“[Being a director is about] being an observer—a pair of eyes with some sort of taste attached—someone who can understand what’s going to make a good moment from what is going on in front of them.”
— Philip Kaufman
Writer-director Philip Kaufman is back with a new picture, his twelfth in a career spanning some 40 years. Twisted, a thriller starring Ashley Judd, Andy Garcia and Samuel L. Jackson, takes the veteran moviemaker back to the streets of San Francisco, his base of operations since the early 1970s.
Long considered somewhat of a Hollywood outsider, Kaufman has nonetheless been on cordial terms with the establishment since minting his first studio picture, The Great Northfield, Minnesota Raid in 1972. The film’s tagline, “the way the west really was,” hinted at the sort of preoccupations Kaufman would concern himself with throughout his career: this is a moviemaker who tends to align himself with the unofficial, untold or misplaced version of events. He has a predilection for independent, sometimes marginal characters—people who embrace their individuality, often in the face of strong opposition from the world around them. It’s thematic territory he has mined more than once, with varying degrees of success.
The Unbearable Lightness of Being (1988) was a clear critical and commercial highlight. And while his follow-up, Henry & June (1990), did not connect as successfully with audiences, he pushed ahead with an adaptation of Michael Crichton’s Rising Sun (1993). In 2000, Kaufman released Quills, a rambunctious retelling of the Marquis de Sade’s notorious incarceration in a French asylum. The picture received several Oscar nominations and was awarded Best Picture by the National Board of Review. Though not always a spinner of box office gold, Kaufman has been the midwife of a number of wonderful performances, working successfully over the years with some prodigious talent, including Robert Duvall, Daniel Day-Lewis, Juliette Binoche, Sean Connery, Wesley Snipes, Harvey Keitel, Uma Thurman and Donald Sutherland.
“When you are of like mind with your actors,” says Kaufman, “every moment is exciting… The great actors are filled with an amazing life spirit; that’s what being called ‘gifted’ is.” He loves to collaborate, so long as the game plan relates to his vision. In addition to his own pictures, Kaufman co-authored the enormously successful Raiders of The Lost Ark story with friend George Lucas and co-scripted Clint Eastwood’s offbeat western, The Outlaw Josey Wales.
Like many moviemakers who came to Hollywood in the late ’60s, Kaufman was a student of the more iconoclastic cinema of young Europe. His films still reveal their own blend of American and European stylings. “I came into cinema being impressed by the European New Wave. I wouldn’t be making films without the European thing, because when I began, Hollywood was pretty stagnated. Yet, like François Truffaut, I went back and rediscovered a lot of the American styling. American films are more story specific; the camera leaves less to the imagination; it points at the story that’s being told. I enjoy films where the director has judged something to be of interest and it’s up to the viewer to try to understand what he wanted, rather than to throw it out there and let the editor piece it together. I like point of view.”
On the eve of the release of Twisted, Kaufman chatted with MM about how a daring kid from the midwest became one of Hollywood’s tried and true independents.
Phillip Williams (MM): You started out as an independent moviemaker—in a sense before there was any “independent movement” to speak of. How did you get your films financed and distributed in those early days?
Philip Kaufman (PK): It was nothing like it is now, where you’ve got—and I know it’s tough now—Sundance. We started in Chicago with a couple of friends. I came back from living in Europe, seeing a lot of the New Wave cinema.
At the time I raised money, I knocked on doors and [talked to] anyone who knew anyone who might have a little extra money.
I think we raised about $40,000 and made that first movie, Goldstein. We shot it in black and white on the streets of Chicago, using a lot of actors from Second City. We got it into Cannes, [where it] shared a Young Critics Prize with Bertolucci’s Before The Revolution. We met a very small distributor there who put it out in a small number of theaters and that was it. It played in a few major cities and I was sort of back to square one. I did it again with another small movie, [Fearless Frank], but there just wasn’t a real independent American cinema at the time. That world had not yet come into being, and it was an early battle to try and get it started.
MM: How did you transition into making studio pictures? Was it a natural thing where someone just tapped on your shoulder?
PK: I had to leave Chicago. I’d done two independent films; I knew I couldn’t raise any more money because the movies hadn’t shown a profit. I think some of the laws changed which had allowed people to write off investments in film. We came out to San Francisco, then I went down to Los Angeles.
I knew only one person in LA—William Friedkin, who I went to high school with. He was just getting started. He’d done a Sonny and Cher movie. (laughing). I’d done that second movie, which hadn’t been released yet. It was John Voight’s first movie, actually. I’d seen him in an off-Broadway play, A View From The Bridge. Robert Duvall was in it, and Dustin Hoffman was the stage manager. I finally met someone who saw that movie and I got a contract at Universal for $175 a week in their Young Director’s program. I wrote a script called The Great Northfield, Minnesota Raid that sat in a drawer for five years.
