Why tony blair was thrilled about 007 in number 10
Now that he is a bestselling author and successful writer of screenplays, Robert Harris's days as a political journalist are way behind him, and, as we settle down to discuss his latest film adaptation, I wonder just how long it is since he was the interviewer.
He racks his memory. "Must be 10 years at least. In fact, the last person I interviewed may well have been Blair when he was prime minister."
The fact that it was Tony Blair is a neat coincidence because a character resembling the ex-PM is at the heart of The Ghost, Harris's 2007 novel, which he has now adapted for the big screen.
It is the story of a ghost writer (played by Ewan McGregor) engaged to assist with the memoirs of Adam Lang (Pierce Brosnan), a recently unseated British premier facing the prospect of a war-crimes prosecution for assisting the rendition of terror suspects.
Lang, fearing arrest if he steps outside the US, is holed up in his publisher's modernist glass-and-concrete bunker on the New England island of Martha's Vineyard with his wife, Ruth (Olivia Williams). When McGregor's (unnamed) character arrives to start his research, unexpected emotional entanglements develop -- and life-threatening secrets are revealed.
There are unmistakable similarities between Adam and Ruth and Tony and Cherie, but Harris insists they shouldn't be taken too far.
"People say, 'It's all about Blair, isn't it?' Well, yeah, in a way, obviously it is, but in a way no because the idea for the book predated the Blair era. It's about a person who has been in power who then loses power, and what it's like in that strange netherworld that all ex-prime ministers enter."
Has Blair read the book? "Well, I've heard two things," says Harris. "One was in (Sky News journalist) Adam Boulton's book about him, where he describes me as "a cheeky f***". Then, when he asked who was playing 'him' in the movie and learned it was Pierce Brosnan, he said, 'Good. I thought it might be Richard Wilson.'
"Someone I've met who had been on holiday with him said he had read the book, but I doubt it frankly. I don't think he reads novels, so I don't see why he would start with this one."
The controversy that attended publication of the novel has been equalled by that surrounding the making of the film -- directed by Roman Polanski.
Towards the end of last year, after travelling from France to Switzerland to collect a lifetime achievement award at the Zurich Film Festival, Polanski found himself behind bars and facing extradition to the US over charges that he had sex with a 13-year-old girl in 1977. He is currently under house arrest at his home in the ski resort of Gstaad, and was unable to attend the premiere of The Ghost at the Berlin Film Festival in February.
In his absence, Polanski was awarded the Silver Bear (for best director). Was this, I ask Harris, a political gesture, a show of support for the veteran filmmaker? "I don't think it was," he says. Nor does he believe the positive reviews The Ghost has been attracting in America should be misinterpreted. "They have focused on Polanski's directing, and I rather honour the Americans for being able to separate the man from the movie. A lot of them clearly don't like him very much."
Harris does like Polanski, and has maintained contact with him since completing the film. What, I ask, is his mood at the moment?
'His mood is . . . it's OK. Robert Benmussa, who produced The Ghost, saw him when he was in prison and said he never once complained. I have been to see him in Gstaad and also spoken to him quite often, and I have never heard him complain. He says, 'Worse things have happened to me, as you know (alluding to the murder of his wife Sharon Tate by followers of Charles Manson in 1969).'
"And that's the spirit in which he takes these things. It must be boring to be stuck where he is because he is such an active person. He loves skiing -- that's why he's in Gstaad -- but a season has gone by and he hasn't stepped out of doors. That must be frustrating, but at least he gets to see his kids."
Working with Polanski was, says Harris, "an unalloyed pleasure". "He is a singular human being. He's not like anyone else I've ever met or will ever meet again. He's formed by an incredible strength of character, talent and amazing historical circumstances.
"And he treated me very well. There was never any ego between us.
"I accepted that he knows everything there is to know about movies, but he also accepted that I knew this particular story . . . it was a relationship of equality, and highly enjoyable."
Polanski was determined to stick to the plot as far as possible, says Harris. "Going through the screenplay, he'd ask where something was, and I'd say, 'Oh, I left it out.' And he would say, 'How many times do I have to tell you the novel is the screenplay?' It's really like working with a super-editor who is constantly trying to visualise the story . . . which the actors found quite hard.
"Sometimes on set they would do a scene, and they'd find he'd got his head in his hands. Olivia Williams would say, 'Roman, it's discouraging when we finish and you've just got your head in your hands.' And he would look up and say, 'I'm just trying to remember how I envisaged the scene to begin with.'"
Harris was particularly impressed with Polanski's gift for concision. Adapting your own novel is rather like writing it again, and the director's input was invaluable as they boiled the plot down.
"I think there are things about Ghost the movie that are better than Ghost the novel," says Harris.
"In particular, I like the speed of the ending; it's so streamlined.
"Before we started, someone said to me, 'You should see Polanski on set because you'll never see anything like it again.' And that was true. I've been on set for all the films . . . made of my work, but I've never seen anything like that -- the concentration, the sense of him being at the centre of it, his energy, the complete focus on him, and awareness of who he was.
"He fulfils Carlyle's dictum that genius is an infinite capacity for taking pains."