A Filmmaker With The Right Stuff: An excerpt from “Philip Kaufman” by Annette Insdorf

American director Philip Kaufman is hard to pin down: a visual stylist who is truly literate, a San Franciscan who often makes European films, he is an accessible storyteller with a sophisticated touch. Celebrated for his vigorous, sexy, and reflective cinema, Kaufman is best known for his masterpiece The Unbearable Lightness of Being, the astronaut saga The Right Stuff and an eclectic series of films including The Wanderers, Henry & June, The White Dawn and his remake of Invasion of the Body Snatchers.

Sam Shepard as Chuck Yeager, the first man to break the sound barrier; on location with Phil Kaufman for The Right Stuff.

As New York University celebrates the work of Kaufman with a complete retrospective, EatDrinkFilms is proud to offer two selections from Annette Insdorf’s book, Philip Kaufman: Enjoy the opening chapter and an excerpt from her interviews with Kaufman.

After the excerpts you will find an exclusive video, recorded for the launch of the series. This insightful conversation includes artists who have worked with him.

An Eye for An “I”

By Annette Insdorf

Philip Kaufman’s cinema is stylistically and philosophically rich.  Nevertheless, he has not received the kind of acclaim routinely showered on his peers.  One reason is that the movies of directors such as Woody Allen, Robert Altman, or Quentin Tarantino are easier to categorize as belonging to one man.  Because Kaufman’s versatility is greater than his recognizability, he is considered less of an auteur.  But close analysis of his twelve films reveals a true auteur at work.  They are connected first by formal majesty: if Flaubert invoked “le mot juste” (the exact word), Kaufman finds “l’image juste”–the precise cinematic device appropriate to the story.   Second, they are linked by an exploration of recurring and resonant themes.  No other living American director has so consistently and successfully made movies for adults, tackling sensuality, artistic creation, and manipulation by authorities (governmental as well as technological).

Lena Olin in the 1988 film The Unbearable Lightness of Being

His adaptations demonstrate that Kaufman is equal parts master-craftsman and humanist.  For example, despite their wildly different source material, The Right Stuffwhich, according to Tarantino, “created a new genre, the hip epic” –and The Unbearable Lightness of Being work on at least two levels: each tells the story of compelling individuals pushing the envelope in a vivid place and time, and each finds a uniquely appropriate cinematic vocabulary for the tale.  Kaufman thus invites us to reflect on the very process of visual storytelling, at the same time that he weaves the complex interactions of the individual body and the social landscape.  As he told critic Terrence Rafferty, “For me, the fun is in the learning experience, in figuring out the vocabulary you need for each movie.  Every time it’s like traveling to a new country, almost like a pilgrimage.” Whereas the “I” of the authorial voice dominates many of the books that serve as inspiration for his films, Kaufman’s cinematic “eye” translates them into sensuous motion pictures.  When his characters engage in pleasurable erotic activity, the camera invites our own voyeurism; but when they are captured by surveillance monitors,  a discomfiting identification with control expresses his anti-authoritarian stance. In Kaufman’s films, what voyeurism is to pleasure, surveillance is to control.  Unlike voyeurism, surveillance denies privacy or intimacy.  If the erotic gaze is strongest when shared by the subject and object, surveillance depends upon an imbalance of power between the one who controls the gaze, and its unwitting object.

This book grows out of the seminar I taught at Columbia University in the Spring 2002 semester, “Auteur Study: Philip Kaufman,” which in turn led to a number of other seminars devoted to his work.   My students and I watched each of his films—usually twice—with the kind of attention they deserve, thereby noticing thematic and stylistic continuities.  The advent of VHS and DVD technology serves a director like Kaufman even more than others: almost always richer on second or third viewing, his movies are layered, fulfilling my criteria for cinematic greatness—coherence and resonance.  They exemplify François Truffaut’s claim, “For me, a movie should express both an idea of the cinema and an idea of the world.”  The density of detail led me to send weekly e-mails to the director, asking questions posed by the class.  Since he replied, graciously and candidly, the quotations throughout the book–unless otherwise footnoted–are from this e-mail correspondence.

