Posted by: Jerry Garrett | February 20, 2010

Ten Secrets Behind the Filming of Roman Polanski’s Ghost Writer

[NEW! Trivia bonus question: What was the name of the character that Ewan MacGregor played in the movie? Answer at end of article.]

1. The big inside secret about Roman Polanski’s “The Ghost Writer” is how he could direct a movie in America, when he hasn’t been in the country since notoriously fleeing prosecution on sex charges in 1978? The simple answer is the fugitive director didn’t, although he made every effort to make the film look like he did.

2. What do “The Ghost Writer” and “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari”, the classic 1920 silent film, have in common? They were the first and latest films made at the historic, 90-year-old Studio Babelsberg in Potsdam – Germany’s Hollywood. Do the sets at Babelsberg seem familiar? They should be; films made there include 2009’s “Inglourious Basterds”, “The Blue Angel” (1930), “Metropolis” (1927), two of the Jason Bourne trilogy, and Polanksi’s own 2001 Oscar-winner “The Pianist.”

3. While principal photography was done at Babelsberg, what about the island scenes that Polanski painstakingly strived to make look like Martha’s Vineyard and Cape Cod? All shot on either the beaches of Sylt in the North Frisian Island chain, in the North Sea on the Germany/Denmark border, or Usedom (Peenemunde) along the Baltic Sea, near the Germany/Poland border. Peenemunde was infamous during World War II as a secret rocket base. Usedom is a celebrated nude beach.

 

Usedom Beach, popular Polanski location?

 

4. Where is the fortress-like beach house and lighthouse? On Sylt, which isn’t completely an island; the hammerhead-shaped sandbar, surrounded by aquamarine waters, is connected to the mainland by a narrow causeway. It is said to be the northernmost point in Germany – actually north of the country’s mainland border with Denmark. Geographically, the house used in the filming is on the northeastern tip of Sylt – just east of the iconic old Lister Ellenbogen (“elbow”) red-and-white lighthouse located there. (Watch as the lighthouse in the movie is sometimes has a red top, white middle, and red-over-white base; other times it is all white.) Location filming was done there in February and March 2009. But for exterior shots of the house itself, a shooting set (facade) was built at Usedom; for interior shots, sets were built at Babelsberg.

 

Sylt's Ellenbogen Lighthouse is at top left of lagoon; the house in the movie is at right, along south-facing expanse of sandy beach.

 

Even though Martha’s Vineyard is supposed to be the movie’s main location (or the fictional town of “Old Haven”), Polanski used images from the Nantucket Historical Society to help build sets. Sharp-eyed movie-goers will notice dozens of props that were intended to convey a sense of “America”; these included American flags on the poles at the Old Haven airport (actually Strausberg Airport, outside of Berlin), flag patches on uniforms, Massachusetts license plates, Cape Cod logos on the ferry operators, U.S. road signs, business signs in English, CNN on the television, and U.S. 6 and other Massachusetts locales on the BMW X5’s navigation screen. Interior shots of the X5 were filmed on sets at Babelsberg, with exteriors projected on the windows, using “green screen” techniques.

 

Ferry to "Edgartown" looks a lot like the Sylt Island ferry.

 

 

Pierce Brosnan & Ewan MacGregor share a scene on location at Strausberg Airport

 

5. What about the Edgartown port, and the car ferry? It is the Sylt island ferry that travels between List, Germany, and Havneby, Denmark. The retractable nose is something of a trademark feature, meant to help it to operate in shallow waters.

6. BMW ConnectedDrive doesn’t really work as it is depicted in the movie. ConnectedDrive (available only in Europe, as the movie was released) is a concept that ties in an OnStar-type cellular connection, internet services, GPS tracking and TeleServices.

 

Still-experimental BMW ConnectedDrive doesn't work as depicted in film

 

The navigation system, a separate component, will indeed save previous destinations. But a driver would have to go several layers deep into on-screen menus to retrieve it. It wouldn’t just pop up, like the car had a mind of its own. And when a destination is reached, as they say, “the route guidance is over”.

7. The film has been much-delayed in its journey to theaters. Shooting was to have begun in September 2008, with Nicolas Cage in the title role and Tilda Swinton as Ruth Lang. (Somehow can’t see those two doing a believable bedroom scene.) But when production was pushed back nearly a year, busy Ms. Swinton, who has made 13 films in the last four years, had to bow out. She was replaced by Olivia Williams, perhaps best remembered as the hot teacher in “Rushmore”; Ms. Williams is now 42 – she is playing, in Ruth Lang, a woman that would have been at least 55. (I’m not complaining!) Ewan MacGregor replaced Cage, who went off to do “The Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call – New Orleans”. (What was he thinking?) More cast trivia: Did you know Kim Cattrall speaks fluent German? Helped on location for this one.

