In Praise of The Ghost Writer
I wrote recently how there are few movies of the past 25 years that I really love. I still think of Lost in Translation as my favorite “new” movie, but it’s now two decades old.
I just rewatched one of my few contemporary favorites, The Ghost Writer (2010), and I’m in awe of Roman Polanski’s suspense–thriller filmmaking.
Rosemary’s Baby and Chinatown are, of course, two of the greatest movies ever made. But I’m also partial to the 1988 Harrison Ford Parisian thriller Frantic, so much so that we released an expanded soundtrack at FSM.
Polanski’s style as a director can be a little hard to describe because it’s not really about the shots (like Hitchcock)—although they are elegant and brilliant—as much as the sensibility. It’s about the finely observed human behavior, the sense of grounded-ness and believability of the interactions. Polanski is a writer as much as a director—and brilliant at both.
The Ghost Writer concerns a hack writer (for lack of a better term) hastily hired to help the controversial ex-prime minister of Britain finish his memoirs, after the previous author died under mysterious circumstances. So of course he finds himself in the middle of an international conspiracy.
Polanski’s thrillers are so potent because of what the audience knows that the protagonist does not. Rosemary is happily pregnant and mildly annoyed by her elderly neighbors—who just happen to belong to a Satanic cult. Jake Gittes is hired to snap some pictures of a wayward husband—who just happens to be involved with a personal and political scandal that will determine the future of Los Angeles.
And here, the “Ghost” (never named) is hired for a quick “money job” for a controversial politician—so of course he’s going to be completely and unavoidably over his head.
The Ghost Writer has extra interest for me because it is meant to take place on Martha’s Vineyard—but because of Polanski’s well-known travel restrictions, had to be filmed on the German island of Sylt. So the film depicts a kind of “alternate universe,” subtly Euro version of my hometown.
About the score—it’s wonderful! I loved Alexandre Desplat’s music the moment I heard the opening bass clarinet figure in the theater.
The score is everything that film music used to be: tuneful, memorable and colorful—but also supportive and subtle. It’s Herrmannesque in the best possible sense: playful at times, but also dangerous and thrilling. Just so much fun!
I have one criticism of the film: the “archival photos” of some of the characters back in their university days contain some of the world’s worst Photoshop work. I’m surprised Polanski let them go!
Anybody wanting to learn about thriller screenwriting and filmmaking: it’s really simple. Just watch Polanski. And then rewatch him, over and over again.
All the things that people take for granted—how a character walks into a room and says hello to another character—if you pay attention to each look, each line, the nuance, and think, why this and not that, you’ll start to get better.
Without making any editorial comment whatsoever about Polanski’s tragic and disturbing personal life—as an artist, he’s a genius, and I adore his films.