Given that there is no book-length study of Kaufman’s cinema, this one covers each of his films–via a thematic approach–beginning with his first movies, Goldstein and Frank’s Greatest Adventure (also known as Fearless Frank). The greatest attention is paid to his masterpiece, The Unbearable Lightness of Being, which–along with Henry and June and Quills–examines freedom, both sensual and artistic.  As Manohla Dargis perceptively put it, “While Kaufman remains best known for his astronaut saga The Right Stuff, he’s demonstrated an unusual gift, particularly for an American director, for inflaming an audience’s libido without doing insult to its intelligence.”  His cinematic treatment of male relationships and codes of honor is examined in The Great Northfield, Minnesota Raid, The White Dawn, The Wanderers, and The Right Stuff.  Kaufman’s exploration of deceptive images is traced from Invasion of the Body Snatchers to Rising Sun and Twisted.

Credits title card for The White Dawn

Kaufman is hard to pin down: a visual stylist who is truly literate, a San Franciscan who often makes European films, he is an accessible storyteller with a sophisticated touch.  But there are great rewards to be found in his vigorous, sexy, and reflective cinema.  Like the subjects of my two previous auteur studies, Truffaut and Kieslowski, Kaufman displays affection for characters, actors and spectators, challenging them to behave with intelligence, courage and tenderness.  As Thierry Frémaux wrote on the occasion of the Lumière Institute’s tribute to Kaufman in 2000, “The retrospective of a beautiful oeuvre, built by a discreet auteur who has made powerful and always unique films.”

Peter, Phil and Rose on the set of Henry & June; Photo by Etienne George

Born in Chicago in 1936, Philip Kaufman met Rose Fisher, his future wife and writing partner, at the University of Chicago.  He attended Harvard Law School for a year (where he saw and was thrilled by The Seventh Seal), and returned to the University of Chicago to work on a graduate degree in history.  But instead of writing his master’s thesis, he moved with Rose and their infant son Peter to the San Francisco Bay area in 1960.  The Kaufman family took off for Europe precisely when the French New Wave was rising, and its giddy sense of experimentation made quite an impression.  In Greece, he taught English; in Florence, he taught math.  It was in Italy that he saw John Cassavetes’ seminal independent American film Shadows and later–in a movie theater near Amsterdam–Shirley Clarke’s The Connection.  As he recalled, “Those two movies were for me the start of something new here – I could feel the cry of America, the sense of jazz.  Then there were inklings of what became known for a brief period of time as the New American Cinema.  So I came back to Chicago in 1962 and set about trying to learn as much as I could, seeing every foreign movie I could.”  Kaufman would learn to become a director by turning his unfinished novel into Goldstein, an American independent “nouvelle vague” hybrid.  And his subsequent work continued to manifest European inspiration as well as sophistication.

Interview with Phil Kaufman

by Annette Insdorf

AI: In an early scene of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, Donald Sutherland’s character finds a rat turd in an elegant French restaurant, and you get the sense that something is rotten in the state of California.  This was 1977-78, and you took the 1956 images of conformism, making them all too appropriate for the pre-Reagan era and Yuppie society.  When you made the film, did you feel the timing was right for another “Invasion”?

PK: That’s really why we made it.  We felt that theme needed restating.  We originally started out to make it in a small town, as we were going for a much truer remake of Don Siegel’s original.  But then it dawned on us that the place for conformity in the ’70s–and ever since the ‘50s–had been the big cities, the places where you were encountering paranoia.  When the original was being made, small towns were in a state of flux.  If my memory serves me correctly, Jonestown happened just after this film was released, and a lot of the people were coming from San Francisco. So there was in the air a kind of a strange conformity in the guise of a modern, updated jargon.  And that led us to the Leonard Nimoy character: as with many of the characters, it’s hard to tell exactly when they’re a pod and when they’re changed.  Brooke Adams’s husband, for example, who’s watching the Warriors basketball game at the beginning, is sort of a pod to begin with; but when he’s changed, we sort of miss that old ‘lump.’ When he’s invested with a sense of purpose, it’s the beginning of the terror.  Conformity is one thing, but conformity with a purpose is something scarier.

Philip Kaufman directing Leonard Nimoy and Jeff Goldblum in the 1978 Invasion of the Body Snatchers.

