Becoming The Ghost

Ewan McGregor makes a toast as The Ghost in Roman Polanski's latest thriller.
(Photo courtesy of Summit Entertainment.)

Ewan McGregor has often gravitated towards darker, edgier film roles, from his early days in Danny Boyle’s Trainspotting and Shallow Grave through more recent fare like Ron Howard’s Angels & Demons. He has also moved fluidly between the indie and studio worlds of moviemaking, taking on roles that intrigue him, regardless of budgetary concerns. His latest project, Roman Polanksi’s The Ghost Writer, feels like it straddles both worlds. It’s a production that clearly has money behind it but retains the intimate feeling of a smaller picture. In very limited release last weekend, it opens in 39 more theaters today.

The new Polanski film, based upon Robert Harris’ novel The Ghost, is the director’s first foray into political thrillers. It focuses on a successful ghost writer (Ewan McGregor) who is brought on board to finish the autobiography of Adam Lang (Brosnan), an ex-British prime minister with a mysterious past. The situation already bodes ill for The Ghost as his writing predecessor on the project died under mysterious circumstances. As he digs deeper into Lang’s past, The Ghost finds troubling information that could be hazardous not only to the project but his health.

ADD was among a small roundtable of journalists in New York who recently interviewed McGregor about The Ghost Writer. The Scottish thespian was animated and loquacious, offering in-depth answers to all of the questions posed to him. For more on Brosnan, McGregor and the new Polanski film, check out my recent Fandango feature. Further, A.D.D. also has a story on Pierce Brosnan.

Image courtesy of Summit Entertainment.

You’re carrying a lot of this movie and have plenty of solo scenes. How much more pressure is there on you to work on a film like this rather than an ensemble piece?
In playing a leading role like this there is that pressure of carrying the film, but at the same time it’s kind of the pressure that you’ve looked for your whole life. Leading roles like this come along every once in a while, and they’re amazing parts. It’s what you aspire to, so the pressure becomes a pleasure, especially when you’ve got somebody like Polanski at the helm and get the privilege of working alongside him every day for almost four months. You’re in good hands. The Ghost was the kind of part to underplay, so I felt like it wasn’t a very heavy weight to carry the film. There’s a ghostly quality about him. He’s just there, he’s just present asking questions and discovering things and is the kind of character that is unimpressed. There is a kind of “fuck it” quality about him that he is not that bothered by things, which allowed me to underplay it, so it was easy.

Could you talk about developing your character with Mr. Polanski and Mr. Harris?
I spoke to Robert in the first week, but I didn’t meet him. I went to Berlin and met Polanski when I got there. I hadn’t met him before. We had spoken on the phone a few times, but I was working in the States and Roman was in Switzerland, so we didn’t have the chance to meet. I would’ve just played The Ghost with my accent — I rather would’ve played him as a Scotsman — but I spoke to Robert about that, and he said that he had to be English. There is a reference in the beginning of McAra’s book — the ghost writer that I take over from — about Lang’s family coming from Scotland, and he didn’t want there to be any confusion there. So he had to be from England. I also knew he went to Cambridge. My first thought about someone that went to Cambridge is that they would have a standard English accent, like Olivia [Williams] has in the film. I find it difficult to do that accent without feeling kind of posh, and I really wanted The Ghost not to be posh. He’s out of his depth when he’s writing a book about the ex-British Prime Minister because he is used to writing about pop stars and magicians. I wanted him to feel socially out of his depth, or his class, if you like.

Uncovering the truth as The Ghost Writer.
(Photo courtesy of Summit Entertainment.)

We were doing the wardrobe fittings, and I hadn’t read any of it with Polanski, and we only had two days to go before we started the shoot. We were trying on clothes, and Roman appeared every now and then with coffee for people. I said, “Look, Roman, when I’m finished here can we sit down and read some scenes, because if you don’t like this accent I’m going to have to think of something else quick.” He said of course. So we started that night reading some scenes, and he didn’t really pay much attention to the accent. He was really picky about how I was saying the lines. Right from the word go I would start reading and he would go, “No, no! Why would you read it like this?” And he would take my script and read it and say, “You see?” He would read the whole scene. “See?” And I went, “Oh, yeah…” I would read again and he would go, “No, no!” He took the script and kept stopping me all the time, and after about four or five times of reading it he went, “Yes! Yes! You see, you see?” I didn’t see. I had no idea what I’d done differently other than I was just a little more frightened than I was a minute ago. This is just Polanski’s way. He’s picky, picky, picky like that in rehearsal, and then when we start shooting he is much freer. But at that point I didn’t know how he worked, so I was slightly taken aback. The next morning I phoned up Harris on the way [to the set] from the back of the car and literally read him some scenes using the London accent that I gave The Ghost, just to see if he thought it was okay. Polanski is Polish and speaks German, French and English, but whether he could hear the effect that the accent had I didn’t know. So I sneakily double checked behind Roman’s back with the writer, and he said it was all right.

