Mar 28, 2017
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Kaufman: As Interviewed by Dalessandro
by Sky Tallone
After receiving his CineQuest Maverick Spirit award, director, writer and all-around innovator, Philip Kaufman takes a quick breather before his interview. photo: Kymberli Brady
As the film industry has become less and less about art and more and more about business, getting movies made in Hollywood has become increasingly difficult for artists with unique and inspirational stories to tell.
Despite a stellar commercial track record, director/writer Philip Kaufman is one of those so afflicted. A true artist, arguably one of the greatest filmmakers alive—certainly a Bay Area Mount Rushmore of Cinema candidate, Kaufman is under-appreciated by today’s mainstream. But he still gets his masterpieces made.
Born in Chicago, Illinois, Kaufman studied law at the University of Chicago and had no intention of making movies—as I learned from writer/producer James Dalessandro's fascinating interview at CineQuest's Day of the Writer on March 9th.
As a matter of fact, Kaufman went on to Harvard Law School, got married, and proceeded to live all over the world with his wife Rose before eventually working his way into film at a time when there weren’t lots of opportunities for independent filmmakers.
His first film “Goldstein” (1964), a comedic feature, which he wrote, directed, and produced, won him the Prix de la Nouvelle Critique at Cannes in 1965. From there, he went on to write and direct some of the most powerful and entertaining films in history, including writing the story for Steven Spielberg’s “Raiders of the Lost Ark” (1981).
Some of his most memorable films were revisited in the Day of the Writer clip reel, starting with a masterful scene from “The Great Northfield Minnesota Raid” (1972), a witty Western starring Robert Duvall and written and directed by Kaufman.
There were also scenes from “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” (1978) directed by Kaufman, “The Wanderers” (1979), “The Right Stuff” (1983), “The Unbearable Lightness of Being” (1988), and “Henry and June” (1990), all written and directed by Kaufman. Finally, the audience especially enjoyed a hilarious moment in “Quills” (2000), directed by Kaufman.
Kaufman is welcomed to stage at CineQuest to be interviewed by his old friend James Dalessandro. photo: Kymberli Brady
Kaufman's other films include “Fearless Frank” (1967), “The Outlaw Josey Wales” (1976) which was directed by Clint Eastwood, “Rising Sun” (1993), and “Twisted” (2004). He most recently directed “Hemingway & Gellhorn” (2012) with Nicole Kidman and Clive Owen, which was shot in San Francisco and Oakland last year and will air on HBO this May.
It’s no wonder that CineQuest chose to honor Kaufman with the Maverick Spirit Award, which features great artists who took a different route from the rest of the herd, and to have an interview during the Day of the Writer, which celebrates the writers who have brought us some of the most powerful stories in film. Not only has Kaufman continued to tell extraordinarily original stories, he didn't have to live his life in Hollywood to do it.
After the clip reel, Kaufman accepted the Maverick Spirit Award and sat down for a discussion with his good friend James Dalessandro. Both Kaufman and Dalessandro have been dedicated to jump-starting film and television work in the Bay Area.
A novelist and poet as well as screenwriter, Dalessandro founded the famous Santa Cruz Poetry Festival with Lawrence Ferlinghetti, wrote the historical novel “1906,” now in development at Pixar, and “Citizen Jane” (2009) for the Hallmark Channel, now being made into a TV series called “Justice”. He invited this author to intro and write up the interview.
When did you get the disease to be a filmmaker? The bug. What influenced you, what was the moment, what was the turning point?
Hard to say exactly. I went to the movies all the time in Chicago as a kid. We hung out with gangs of guys like in 'The Wanderers'. Fights in movie theaters, hanging out in the balcony, pretending to be Henry Miller. My wife and I were first married after I finished law graduate school at the University of Chicago. There was a fake breeze of the new way of stardom.
The Bay Area's Mt. Rushmore of Cinema candidates (lft-rt): George Lucas, Francis Ford Coppola and Kaufman, with Tosca Cafe owner Jeannette Etheredge. photo: courtesy P. Kaufman
We came out to Northern California early with my producer Peter, who was about four months old at the time. I was training him. I think it’s toilet training, how you teach someone to be a great producer, which he is. And we lived in Sausalito and Mill Valley and different places, had odd jobs. I’d hang out with friends at a new bar that just opened called the No-Name Bar. And we started talking about movies.
