Ewan McGregor discusses Polanski and politics on ‘The Ghost Writer’
Suffice it to say that Roman Polanski has been in the news in recent months, and not really because of his movies. Thankfully, however, The Ghost Writer gives people uninterested in celebrities’ personal lives something more interesting to talk about, not the least of which because it’s truly incredible. Polanksi’s latest stars Ewan McGregor as The Ghost, a writer-for-hire who discovers some uncomfortable secrets while researching the life of an ex-British Prime Minister, and soon finds that it’s not just his latest book that’s in trouble.
Although Polanski’s legal woes prevent him from being able to participate in the promotion of his latest film, McGregor sat down with a small group of journalists in Los Angeles on Tuesday to discuss the director’s approach, and getting acclimated to working with one of the world’s iconic filmmakers. And while our own enthusiasm for the film got the better of our ability to ask coherent questions (well, mine, anyway), McGregor’s unfailing politeness and thoughtful responses offered remarkable insights into his collaboration with Polanski.
Hollywood News: Talk a little bit about what your collaboration was like with Roman Polanski.
Ewan McGregor: I only spoke to Roman on the telephone before we started, before I met him in Germany. Because he was in Switzerland at the time and I think I was shooting Men Who Stare At Goats in New Mexico and Puerto Rico, so we didn’t actually get to meet before I turned up to start. I was doing costume fitting when he came in, and he’s an iconic man and a legendary director, so for an actor it was quite nerve-wracking to meet him. I was excited to meet him and he was very host-ly, and he’s kind of like a host before you get on set, because there’s two kind of different men, I think, in there (laughs). But when you’re off set he’s making you coffee and making sure everyone’s alright, and then when you start working, be it on the text or actually on the set, he’s very direct. His direction is not guarded or sugarcoated in any way – he’s really quite brusque, almost, with his direction. But the direction is always very interesting and it’s not a coincidence that he’s considered to be a great filmmaker, because he is a great filmmaker.
Hollywood News: So how do you deal with it when the direction can be critical?
McGregor: You just have to listen to him and more often than, no, all of the time, he seems to be right. It’s kind of annoying, but when you try it, it seems to be like oh yeah, he’s right. But I went through a process with him because we’re quite sensitive, actors, and if it’s not considered to be good or right, and Polanski wouldn’t worry about telling you that it was wrong, then it can hurt your feelings. But I have to say I realized very quickly that he was like that with everybody; he directed the props guy and the painter and the set dresser in exactly the same way. In fact, all of our camera crew were Polish, and they were in between setups or whatever, and he was often hanging out with them and you could hear them telling jokes in Polish. They were his buddies and he was almost the toughest with them, when he was directing where the camera should be or whatever, and so I realized it’s not a personal thing. It’s just absolutely about his manner about how he directs.
Hollywood News: Can you talk about the sort of meta-movie aspect of this, which is that this guy obviously understands storytelling convention well enough to mimic it, but he sort of succumbs to or becomes complicit in these mystery tropes, such as falling for the femme fatale or following these clues even though he seems to know what they mean when he’s investigating them.
McGregor: I don’t know what your question is, sorry. I liked what you said (laughs).
Hollywood News: Just the idea that this guy is a writer who understands what storytelling is, and yet he is becoming a part of a story that you would assume he knows where it’s going.
