Roman Polanski on ''Oliver Twist'' The exiled Hollywood director talks from Paris about his fight to defend his reputation and his desire to create a child-friendly project

He made Catherine Deneuve writhe in paranoid agony in the 1965 chiller Repulsion. He filmed Satan raping an unwitting Mia Farrow in Rosemary’s Baby. And as a blade-wielding punk, he sliced open the nostril of a nosy Jack Nicholson in Chinatown. But now, at age 72, Roman Polanski has stepped way outside his range to make something truly shocking: a family picture.

Reassembling the key crew from his 2002 Holocaust drama The Pianist (for which he won the Academy Award for Best Director), Polanski and his producers have plumbed the look of vintage Gustave Doré engravings to bestow an authentically grimy period feel on Oliver Twist, an independently financed mounting of Charles Dickens’ oft-adapted novel about a poor, orphaned lad making his way through the criminal underworld of mid-19th-century London. Why revisit such a well-worn narrative at a reported cost of $60 million? For Polanski, at least, there are two very good reasons: Elvis, age 7, and Morgane, age 12.

These are the auteur’s children with his 39-year-old wife, French actress Emmanuelle Seigner, with whom he shares a household in an elegant neighborhood in Paris. Polanski could not, obviously, show the kids his ultra-dark work — and he hated most of the junk they kept dragging him to see at Parisian multiplexes. But Dickens is one of Polanski’s favorite authors, and his wife suggested he remake Twist when he couldn’t find any other, more contemporary fantasy stories that spoke to him.

”I wanted a film with which my children could somehow identify,” Polanski says, reclining in a black leather Eames chair at his apartment/production offices. He looks far younger than his years, and at this point resembles Harvey Keitel as he might look in a biopic about Danny Kaye. ”Of course, all children respond to ‘Please, sir — I want some more.’ There’s something very strong in that line.” Indeed, Polanski’s own son later wanders in to show off a stick-figure pencil drawing of the crucial scene where little Oliver pleads for more gruel.

Known to be an 18-hours-a-day workhorse when he’s on a movie set, as he was last summer and fall during the four-month shoot of Twist, Polanski is also, famously, exhausted at the mere thought of interviews. Although he might be stingy with them in any circumstance, a great obstacle to the usual media junket is the fact that he has been a fugitive from justice, unable to set foot in the U.S. or England (which might extradite him), since shortly after his California conviction in 1977 for having unlawful sexual intercourse with a 13-year-old girl: He fled the country rather than face sentencing. The topic has dominated subsequent media encounters, so Polanski has grown wary of reporters. His most recent clash came when Vanity Fair magazine published an article in 2002 that claimed he’d tried to seduce a model at a New York restaurant en route to the funeral of his wife, Sharon Tate, who was brutally murdered by followers of Charles Manson in 1969. (Polanski sued for libel in a British court, and on July 22, after a three-year battle, he won an $87,000 damages award plus court costs.)