By Gregory Crofton
Roman Polanski produced a documentary between the time he made the his classics “Rosemary’s Baby” and “Chinatown,” and it’s fascinating even if you’re not interested in auto racing.
Vivid and crisp, freshly colorized and restored, “Weekend of a Champion” stars Jackie Stewart racing to win and stay alive on the streets of the Monaco Grand Prix. The film was little seen after it was finished in 1971, a time when Formula 1 racing was a much more dangerous sport than it is today.
Despite all the work put into it, “Weekend of a Champion” was never officially released to the public. Instead it ended up in storage at a film lab in London and remained there for decades until Polanski got a call from the lab asking him if he wanted the film.
Polanski liked what he saw and went to work editing it to have a quicker pace, restoring it and shooting a 10-minute scene of conversation between Stewart and himself reflecting on the 40-year-old film and the dangers of the sport. This part of the film shows footage of horrific Formula 1 crashes over the years.
“If I had raced for five-year window, let’s say from ’68 to ’73 there was only one out of three (chance) that I was going to survive,” Stewart tells Polanski in the newly shot coda. “Two out of three I was going to be killed. A terrible batting average.”
Polanski also appears in the original footage shot for the film as an interested friend, but most of the film is shot as an observational doc. Polanski set up financing for the film and did much of the camera work. He also had the connections and a good friendship with Stewart, which provided access for the documentary that would be difficult to find nowadays.
But Polanski didn’t direct the film, a man named Frank Simon directed it. Simon met Polanski, who had never done documentary work, at the Cannes Film Festival, where had seen and liked Simon’s “The Queen,” a 1968 doc about a drag queen contest in New York City.
The film found its way to Netflix with help from Brett Ratner’s production company, Rat Documentary Films, which has worked on “Woody Allen: A Documentary,” “Helmut By June,” “I Knew It Was You: Rediscovering John Cazale,” and “Night Will Fall,” the up-coming “Night Will Fall,” a 1945 doc made by the British Army about the Holocaust for which Alfred Hitchcock served as an advisor.
Ratner and Polanski became friends after Polanski called him to compliment on “Rush Hour,” one of Ratner’s first films.