Roman Polanski was beamed onto the stage of the Crosby Hotel screening room yesterday for a press conference for his documentary, “Weekend of a Champion.” The film follows racing legend Jackie Stewart around during the weekend that he prepared for, raced and won the 1971 Monaco Grand Prix.
“The Rosemary’s Baby” and “The Pianist” director was given unlimited access into the exhilarating and fast-paced world and glitz of this top racing event, and the result is an intimate portrait of the gifted athlete and the friendship and respect between Polanski and Stewart, who were both celebrated and famous during a time when they were both at the top of their game.
As everyone knows, director Roman Polanski fled the U.S. to France in 1978 after being charged by Los Angeles police authorities with rape after relations with a minor, which is why he could only appear at the press event by Skype.
Sharing the stage with Polanski’s virtual image was real-life “Rush Hour” director Brett Ratner, whose production company Ratpac Documentary Films, is releasing the film through Netflix.
Also at the press conference was the titular character of the film, the racing legend himself, Jackie Stewart, who is now slightly grey but still talkative and as high-spirited as ever and who is currently a successful businessman and television race car broadcaster.
“Weekend of a Champion” was not released in this country and was only shown in a few theaters in Paris even though it was a hit at the Berlin Film Festival.
Recently, it was shown at the Cannes Film Festival with updated material at the end of the film, in which Stewart and Polanski meet in the same suite four decades later, to muse, banter, joke and reminisce.
Jackie Stewart had some fascinating things to say about the motorsport. “They want to see danger,” he said about fans. “They want to see violence in the way that every time a race car goes off the road, it’s a tremendously destructive thing. It’s such a volume of violence that it would be difficult to interpret it any other way.”
As for what the sport gives the driver, he reflected, “Grief, pain, to move outside of what you want to do, what you want to get out of that racing car, and every so often, the anesthetic wears off and then you see the hard, horrible world that you’re involved in. You see things that you don’t want to see,” he said, and then you want “to get back into the comfort of the warmth of your own experience.”
Stewart has been successful in working for reforms that have made the sport less dangerous. He said that during one weekend he and his wife, Helen, a beautiful woman who is a strong presence in the film and to whom he is still married, “counted 57 people, enough that were friends or I had raced with, and some of our very best friends, at least five of our friends were killed.”
He added, “It’s been almost 17, 18 years since a driver was killed in Formula 1.” Partly this is a result of reforms he fought for, including different fuel tanks and fire extinguishers and expert medical support staff near the track.
“We said that in the 60’s and 70’s, motor racing was dangerous and sex was safe,” Stewart said, while Polanski laughed.
Stewart credits his struggle with dyslexia for some of his success. He worked in a garage and left school at 15 because he was a total disaster. “My greatest loss is I still can’t read or write correctly. I can’t do the alphabet,” Stewart said.
When they were making “Weekend of a Champion,” he confessed, “Any perceived wisdom I had,” was an illusion. “I was still feeling secure because I knew I wasn’t as clever as people thought I was,” he said. “I knew I could communicate with people, but I still couldn’t read.”
“You never told me that,” Polanski said.
“In those days, I would be ashamed,” Stewart replied. “Helen didn’t know. I couldn’t tell Helen. I faked it.”
“I had no idea I was going to be as successful as I was going to be,” Stewart said about the direction of his life. “I never thought I could reach that level or that I could keep it at that level. I always thought other people were cleverer and more skilled than me to do the job.”
About the added footage in the film that reunites director and driver 40 years later in the same suite, Polanski reflected, “Isn’t it funny to be in the same place, the same suite, the same view. They’ve changed the furniture a little,” Polanski laughed. Both noted the harbors are larger to accommodate bigger, more luxurious cruise ships.
So why revisit the film? Polanski said there was an accident at the lab where they stored the documentary and they called him out of the blue and asked him what he wanted to do with the negatives of the film, to destroy it or send it to him. “So I looked at the film and I liked it after 40 years or so almost … I decided I’ll give it a new life, and that’s what you saw today.”
After he added footage, Polanski saw it with friend and asked them what they thought, including Ratner.
“I thought I wanted to recut the picture,” Polanski said. “There was some great stuff by my great friend Frank Simon [who directed] who isn’t with us anymore,” but “the pace was not satisfying, so I though it needed some new editing and I would like to add a contemporary part, so I called Jackie and his son Mark,” who is co-producer and assistant editor of the film and attended the press conference.
Polanski added, “We are all very happy with the idea of giving it this new life, and when I started everything, I realized there’s very much more here than I expected.”