HIGH ABOVE THE heat and smog of Los Angeles, a small cardboard box sits on a shelf in LA’s Superior Court building awaiting its Hollywood moment. The handwriting on the box – P v Polanski #A334129 – has faded in the Californian sun. But the box’s contents – witness statements and lurid court depositions from Roman Polanski’s statutory rape case – remain as sensitive now as when they were filed away in February 1978.
The box was coaxed out of hiding for our film Roman Polanski – Wanted and Desired – which examines Polanski’s decision to flee the United States after pleading guilty to unlawful sex with a 13 year old girl. The director of Chinatown and Rosemary’s Baby was on the verge of being sentenced in 1978 when he hopped on a British Airways flight to London and then on to Paris. He never came back.
Thirty years on, the Polanski case remains a hot button issue in the US – and an immensely difficult one to film. Polanski himself declined to participate. ( He sent us a fax to that effect in 2003. Unfortunately – or perhaps fortunately – we never received it ). It took five years of phone calls, emails, and private meetings to persuade all the other participants to talk on camera – somewhat longer than it took the film’s director Marina Zenovich and I to date, get married and have our first child.
Our goal in Wanted and Desired was not to absolve Polanski or make excuses for his behavior. Instead, we wanted to clarify what happened after the 43 year old director took 13 year old Samantha Geimer to Jack Nicholson’s Hollywood home. What did Ms Geimer’s lawyer mean when he said that the day Roman Polanski fled was “a shameful day” for the American judicial system ? It didn’t make sense.
The truth – or at least as much of it as we could piece together – was not unlike one of Polanski’s own films. After being arrested on six counts including rape, sodomy and furnishing drugs to a minor, Polanski had the misfortune to come before Laurence J. Rittenband, one of Los Angeles’ most powerful judges. Judge Rittenband – a man so press hungry that he kept a cuttings book inside his bailiff’s desk – was as imperious and impulsive as Polanski himself. Old colleagues called him “the Hammer” : a tough sentencer with the grim demeanor of an Old Testament prophet.
Given all this, it was surprising to discover that Rittenband’s private life was rather different from his public image. He was reportedly good friends with LA lawyer Sidney Korshak, the Chicago Mafia’s West Coast fixer. At the time of Polanski’s trial, the 71 year old Rittenband also had two long-term girlfriends on the go. “I have one that cooks and one that does the other stuff” he boasted. The one who did “the other stuff” – Marlene Roden – was barely 20 years old when she met the Judge. Our film doesn’t delve into psycho- biography, but it’s tempting to speculate whether Rittenband saw something of himself in Polanski.
At first, the star-struck Rittenband was minded to go easy on the French-born director. Ms Geimer’s lawyer Larry Silver proposed a plea bargain whereby Polanski would plead guilty to a reduced charge of unlawful sexual intercourse. But as the media started to criticise him, Rittenband tore up the legal rule book.
Our most astonishing discovery was that at a key moment, Rittenband took Polanski’s attorney Douglas Dalton and the Assistant D.A. Roger Gunson into chambers and told them how he wanted them to argue their case in court – a clear violation of court procedure. Rittenband also openly discussed the case with journalists. One reporter, Richard Brenneman, told us how he was buttonholed by Rittenband during a particularly tricky stage of the proceedings : “Dick – tell me. What the hell should I do with Polanski ?” One of Polanski’s friends recalled how his father, a prominent Hollywood producer, overheard the judge boasting at his LA Country Club about how he would put “that little blank blank Polanski away for the rest of his life.”
As our interviews and off-the-record conversations stacked up , it became clear that Judge Rittenband’s questionable conduct was a major factor in Polanski’s decision to flee. Having already served 42 days prison time ( a fact which is often forgotten in discussions about the case ) the director was in no mood for another, lengthier stint of jail. Polanski must have felt as if he was trapped inside one of his own movies, facing a real life version of Chinatown’s Noah Cross.
