In 1994, two years after my experiences on Ridley Scott’s “1492: Conquest of Paradise” with Gérard Depardieu (see below), I was working as VP of a movie PR firm called Dennis Davidson Associates in New York. Sony Pictures Classics hired me to do publicity on a film called “A Pure Formality,” which was directed by Giuseppe Tornatore (“Cinema Paradiso”) and starred Gérard and Roman Polanski. Depardieu played a famous writer called “Onoff” (Get it?) who was picked up in the woods at the time of a murder by a police inspector named in the credits as “Inspector.” Polanski interrogates Depardieu all night long and I think there was a twist ending, although it’s been 15 years and there’s no way I’m going to watch it again. I do remember vividly that Tornatore staged a POV shot through the flames of the fireplace.
There was an obvious publicity problem for this film in that one of its two stars couldn’t come into the country because there was an outstanding warrant for his arrest. What I came up with is that we would bring Tornatore and Depardieu to New York and set up a satellite feed for Polanski. The only thing was that the satellite feed cost $20,000 and you had to commit a certain amount of time in advance for the space where we would have the junket and the feed. Those of you in the business are probably dropping your coffee when you read this in total disbelief that Sony would pick up that kind of a check, but it’s true.
It was up to me to make sure everything went okay, but I wasn’t too concerned. My boss, Mark Urman, had handled many of Polanski’s films and they were extremely close. Gérard was in Toronto, filming Norman Jewison’s “Bogus,” starring opposite Whoopi Goldberg and Haley Joel Osment. So he wasn’t far away and he loved Sony Classics’ Michael Barker, Tom Bernard and Marcie Bloom, who had fought so hard to get him the Academy Award nomination for “Cyrano de Bergerac” in 1991.” Tornatore was coming to LA as well as New York, and Sony was arranging his schedule.
Urman promised he would call Polanski right away and I left a message for Gérard at his hotel. He called me back in a few days and told me he wasn’t going to come. There was this man he didn’t want to see who was, in his words, “a real shit.” He went on for a while getting into highly detailed excremental detail about the kind of shit that this guy was. But he said if I had Polanski and Tornatore, he’d come too.
A week later, I got the news from Sony that Tornatore was cancelling due to a sudden illness. His malady came upon him shortly after Sony told him that he wouldn’t be going to LA. There were some suspicious types who thought he was trying to leverage a trip to the coast. Whatever the reason, I was down to two out of three.
I went to Mark Urman’s office and waited. You always had to wait a long, long, long time to see Mark. But it was extremely risky to go back to your desk, because then someone else would take your place in line, or he’d go off on a lunch date or even home--and you’d have wasted that huge investment you’d made in sofa time.
I hated sitting on Mark’s damned couch waiting for him. I only worked at DDA a very short time, but I’m sure that over a month of it was spent on Mark’s couch. (To cope with my resentment, my girlfriend and I snuck into the office late one night and had sex every which way on that sofa. I wanted to defile that damned thing. I won’t mention what we did to his phone.)
Finally Urman was done with his call and I asked him if he’d called Polanski. He hadn’t, but promised to do so soon.
So I had one guy who wasn’t coming, a second who would only come if all three came, and a third who hadn’t even been asked. On this firm edifice I was encouraging Sony Classics to spend $20,000.
A few days later, I called Gérard in Toronto, and he continued with his poop tirade. It would have been entertaining, if he hadn’t topped it off by saying that thinking about Turdman had changed his mind and he wasn’t going to come after all. I asked him to think it over.
I went back to Urman’s office and, as usual, waited for a very long time. It seemed like hours, I was so stressed out. It was over a week now since I had asked Mark and I had been following up with emails, etc. Finally Mark got off the phone. He hadn’t called Polanski yet. I asked him if he could do it right then, as my situation was getting more and more perilous. Instead, he looked at his rolodex, scribbled down Polanski’s number, and handed it to me. Great. Instead of getting a call from one of his good friends, he was going to get a call from a total stranger like me, asking him to do a press day at the last minute. It was unprofessional! It was insulting to a legendary director like Polanski!
Underneath my panic attack was the truth: I was intimidated by Polanski, and didn’t want to call him. But I had no choice, so I did. Polanski’s wife, actress Emmanuelle Seigner, answered the phone and politely asked me to wait while she got him. Soon I had Roman Polanski on the line. I explained the situation, trying hard to make it seem less desperate than it was, but he cut me off.
“Do you know what happened when Napoleon arrived in Reims?”
“Well, to be honest….no.”
“As soon as he got there he asked his men, ‘What about my 21-Gun-Salute?’ And they were embarrassed, and one of them finally said: ‘Sir, we have no cannons.’” *
He took a grand pause as I tried to figure out what the fuck this story had to do with anything.
“Well, it seems to me, my friend that….you have no cannons.”
I asked Polanski if he could be at the studio in Paris with the satellite feed at the right time and he said fine.
The day before the satellite hookup, Gérard came into New York and did a day of interviews in a hotel suite. There was a huge buffet table, and I cleared the whole thing, waiting nervously for the inevitable. Eventually, it happened.
“Where is Tornatore?” Gérard asked me, glaring.
“Um…he got sick.”
I don’t know who Gérard saw through more—me or Tornatore--but his answer was immediate:
“I could get sick too.”
At that point the press day was basically over and there was nothing for him to do but finish up the satellite feed interviews the next day. While TV journalists taped one-on-ones, I also set up a press conference with Gérard live and Polanski on a monitor. I wasn’t sure if it was going to work, but it turned out to be something very special.
Even via Satellite, Polanski’s charm was breathtaking. He was more present on the monitor than most people are in person.
As the conference was drawing to an end, Gérard put his huge arms around the TV monitor, hugging the visage of his friend.
It was funny, but it was also a very beautiful moment, and I doubt that anybody who was there will ever forget it.
*I’ve been checking this story and can find no basis for it. Either I got the city wrong, or It may be apocryphal.