AI: This film is richly layered, visually and aurally. Could you talk about how you worked with the cinematographer Michael Chapman, who also shot The Wanderers as well as Taxi Driver?

PK: I first met Michael Chapman in Canada. I was going up to shoot The White Dawn.  He had been Gordon Willis’s camera operator up to that point.  We just liked each other.  So, we went up to the Arctic together and lived with the Eskimos and made that film.  We were trying to find a film noir equivalent in color, which is in some ways impossible. The wonderful thing about black and white is the way your eyes can be drawn with lighting and shadowing.  With color, it’s just a big feast for your eyes.  We spent a lot of time looking at black and white archives, trying to arrive at a style in color that gave us some sense of the shadows and the angles of older films.

But we also decided–even though it’s a serious subject, of course–to not take it that seriously.  One of the problems with sci-fi and horror is the total seriousness with which they’re made—especially for a film like this, which has something to do with what is a human value.  What are the human values?  Somewhere in that list, humor should be included, and it hardly ever is, except for in-group jokes or outright gags in horror movies. So we had fun just with our angles: we had our pod angles and lighting, and right from the beginning everything was kind of coded: Chapman and I would be able to say, “Ok, this guy is a pod already.  So, he gets the ‘pod angle,’ or he gets the ‘1st degree pod angle,’ or he gets a certain kind of lighting.”  We had a blue tinge around the gills and things like that. So even if you don’t know who’s a pod and who isn’t, if you have the secret code, you can tell from the beginning.

AI: There are a lot of zoom shots in the film. When you zoom in, it’s different from tracking: the space is flattened out because it’s happening through the lens rather than moving through space. This seems so appropriate given the “flattening” of the characters.  Was this a conscious decision that you, or Chapman, arrived at?

PK: It’s something like that. I seldom like to use a zoom.  I much prefer tracking and keeping that perspective with the background. But there was meant to be a kind of playfulness all the way through here, to set in motion a whole series of subliminal elements that we hope will add up to something.  You have all the little telephone cords and dartboards that are swinging—an emphasis on details because I think that’s where paranoia finally rests … in the details.

AI: Talk about the soundtrack.  In the opening sequence, for example, we hear the swings before we see Robert Duvall as the priest seated on the swings.  The sound keys us in for what is about to happen.  How did you elaborate that soundtrack?  Was it in the script stage, or during filming, or after?

 PK: Well, the sound was there in many cases before we went in to shoot the film.  The taxi driver who takes them to the airport is Don Siegel, who had directed the original Invasion.  And his wife was standing there as they got into the taxi, sort of blocking off some lights for us.  And, just as Kevin McCarthy is in the film carrying it over from the original, I wanted to pay homage to Don, who is also a friend of mine.  Just to digress for a moment, I really loved and respect the original film enormously, and was worried about paying enough respect to it.  Observant critics later, of course, said things like, “Well, obviously they didn’t love the original the way I did, and they shouldn’t have remade it.”   But we did try to respect the original and do a variation on a theme.  I hesitated to call this a remake because, as with a piece of music, if you take a certain theme and then run it through with other variations, you can come up with something interesting.

Don Siegel’s original 1956 version

To get back to the soundtrack and that scene where they’re going through the tunnel… Well, I live in San Francisco, and I was driving through there, and some motorcycles had come by.  You only get the force of it hearing it on Dolby, but the idea of those motorcycles beginning at the back, swinging around and then eventually ending up on surround speakers … it may be more commonplace now, but back then it really wasn’t being done.  And people weren’t using the full range of the possibilities of Dolby. At the time that this film was made, Dolby felt that this was the best Dolby soundtrack, and I think they still use it to demonstrate certain things.

AI: In terms of casting, if my memory serves, this was the first acting part for Leonard Nimoy since playing Spock in Star Trek.  Was that one of the reasons you wanted to cast him?