We went to Europe and lived in Greece and Israel, and we lived in Florence. In Florence, I was teaching mathematics and we ran into certain people, and started seeing films by many people. Pasolini, in particular. I got this sense you could actually MAKE movies out on the street! I mean, this you all take for granted now, but that was not what was going on in those days. We were coming out of the fifties, and Hollywood was particularly technical, and it was an inaccessible world.
In Europe, I saw Cassavetes’ 'Shadows' in Amsterdam. We moved to Amsterdam for awhile and saw Shirley Clarke’s 'The Connection', and we just started missing America with those movies. And I just started thinking—I’d been writing a novel—and I just said to Rose, 'Let’s try to make some movies.'
There was no independent film movement so-to-speak, other than Cassavetes and Shirley Clark and two other people in the country. There were, I think, three film schools at the time. [NYU in] New York [and] two in LA: USC and UCLA. But we just went back to Chicago and started thinking about making a movie. It wasn’t a career—it didn’t exist that way. That career opportunity as an independent filmmaker just didn’t exist. You had to sort of create it from scratch and knock at doors and try to raise a little money.
We had known Henry Miller a little bit, we’d gone to visit him and so forth. Really, our background was literature, His work excited me, and excitement is really the key. Who are the writers who can transmit some energy to you?
I knew Anaïs Nin—I didn’t know her but she came to the University of Chicago—and we went and saw her. After she spoke, I told her that I knew Miller. And we sat down, and I was telling her some ideas, and she told me, 'You should make movies.' It kind of snuck up on me, it wasn’t something I was born knowing I wanted to do.
'The Wanderers,' a Richard Price novel about gangsters [and] kids living in New York. Dolph Sweet plays this old fat mafia guy who finds out that Ken Wahl is banging his daughter. He calls Ken Wahl [in], who’s shaking because of the old mobster, and says, 'I don't blame you. When I was your age, I was knockin' 'em off left and right, but I never did it with nobody's daughter.' Tell us about 'The Wanderers'.
Kaufman shooting 'Quills' 1999. photo: courtesy P. Kaufman
I had already done a couple of movies prior along the way and my producer read a book called 'The Wanderers.' And he said to Rose and I, 'Why don’t you make a movie of this?” So we read it—Richard Price is a great writer—it was a group of stories really, a coming-of-age [collection]. Nobody was after the book, so we got an option and Rose actually wrote the first draft of it.
It was terrific. We had a European producer, who, at that moment in time, was probably the biggest producer in the world. He had done all the spaghetti Westerns, he’d done Bertolucci’s ‘Last Tango’, Fellini’s movies, so many big movies [Alberto Grimaldi]. The spaghetti Westerns sort of made United Artists at the time. We wanted to show him the script of 'The Wanderers'.
Some top executive there said, 'We’re not going to do this because nobody wants to see a movie about teenagers.' Eventually, we got it made, about four or five years later. And it was a great experience. Richard Price is in the movie, by the way.
‘The Unbearable Lightness of Being.’ I read the book before the movie came out. Milan Kundera, a Czech writer, wrote a couple of really terrific books, and I wasn’t convinced it would make a great movie, but you made a masterpiece of it. Would you say that you made Daniel Day Lewis?
That was his first lead in a movie. We were in Europe trying to cast the movie, actually on our way to Stockholm. We’d met a lot of actors and hadn’t found the right person. One morning, I woke up in my hotel room and turned on the T.V. and saw this young guy with a shaved head being interviewed. It was Daniel Day Lewis. And there was just something about him that was so charming and so right. We called our casting agent, and within an hour, Daniel was in our hotel room. I just felt he had it.
For the female, we wanted to cast Lena Olin. She told us that she was about to have a baby [but she did it anyway]. And she had the baby right at the start of filming and had to do nude scenes and everything right after. She was amazing.
