For a 76-years-old filmmaker, Philip Kaufman looks remarkably youthful. He's fully grey (more like white), sure, but there's something about him that reminds us that while he has spend his more recent years as a writer-director telling adult stories, he began his career tapping into the child in all of us.
Although it wasn't Kaufman's first film as director, 1972's THE GREAT NORTHFIELD MINNESOTA RAID, one of the great Midwesterns about the James-Younger outlaw gang. Re-inventing the stories of cowboys stayed in his system as he wrote THE OUTLAW JOSEY WALES, which he was set to direct until star Clint Eastwood pushed him out and took over.
Kaufman followed up this experience with a succession of classic works, including the 1978 remake of INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS, which remains terrifying and still my favorite version; THE RIGHT STUFF, which told the story of the original Mercury 7 astronauts, won four Oscars, and was nominated for Best Picture; the sex-drenched THE UNBEARABLE LIGHTNESS OF BEING, starring Daniel Day-Lewis and Juliette Binoche; and HENRY & JUNE, equal parts sex and literature concerning Anais Nin, Henry Miller and his wife June (the work is probably best known for being the first-ever NC-17-rated film).
Despite all of these great early works, perhaps Kaufman's greatest contribution to cinematic culture is his shared story credit (with George Lucas) on 1981's RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK.
In the post 20 years, Kaufman has directed the Michael Crichton adaptation of RISING SUN; the Marquis De Sade tale QUILLS; the serial killer misstep TWISTED, starring Ashley Judd and Samuel L. Jackson; and the wonderful HBO effort HEMINGWAY & GELLHORN, about the marriage of Ernest Hemingway (Clive Owen) and Martha Gellhorn (Nicole Kidman).
Kaufman was in Chicago (his hometown) late last year to receive a career achievement award from the Chicago International Film Festival, and I was able to get a few minutes with him while he was in town (his producer son Peter Kaufman was also in the room with us). My greatest desire is to have a much longer conversation with him. The films I didn't even get to ask about are legion, and he's a wonderful and honest storyteller. Despite the topical gaps in our conversation, the man is a legend and well worthy of this column, even if we only were able to touch on a few of the many reasons why. Please enjoy my talk with Philip Kaufman…
Capone: Hello, sir. How are you? It’s good to meet you.
Philip Kaufman: It’s good to see you. [Looks at my digital recorder] Everyone’s got these amazing devices now.
Capone: The recorder?
PK: Yeah, that’s pretty cool.
Capone: When was the last time you were in Chicago?
PK: Really back in Chicago--I mean I’ve stopped here sort of passing through once for a funeral--but really back and walking around here was probably over 30 years. I think it was around the time I did THE RIGHT STUFF, my father had gone into the hospital, and I came back here. Other than that I’ve been in San Francisco really pretty much all that time, but I grew up here.
Capone: Made your first couple of movies.
PK: I grew up here, made a couple of movies here, went to the University of Chicago, lived in Old Town. Where are you based, Chicago?
Capone: Yeah. In Uptown just a couple blocks north of the cutoff for Wrigleyville. Near the lake at Irving Park.
PK: Sure, sure. I grew up on the North Side, went to high school up there. I mean, I’m a Chicagoan.
Capone: I wasn’t born here, I will admit that. I’ve been here for more than 25 years, but I went to school at Northwestern and never left. What do you remember making those first couple of films here? Correct me if I’m wrong, but you did not go to film school. I know you went to law school at Harvard and then you studied history?
PK: University of Chicago, yeah. There were no film schools. Actually, NYU had one, and USC and UCLA. I think those were the only film schools really. So we learned--as I look out the window at the Art Institute now--by going to the Art Institute. They bring in good films. You could see Renoir, et.
Capone: They still do.
PK: But this was one of the rare places, and there used to be a theater called the Clark Theater that was really rundown kind of place in a bad neighborhood, but every Wednesday night they would show a double feature of European or classic movies or even old Westerns. My son Peter would have been four or five years old, and he would come and sit through these with us, because we were so hungry to see movies. There were of course no DVDs, so that when you went to a movie you had to be really on your game. You may never see this movie again, and you really had to pay attention and appreciate.
