Writing a book in collaboration with another person tests a writer’s skills for research, interviewing and writing, as well as his interpersonal relationship skills. A written contract specifying what each person will do during the writing process, who makes decisions regarding the book, how much money each will earn and more, vetted by lawyers and signed by both parties, is a requirement. Smart ghost writers will have their own set of requirements based on past experience for their optimal performance on the job, and it’s in the collaborator’s best interest to respect and accomodate those requirements. After all, the ghost writer gives up recognized authorship and attribution to the collaborator.
In Roman Polanksi’s movie, The Ghost Writer, based on a Robert Harris novel, Ewan McGregor’s “Ghost”(this character remains nameless, which is how it is in real life, too, as far as the public is concerned, but the people involved in the project would know his actual name) is hired to complete the memoirs of former British Prime Minister, Adam Lang (Pierce Brosnan). He’s uneasy about the way the job falls into his lap via his agent who tells him repeatedly that it’s an opportunity of a lifetime. The publisher gave Lang $10 million to produce his memoirs. In the meeting with the publisher, editor, Lang’s lawyer and his own agent, Ghost, is blunt and honest, and a bit surprised that he lands the job in spite of it. For dramatic purposes, of course, and because Lang is such an important subject, there is no written contract, apparently, that both sides would follow, despite the presence of the agent, Lang’s lawyer and the publisher. If I’d been the Ghost, I would have wanted a copy of the contract with me at all times precisely because Lang was such an important subject. So, this is the first clue that Ghost’s job as a writer won’t be at the top of his list of things he’ll end up doing.
The memoirs are already in first draft, completed by another ghost, a close political aide of Lang’s who died suddenly, an apparent suicide under suspicious circumstances. Ghost is uneasy about that. Polanski uses pacing, the colors of sets, silences and looks among characters to begin to build suspense when Ghost arrives on the American island where Lang resides (probably Martha’s Vineyard — Edgartown was on a sign near the ferry). Ghost’s task is to whip the manuscript into shape. It’s kept under lock and key, and he cannot work on it anywhere but at Lang’s beachfront property where Lang’s wife, staff and security occupy a totally different world. Ghost reads the book, decides it’s horrible and that he wants to change the focus. We see him interviewing Lang, discussing the focus of different chapters and the people in Lang’s life. Then the news explodes with reports that Lang, while PM, had approved and allowed the torture of prisoners by the CIA — prisoners that had been in British custody. From this point on, nothing is as it seems on the surface, and Ghost’s job becomes figuring out what his predecessor had discovered in order to save his own skin.
For a movie about a writer, there was little writing involved in the action, but a lot of research by Ghost. During one scene, he begins to edit the manuscript, cutting long passages with a handwritten X and marking where the text starts again. He brings up one of his rules, i.e. never staying in a client’s house, and then breaks that rule out of necessity as much as curiosity. He comments at one point that he’s not an investigative writer, and yet, that’s what he needs to be for this project. In a particularly clever use of modern electronics in cars — GPS and computers giving directions — Ghost gives in to the car his predecessor had used and it takes him to a surprising twist in his research, and one that threatens his life. Ghost thought like a writer in the midst of research rather than in the midst of writing. Overall, I was disappointed in the movie being a movie about a writer.
However, as a suspense thriller with more twists than a pretzel in the last half, I’d give it my highest recommendation. Polanski took good advantage of the subject matter for some subtle satirical comments on politics and the world we now live in, and masterfully built the suspense through pacing, lighting and silences. He filmed the movie in Europe, but it’d probably fool anyone living in Massachusetts or Martha’s Vineyard, places we frequented when I was growing up. And the ending is a double whammy of ironic twists. I’m surprised that Polanski hasn’t done a movie from a John le Carre novel. They both are drawn to dropping people who are “innocent,” i.e. inexperienced and ignorant of the people and circumstances, into intriguing situations to see what happens. Trust no one…..