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Polanski puts a twist on Dickens

Polanski puts a twist on Dickens

Posted: November 25, 2004

By Raymond Johnston

Noted director claims Barrandov is the world's best studio

By Raymond Johnston

Staff writer

After a career that has included gritty dramas such as Rosemary's Baby, Chinatown and The Pianist, director Roman Polanski decided to make a story for children.

The Polish-born director has just finished four months of shooting in Prague on a new version of Charles Dickens' Oliver Twist. "I love the story; I love the book," he said Nov. 15, his penultimate day of shooting on an elaborate set of London at Barrandov Studios.

While at first reluctant to try a story that already had several popular film versions, Polanski's wife, Emmanuelle Seigner, convinced him to give it a try. "My wife actually said, "Why do you keep looking for stories, why don't you make Oliver Twist, you like it so much?'"

Satisfying a perfectionist

By European standards, Oliver Twist is a large production. One street scene required 800 extras in period costumes. The crew ranged between 200 and 700 people. Most of the crew was Czech, with the rest coming from Germany, France and Poland. Polanski praised the professionalism and knowledge of the film industry workers associated with Prague's Barrandov Studios.

"It was a very experienced, professional and motivated crew. But above all the place ... is unique," Polanski said. "I must say that in all my experience it was one of the most interesting - if not the most interesting [to work in]."

Polanski, who has a reputation as a perfectionist, had nothing but praise for his experience shooting at Barrandov.

"I have worked in practically all of the studios of the world and at least visited many of them, and I think this is the finest. This is really an exceptional tool in our profession," he said. "Nowhere else could we have made the film in such a way as we did here."

Barrandov is unique in Europe, according to Polanski, for having a large back lot where outdoor sets can be constructed right next to the studios for indoor sets.

"That allows us to combine [filming on] the stage - the stages here are fantastic - with the back lot in the same day sometimes," he said. This minimizes relocation time and provides flexibility to allow for bad weather.

There have been efforts over the past several years to find a buyer for 70-year-old Barrandov, which currently is almost 100 percent owned by Moravia Steel. Polanski said he has heard rumors that the studio or back lot may be sold separately, but he hopes the entire complex will be left intact.

Breaking up Barrandov "would be a tremendous pity for this nation," he said. "This studio should be considered as national heritage because there is no other one like this one. I think this is really a pearl in your crown and you should try to defend this." Allowing the studio to be broken up into different companies or letting the back lot be developed as real estate is something Polanski said future generations "would really regret." The studio does have historical links. Vaclav and Milos Havel, the father and uncle of former President Vaclav Havel, were instrumental in the studios' construction in 1931-33.

For Oliver Twist, which has a tentative release date of September 2005 in America and October 2005 in France, the outdoor sets at Barrandov included an upscale London neighborhood and a waterfront slum.

A European venture

Polanski wanted to make Oliver Twist as a completely European film without Hollywood studio money, as he did with The Pianist. That venture was successful and they tried to do a slightly more ambitious project. The Pianist had an estimated budget of $35 million. No financial figures have been released for Oliver Twist. "[Using all European money,] of course that makes the work a bit harder because you don't have the financial largesse of the studio behind you but you don't have the night telephone calls from the executives either," he said.

The director scouted other locations in Europe before deciding on Prague. "Romania is much cheaper, of course, than the Czech Republic. But we visited the place and I can tell you that those places like Romania, Bulgaria, whatever, cannot offer what you can, mainly because of Barrandov Studios," Polanski said.

And, "Prague is a very European city where you can live comfortably. You have to think of all those [non-Czech] technicians, in our case about 50 to 60 people that have to spend about three or eight months out of their homes. I don't think they could find the same comfort in Bucharest or Sofia."

Polanski turned 71 during filming but is not planning on retiring. "I don't plan to die right after [finishing Oliver Twist]. And as long as I can offer it, I'll certainly continue working." While he does not have another specific project lined up, he does have a potential studio in mind, if it's available.

Please, sir, can I have some more?

Child actors now face limits on hours

Director Roman Polanski has criticized the Czech Republic's new child-labor law that severely limits the number of hours children can work. Under the law, which went into effect Oct. 1, children under 6 can work a maximum of two hours a day, those from 6 to 10 can work three hours, and children over 10 may work four hours. All can work only five days per week, and no work is permitted from 10 p.m. to 6 a.m.

"The amount of hours that children are allowed to work on a movie is so limited that in my opinion no more movies with children, and therefore for children, will be made in the Czech Republic," Polanski said.

"Of course Oliver Twist couldn't have been made if this law came out before we started our shooting," he said. "It would, of course, be sensible if it were a question of the children working in a coal mine or salt mine but not in a movie or in the theater," the director said.

Many of the main roles, including the title role, in Oliver Twist were for children. Oliver was played by 11-year-old Barney Clark. Some scenes required more than 100 children.

Polanski, who started his career as a child actor, feels child actors love their work. "You can't get them off the set. They never have enough, and at the same time [they] learn ... a profession. I don't see the purpose of limiting it," he said.

Ironically, the story of Oliver Twist involves England's Poor Law Act of 1834, which forced poor orphans into working long hours under horrible conditions at workhouses.

Labor and Social Affairs Ministry spokeswoman Katerina Berankova said the new law is intended to protect children's health and safety, according to the Czech News Agency. The ministry disagrees that the law will have a negative effect on child acting.

- Raymond Johnston

Raymond Johnston can be reached at

rjohnston@praguepost.com

By Raymond Johnston

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