“If you found a genie in a bottle, what would your three wishes be,” a woman asked “Rosemary’s Baby” and “The Pianist” filmmaker Roman Polanski this week at a press conference for his documentary “Weekend of a Champion,” at the Crosby Street Hotel. She prefaced her question with, ” You’re an idol to everyone.”
The LAPD doesn’t share her sentiment. The reason Polanski wasn’t at the screening was because they have had a decades-old warrant out for Polanski’s arrest from sexual intercourse with a minor.
Polanski was beamed in by Skype. The stage was shared with Bret Ratner, whose RatPack Documentary Films is giving the 1971 documentary about one weekend in 1971 when racing champion Jackie Stewart was preparing for the Monte Carlo Grand Prix, new life. Also on stage was the titular character of the film, racing legend Stewart, who is still a puckish and ebullient presence and who now does racing broadcasting.
Back to the genie in a bottle.
“Three wishes,” Polanski mused. None of them was a get out of jail card.
“I don’t know if that genie could do miracles,” Polanski said. “I would see Jackie winning another race. I would like myself to do a good movie. And I wish for my son to get out of his stupid teenage period.”
The rest of the press conference was a lively mix of reminiscences, banter, laughter and sorrowful reminders of a different age and time when they were both celebrities at the top of their game.
For the first time, Stewart asked Polanski why he wanted to make the documentary.
“In those times I was a great enthusiast of motor racing,” Polanski replied. “I love motor racing. You took me to see your testing, maybe of tires,” Polanski said, “and I wanted to do a movie about a friend. How do you look at yourself when you see this film?” Polanski asked Stewart, adding, ” I see myself silly.”
“Me, I look at myself, and I think, ‘Oh God, he needs a haircut,” Stewart replied. “The sideburns. The longer the sideburns the faster you went,” Stewart laughed.
“They looked really good and they were a symbol of the period,” Polanski said. “When you look at the film only some old kakers like us now don’t wear them.”
Polanski said he always remembered Stewart as a safety champion, fighting for red lights at the back of cars, higher barrier, better fire extinguishers and medical support staff.
“When we were racing, in that period, if I had raced over a five-year window, let’s say from 68 to 73, there was only a once out of three that I was going to survive,” Stewart sad. Two out of three I was going to be killed. A terrible batting average and yet nothing was done by the governing body, by the track owners, by the officials.” He added, “It took an enormous about of pressure with the drivers coming behind me.”
“We said that in the 60’s and 70’s motor racing was dangerous and sex was safe,” Stewart said. Polanski laughed.
Stewart also spoke how in those days there weren’t expert medical people to attend to injured drivers, even at the Grand prix races. The doctors who rushed to the drivers might even be gynecologists. “Racing drivers were amateur gynecologists but to have that specialist as the chief medical officer that was the bizarreness of the time,” Stewart said.
Polanski recalled the 70’sas a much more exciting, stimulating and happier time. “Particularly in London, with people like the Beatles, Rolling Stones, racing drivers, photographers, they crossed particularly every day life,” he said. “It was an entirely different society, different period, different moods, it seemed somehow more joyful. If you looked at early parts of this movie we just showed, beyond the race, you see all smiles in those times.”
Polanski learned at the press conference that Stewart was dyslexic. The former race driver credited his condition with his success. “I can’t recite the alphabet,” Stewart admitted. “However, a dyslexic, because he/she can’t think like the clever folk, you think outside the box and you find new ways of doing things,” he said. “If you went to Harvard you’re taught to go around one superhighway. The highway’s very congested. If you take the rural road I’s less competitive and you get through it easier.” He pointed out his son Mark, who helped edit and produce “Weekend of a Champion,” and said he also had dyslexia.
Both Polanski and Stewart were asked if they’d seen Ron Howard’s racing film “Rush.”
“I’ve seen Rush,” Polanski said. “At the beginning I thought, ‘Oh my God, I’m going to walk out of it but I had somehow sat through it and it gets better and better and finally after, I would say, a few minutes of patience it gets you really involved and very satisfying. I think it’s a great couple of actors looking exactly like the fellows we knew. It’s a very good movie I think. I think that that movie does not enjoy the success it deserves. It’s a really nice motor racing movie.”
Stewart agreed. “The actor that plays Niki Lauda, I think he’s so good I’d like to see him nominated because he was better than Lauda at Lauda. He studied him so clearly. His walk, his expression, and the manner in which he lived his life, this guy really caught it. I hope he gets a nomination. But I liked the film.”
Stewart added, as for the three wishes, “One of my three wishes is that Roman could be here today.”
The audience, who included filmmakers James Toback and Bennett Miller clapped in agreement.
After the press conference I spoke to Mark Stewart, a film and television producer, who told me he was very involved in the film editing of the documentary.
“Roman and I both had a clean reel,” he said. “His was slightly damaged and mine wasn’t, so we got the two together and then managed to get a good, clean version of it so that we could digitally re-master it,” the 35-year-old producer told me. “We kind of talked about it, toyed with the idea and then eventually I think Roman just said, ‘Yeah, we’re going to do it.” So over a couple glasses of wine, a nice long lunch in Paris, we came up with the idea and here we are today.”
is mother Helen, who’s very much a presence in the documentary, Mark told me was in fine form and that his parents have been happily married 50 years although she was not at the screening. Mark has a brother Patrick, who was also a car racer, but he’s always been more interested in making films. His next production is “Last Man on the Moon,” about Apollo 17 Commander Eugene Cernan, now 78, who was virtually the last man on the moon. The film will be out next year.
But to see his mother and father so young and vibrant in “Weekend of a Champion” Mark told me “was brilliant.”