Whatever appreciate means, it was something that my generation learned to do. Rather than being critical of a piece of work, you thank God for something that was interesting, that was special. Now people pass judgment so quickly. They're sitting in theaters tweeting as the fucking film is being shown. “This is boring” and they miss key parts.
One of the greatest reviews of all time for me was James Agee writing--I think it was about a Chaplin movie--and he wrote in Time magazine, “I’ve just seen a movie that I really enjoyed, but I can’t write about it for a week.” Films need to marinate. They need to sink in. We come out too quickly, passing judgment. You go to film festivals, great and important as they are, and people argue right outside the door. I sometimes think a really good movie takes time to get into your bloodstream.
Capone: I completely agree. I’m just old enough to have not grown up with the instant-review style of criticism. But yeah, if something really strikes me and really impresses me, I often try to see it again before I write about it. You mentioned, and I was going to get to this later, but you mentioned San Francisco, and that seems to be were you have filmed a lot of your more recent things there. To me, Los Angeles is not the most cinematic city in California; it’s San Francisco. What have you learned and gained from being there?
PK: Well one of the things is that it’s not Los Angeles. [laughs] We lived for six years down in L.A., and I wasn’t really happy there. I had done my two independent films in Chicago. We lived in San Francisco for two brief times before that, but then I had to go down to Los Angeles to try to get work and I really ended up making basically two movies in Los Angeles, but it was not a happy thing. I’ve never really looked at film as a career; I made films because I was interested in learning about something from another time. I started out wanting to write novels. We lived in Europe, and I wanted to look on films as a way of writing, a way of thinking about things, a way of experiencing things.
It’s one of the reasons maybe why I don’t make the same “genre film” over and over again, because I sometimes live through an experience. I’ve made a Western. I made some horror movies. I’ve lived through independent movies and then I want to try something else. I want to see what else there is in the world, so sometimes if people make the same kind of movie over and over again, that’s a career. You’re not learning. You think you’re teaching. You’re making money. You're becoming a "star" or whatever it is, and I’m not interested in that kind of stuff.
So San Francisco for me is a place where I’m not connected on a day-to-day basis with the career of filmmaking. I have a lot of friends there. There’s a lot of great talent up there and every aspect of filmmaking. Unfortunately, a lot of people have to move to LA to live, but on this film we just did, HEMINGWAY AND GELHORN, I worked with my old friend Walter Murch, the editor, who just might be the world’s greatest editor. He lives up there. All the great sound people at Skywalker, special effects houses, Tippett Studios…
Capone: …several animation houses are out there.
PK: Yeah, everybody, but they're all up there for a reason. I mean, it’s harder to shoot there; it’s more expensive. My son produces my movies, and we just wake up in the morning and come with the excitement of making films, not the dread of studios and all of that. We're totally responsible when it comes to making films on a budget if we agree we're going to do that, but we just don’t want to live in that world of whatever that atmosphere, that bad spirit that’s infected Los Angeles. For me, it's a bad vibe.
When I first arrived there, it was the filmmakers and even stars who were more important, but then suddenly it’s the agents and the studios. They're making huge amounts of money, and it’s an area where there’s a lot of fear. Talk about horror movies: it's infested and it’s all about box office and making a million dollars profit on a movie is a failure to them. They want to make $50 million profit. That’s why nine out of ten movies that they make don’t make money, but they gamble on the one. Whereas we as filmmakers, every single movie has to make a profit or else they don’t want to deal with you again.
Capone: Speaking of the HEMINGWAY AND GELHORN film, it was a nice little surprise to see Robert Duvall in the film, because you had worked with him so long ago [in THE GREAT NORTHFIELD MINNESOTA RAID] when he was really just starting to move into the leading man area.
PK: Yeah. He said he wanted to do it. He said, “I’ll do it if we agree that I won’t get a credit.” He said, “I’m just doing it for you.” He just wanted to work together again, and there’s also a little cameo by Brooke Adams. She comes running in speaking Spanish. She’s married to Tony Shalhoub, but when the fascists are bombing Madrid, and she comes in saying in Spanish essentially, “They're here. They're bombing us.” Which is an echo of INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS when the pods are here. So she did a little friendly cameo that way too.