McGregor: Oh yeah. Ah, I see what you mean; I thought you were talking about Polanski, sorry. Yeah, well I think the writer in him draws him into it in the first place. What I liked about him as a character very much was his unimpressedness; he seems unimpressed by everything, really – people and certainly politicians, politics. I liked playing that – that was fun to play, but I thought he was a good ghost writer. You know, when I spoke to Robert Harris in Berlin recently, he was talking about the idea that there’s an inherent failure about being a ghost writer in the first place, and that you’re selling your wares without your name on it. you’re writing without putting your name to something, and there’s a kind of failed aspect about him, which I thought was quite interesting, and made sense to me about the ghost as well. And I think at first, Robert had the initial idea of writing a book about a ghost writer, a person whose job it is to ask questions, and what happens when that character feels that his subject, his client, isn’t telling him the truth. I think that was the very kernel, the seed of his idea in the first place, just that, and then he kind of wrote his story around that idea. I think it’s the ghost’s desire to find out what the truth is, to discover why he’s being lied to; that draws him into the plot, if you like. And then as he discovers more and more, it’s more about kind of survival – he feels like his life’s in danger and therefore he can’t help but carry on finding things out in order to survive, I guess. Not very successfully, as we see him at the end of the movie.
Hollywood News: At the same time he seems to know what he’s getting into. When Olivia Williams’ character comes into his room, he says it’s a bad idea to sleep with her, but he does it anyway.
McGregor: Yeah, because he’s a single – you know, he’s not a, you know, he’s that kind of guy, I suppose.
Hollywood News: Did you develop a back story for the character, or did you take your cues from the script?
McGregor: I read the script first, but there’s not a great deal of information about him in the script or the book, to be honest, The Ghost. But I think that’s purposefully done on the part of Robert Harris, and then Harris and Polanski when they wrote the script. He’s called The Ghost and there’s a ghostly quality to him in that he’s amongst all of these people, but we don’t know very much about him. I didn’t feel like I needed much more than what was on the page in the script, because they wrote him really clearly, I felt. I played him exactly as I read him when I first read the script. Because I didn’t feel like I needed much more. I mean, the kind of things that I thought about [were] we knew that there’s the ghostwriting side and we know that he’s written some best sellers about kind of cheesy celebrities – a magician and a pop or rock star or something. And then we knew in the book that he also went to Cambridge, which is where Lang, the ex-British Prime Minister went to University. So normally or stereotypically, a British actor would probably play someone that went to Cambridge with a standard English accent, like Olivia’s English accent. It’s beautiful when she speaks it, but when I use it I find it makes me feel posh, and it makes me feel kind of upper-class in a sense, that accent. I liked the idea that The Ghost was already out of his depth because he was writing the memoirs of the ex-British Prime Minister and he was someone who was used to writing memoirs of celebrities and magicians and pop stars. So he’s already kind of out of his depth, and I wanted him to be socially out of his class as well, because we’re obsessed with it in Britain. We can’t seem to get away with it (laughs). So I mainly thought about that, and there’s a critic who’s on the television and there’s a real highbrow kind of intellectual critic show on BBC 2 in Britain late at night when no one’s watching, and there’s these three guys. There’s this guy who sounds a bit like The Ghost, or The Ghost sounds a bit like him, and he’s an intellectual but he’s got a quite strong London accent, there’s an Irishman, and then there’s a woman, and the three of them are extraordinarily intellectual. I liked that, and this guy’s clearly a very educated man, but he has quite a London-sounding accent, and I used that as an idea for The Ghost.
Hollywood News: Would the political nature of the film be a hurdle it has to overcome with audiences, or do you think people like to see politicians held accountable?
McGregor: I think they should be; well, I can’t imagine anybody who thinks that they shouldn’t be. It would be an odd position to hold. But I don’t know that it’s a hurdle. I mean, I don’t read reviews, but I haven’t heard of any criticism for the film’s politics. It’s a fictitious story, [but] it’s very very close to events as they are unfolding right now in Great Britain with our ex-British Prime Minister, Tony Blair, and it was definitely written with him in mind, I would say. Robert Harris would probably tell you that it was loosely written roundabout Tony Blair. But I think it’s fairly obvious that it’s making a comment about him, and current events get closer to our storyline in the film as days go by, in quite a spooky way – rendition flights and the British forces having been involved potentially in interrogating or torturing prisoners on behalf of the United States of America, which would be illegal. All of these themes in our film are certainly things that have transpired to maybe have happened in British politics, but I don’t think it would be a hurdle. If the character was called Tony Blair and Pierce was asked to do an impersonation of Tony Blair and it was more of a factual account, then we would be in trouble and so would the film, probably. But it was never our intention to do that; it makes comments about politics and politicians and the fact that they in our film become accountable in that he’s charged with war crimes and will have to face the panel or the jury.
