchange between bureaus. In it, they were like, “Why do think this happened?” “Oh they must be throwing a bone because of UBS.” That was the first time UBS was mentioned, and it got pulled from the wires.
It’s almost like you and Switzerland had something in common, in that you, the observer, were trying to tell the story and ended up becoming a part of it, and they, famously neutral Switzerland, ended up being a part of it, too.
Switzerland was going through a lot at that time: the banking crisis, Gaddafi’s son had just been arrested in Geneva. The great irony is that [Polanski] ended up buying property in Switzerland and the Department of Justice approved him as a foreigner buying property and then [years later] arrested him. It’s a crazy story that could only happen to him.
You have an exclusive: Samantha Geimer's mother on the record for the first time. What do you think people's reaction to her is going to be?
I hope people get a better understanding of her and her personality. For a long time she’s been reduced to a one-dimensional character in the press and I wanted to give her a chance to tell her side of the story.
In the film, Samantha’s husband, Dave, says, “This shit has got to end.” It seemed the court of appeal said, here’s a way toward a solution. So what happened?
They could have directed Judge Espinoza to have an evidentiary hearing, but they just suggested it. A spokesperson for the court, who has since left that position amid some controversy, explained to me that there’s politics between the L.A. superior court and the court of appeal. I mean, that’s what I like, it’s politics on every single level.
Do you think this case could ever be solved in a court of law?
No, because as one lawyer in the film says, I don’t think anyone wants to stand up and be the one to say, this was wrong, because of the nature of the crime. It’s almost as if he had killed someone he’d have more of a chance.
Why do you think in a country where Michael Jackson is so beloved and where Penn State students rioted in response to the firing of Coach Joe Paterno, who'd harbored sexual predator Jerry Sandusky, it is so difficult to discuss Roman Polanski?
That is a very good question.
Imagine a doc filmmaker who, 10, 20 years from now, has decided to cover the Michael Jackson lawsuits. Half the people are saying he’s a child molester, and the other half that he’s one of the greatest artists of all time. What advice would you have for that filmmaker?
Go to law school!