Capone: Let me just go through a couple of the films. THE GREAT NORTHFIELD MINNESOTA RAID to me was always one of the great Midwesterns. And despite what ended up happening with JOSEY WALES, that to me is one of the great Westerns.
PK: NORTHFIELD RAID is really the transition, that post-Civil War transition, from the old Western, which we had more the landscape of JOSEY WALES and so forth and that world of mechanization. It was made actually at the same time or maybe even slightly before MCCABE AND MRS. MILLER, but it took the studio a year or more to put it out for various reasons. You saw some of the progress of things, and Cliff Robertson’s character, Cole Younger, was meant to be a guy who wanted to leave the west behind where as Robert Duvall was more a vengeance-based, traditional western, Jesse James hero. A great theme of westerns is vengeance and JOSEY WALES in a way is a theme of vengeance for what’s happened. As you know, I wrote that and cast it and did everything with JOSEY WALES. It ended up in another guy’s hands, but that’s another story.
Capone: It’s too bad his career never took off.
PK: [Laughs] Yeah, right. They were playing baseball up there, and it’s got people speaking Swedish and it really was the end of the Western, ending with the lines “Ain’t that a wonderment?” It’s something that I believed in, everything is pretty amazing that you see, even if they shot you full of bullets, which I sometimes feel. But if you just keep getting up, that is an important theme to me. “No matter how many times you get shot down, try to rise up. Listen to the music, and look at the pretty girls.”
Capone: In remembering many of your films from that period, you have this wonderful fascination with inserting documentary footage, whether it’s real or recreated. Why did you do that, was it the look of the footage?
PK: That’s a complicated thing, but even in the reason that NORTHFIELD RAID took a year to come out was that we shot… Bruce Surtees, who also went on to be the cameraman on JOSEY WALES…we shot the opening with an actual hand-cranked camera that we got out of a museum. It was all shot in black and white cranking at approximately whatever the frame rate was--24 frames per second--and we made a black-and-white film at the beginning. And the studio, when they saw it, to their horror said, “Why didn’t you shoot it in color? We could have printed it in black and white.” I said, "That’s why I shot it in black and white." They didn’t get the humor of that. And they said, “If it goes on television, everyone will turn it off if it’s in black and white.” So it took a lot of time to put color mattes behind that, but it didn’t have the purity that I originally wanted it to have.
In the opening of THE WHITE DAWN , it was black and white. Sometimes I think with that I learned the necessity. I couldn’t get old sailing vessels up to the arctic, so I realized in order to get some of those sailing vessels and bastardize footage from MOBY DICK and things that I would have to shoot in black and white that whole opening sequence, so that I could blend and meld things back and forth. Of course in THE RIGHT STUFF and THE UNBEARABLE LIGHTNESS OF BEING, people don’t realize how much of THE RIGHT STUFF combined footage in order to get scope--the NASA footage with our actors. We had Scott Glenn shaking hands with President Kennedy years before Forrest Gump did it and trumped them since they spent a million dollars on one scene; we did that in one afternoon. [la]ughs
So I learned some of those techniques and played with those things. This was before THE RIGHT STUFF, we shot that before ZELIG and things like that. The other thing about the past, particularly in HEMINGWAY AND GELHORN, is that you are bound to the authenticity of the past. When we were nesting our people into the past, we made sure that the costumes were a certain way, the makeup, even the physicality of casting the people, and that if we were putting our people into to the past, they had to match. They were authenticated by the fact that they fit into the past, that they fit into the Joris Ivens' film [The Spanish Earth, a 1937 anti-fascist documentary made with Hemingway]. Too many films that are historical, the costumes look like they came out of the dry cleaners. The actors look like they came out of a gymnasium. They’ve been working out all morning. Their haircuts look like they were blow dried and so forth. There can be fine movies made that way.