PK: For a brief period in my life, I was going to do the first Star Trek movie.  Somebody had called me and said Paramount was going to do a small version for about $3 million, and it was going to be a throwaway movie basically because of some small success of Star Trek.  It was coming back, and they realized there were Trekkies and so forth.  I was delighted to hear that, as I had seen it, and I thought there was a possibility to make not the Star Trek that was finally made, but something quite different–the way The Fugitive was for TV, and they re-did it in a different way with the basic theme.  I wrote for 7 months basically around Leonard Nimoy, and at the last minute, just 2 weeks before Star Wars came out and a couple of months before Close Encounters, someone high up at Paramount decided, and this is one of my favorite lines, “There’s no future in science fiction.”  The project was cancelled. Anyone who has worked in the film business knows these feelings, and I had been developing two other projects, and one was Body Snatchers.  I didn’t know if it would ever get made or not; the other was a script my wife had written on Richard Price’s book The Wanderers, which we’d been trying to do for years, and again the studio took a piece of paper out of the drawer and said, “There’s no market for teenage movies.”  This was another era, and he had the figures to show that teenage movies just weren’t successful.  So, I wasn’t able to do either of these movies.  And then Warner Brothers who had developed Body Snatchers decided they didn’t want to do it, and United Artists said they wanted to do a low-budget movie on Body Snatchers, and the budget was about $2.9 million.  And that’s where Leonard Nimoy came from, my experience with Star Trek.

AI: Could you talk a little about how you conceived of the ending, and at what point did you let everyone know what it was going to be?

 PK: The ending was stimulated from conversations I was having with Don Siegel about what happened with the original Body Snatchers.  The studio had made them add bookends to the movie.  He wanted to end it on a very scary note, but the studio added that little thing where they’re going to call the FBI, and everything’s going to be OK.  And just at that moment, Kevin McCarthy popped his head into the office.  I hadn’t planned to use Kevin at that point, nor that theme of Kevin running for 20 years from movie to movie, trying to warn people that they’re already here and bumping into the car in the middle of Donald Sutherland’s joke.  That wasn’t in my mind, but Kevin came in and told me the same thing, that they had really wanted to make a harder- hitting movie the first time.  So, we thought, “Let’s try it with a real horror ending,” where the only person, if there was ever going to be a sequel, would be Veronica Cartwright, who maybe could figure her way into the next movie.

In a way we have to find new kinds of heroes. There’s a whole world that is coalescing around us and we never know how to deal with it.  We have all kinds of therapies and policemen, law and order, and we’re always trying to figure out how to become heroes.  But there’s something in the idea that every man and every woman has to become a hero. That’s what the Veronica Cartwright character is:  she’s alive, but absolutely terrified and horrified by things.  If I were making a sequel, it would begin with her, with her being the bearer of the knowledge of what the ‘pod-ness’ is–to spread the news that we can’t go to sleep.  That’s sort of the metaphor of the piece anyway: it’s very easy to see Fascism as something imposed by guys in uniforms, but every time it rises up, it is so readily received by people.  Later they deny it, but Kennedy talked about that kind of thing–the dangers of conformity.

There were only three people who knew what the ending of the film was going to be: me, Rick Richter and the producer.  And we didn’t tell any of the actors.  The day before we shot it, we told Donald.  We didn’t know how people would respond.  Donald could have said, “No way, man. I’m not a pod.”  But Donald being who he is, so bright and playful, he loved the idea.  And then, right on the spot, we told Veronica Cartwright, and I never told the studio. They would call daily and say, “How are you gonna’ end this movie?” And I’d say, ‘Not telling.”  Fortunately, the movie was pretty successful, and so I was able to keep working.

AI: Did you keep it from the studio so that word didn’t get out, or so that they didn’t try to change your ending?

 PK: Studios back then were populated by the types of guys who really think they have a gland in common with the public.  They really believe that when they sit in an audience, they “get” exactly what the public wants.  I’ve heard them say this.  They don’t talk about the gland, but they say, “You can trust me because I know what the audience wants.”  I mean, the history of big successes in the film industry has been the opposite of that.  Not always, of course.  But anyway, I was afraid of that.  The guys at UA, which later became Orion, were bright.  They were more adventuresome people, and they let filmmakers make their movies.  It was a great time, and they were a great company for that time.  I don’t know if anything quite like that exists now.  Also, things weren’t “pod-ized” quite as much in Hollywood then.  The formulas weren’t in place as much.  There weren’t guys going around giving lectures on character arc and things like that.  In certain situations that kind of thing makes sense.  The phrase ‘character arc’ might be quite apt, but I remember talking to Tom Pollock who was the head of Universal, and a very bright guy. And ‘character arc’ came up over a script I was working on.  And I said, ‘Come on, in Raiders of the Lost Ark there’s no character arc.  Harrison Ford’s character is essentially the same at the beginning as he is at the end.  There’s no development.”  He said, “No, that’s not true.”  I said, “What do you mean?”  He said, “Snakes.  He fears snakes at the beginning, and at the end he confronts his own worst fear.”  We laughed about that, but it’s a frustrating thing that all filmmakers go through.  Maybe we can talk some time about the modern process of what filmmakers go through in Hollywood: it’s truly an industry now.