Hollywood News: Talk about working with Pierce Brosnan and how you two developed your on-screen relationship, since it’s key to the film.
McGregor: Yeah, it’s great. Pierce is an actor I’ve always watched, and there’s a handful of actors you wonder if one day you might work with, and Pierce was always one of those. I’ve always enjoyed working with him. My experience as The Ghost was kind of a unique one in that I was there from the beginning to the end, and I was always there – I was always on set. I became kind of like one of the crew, really, and then other actors would come in and out. But for the first week or so, I was mainly on my own; I just did the stuff with The Ghost on his own, and then I think Olivia came out and we did the stuff on the beach. And then when Pierce arrived, we were up in a place in North Poland and we had really bad weather problems in that we had really good weather and we needed really bad weather. So we were supposed to start doing some stuff on the set in the house, which everyone’s very disappointed to find out isn’t a real house. But because we had bad weather, we had weather cover, which was the scene on the airplane in the private jet, which is really a big, long scene, it’s a seven-page scene, and it’s the end of Pierce’s story. It’s his big moment, his big scene, and there’s a confrontation between The Ghost and the ex-British Prime Minister just before he’s shot in the airport. So it’s like the end of a story, and Roman phoned up Pierce, who I think had just arrived in Germany, and said, “we’re thinking of maybe starting with that. Is that okay?” I mean, I’ve heard him talk about this, so he said, yes, that’s fine, but then you suddenly find yourself in that little jet set – that’s really fun to say, “jet set,” when it means something – but he’s on the jet set and having to wade through seven pages of dialogue with me and be directed by Polanski for the first time, which was something I’d become very accustomed to. But I was in the position where I was able to watch everybody else’s reactions to him as they came in – you know, when Olivia arrived or when Tom Wilkinson arrived. Whenever the actors came in, I would be able to watch them as Polanski tore them to shreds (laughs). No, he didn’t tear them to shreds.
Hollywood News: Can you talk about the ending and what it means to you? It’s interesting that he seems to feel as if the truth will protect him, in the way you were talking about him finding stuff out for his own survival. Why do you think that he reveals what he knows to this person? [Warning: SPOILERS FOLLOW.]
McGregor: Well, I think because he’s discovered it, and he can’t help but let her know, it’s just a gut reaction. He obviously is going to – I don’t know what his intention is after that, if he’s going to go off and reveal it. I suppose so, and it’s a slightly defiant moment at the end where he goes “f*ck you” to her and wants her to know that he knows. I don’t think it matters one way or the other; I think they were on to him anyway and probably that’s why he’s been invited to the book launch, which could cast doubt on whether Amelia Bly is in fact involved in it as well, because he comes as her plus-one, you know. Whether they were bringing him there to do him in or not, I don’t know. But the nice thing is that it wasn’t in the script and nor is it in the book. In the end of the script, The Ghost leaves the party, the book launch, and walks off into the crowd and she runs out the door after him and can’t see him. He’s gone because he’s The Ghost and disappears into the crowd in the London street. We don’t know what happens to him; we don’t know whether he’s going to reveal her. But Polanksi one day on set, we’d been shooting for weeks when he came up to me and said, “I have an idea for the end.” He described this ending to me, and I thought it was amazing. And it is an amazing, beautiful shot; it’s a very clever shot, I don’t think the camera moves, and if it does it just follows me out the door and then it’s just static. It’s a beautiful piece of storytelling and it’s classic filmmaking, and it’s classic Polanski, really. You can imagine other directors having 50 shots in that sequence, and he just pans the camera and leaves us to imagine what’s going on off-camera. It’s just great.