I interviewed the legendary writer and director Phillip Kaufman in Chicago at the Chicago International Film Office on October 15, 2012. He was in Chicago for a special screening of “The White Dawn” and to present a seminar with Annette Insdorf, the author of the new book, “Phillip Kaufman.”
Sarah Knight Adamson: You’re here for the Chicago International Film Festival which includes a special screening of the 1974 film, “The White Dawn” which you directed. Could you please talk about the gist of this film?
Phillip Kaufman: The film is based on a book by author James Houston and his experiences in the artic with the Inuit people and their contact with shipwrecked people who they called ‘white sailors.’
SKA: The theme is fascinating, and I would imagine a study in human nature.
PK: Yes, indeed, it’s a love story and an adventure of three survivors: Warren Oates, Louis Gossett Jr. and Timothy Bottoms. It’s meant to have some passion, compassion and amusement.
SKA: You’re also presenting a ‘1 to 1 conversation with Columbia professor Annette Insdorf’ who has just published a book about your film career and covers your directing. What were you most pleased about in her book?
PK: I was most pleased that she discovered me and wrote the book! (laughs) I met her 12 years ago while she was teaching at Columbia. I’m pleased because she’s brilliant and hopefully makes me look brilliant.
SKA: Let’s talk about your writing as you have so many wonderful screenplays and story ideas. Can you tell us about the Indiana Jones movies and how those came to be?
PK: George Lucas and I are friends and live in San Francisco; we go for walks together and this walk was before “Stars Wars.” He had the idea of doing an ‘old serial’ kind of thing that we grew up on in the ‘30s and ‘40s. We started talking about the character of Indiana Jones and I had some ideas about the lost ark and the Nazis searching for certain things. We were developing a movie that we were trying to make but also didn’t happen, as we had no money back then. He called me about 4 years later and said that he’d been on a beach in Hawaii with Steven Spielberg and told him our story. He also said that Steven wanted to do the film and wondered if I was okay with that. I didn’t write the screenplay, I met with Lawrence Kasdan and told him all of my ideas and they took it from there.
SKA: Sure, but you’re responsible for the story development and some of the characters.
PK: Yes, the story and some of the characters.
SKA: Another favorite film of mine is “The Right Stuff.” You did write the screenplay and directed the film, which won 4 Oscars and was nominated for best picture. At what point did you feel that everything was falling into place with the movie?
PK: It took a lot of careful planning so you just hope that everything is falling into place before you start shooting. We did a lot of story boarding and during the course of the movie we had to experiment with special effects. That was challenging.
SKA: How was the film received internationally?
PK: It was a great success and played for five years in Paris. In most countries they cut out about an hour of the film, which changed the nature of what the film was about. They cut out the fun, which changed the tone.
SKA: Roger Ebert praised your 1988 film “ The Unbearable Lightness of Being,” and gave it 4 stars. He said, “It’s not the sexual content itself, but the way Kaufman has been able to use it as an avenue for a complex story, one of nostalgia, loss, idealism and romance.” Can you speak to that, please?
PK: Thank you Roger! (We both laugh) Roger Ebert was important in my early films as he championed some of my earlier films. It was challenging to bring the book to the big screen. We were also lucky to have all of the wonderful actors in the beginnings of their careers. It was a grand experience in many ways. We were able to use black and white found footage with color footage.
SKA: Which brings me to Daniel-Day Lewis, I was wondering how he was to direct. Did he partake in any extreme preparations for this role, as he’s known for?
PK: Daniel is very intense and very funny, a brilliant man and a compassionate guy. Early on, before we began shooting, he actually did go to Prague and sat in on some brain surgeries because in the film he plays a surgeon. So, in the film he’s humming and whistling while he’s preforming surgery due to his observations of surgeons. He’s brilliantly intense and very funny. I’ve had some of the greatest laughs with him as well. He’s just a joy to work with.
SKA: I just watched your HBO film, “Hemmingway and Gellhorn.” What an incredible movie! Nicole Kidman and Clive Owen had such great chemistry. How did they prepare for their characters?
PK: We did a certain amount of rehearsal together, although Clive took almost a year or two, which is the kind of thing that we were talking about with Daniel. He gained 40 pounds, he went to Cuba, went to Spain and Paris, he went out fishing; he learned to speak like Hemingway.
Caroline Moorehead was the biographer for Martha Gellhorn and also thought that Nicole captured Martha exactly.
Although, the greatest response was when the film was shown at the Cannes Film Festival and received an extended standing ovation, and Martha’s two children were both crying and one of the son’s wrote us a letter and said, “You got my mother exactly right.”
SKA: I actually didn’t know much about Martha Gellhorn and I really enjoyed the movie, as it was educational as well as entertaining.
PK: Yes, and we all know that Hemmingway was a great writer, and when people commented on his writing the term ‘grace under pressure’ was used and does come from Hemingway’s writing. This came to be known as the Hemmingway code. But, Hemingway, tragically, by the end could no longer live up to the Hemmingway code, but guess who does? Martha Gellhorn. She carries that code and was the bearer of the writing code for 30 years after Hemingway’s death and went to every war zone and became by many accounts the greatest war correspondent of all time.
SKA: What do you like most about living in San Francisco? And…do you write in the cafes as Francis Ford Coppola has done?
PK: I go to the cafes all the time, I’m not sure that I’ve written in them. I like that quality of San Francisco. It has a European thing to me. Any direction you travel outside of the city is beautiful and I have lots of friends here that are interested in all kinds of art forms. I love making films here and wish I could make more. I gather all of these artistic, talented people and we work together and have lots of fun! It’s also a great city for foodies of all types and foodies of the soul.
SA: Well, I’d like to thank you so much for speaking with me. It was such a pleasure to meet you.
PK: Oh, do we have to stop? (We both chuckle) Thank you so much!
SA: Well, I wish we didn’t have to, but I’ll interview you again anytime!
Sarah Knight Adamson© October 15, 2012