AI: You seem to have a foot in both worlds: you make studio films, but they are hardly typical of Hollywood …

PK: I try not to think about all of that.  I sometimes go to LA only once a year, you know, to go to the bank.  Or sometimes, I’m not down there for years.  I have a lot of friends there who are really bright, nice people.  I lived there once for about 6 years.  I began about 30 years ago in Chicago, trying to raise money for small projects, saying, “Hollywood’s dead!” and giving all those standard speeches.  And I ended up on contract at Universal a few years later, broken.  When I did Northfield, I was making about $175 a week, and when I directed it–for about $10,000–I was sort of at the bottom of the barrel.  But my philosophy is that I want to do things that interest me or amuse me, and I want to work with people who stimulate me as a director.  I take a lot of time in casting, and I’ve been fortunate enough to work with wonderful actors.  When I come out in the morning, it’s not just the director’s job to stimulate the actors, boss them around, etc.  By the end of the day, I like to feel that I’ve been greatly amused and interested that day… This is our life, and this is what we do, and we’re lucky to be doing it.   I’ve been very fortunate to somehow, despite many failures, to keep going.

 AI: I want to get back to Body Snatchers if I may.  My favorite scene is in Sutherland’s kitchen, where he makes dinner. It feels so wonderfully natural, and almost improvised in the rhythms of cooking, eating, looking.  How much of it comes from rehearsal? Or improvisation?  Or is it basically scripted and done a few times until it feels right to you?

 PK: Basically, it’s scripted.  Rick Richter, the screenwriter, was there the whole time.  The film that we brought from Warner Brothers to United Artists was very different, and we began shooting about 6 weeks later.  The scene was scripted, but you have to use the word improvisation in a certain sense.  What it’s about, what you’re going for, it was already there.  But the actors have to be comfortable, particularly in a scene like that, which is really about being human. It’s a love story really.  So, they have to find their humanity or their way into the scene.  We rehearse for as long as it takes, and sometimes it takes a long time.  But it’s always rewarding when you’re working with actors.  I mean, Donald is an extremely bright man, and it’s fun to see what he can put into a scene, and Brooke Adams too.  I believe in a lot of rehearsals with actors.  You can find out marvelous things from them.

AI: I’m guessing it’s not in the script that Brooke Adams rolls her eyes?

PK: I asked her, “What can you do?  Can you juggle, or what?” And she said, “Well, I can do this.”  If you notice when she does it, one eye goes this way, and the other goes that way, and it’s an extraordinary thing.  And I wanted to record that.  I mean, I fell in love with her!

AI: I have a question about the peep show near the end of the film.  Is the raunchy sex club part of the new society, or a remnant of the old one?

PK: That’s interesting.  That’s right on the cusp of things on the edge of human society that can also be luring you into the pod society.  That’s the thin pornographic line.  You should feel that it’s a pod world they are being lured into.  Those places are pretty scary anyway.  In one of those bars a few years ago, a gangster was crushed to death.  He was having sex with some girl on a piano, and it rose up and crushed him to death.  I mean, you couldn’t write anything like that.  I assume it was a pod murder.

Excerpted with permission from  Annette Insdorf’s book Philip Kaufman.   ©2012

                    Watch the Conversation HERE.

Phil Kaufman’s Website is rich with information on his career, movies and news.

Following the author’s bio you will find information on where to see Kaufman’s films as well as trailers and interviews.