People talk about how it’s about the career, but it’s really about having adventures. As a writer, you want to live a certain kind of life. That’s how I met Henry Miller.
'Invasion of the Body Snatchers’: scariest fuckin’ movie ever made. You want to know why? George Bernard Shaw once said, ‘You’re allowed one big lie, and everything else has to be logical.’ You have the body-snatchers and the pods, but everything else is so logical. Tell us why you did it, you seem like the least likely guy to do [that] remake.
We loved the original but it was from another time. It was black and white and had a certain kind of radio feeling. There was a voice-over that kind of guided the imagery. As I say, Siegel [director of the 1956 version] was a friend of mine and I happened to have read the book by Jack Finney.
'The RIght Stuff', 1983, dynamic, highly original and commercial, heralded Kaufman as a premier America filmmaker. photo: courtesy P. Kaufman
Well, the book had a different feeling. It was more of a science fiction story, and it had an ending that wasn’t hopeful. I said to him [Siegel], 'That ending, I just think the way you ended it, where the FBI is going to come once they hear about the pods and humanity is going to be saved—’ He said, ‘We didn’t want to end it that way.' We wanted to end it in a way where you know that they’re going to take over.’
You got the heart and soul of San Francisco in that movie, better than anyone ever did. You took what could have been a frivolous movie and turned it into a masterpiece. It hit on big issues.
San Francisco is my favorite city in the world. Every now and then I get to do a movie in San Francisco. “All the Right Stuff’, ‘Hemingway & Gellhorn’. I like to work with my friends and family and people I’ve worked with before, but too many have had to leave San Francisco to go to Los Angeles. There are a number of important people living in San Francisco, but not enough trying to shoot here.
Tell us about 'Indiana Jones'.
I was going to direct it. George talked to me, and we were friends at the time. Everything seemed to be meshing, but there was no money to do the project. About four years later, George called me and said he was on the beach with Spielberg in Hawaii and Spielberg wanted to do it. I didn’t end up writing the script, Lawrence Kasdan wrote it.
Everyone has illusions about heroic characters, but they were cowboys. I heard that story about Chuck Yager.
The greatest pilot who ever lived probably, great guy. I wasn’t a pilot but he took me for a ride over the desert and his son was in the cockpit. He gave me the controls and said, ‘Steer.’ And then he turned the engine off, and he expected me to freak out. But I was with the man who was immortal,so I just said, 'Whenever you’re ready, Chuck, turn it back on.’
I kind of ruined his joke, but here was the most fearless man. But when we would drive to the set, he NEVER went over the speed limit, because he knew how dangerous driving was.
Tell us the story about how they didn’t give you enough money to make the movie right. They never do, right?
In general, they never do. But that’s the deal. When you get an amount of money, you have to make it go as far as you can. I personally like doing smaller movies. We just did ‘Hemingway & Gellhorn’ which was for HBO, but we shot it like any other feature. And we had to do the most with the amount of money we were given, but that’s the fun of it.
Old friends, Dalessandro and Kaufman obviously enjoyed their interview. photo: Kymberli Brady
Tell them how you shot the flight scenes in “All The Right Stuff’.
When we started out, the technology that existed was at ILM, George was doing outer space and had done a couple Star Wars movies. We had our own company set up in SF and soon discovered that that stop-motion technique just didn’t work on this Earth. It worked great over other planets where you could create all the elements and combine them, but if you wanted anything with reality, it wasn’t going to work.
I remember driving home over Potrero hill, and seeing up in the sky going through the clouds, an airplane. And I thought, ‘We ought to be able to figure that out.’ So we went out to the desert and started throwing little model airplanes, and had a bunch of cameras following them. We had them on strings, went back in time instead of forward, whatever we had to. Digital effects weren’t what they are today, but that’s the fun of it is being inventive. It’s like a mechanic who figures out how to make things work. There is so much technology now, and so many talented people doing it, but—
The inventiveness is lost.
Tell us about “Hemingway & Gellhorn.’ What was it like working with Nicole Kidman and Clive Owen?
