The Ghost of Polanski’s “The Ghost Writer”

(A scene from Roman Polanski’s “The Ghost Writer” with Ewan McGregor)

What follows is part I of my ghostwriter’s take on the shooting script for the movie, “The Ghost Writer”. This is where you’ll want to stop reading if you’ve not seen the movie. In the very next paragraph I give details you may not want to know about out of context. Last warning: SPOILERS AHEAD.

Knowing Nothing is Something

In one of the first scenes, Ghost, the unnamed protagonist of the story tells a publisher why he’s uniquely qualified to write the memoirs of Adam Lang, the antagonist.

“It’s because I know nothing about politics that I’ll ask the questions that go to the heart of who Adam Lang is. And that’s what sells an autobiography: heart.”

My favorite genre to ghostwrite is anything I know next to nothing about. It’s already a given that ghostwriting affords the opportunity to write/learn about a wide array of topics, expertise and careers. Beyond this, I’m careful to choose clients in my area of interest (entrepreneurs, CEO’s, successful businessmen/women) and one’s in fields I’ve not written about before. Plus, when I’m the audience the writing is that much easier.

The Chemistry Connection

The publisher’s lawyer explains why his client, Adam Lang, is looking for a new ghostwriter.

“In the end, it’s about chemistry.”

I agree entirely. Striking a deal between the client and the ghostwriter hinges  on chemistry between the two. Do I like the client and does the client like me? Get that established and we’re 80% there. Just like dating: there’s no point in pushing it where you’d like things to be if the chemistry is non-existent.

Mixing up Money and Motivation

Ghost has just learned that he has one month to ghostwrite the revisions on a 600-page first draft. He’ll travel from England to America where the client, Adam, is living. He’ll be paid $250,000 for his work.

The $250,000 is a motivating factor, of course, but the real answer hinges on if I think I could complete the book in one month’s time? I’d have serious doubt given the scope of the project and the fact that the client is currently being investigated for his role in secretly freeing four terrorists from Pakistan and having them questioned and tortured by members of the CIA.

I was approached a few years back by a family member of a jailed serial killer who wanted to write a book about the incarcerated sibling.  Everything about the job told me to “Run away”; from the potential client’s gold-digging opportunist attitude to the up front revenge seeking desire to restore the damaged family name in less than honorable means.

I behaved my professional best, said I’d consider the offer, I’d get back to them, all the usual stuff. I did get back, but declined to pursue it further. I probably said I was too busy. Truth is, I wouldn’t take a job with a client like that for any amount of money.

Out of Order

Ghost has just read the draft. The client’s wife asks how bad it is.

“Well… The words are all there. They’re just in the wrong order.”

Next time I read a first draft prior to ghosting, I’m going to use that line.

Short and Sweet

Adam Lang, the client, asks about the ghostwriting process, to which Ghost replies, “I interview you. I turn your answers into prose. Here and there I’ll add linking passages, imitating your voice.”

I’ve just tossed out the one-page ten-step explanation I thought was so succinct. Well, maybe not, but it is a helluva good place to start when the client asks how the process works.

No Sleep Overs

Ghost makes it a rule not to stay the night at a client’s house. He says later it makes it hard to keep a professional distance.

Until a client offers me a spare room in his mansion, I don’t have to worry about this one. I think this line is in the movie more as a setup for a scene that’s coming later (when he does stay over) than as advice for ghostwriters.

The Truth According to…

Ghost and Ruth (the client’s wife) have discovered some seeming contradictions about the former ghostwriter’s supposed suicide.

Ruth – “What are you going to do about the things we discussed last night?”

Ghost – “Nothing…I’m his ghostwriter, not an investigative reporter.”

That needs to be clear when you ghostwrite. It’s not the truth you’re looking for, so much as the truth the way the client sees it. Of course, you’re always keeping in mind the readers perspective, so if you come across something that contradicts something the client has said or done, you’ll want to use what you learned as the foundation for a question to the client. At least, that’s what I do. I’m big on bringing things out into the open where they can be discussed and dealt with properly. Let ’em sit there and you’re more likely to say something you shouldn’t somewhere down the line and risk losing trust ground in the eyes of your client.

Next week:  I’ll take a look at the last 40 pages of Roman Polanski’s screenplay for “The Ghost Writer”.