The back stage machinations even led Assistant D.A. Roger Gunson to admit on camera that he was not surprised Polanski fled “under those circumstances.”
Judge Rittenband died in 1993, but the effects of his capricious mishandling of the Polanski case still reverberate today. When our film was shown on HBO in June 2008, the LA Superior Court objected to the film’s you-couldn’t-make-it-up payoff : the revelation that negotiations to bring Polanski back in 1997 had fallen apart because the new trial judge – Judge Larry Paul Fidler – had insisted that the hearings be televised. Judge Fidler is currently presiding over the Phil Spector trial, where TV coverage has become a contentious issue. We had accidentally poked a hornet’s nest.
As HBO geared up for the TV premiere, the Court accused us of “fabrication” – a charge which so enraged the original trial attorneys Douglas Dalton and Roger Gunson that they issued a joint statement supporting the film’s conclusions. The irony of both defence and prosecution lawyers lining up 30 years later to challenge another judge’s high handed antics wasn’t lost on either Dalton or Gunson. ” (The) false and reprehensible statement by the Los Angeles Superior Court continues their inappropriate handling of the Polanski case” they said. After a great deal of back and forth, the spirit of the film’s end caption was maintained while accommodating the Court’s different recollection of events. It was a reminder – in case we ever needed one – that Case Number A334139 remains a live issue.
Assuming the legal knot can be untangled, would Polanski ever want to return to America – and to Hollywood? The director himself is on record as saying that “closure of (this) entire matter is long overdue.” The LA District Attorney’s office takes a conciliatry tone on the case. “I don’t think this documentary will have an effect on the legal outcome for Mr Polanski,” Special Prosecutor Richard Doyle told Britain’s Channel Four News in May. “However it does shed new light on what occurred. There was some impropriety that the Judge at the time was involved in. And that was mostly to the detriment of Mr Polanski. I think it’s fair to say that the justice system in his case did not work as well as it should have.”
Past negotiations to bring Polanski back have foundered on exactly how much of a sentence he should serve. No one disputes that Polanski committed a crime. What is disputed to this day is whether he was treated fairly. The judge is dead. The girl has forgiven him. Is it now time for America to forgive Roman Polanski?
In February of 2003 there was an article in the Los Angeles Times that questioned whether Polanski would be able to return to Los Angeles if he was nominated for an Oscar for his film THE PIANIST.
Soon thereafter, Samantha Geimer and her attorney appeared on ‘Larry King Live’ where she publicly forgave Polanski. Her lawyer said something that night, which started my five-year odyssey. He said, ‘What happened that day, both to Polanski and to some extent the American judicial system, I really think it was a shameful day.’
What was he talking about? I knew that Polanski fled the country but I couldn’t imagine how or why Geimer’s lawyer thought that Polanski had been wronged. I was intrigued. I realized that the only way I was going to get to the truth was to talk to the people who were there. I soon discovered that 30 years on, this long misunderstood case still stirred extremely strong feelings.
Having spoken to most of those involved, I discovered that Polanski fleeing the country has totally eclipsed what happened during the judicial proceedings. I also realized the case was tragic for everyone involved. Polanski remains in France, unable to return to the U.S. or countries that have an extradition treaty with the U.S. for unlawful sexual intercourse. Samantha Geimer will forever be known as ‘the girl who had sex with Roman Polanski.’ Both the prosecution and defense have expressed remorse regarding the way the case unfolded.
This film is not intended to serve as an apology for Roman Polanski. I wanted to explore the case itself and what happens when the media and public opinion enter the courtroom.
Polanski Asks Prosecutor to Review Film’s Claims
New York Times
July 17, 2008
EXCLUSIVE: Polanski Prosecutor and Defense Attorney Charge L.A. Court Made “False And Reprehensible Statement”
June 11, 2008
Polanski victim wants case closed but no prison
June 4, 2008