‘Rosemary’s Baby’: How NBC Gave Birth to a New Version of Roman Polanski’s Horror Classic
An unshakable feeling that the Devil is nearby, intense paranoia, and criticism over a bad haircut? Ah…it must be Mother’s Day.
In lieu of flowers this year, NBC is cheekily gifting mothers—and the rest of us, too—with a remake of Rosemary’s Baby, the 1968 Roman Polanski classic based on Ira Levin’s novel that's widely considered to be one of the best, creepiest horror films of all time. Told over four hours and split into two nights (the first half airs Sunday, the second on Thursday) the new miniseries stars Zoe Saldana in the role made famous by Mia Farrow. She’s Rosemary Woodhouse, a young woman driven to hysteria and drastic actions—and rash hairstyle decisions—by a mysterious pregnancy that appears to be sucking the life out of her, and who’s haunted by a question that’s given us all the heebie-jeebies at one point or another: how well do we really know our neighbors?
In the 45 years since the Polanski film hit theaters, we’ve all been driven to hysteria, too, by the glut of shoddy remakes that tarnished the hallowed names of classic films we hold dear. Want a real fright? Revisit that horrid 1997 Psycho redo, or the misguided ABC miniseries version of The Shining that came out the same year.
There’s that old wives’ tale, though, that women are biologically programmed to forget the pain of childbirth. That might have something to do with NBC’s risky decision to bring Rosemary’s Baby back for a new audience, despite the painful track record Hollywood's had revisiting cinema’s horror greats. It also takes, as Saldana herself tells me, “some big cajones” to dare even try to bring the vaunted property to the small screen.
Yet because there may never be a more appropriate occasion than a discussion of Rosemary’s Baby to play Devil’s advocate—Satan himself is one of the film’s more omnipresent characters—the argument could also be made that the network’s reasons for bringing back Baby are more nuanced than sheer creative cajones. After all, as much as this new version will be inevitably measured up to the reputation of the iconic original, it’s also reaping the benefits of piqued interest and a heightened spotlight because of the brand recognition its very title brings.
As such, when it was announced that NBC was going to air a miniseries version of Rosemary’s Baby, two generations later, the overwhelming reaction was why? And how would they pull it off? To understand, we spoke with the miniseries’ cast, creative team, and producers, who explained how they nurtured and eventually gave birth to a very different, thoroughly modern Rosemary’s Baby.
“I was with my mom,” Saldana says, remembering the first time she watched Rosemary’s Baby. (How fitting.) “It was at our apartment in Queens. I don’t remember if it was dubbed in Spanish. I don’t know if it was on Univision or something. But I remember feeling so scared.”
Saldana, who grew up in New York the daughter of a Dominican father and Puerto Rican mother, is best known to movie audiences as the butt-kicking action star of blockbusters like Avatar, Star Trek, and Colombiana. Though she was excited for a major showcase to prove her acting bona fides on a major broadcast network—“a lot more people watch TV than they do movies, so I was going to be in a lot of people’s living rooms”—there were slight trepidations for strapping on the fake pregnancy belly for such an iconic role.
“Of course you’re going to be a little afraid,” she says. (Saldana is also a producer on the film.) “But once you realize that, overall, every time you remake something or redo something or retell something, it’s never going to be accepted by everybody. So you just remove that pressure off the table. ‘They’re not going to like it anyway, so...’”
Other Rosemary’s Baby cast members were less easygoing about the pressure.
“I thought it was ludicrous,” says Jason Isaacs, when asked what his reaction was to the idea of remaking the Polanski classic. “No, I thought it was sacrilegious.” Isaacs plays the snake-charmer of a neighbor Roman Castavet in the miniseries. “But then I thought about it for five seconds and I liked the fact that it instinctively made me scared. And as soon as I found out that it was so radically different from the original I was on board. This is not the Psycho remake.”
Indeed. Actually, it was even Ira Levin’s estate that first approached executive producer David A. Stern with the idea of creating another version of Rosemary’s Baby, this time hewing closer to the novel. (Though, like Polanski’s film, creative liberties were made.)
“We reread the novel and realized that all the themes of the story and Rosemary’s plight resonated today, that it felt very contemporary,” Stern says. “What’s so great about Ira Levin’s work is that it’s all about what’s called ‘the horror of the ordinary.’ There’s no supernatural ghosts or goblins. It’s really a human, psychological drama at its best. There’s no gimmicks needed to sell this.”
Stern teamed with Lionsgate and pitched the idea of a modern-day retelling of Rosemary’s Baby to the suits at NBC, who were bullish to turn it into a four-hour miniseries. Looking at the Peacock Net’s recent programming choices, it makes total sense. In addition to already having found critical success, if not high ratings, with Hannibal, its new spin on the Hannibal Lecter tale, and a solid performer in the twisted fairy-tale remix drama Grimm, NBC has been aggressive with risky, lavish programming that can be billed as events. Those ratings were sure alive last winter when the network aired The Sound of Music Live!
James Wong (American Horror Story) and Scott Abbott (Queen of the Damned) were hired to co-write the screenplay, while veteran Polish director Agnieszka Holland (The Secret Garden, some of the best episodes of The Wire), who’s actually a friend of Polanski’s, signed on to direct. The gestation period was short. Saldana says she officially agreed to star January 5 of this year, admitting she wasn’t the first actress NBC went to, and shooting started January 27. Filming lasted until last week of March and, less than two months later, the NBC miniseries is already being birthed.
So, besides brunch with the mother-in-law, what kind of psychological drama are we in for on Mother’s Day?