Annette Insdorf was born in Paris, France, to Polish immigrants and raised in New York. She earned her B.A. at Queens College in 1972 and received her Ph.D. in English from Yale University in 1975. She is best known for her book Indelible Shadows: Film and the Holocaust (1983), widely considered to be the definitive exploration of the subject. The book catalogues the variety of films made about the Shoah and discusses the ethical responsibilities of films that attempt to depict the Holocaust while at the same time remaining commercially viable.

She is a Professor in the Graduate Film Program of Columbia’s School of the Arts and served as Director of Undergraduate Film Studies for 27 years. She is the recipient of the 2008 Award for Excellence in Teaching from Columbia’s School of General Studies. From 1990-1995, she was Chair of the Graduate Film Division. She taught film history and criticism at Yale University from 1975 till 1988.

Since 1983, Professor Insdorf has hosted “Reel Pieces,” the popular and prestigious film series at Manhattan’s 92nd Street Y; her guests have included Martin Scorsese, Meryl Streep, Daniel Day-Lewis, Pedro Almodóvar, Angelina Jolie, and Al Pacino. Many of these interviews can be seen here.

In 1986, the French Ministry of Culture named Insdorf Chevalier dans l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres; in 1993, she received the Palmes Academiques; and in 1999, she was promoted to Officer of the Arts. She served as a jury member at several film festivals, including Berlin. She organizes and moderates the panels at the Telluride Film Festival. In 2018 Insdorf was honored with the Mel Novikoff Award at the San Francisco International Film Festival. The Award acknowledges an individual or institution whose work has enhanced the filmgoing public’s knowledge and appreciation of world cinema. Director of Programming Rachel Rosen explained, “She’s able to communicate deep insight about cinema in a way that is both enlightening and completely engrossing. Her enthusiasm for movies is highly contagious—and her explorations of how and why they work the way they do are never less than fascinating.”

Insdorf was also the executive producer of the short films Shoeshine, nominated for an Academy Award and winner of the Grand Prize at the 1987 Montreal Film Festival; the CINE Golden Eagle winning Short-Term Bonds (1988); and Performance Pieces, awarded Best Fiction Short at Cannes in 1989.

Her DVD commentaries and “extras” include Kieslowski’s Decalogue, Andrzej Wajda’s Ashes and Diamonds, Philip Kaufman’s The Wanderers, Milcho Manchevski’s Before the Rain and François Truffaut’s Shoot the Piano Player, Jules and Jim and The Last Metro. She has been a frequent contributor to The New York Times as well as The Huffington Post, and her articles have appeared in The San Francisco Chronicle, The Los Angeles Times, Film Comment, The Washington Post, and Newsweek.

Insdorf’s books are unique in both subject and approach. François TruffautIndelible Shadows: Film and HolocaustPhilip Kaufman, Double Lives, Second Chances: The Cinema of Krzysztof Kieślowski. Her two most recent books are Intimations: The Cinema of Wojciech Has and Cinematic Overtures: How to Read Opening Scenes.

We urge you to support your favorite independent bookstore by ordering Annette’s books from them or via Indiebound.  Her books are also available from Amazon and other online sellers.

Five Minutes with Annette Insdorf Answering Some Questions

Annette on Turning Your Passion Into a Career for Forbes Magazine.

Receiving the Novikoff Award

Phil Kaufman’s Movies

Phil selects favorite movies in the Criterion Closet.

Philip Kaufman’s films are available on DVD and BluRay and more readily streaming. Find out where to stream them at Just Watch.

We offer trailers and excerpts from all the movies he has directed plus Raiders of the Lost Ark for which he co-wrote the original story with George Lucas, Outlaw Josey Wales directed by Clint Eastwood from Kaufman’s screenplay, and China: The Wild East, a documentary he produced and narrated, directed by Peter Kaufman. They are in reverse order of their making, from most recent to his first, Goldstein. There are also discussions by the late cinematographer Michael Chapman (1935-2020) about the four films they did together and other behind-the-scenes videos.

Sam Shepard remembered by Phil Kaufman in Variety: “Half Jackrabbit, Best Chili Maker.”

Tim Pelan writes on Cinephilia & Beyond: The Right Stuff: A Search Film, a Quest for a Certain Quality that May Have Seen Its Best Days.”



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