Roman Polanski’s Pirate Days

In the summer of 1976, I was asked to photograph the entire Christmas issue of French <i>Vogue</i>. Roman Polanski, Nastassja Kinski, and I met in the Seychelles Islands, one of the most beautiful places I have ever been.

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Sep 1 2009, 12:00am

ROMAN POLANSKI’S PIRATE DAYS


PHOTOS AND TEXT BY HARRY BENSON

Nastassja Kinski, Seychelles, 1976
In the summer of 1976, I was asked to photograph the entire Christmas issue of French Vogue. Roman Polanski, Nastassja Kinski, and I met in the Seychelles Islands, one of the most beautiful places I have ever been. Very few places are what you think they will be before you go to them; but New York is one, and the Seychelles is another. At the time it was completely unspoiled. There was very little communication with the mainland as the one telephone in the hotel bar hardly ever worked. It was so casual that there was no need to dress. We spent the entire time in our bathing suits and t-shirts. No tourists roamed the miles and miles of white sand. Local fishermen would bring around their catch for our dinner. Our cabanas had no windows or doors. It was another way of life.

The theme for the photographs was pirates and their buried treasure. Nastassja, in a golden costume, was cast as the captured princess, and a Parisian hairdresser doubled as Prince Charming for the 20 pages we were to photograph. Roman carried a pirate’s sword as we walked along the beach looking for the perfect location. He dropped his towel as editor Jocelyn Kargere and the others walked ahead.

It occurred to me to bury Roman in the sand like the pirates did with their prisoners in the books I had read as a boy. Roman thought it was a good idea until a big wave came up and surprised us. He began to panic. I knew I could get him out, but I jokingly pretended I couldn’t. When I suggested that I go into town for help, he yelled, “You fucking Scotsman, get me out of here!” I did, and we both had a laugh.

Almost ten years to the day after our Seychelles adventure, Polanski’s film Pirates opened the 1986 Cannes Film Festival. I think Roman had wanted to make a pirate film ever since we were in the Seychelles. When I went to photograph on the film’s set in 1985, this time on the Moroccan coast, it was almost déjà vu. Again, lavish costumes and swords. The young actress Charlotte Lewis was now the princess, Walter Matthau played the captain, and the dashing young sailor was Cris Campion. Gregory Peck’s son Tony played a Spanish officer, Damien Thomas was Don Alfonso, and David Kelly was the old pirate. A galleon anchored offshore served as the set. After a few days I had the photographs I needed and headed back to New York, once again leaving the fantasy until another time.

Roman Polanski, Seychelles, 1976




Roman Polanski with the cast of Pirates, 1985, photo by Harry Benson
 
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