‘Hemingway & Gellhorn’ is about Martha Gellhorn, There was a BBC documentary done awhile back about Gellhorn. We saw that and had a lot of footage of Martha Gellhorn and Nicole Kidman.
Great actors are extraordinary. And they each have their own way of getting into character. I know what I want and I prepare, but when I see a great actor acting, I get so enraptured by it. I’m just watching and I want more! It’s amazing. The world is just full of talent. Young people know that, because this generation is really getting back into discoveries and talent and creativity. It’s exciting.
[Then Kaufman took questions from the audience.]
Audience Member One: The first time you see an actor, what are you looking for?
There is sort of an instinct that you hone over time. Film acting is a different thing [from theater]. I mean, Laurence Olivier was reputed to be the greatest actor of his time certainly, and he was great in ‘The Entertainer’, but not a particularly great film actor. And I don’t know if James Dean was a stage actor, but on film, there was something there.
So it’s hard to say, because film is filled with—the camera’s right there, When we’re making the movie, we have the opportunity to be right in there. And there are things that a person can convey. And it’s very tough, it’s very hard being an actor, and it’s very hard for me to not cast so many good people.
Dalessandro: What about rehearsal time? How much did you work with Clive Owen on Ernest Hemingway, and Nicole on Martha Gellhorn?
Well ideally, the more rehearsal time you can get—up to a point. I mean you’re not going to run it into the ground, but—it’s just valuable. I’ve done films without rehearsal, but for me, the improvisation you can do with rehearsals is great. You can find things, discover things, you can knock things around.
[But] improvisation, when you have specific lighting, doesn’t really work that well. So you want to improvise everything in advance, and the more rehearsal you have, the more the actors know specifically what they’re going to be doing at the time.
Some actors don’t like to rehearse. With ‘Quills’ for example, Joaquin Phoenix didn’t want to do that. But I wanted at least a big reading around the table, and Joaquin was sort of dragged in there. And I remember Geoffrey rush whispering something to me. ‘I think I’m gonna have a little go at it.’
Usually those table readings are very [restrained]—you know, you’re not really letting it all out. The first couple of readings are just so everyone knows who else is in the movie, but Geoff just started in with the Marquis de Sade. And Joaquin, I’ve heard that on his other movies since then, he wants that all the time now. Because it was such a good experience, to see Michael Cane, Kate Winslet, to see all these people once they start going. Actors, it’s amazing what they can do.
Dalessandro: A great quote from Billy Wilder, they said ‘Billy, do you think it’s necessary that a director can write?’ and he said, ‘No, but it sure helps if he can read.’
Audience Member Two: Do you find a comfort zone in real subjects about real people? Are you comforted by doing adaptations versus original work?
Like you said, it helps if you can read. I read books, and it sometimes helps to get the project going where they can see the book. It’s an element. I’ve written originals and so forth but it just takes... It’s hard to say. I’ve done a lot of adaptations, and I’ve done a number that haven’t been made. But when you’re fortunate enough to work with great writers, like Milan Kundera—I spent a lot of time working with him— [or] screenwriter Jean Claude Carrier, who is one of the world’s great screenwriters, but it’s a great book.
I hope the film is true to the spirit of the book, but we had to change the form entirely because there’s such a difference between—you know, the advantages that a writer has [with a book], the ability to change tenses and jump around. A film just sweeps you along.
Dalessandro: You’re just inspired by the stories. Like with ‘Hemingway & Gellhorn.’
[I am] impressed by writers, and impressed by women. Martha Gellhorn is amazing.
It will be released on Memorial Day all over the world as a feature film, and here on HBO. I heard you shot in a few different countries for the film.
We’ve shot [scenes from] six or seven different countries: Spain, Cuba, Germany, Finland, China, America— all in San Francisco.
There was one moment when we were shooting London from a small hotel room, and I was looking down a narrow hallway, and I saw something at the end of the hallway, it was the Palace of Fine Arts. It was a lithograph, of the period, of the Palace of Fine Arts, And the set dresser said, ‘It’s of the period!’ And I said, ‘I don’t want any of San Francisco in this movie.’