8. A second delay in the release date of the film resulted when Mr. Polanski was arrested in Switzerland in September 2009 on his outstanding 1978 U.S. warrant. He was in post-production on the film at the time, and was only able to put the finishing touches on it while he was under house arrest. Does that explain the odd February 2010 release date? Either way, if production had stayed on track, this is a film that coulda, woulda, shoulda been in this year’s Oscar race, not next year’s. Traditionally, films released in February are long-forgotten by Oscar time.

9. Roman Polanski, like director Alfred Hitchcock, used to make cameos in his early films.

 

Taking care of a "nosey guy" in Chinatown

 

He’s not seen in “The Ghost Writer” but his daughter Morgane appears as the hotel clerk at the Fisherman’s Cove Inn.

10. The film’s denouement is actually based on an old writer’s trick. Sometimes the first word of a paragraph is used, sometimes the first letter of a sentence. A famous – or infamous – example I can remember involved a magazine editor who used the first letter of each word in a memorably constructed lead sentence to tell his publisher to, um, go pleasure himself.

[ANSWER to Bonus Trivia Question: The name of Ewan MacGregor’s character is never mentioned. He is merely “the Ghost”.]

 

The BMW X5 used in the filming of "The Ghost Writer", on display in Munich airport

 

[UPDATE: To those who thought the BMW SUV in the movie was an X3, not an X5…I happened to discover a display in the Munich airport in early March with the X5 from the movie “The Ghost Writer”. Or so it says on the side of the vehicle and on the billboard behind it.]

Jerry Garrett

February 18, 2010

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Responses

  1. I think the car was a BMW X3 not X5

    • Hi Maria,
      Thanks for your comment. I agree with you that it looked like an X3, and that is originally how I wrote it up. But Tom Kowaleski of BMW public relations contacted me and said, “I know it was an X5.” So I changed it. The X5 has just been re-designed, and BMW is heavily into promotion of it; the X3 is an older model that BMW is no longer spending any time, effort or money to market. So, for the company, it makes a lot of sense to place the new X5 in the movie. By the way, earlier this month, when I arrived at the Munich airport, I noticed BMW had a display with the “The Ghost Writer” vehicle in it – and it was an X5. I will try to post that picture here.
      Jerry

      • Thanks Jerry. The picture (and the google search) confirm it was an X5. I’d love to see the film again anyway – I enjoyed it- and this time on dvd so that I can freeze the frame and read the sign on the BMW too!

    • See at the end of the post, where I have now posted the picture I took in the Munich airport of the Ghost Writer X5 on display.

  2. Did anybody but me think the shots of “Lang” in a crowd, early in the flim, bore a striking resemblance to Ronald Reagan, only to segue into Pierce Brosnan as he got closer to camera????
    Also, does anybody know if ANY shots were made either in Mass. or London>
    DRJ

    • Mr. Polanski did not film in the United States, but there apparently were shots by a second unit crew in Massachusetts. But there was one shot of Ewan MacGregor driving the BMW X5 where I could swear b-roll of U.S. 6 and the towers of the Bourne Bridge and Cape Cod Canal Railroad Bridge were projected on the windshield. Although London was in the credit roll as a location, there was no second unit crew mentioned as having been there. Perhaps there were b-roll shoots of that too edited in. That could have been the shots that looked like Reagan working the crowd; could have been old news footage. I don’t believe Polanski was involved in shooting anything outside of Germany.

      • Not only the bridge, but some of the buildings had to be 18-19 cent NE architecture.
        The scene where the GPS turns him around certainly looked like Provincetown, or EDgartown, though I haven’t been to either for 35 years.

      • You missed the credits for the UK second unit, which are definitely included. The scene where the guys on the motorbike steal the (not Lang) manuscript was, I’m sure, really filmed in London. There was even a credit for a satellite link provider, so perhaps Polanski was able to watch the filming live and give instructions. The location for the publisher’s office, on the other hand, was a street in Berlin, with visual effects in the background to make it look more like London.

        I’m also sure that part of the drive through “Old Haven” was filmed in the US. (You missed the US second unit credits too.)

      • Thanks for your observations. The filmmakers did acknowledge at the end of the film that they did film in the U.K. But not much. The scene where the manuscript is stolen could have been filmed there, but it also looks a lot like the street scene at Babelsberg where the film ends. Just enough iconic vehicles, like a red double-decker bus and a London taxi going by – but also a lot of German vehicles milling around.
        There is no credit for filming in the U.S. at the end of the movie, although I have commented in previous responses to reader questions that I noticed B-roll of the Bourne Bridge and Cape Cod Railroad Bridge that can be seen out the windshield of the BMW X5. I think they were projected onto the X5’s windshield via green screen, and that the second unit gathered Cape Cod B-roll. A couple of the shots – the professor’s house, and bits of “Old Haven” – look much like areas on Cape Cod, including Wellfleet and Provincetown, where my family has spent many summers. Now, IMDB is listing locations in Provincetown and Wellfleet, as well as Bourne, as well as a few shots in Romo, Denmark – which were not originally listed. BMW is saying that all the filming with the X5 was done only in Germany. So that’s intriguing.