But to make a really authentic film with scope and size--if we had done HEMINGWAY AND GELHORN the full way--would have cost $90 million dollars to do eight countries and all of that. But with these techniques and with things that we had learned, we were able to do it for an HBO budget. The other thing is when people look at a film like that, however serious it may be, Peter, my son, was saying, you wish people would look at the playfulness that we made it with, that just by moving people in and out of the past, by using these color schemes, by using the patterns that Walter Murch and I experimented with on UNBEARABLE LIGHTNESS OF BEING, where you had the Russian invasion of Czechoslovakia and some of the footage was in desaturated color, some was in black and white. There’s a recipe, and we hope when people come to our restaurant they're going to like the food that we serve. [laughs]
Capone: I work for a sort of geek-centric website, so I wanted to ask, I know that you had this STAR TREK script [long said to be called STAR TREK: PLANET OF TITANS, originally written by Chris Bryant and Allan Scott and later rewritten by Kaufman] that you were hired to direct. I’m really curious what the thrust and focus of it was.
PK: Oh we know your site. [laughs] Somebody sent me a note: “Would you be interested in doing it?” Paramount was going to throw it away. They had no idea what it was, and I knew what it was, but in order to make a feature in my mind, I just didn’t want to go over exactly the same cast of characters and so forth. I felt that we could make it a big epic feature based on this “going to where no man has gone before” theme. But also that there was a great sexuality that Roddenberry had buried into it, and that I could build upon.
Eventually, they started making these more big spectacular things, but at the time, the studio really didn’t know what they had. I wanted to basically take that story… I was particularly fascinated by Spock, by Leonard Nimoy--that’s how Leonard got into INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS--and go through some sort of black hole, adventures with Klingons. I wanted to Toshiro Mifune to play a Klingon and to basically have a competition between Leonard Nimoy and Toshiro Mifune and build the story out from that with sexuality and grand cosmic mysteries where we could really do something big.
What happened was that George Lucas and I were friends. We went to London. Ken Adam was going to do the sets. Ralph McQuarrie, Lucas' artist, was already in London [doing set conceptual designs]. We were drawing things and so forth. They had just finished shooting STAR WARS, and we saw the people at Fox, and they were snickering at how bad STAR WARS was going to be. They said we had to pull the plug on that movie, “It was crap.” And I remember the morning, I woke up, I'd been up all night writing, and I really had the story and I could barely stand up. I said to my wife, “Now I know what the story is,” and the phone rang, and it was the producer saying they just cancelled the project, because the head of the studio said, “There’s no future in science fiction.” About two or three months later, right after that, STAR WARS came out.
Capone: So you were going to jettison most of the cast that we knew at that point?
PK: They were going to play more of a minor role. I was going to put them in the background. I really wanted to feature Spock and make it something like a Kurosawa epic in a way and give it a big landscape and take these characters to a place they had never been. It was a few years later when they revived it, and Robert Wise did it, and they got into all these subsequent things, but I just didn’t want to go totally geek. I wanted to give a new dream, but using the ideas of what the old thing was.
Capone: It makes sense. You were moving into a big screen; make it a big epic film.
PK: Make it like LAWRENCE OF ARABIA or something grand. George did that in STAR WARS. But I think if Paramount had gone with ours at the time, they would have made hundreds of millions of dollars more and much earlier.
[There has been much written about the unfilmed screenplay STAR TREK: PLANET OF TITANS, but Kaufman's description of the plot does not seem like that story, which was attributed to other writers as well.]
Capone: Did your love of space and science fcition come from the real world with what was going on with the space race and you depicted in THE RIGHT STUFF?
PK: To some degree, yeah, but I loved "Star Trek" on television just because the way it took you into an area of dreams that standard television didn’t take you and I saw an opportunity. The studio had no idea. They thought at the time it was a throwaway, crappy TV series, but as soon as I got it I was excited by that. It was sort of combination of things. But with THE RIGHT STUFF, again we had to do that on a budget. It was not that expensive, but I think I came up with that line “The right stuff, how the future began” was what that was about. So I’m interested in the future, but most of my films take place in the past, because I know something about the past, and the future is more speculation, as is the present. [laughs]
Capone: Well obviously there’s 100 more things I could ask you, but thank you so much. It was really great to meet you.