MM: How did you end up writing The Outlaw Josey Wales for Clint Eastwood?
PK: I was a friend of Clint’s, I knew him from Universal, and [director] Don Siegel was a friend of mine. It was just a group of people who we became friendly with. Bruce Surtees shot Northfied Raid and some of Eastwood’s movies. I was pursued by Clint, so I wrote the script.
MM: That film has some wonderful writing, and a great cast of characters—which is something you are consistent with in your pictures. Does that emphasis on character ever scare off investors?
PK: The commercial line often doesn’t want to take that into account, but there are times when that opens up. If you look at a movie like Notorious, you see that Hitchcock did many movies which, in a way, had less character. But that film was so entirely motivated and shot in a way which highlighted the characters and their inner relationships. People will rip off a thriller plot from Hitchcock, but will forget the great character. Look at Psycho—the first 40 minutes are all about what’s going on inside Janet Leigh’s head. For me, that’s where films live. Then you add all the visuals.
I like character and strong visuals. I like music in my movies, even though I don’t always work with a composer. It’s hard to know why I want to do something. I could read five scripts on the same subject and only one of them will make me want to do it. A lot of them won’t have a take which inspires me. I just read a biography on somebody I was interested in doing a film on and the book totally turned me off. Sometimes facts can be the enemy of beauty.
MM: Do you generally initiate your projects?
PK: I try to. But I’m open to anything. Quills, which was a very personal movie for me, came from Doug Wright’s play. We ended up working very closely together. I insisted on him staying in London, even though there was no money in the budget. I worked very closely with [Doug and the actors], yet I felt it was my movie. We made changes every day and I know Doug felt that it remained true to his initial vision.
With Henry & June, my wife and I spent a year writing the script; I had decided I wasn’t even going to read anything else. It was tough, but then I was able to go off and make that movie and find some way of financing it, maybe because some people liked The Unbearable Lightness of Being.
MM: It seems as if you’ve been steering yourself toward more Hollywood-friendly pictures of late…
PK: Twisted came to me. I didn’t think it was right for me at first, but I liked the line about a female homicide detective who’s searching for a killer and discovers that all the victims are men she’s had affairs with. She begins to suspect that she herself may be the very person she’s looking for. Not only did that seem like a good psychological thriller line, it seemed like a good piece of wisdom: that we are the people we’re looking for.
Sherry Lansing called me, and then Ashley Judd commited to it and we began discussing it with Arnold Kopelson and different people. Gradually I felt I could shape it into something which interested me. It’s great when you can do a Hollywood movie because the money is there and the distribution is there, and that’s so important. I’ve made so many movies which I thought would be ‘commercial’ if they could be seen by people, but were limited in distribution. I’m delighted that Lost In Translation did so well, because traditionally, that type of movie would be destroyed in distribution.
MM: It’s bizarre how someone like Elaine May will get trashed for a film like Ishtar, when people make less-than-perfect work all the time, and that film actually had some great material in it.
PK: You’re absolutely right. There’s a scene that actually made me fall out of my seat laughing. Elaine May is a genius. She should have directed 10 movies by now; everybody goes to her for scripts. There are many examples of brilliant people who haven’t had the shots and mediocre people who have risen to the top.
MM: You shot Twisted in San Francisco. It’s such a beautiful city, but I personally find that something is lost when it goes to film; it seems like a hard place to capture.
PK: Twisted has a foggy, noir quality. I’m eager for people to see it.
MM: We haven’t been able to see many of your films lately…
PK: I know! It’s tough. I guess you just keep doing your sit-ups until your time comes around again. You have to be ready to get out there. I’m chomping at the bit. I have a number of things on the verge of happening, but I couldn’t tell you what my next film is going to be.
MM: Obviously the way to learn how to make movies is to make them, but what do you do during your downtime to keep your chops?
PK: What I’ve always done is go to movies a lot. Everything is about learning when you are making a movie. The biggest danger is ego. So much ambition goes into our business. I try to consider that directing is more than walking around with a megaphone. It’s really being an observer—a pair of eyes with some sort of taste attached—someone who can understand what’s going to make a good moment from what is going on in front of them. I don’t really know what the answer is.
Watching other people’s movies isn’t always the best thing either, though. Movies can become just a reflection of what everyone else is seeing. The greatness of Sergio Leone was that he was able to take the western and find a new frontier with it. Obviously he saw everything and watched everything. But it depends how you watch and how you learn. MM