      • Here’s the confirmation from BMW that the X5 in The Ghost Writer never left Europe…so any scenes in the movie that depicted the X5 driving through “Massachusetts” were “green-screened” or filmed in Europe:

        Hi Jerry,

        You were right!

        Indeed, all shooting took place in Europe (Paris, Berlin for Studio, Island of Sylt (Germany) for all the Martha´s Vineyard scenes, driving scenes with the BMW X5.

        Stacy Morris, BMW North America

  3. I was watching the movie ghost writer, i thought it was very good.
    there was a black 4×4 in the movie. can anyone tell me what type it was. many thanks

    • Thanks for your question, George. I believe the vehicle you are asking about was a Lincoln Navigator.

  4. I just saw the movie.
    The credits clearly thank the police in Provincetown, Wellfleet, Truro and Bourne. All on Cape Cod.

    • I can’t wait until this movie comes out on DVD, so it can be studied frame by frame. Roman, if you’re keeping up with all this whilst under house arrest in Gstaad, this is a better whodunit than even the film!

  5. Other internet sources acknowledge second unit footage from around the Cape. There is one shot that is almost certainly Ocean View Drive in Wellfleet, and one shot that is reportedly in the center of Provincetown.

    • Let’s study this mystery for a second. BMW says the X5 SUV that they supplied never left Germany during the filming. So that eliminates the possibility of any shots with the X5 in it being shot on Cape Cod. The second unit crew did, however, shoot B-roll that could be projected on the X5’s windshield via a green screen set up.
      Is it possible the shots of Ewan MacGregor riding the bicycle to Eli Wallach’s house were shot at a location, such as Ocean View Drive in Wellfleet? This area certainly looks like the lonely stretch of road in the film. And remember that Mr. Wallach was 93 when this film was shot and not in good health. He lives in New York City, and has traveled often to Cape Cod, which would be much more do-able for him than traveling to cold, rainy Germany in winter for filming. It seems plausible that the scenes with Mr. Wallach could have been shot in Wellfleet.
      If true, this is very good detective work on your part.

  6. The film is fantastic. I was looking for the house on google earth but i cant find it. could you put the exact location of it? thanks alot for the info!

  7. In the trailer, Ewan and Olivia are going on the beach and behind them is the bodyguard. Is it the Usedom beach or Sylt beach? Thanks!!!

    • This scene, I believe, was filmed at Usedom. Thanks for your question.

  8. Do you know who the architect of this ‘famed’ house is?
    Thanks

    • Sorry, I do not. But if any reader of this column happens to know, we’d welcome that information. I was wondering the same thing.

  9. […] of the North Sea in Winter – the views from the windows were actually green-screened. Jerry Garrett has a good blog post about how it all came […]

  10. I’m oddsessed with architecture in movies. I’m stunned that this house has no visibility at all online. It certainly must have created design waves when built. I’m in! Please let’s find it and its builder.

  11. Damn! Typed too soon. The dvd makes it abundantly clear the answer to this question. Sadly, it is not the one we hoped for. . . Do I say?

    (No house, just sets.)

    • The house exists. You can see it on the Google Earth maps I provided. I would have people would have posted pictures of it online by now.

      • Well, on the dvd that I watched there is a bonus feature on the house and Polanski explains that finding such a house is one thing, and trying to control the weather is another thing that is impossible to accomplish.

        The dvd shows the sets that used in a studio to construct the large window scene with green screens and other rooms of the “house”. There may be a modern house there, but not one with interiors as suggested in the film. Just going by what I watched!

  12. Count me in too. I would love to know who the architect is and see some more pictures and/or plans.

  13. found this on the web regarding the house
    http://www.berlinonline.de/berliner-kurier/nachrichten/polanski_usedom_hollywood/index.php?pos=5&popup

  14. Saw the film yesterday. One scene struck me with an inconsistency: When McGregor, driving the BMW, goes back to the hotel after spending the night with Ruth Lang. At 1h14m18s, when he parks on the road side, there is a car parked immediately on his right. At 1h14m25s, there is an outside view of the scene but this time the other car is gone. Then he says “Alright, you win” to the GPS and turns around. At 1h14m40s, we see the BMW turning around, with the other car that had disappeared had now reappeared.