There’s an atmosphere of total paranoia that runs through this movie. What was it like on set?
You’re not that aware of it when you’re shooting the film because he [Roman] really makes you look at the truth of it. He pushes and pushes you to find the reality of the scene, to find the real details of it. It’s all quite performance-based in that there is only you and the other actors. There are no other great methods employed when you’re shooting it. And he does allow you to take your time, and that might make it feel suspenseful, but at the time it feels like you’re playing these scenes as they might actually happen. He doesn’t like to see any of the acting, so you drop that and you’re left with the subtleties of the real situation. I guess he is just incredibly clever with the way that’s he shooting it, which isn’t something we discussed a lot on set. He doesn’t ever use long lenses. He only really uses wide lenses. It has a strange effect on us because it’s quite similar to the human eye. Usually on a movie set for a close-up the camera would be farther away with a big, long lens, and it would make the background go out-of-focus and your face would be sharp. It’s very beautiful. It’s kind of what gives film its beauty. But he doesn’t do that. He has a 35mm lens on or a 27 mm lens, which is quite wide, and he has a camera right up in your face. It means that the world isn’t all fuzzy and beautifully out-of-focus behind us, and it makes you feel like it’s more reflective of our human vision, so perhaps that as well makes us feel slightly more tense because we feel like we’re in it, that we’re not watching the film. And then it is details. Like in The Pianist, he had such brutal little details that made us feel like we connected to it. People would walk past corpses without looking at them in the streets. It wasn’t mentioned, it wasn’t talked about, there was no dialogue about it. It’s just what we saw. During a dialogue scene you would notice a body going past that the actors didn’t look at. That kind of detail is very clever and makes an impact on us that makes us feel that we’re present or party to it somehow. And we can’t leave that without talking about the music [for The Ghost Writer] because the music is amazing. The music is 100% of the tension as well and was really beautifully composed and brilliantly used to create tension.

The Ghost facing off against Adam Lang (Pierce Brosnan, at left).
(Photo courtesy of Summit Entertainment.)

You have now done a Roman Polanski film, and director Danny Boyle has come off the myriad accolades for Slumdog Millionaire. Do you ever look back and marvel at how far you both have come?
Yes. I’m so lucky. I thank my lucky stars for the people I’ve worked with and the movies I’ve made. I’m really happy with it. Over the last couple of years I’ve worked with some really great actors and great directors, and I was lucky enough to start off with Danny. I started off with one of the best. I like Danny. We [both] work away. There’s a lot of good work there, and some is not as good as others, and every now and again there is one that spikes out and becomes a huge success and that’s really nice. I really value that I started with him. I absolutely loved working with Danny, and I think we had a very special relationship as an actor and a director. There was something quite unique about the relationship that we had, and being part of that team — Danny, Andrew [McDonald] and John [Hodge], who were the director, producer and writer of Shallow Grave, Trainspotting and A Life Less Ordinary — was the most important thing in my life at that point. It was like an identity for my acting, although in between the films I made with them I went off and worked for other people. I was always his actor, and being part of the group was who I was as an actor.

A young Ewan McGregor (r) in a deceptively cheery moment from Danny Boyle's lurid thriller Shallow Grave.

Is Porno, the sequel to Trainspotting, going to make it to the screen?
I don’t think so. I’ve never seen a script for it. Maybe. I’d like to work with Danny again, although I don’t know if I’d want to do a sequel to Trainspotting. It’s an important movie and was important film for British cinema, and I wouldn’t want to tarnish its reputation by making a poor sequel. I wouldn’t. I don’t think the book is as good as Trainspotting — that’s not to say they couldn’t come up with a good script, because they might — but I wouldn’t hold your breath.

McGregor (center) gets his Jedi on
in the Star Wars prequel trilogy.
(Photo courtesy of Lucasfilm.)

Have you generally shied away from summer blockbusters?
I’m not really offered them. I suppose the studio system is really about figures and dollars, isn’t it? Maybe I don’t score highly enough to be a lead in those films. I don’t often get offered them. The Island was interesting. I liked that film. I think it was unfortunate because it was time to knock Michael [Bay], and it was unfortunate that I was in the film that he made when it was his time to be knocked. I think it was probably not the most knockable film that he’s made. I thought it was quite good. It’s fine, it’s doesn’t matter. It’s quite exciting going to work on a big movie like that. Black Hawk Down was very exciting, and Star Wars, The Island and Angels & Demons. There’s something quite fun about being on those big sets, and certainly on some of them working with great people and great actors. It was also nice working with David MacKenzie last year in Scotland on The Last Word, which was really low budget. Then I came back to L.A. and made a film with Mike Mills called Beginners, and that was super, super low budget. Those two films were in a way as rewarding as anything I’ve ever done. Sometimes, because there’s no budget, your filmmaking has to become much cleverer because you can’t spend a day shooting a scene from every angle. You have to shoot five scenes in a day, so the filmmaking becomes much more exciting. You have to get much more creative with the filmmaking, and that ends up on screen. There’s an energy that it produces that I really like. There are no rules to it. I’m really lucky that I’m able to dance in and out of both really.

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