NBC’s version of Rosemary’s Baby introduces us to Saldana’s Rosemary Woodhouse and her husband, Guy, played by Suits star Patrick J. Adams. The first major change between the two versions happens immediately, when the Woodhouses move from New York, where Polanski’s film took place, to Paris, to reset their life after Rosemary suffers a miscarriage in the miniseries’s opening.
“When we looked at the idea of contemporarizing this,” Stern says, “so much of the story depends on Rosemary being isolated and not knowing what’s going on around her. If you look at the world we know now with the Internet and flow of information, it wouldn’t work if she were in her own town and knew where she was and the people around her.”
Though it wasn’t his original idea, Wong quickly clung on to the shift to a foreign city. After all, we had to buy why a smart, strong woman in today’s society would be susceptible to the influences of people who are encouraging her to go against her instincts, to the detriment of her own health and to the eventual point where she questions her own sanity. “Because she lacked the ability to communicate, I thought it helped the idea of isolating this girl and making her the pawn of this cult.”
Oh yes, the cult.
You’ll remember the eerie way Rosemary and Guy are hypnotized by their neighbors, the Satanic Castevets, who slyly win the Woodhouses’ trust and, eventually, convince Guy to make a deal with the Devil—quite literally—in exchange for their, um, help in getting Rosemary pregnant again. Point A to Point B is similar to the Polanski film, but the journey there (“there,” of course, being Rosemary’s horrifying revelation whilst standing over a baby’s crib) takes a slightly different route.
This version, then, is newly conceived. “A reimagination of the novel” is how Stern puts it. It’s not a clone—it’s a natural birth of a fresh, new creation. And boy is it bloody.
Part of the genius of Polanski’s film was that it left so much to the imagination—the murders, the plotting, the lurking Devil—so that you, as an audience member, were questioning Rosemary’s sanity right along with her. Holland’s miniseries, however, takes everything your mind conjured up and puts it right there on the screen. And then adds more blood.
“I like the concept of this operatic violence,” Holland says. “It’s violence that’s bigger than life. It’s gore, but at the same time it’s so playful.” NBC, already pushing the envelope on a weekly basis with the ramped up blood and (human) guts on Hannibal, was actually pretty lenient with Holland when it came to the graphic nature of some of the more gruesome Rosemary’s Baby scenes. “When I first saw it I was like, ‘Are you kidding me? All this blood is going to be on TV? This is awesome!’” (And, oh, is there blood.)
The bigger problem? The sex. “Turns out they are much more puritan than anti-violent,” Holland says, laughing about the notes she’d get about Rosemary’s devilishly—literally—hot sex scenes. “So sure, you can show all the blood, but you cannot show the nipple! There was so much concern on how to hide the nipple.”
The passing of time, however, didn’t just give Holland the liberty to create a gorier version of Baby. It also brought with it the opportunity to present a different kind of Rosemary.
“You couldn’t get two more different actresses than Zoe Saldana and Mia Farrow,” Isaacs says. To anyone with eyes, that’s at least superficially true. But the distinction really lies in the Rosemary each created.
Transfixing as she was in the film, Farrow’s version of Rosemary had a wide-eyed innocence, almost like a gullibility, which helped convince the audience how she could fall under the spell of the Castevets without questioning them on the merits of her own instincts. Saldana’s version, as she tells it, “felt like a more realistic woman, who was less subservient.” So when things in her life start to spin out of control, “She’s inquisitive,” Saldana says. “She will raise concerns. She will try to be heard.”
It’s Rosemary’s sudden voice, too, that makes the sequence of events in the film’s climax all the more haunting. Even as she pleads for help, she can’t help but wonder if she’s a victim of her own paranoia. She’s trying to save herself, and it’s terrifying to watch a reality unfold showing that, even in today’s society, there’s no escaping the Devil.
“Zoe has a different kind of energy, too,” says Holland. “I knew she wasn’t going to be overshadowed by the memory of Mia.”
There’s a lot of talk about “overshadowing” when the original Polanski movie is brought up, particularly about how the goal is not to do that at all. “We’re not trying to subvert or say this is going to be better than the Polanski version,” Wong says. “We’re just saying ‘This is a 2014 version of Rosemary’s Baby, and I hope you enjoy it.’”
“When [The Fugees] did that ‘Killing Me Softly’ song, obviously people my mother’s age were like, ‘Oh my God, I can’t believe they’re redoing that song!’” Saldana says. “Cut to my mom in the kitchen singing along to it. I never forgot that. You just have to allow yourself to watch it, and if you don’t like, you don’t like it. Then go back to your classic. It’s always going to be there.”
Of course, all of this talk of how NBC’s Rosemary’s Baby measures up to the 1968 film, whether it was a good idea to remake it, and how audiences will react to the changes made by NBC assumes that audiences actually remember the Polanski version. “I have teenage kids who have never even seen the original!” Wong points out. Given that two generations have passed since that version was released, it’s likely they’re not alone.
And while there is a majority of us who can at least recall seeing the original, “it’s not like everyone’s watching the Polanski film and then switching to NBC and writing an essay dissecting all the details,” Isaacs says. “It’s mostly journalists who are doing that. The other people watching it are just going, ‘Engage me, and scare me, and make me scream at the screen and sleep with the lights on.’ The exercise in comparisons is purely academic, and not really for the viewers.”
Besides, “If you can remake Spider-Man five minutes after the last one,” Isaacs says, “then you can certainly remake Rosemary’s Baby 40 years later.” Touché.