  15. Can anyone tell me if there are any inside shots of the house?

    • Hi Teri…I haven’t seen the DVD but I’ve been told that Mr. Polanski says in a “making of…” DVD-extra feature that he built a set in Potsdam for the “inside the house” shots.

  16. The house was built at the Studio Babelsberg for the indoor shots. This video shows the set:
    http://www.movieweb.com/movie/the-ghost-writer/behind-the-scenes-footage-part-2

    The outdoor shots were done on location at Peenemünde (Usedom). There is a photo gallery with aerial images of the location here:
    http://www.berlinonline.de/berliner-kurier/nachrichten/polanski_usedom_hollywood/
    (click “zur Fotostrecke”).

  17. Sorry, I typed number 8 and closed the bracket “)” but that resulted in that sunglasses smiley. Nice but not really intended …

  18. Great site, I watched the Ghost Writer tonight. One correction though, Edgartown on Marthas Vineyard does not have a large car ferry like depicted in the movie. The ferries this large only go to Oak Bluffs and Edgartown.

    • Thanks for taking the time to write. You are correct about how small the ferry is. I love that ferry. It has a surprisingly good little galley on it, and we had some unforgettable quahog chowder on it one silvery afternoon.

  19. Interesting page. Very often in movies the last minutes contain vital information. I somehow missed this last sentence the ghost writer detected from the script at the book launch. Can anybody help?

  20. […] Sure, we’ve all been in movies where we say, “That’s not Paris, it’s Prague.” (“The Bourne Identity“) Or, “That looks more like Toronto than New York.” (“Salt”) Or, “If this is a Roman Polanski movie, that can’t really be Cape Cod.” (“The Ghost Writer”) […]

  21. Just watched this movie. The hotel that Ewan McGregor stays at looks just like the outside and inside of the White Elephant on Nantucket; the lobby, the check in desk, and the bar area. Great edge of your seat film – would have liked a different ending, but I guess that no one triumphs over the CIA!

  22. Well done JG. I enjoyed the film and your research-trivia as well.

    • Thanks! They’re fun to do. Wish there were more films worth researching like this!

  23. Did anyone see the “typo” in the CNN-reports on TV (when Lang was at the Whitehouse)? It said “FMR Bristish PM” instead of “FMR British PM” 😉

  24. Anyone who knows anything about BMW will also point out that both the X5 and 5er in the film are DIESEL. They don’t do diesel models in the states (yet).

    • Superb film! Can anyone tell me what the ex-soldier shouted after he had shot the president ?

      • Wasn’t it “Death to Tyrants”?

  25. Thanks Jerry. That sounds about right. I had hoped it would be a little more profound.He probably wouldn’t have had time to give a Sidney Carton type speech.

  26. Did I imagine it : When Laing and the Ghost were sitting at the table in the jet they both emptied their glases before Laing started shouting. When Laing had finished he took up his glass and emptied it again!

    • Invisible stewardess refilled it… 😉

  27. I love this movie, I saw it in the theater, I bought it on DVD, and today Showtime has been showing it all day. I am glad to find this site to see where the scenes were filmed. Polanski is a genius!

    • Such an under-rated gem of a movie! Thanks for your comments!

  28. I noticed that when he buys the ticket for the ferry the guy at the counter asked him : “one way or return”. I never heard this word for roundtrip in US, only in Europe. Off course it is not important at all, just thought it was funny.

  29. I’m a big film location freak. I love the entire site you furbished with so much information. I was an extra in several films (not this one) which gave me so much insight on why these particular locations were chosen.

    • Thanks for writing! Someday I’d like to get a job as an extra.

  30. For the Beachhouse: it doesn´t exist,neither on the island of Sylt, nor in Usedom. It was just a set constructed in Peenemuende (yes, where Wernher von Braun launched his London-bound missiles). See also: http://www.ksta.de/kultur/filmparadies-deutschland-mit-james-bond-nach-usedom,15189520,12976166.html.

  31. Polanski is actually “visible” in The Ghost Writer. During The Ghost’s Google search in his 2nd hotel room, Polanski can clearly be seen in a photograph on a website.

  32. OK, this is quite a bit later than most of the comments, but here are mine: why build a set to include the entire Lopes Square in P-town, (complete with the footlong hot dog stand closed for the season and the New York Store)and another scene with the Town Hall (with its’ then fresh paint job), barely visible but leaving no doubt of it’s identity to those of us that have been familiar with it for…well, decades, and a scene from Wellfleet, only to thank the police departments of those two towns–for a set in Germany? Of course, there are no car ferries serving either of those towns. I missed the shot with the Bourne Bridge mentioned above in it but did see a quicky of the Sagamore Bridge out the windshield.

    • Thanks for your comments! We are still glad to have them.


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