We did it with archival footage and with Tippett Studios. We were able to work with that footage and put our actors into the footage. And that plus the terrain settings around San Francisco, we were able to find China, Spain. I had a great editor: Walter Murch. We had the best time—Walter, he’d never been happier.
It’s family, we’re like family. And it all starts with working with people you know, and bringing new people into the experience. Because it’s not about success.
I haven’t been in L.A. in about six years. Even to make this movie, I never went down for casting, I never went down for anything.
It’s funny, because I don’t really know if I’m in the business. I just want to make movies. I don’t take part in all the day-to-day—I mean I think I have a commercial sense of what people want to see, which is what I want to see, and I think I know how to bring that about. And I think that often, other writers don’t know how to do that
A lot of studios, they’ll make ten huge movies and one will be successful and they’ll continue. But we, you know how hard it is; if you have one movie that doesn’t make it at the box office, you’re in trouble.
The guy that should get a no-cut contract to do whatever he wants for the next ten years is sitting right next to me. Ladies and Gentlemen, a great round of applause for one of the greatest filmmakers alive.
[After Dalessandro’s interview with Kaufman, he answered a few more questions backstage.]
Philip, how does it feel to be the recipient of this award?
I’m honored to be honored. I’m just coming back from a nice, intimate interview with James Dalessandro, who I’ve known for years. And I love the Bay Area. I love working around here and just sort of feeling like I’m with friends here. It’s nice to be here.
What does it mean to you to be a maverick?
I don’t think of that. I just try to make movies the way I want to make them. I guess somehow, along the way, I became a maverick—whatever that means. But I’ve lived here for a long time, and I very seldom get down to Los Angeles, so that’s partly what it is, I guess. And just maybe the nature of the movies I make. Obviously somebody here thought I was a maverick, so here I am.
Do you feel that by writing, you’re helping others empower their voices as well?
I hope so. I don’t know that that’s a reason most writers write, to be honest. I think most writers write for themselves and you hope that other people will read you or see what you’ve done. That’s primarily what I think gets writers going. I’m not a therapist who’s empowering people or something like that. I’m just trying to pass along some thoughts, visuals, ideas, and entertain people.
What do you think is the value of film?
Wow, that’s like talking about the nature of existence. Film is—in my lifetime, in our lifetime, in the last century—has been something people spend so much time with. And you hope that you’ll spend time with good thoughts and good things and learn something, I guess. But I don’t even do it to teach people.
You go back to what entertainment means. And entertainment doesn’t just mean song and dance, but it’s how you spend your time. If you spend time around people you like, you’re entertained. And I think drama can do that.
What is the value of youth in the industry?
I started when I was young, and it’s all about the energy, the enthusiasm, and in some ways, the naivety, the sense that I could do that, only maybe I could do it in a different way. Hopefully, people don’t get involved in film just to be successful. In my world, it doesn’t come as a career choice, but as an artistic choice. There’s something much nicer about living life as an artist. If you can make money on the side, if awards come your way, that’s fine.
I hope young people will try to get in touch with beauty and poetry. Art is a way of relating to the world. Unfortunately, too much of the times we live in, are about getting ahead. And getting ahead can lead to the end of things.
You’ve mentioned that Chuck Yager said that he ‘went where demons went.’ What is the value in that?
The film begins with the line, ‘There was a demon that lived in the air. Whoever challenged him would die.’ And you see one test pilot after another dying. But there was that sense that the demon had to be challenged. We’re always challenging demons, bringing them out of their lairs. They said nobody could do it. And the plane almost fell apart, but Yager did it. And the world moved into a new era, a new time.
I always have enjoyed the bookend. At the very end [of 'The Right Stuff'], when Denis Quaid, [playing] Gordon Cooper, is launched. And he’s the last man to go into space in the end of our movie, and as he’s going up, a light moves across his face and Denis’s big smile comes on and he says, ‘Oh lord, what a heavenly light.’ So whatever that is.
Whatever [puts you] in touch with the mysteries of things. You know, we all go after the mysteries.
Posted on Mar 14, 2012 - 01:17 PM