The giant head of Roman Polanski, with (from left to right) critic Eric Kohn, Formula One legend Jackie Stewart and director Brett Ratner, lords over the press conference for "Weekend of a Champion" in New York City. Credit: Getty Images
Roman Polanski tries to avoid talking to the press. He said so to a Der Spiegel journalist during a frank discussion about his many tragedies, those inflicted upon him and those he inflicted upon others himself. He made an exception — sort of — while promoting “Weekend of a Champion,” a documentary he produced in 1972 about Formula One star Jackie Stewart.
For reasons that don’t need to be explained here, Polanski couldn’t promote it in person in America, where the reissued film is getting a slow theatrical and VOD roll-out. He Skyped from what appeared to be his apartment in France, with star Stewart and the film’s co-presenter, filmmaker Brett Ratner, in the flesh, sitting in front of a screen that bore a lo-res likeness of Europe’s most known filmmaker.
“It’s getting more and more difficult to remember anything,” Polanski, 80 as of August, confessed.
If his memory is going, Stewart, still lively at 74, claimed that’s the only thing that’s eroding. “He skis like an idiot, he drives like a fool, and he’s got more energy than I don’t know who,” the former racer charged. “Roman hasn’t changed much since we started the movie in 1971.”
The dusting-off of “Weekend of a Champion” — shot during the Monaco Grand Prix of 1971 — came when he got a call from a film lab in London, which was getting rid of its old reels. Among them was the film, which had been collecting dust. It never received a significant release, having played a couple theaters in parts of Europe. He looked it over, liked what he saw and decided to give it a new life — after some tweaks.
“There’s some nice stuff in it, and it’s very nicely done by my friend Frank Simon [the credited director], who isn’t with us anymore, alas,” Polanski explains. “But the pace was not satisfying. It would need a little editing.” He also tacked on a 20-minute interview between he and Stewart, filmed in the same suite Stewart stayed in during the filming.
The idea of a major filmmaker working on a documentary at that time is fairly unthinkable. “Particularly in that period [theatrical] documentaries were not as frequently successful as they are now,” he recalls. But racing called for a literally bigger picture, he felt. “It thought it was a very cinematic, very visual kind of sport,” he says. He was himself a racing enthusiast.
At the same time, it helped that it was Polanski making it. “Nobody else would have gotten the access and complete freedom to go around the racetrack and film it, while the Monaco Grand Prix weekend was on,” Stewart explains.
Stewart says Polanski did a lot of the shooting himself, which was dangerous, especially with cars speeding past him, with little protection for those in the pits. In the film’s retrospective interview and during the press conference, Stewart is adamant about stressing how dangerous that era of racing was, especially versus today. “We step back in time,” Stewart says of the film. “Many of the people you see in the film are no longer with us, because they were killed. At that time if I was driving a racing car, as I was, for a five year period, there was a two out of three chance you were going to die, because of the lack of safety.”
The race shown in the film was particularly dodgy. “The Monaco Grand Prix was famous for people not getting past the first corner. Because it’s a street. It’s much narrower than a race track as we know them today,” Stewart explains. “The curbs are like normal sidewalk curbs. They broke tires and wheels in those days. Now they’re gentle curves.”
As of the press conference, Stewart estimated, off the top of his head, it had been “19 years, 7 months and 3 days” since the last Formula One racer died.
It’s not much of a spoiler to reveal that, in the documentary, Stewart wins the race. “It’s a fairy tale that Roman has this idea [for a documentary] and we actually won the race,” he says. “It’s pretty impressive.”
Perhaps inevitably, the recent release — and then curious under-performance — of Ron Howard’s “Rush,” about racers James Hunt and Niki Lauda, comes up. Polanski says he enjoyed it, but not right away. “The beginning, I thought I might walk out,” he admits. “But I somehow sat through it and it gets better and better. After a few minutes of patience it gets you really involved.”
Stewart is more effusive in his praise. “The guy who plays Niki Lauda — he’s better at Lauda than Lauda,” Stewart says of actor Daniel Bruhl. “He studied him so closely — his walk, the manner in which lived his life. He really got him.”
As for what Polanski’s three wishes would be — someone asked this — one of them was “I wish my son would get out of his stupid teenage period.” So there’s that.