Thursday, March 12, 2009

Polanski in North Wales

Where was Roman Polanski during the Tate-La Bianca murder trial? In Wales, mostly. While Charles Manson and his Family were outraging the world’s media back in LA, Polanski was busy working on his next movie project: a version of Shakespeare’s Macbeth. Given that his pregnant wife, Sharon Tate, had been brutally stabbed to death at their Cielo Drive home, some thought his choice of subject matter a tad tasteless. After all Macbeth is one of the most bloody plays in the whole of literature and even includes a gruesome stabbing scene.

Although Macbeth is, of course, set in Scotland Polanski decided not to shoot there - too many electricity pylons, apparently. Instead most of the location shots were done in north Wales. So, in November 1970, Polanski found himself in Llan Ffestiniog village hall personally interviewing locals for work as extras. A wide range of hopefuls turned up from elderly retirees to juveniles. Polanski chose 40 and took the names and addresses of 500 others who could be called upon for odd days work here and there. One former trade union shop steward, Dai Roberts, ended up having a row with the notorious director over the rate of pay. £3 per day, he believed, was too low.

Disgruntled extras wouldn’t be Polanski’s only problem during the shoot. Over the coming months the region experienced torrential downpours and the various Welsh locations soon turned into vast quagmires. Polanski, though, cleverly incorporated the bad weather into the aesthetic of the film. In the very worst of the storms he could be seen ankle-deep in mud and manure issuing instructions to his numerous cast through a loudhailer. If he could endure the "shitty weather" then so could they. One local man whose land was being used would claim (and get) compensation for stress caused by the filming. Polanski referred to such people as "fucking parasites".

The film itself was bankrolled by Hugh Hefner and the Playboy empire. They were kind of hoping for a Rosemary's Baby 2. Instead they got an arthouse movie that went over budget and over schedule. Although a commercial flop Polanski's Macbeth has retrospectively been recognised as one of his finer cinematic efforts. It has some signature Polanski touches - why, for instance, have just the three witches when you can have 15-20 naked hags?

The most famous anecdote about the making of the movie concerns one of the Welsh juvenile extras. Apparently Polanski always took a hands-on role when it came to smearing actors with blood. He used a tried and trusted cocktail of instant coffee, glycerine and gravy. Polanski instructed the blonde-haired child (who was playing one of Macduff's slaughtered family) to lay down while he applied the 'blood' mixture. When he enquired what her name was, she replied: "Sharon."

*Talking of Charles Manson, if you happen to be in Cardiff on Sunday, March 15, get yourself down to Gwdihw (a new bar on Churchill Way) where you can see a screening of Manson, the Hendrickson/Merrick documentary made in 1972. There will also be some Charles Manson-themed music. The event starts at 8pm.