AB'58, has made 11 films since 1963, but few have been successful
in terms of dollar signs. So why has he been honored with retrospectives
and tributes by a half-dozen film festivals and organizations, including
Sundance and the American Film Institute? Why has film critic Roger
Ebert, X'70, called him "one of the best American directors"?
Why is Columbia University offering a course this spring exclusively
on his work, with professor Annette Insdorf praising him as "the
greatest living American filmmaker"?
there is here revealed a capacity to shock, to startle the lifeless
ones from their profound slumber, let us congratulate ourselves;"
writes Anaïs Nin in her 1934 preface to Henry Miller's Tropic
of Cancer, "for the tragedy of our world is precisely that
nothing any longer is capable of rousing it from its lethargy."
Nin could as easily have been writing about Kaufman's films as Miller's
novel-and it is no small coincidence that Nin and Miller have both
profoundly influenced his work. Kaufman manages to excite and disturb
fans and critics to the point that his films are too risky for heavily
publicized release (thus their poor earnings), but too important to
be ignored (thus the critical acclaim).
the wall of windows in his second-floor San Francisco production
office, Kaufman looks down on Stockton Street in the heart of North
Beach, a West Coast Greenwich Village where bohemian artists still
camp at the cafés reading their Ferlinghetti, sometimes across
the patio from Ferlinghetti himself, who still haunts the neighborhood.
The beat writers knew these streets well, holding readings of banned
literature at City Lights Bookstore, scribbling on beer-soaked notepads
at the Vesuvio Bar where Columbus Avenue intersects the recently renamed
Kerouac Street. The artistic energy of Kerouac, Burroughs, Ferlinghetti,
Ginsberg, and Cassady lingers on park benches and patio tables in
the blocks surrounding Kaufman's office, places where everyone seems
to have a tattered paperback poking from a hip pocket.
production company, Walrus and Associates (a name he chose while shooting
his 1974 Arctic adventure The White Dawn), consists of Kaufman;
his wife Rose, who helps him choose projects and occasionally cowrites
scripts; son Peter, who produces his films; and assistant Leslie Kaye,
who seems to have a hand in everything.
Kaufmans-including Leslie, who is more like a family member than an
assistant-take leisurely lunches together almost daily, often with
friends or guests in tow, at one of the local Italian bistros. (North
Beach consists largely of Italian bistros, bars, Italian bistros,
beauty parlors, Italian bistros, curio stores, and Italian bistros.)
On a first-name basis with the hosts and waiters, exchanging hugs
and gossiping about other customers, the crew can't walk a block without
catching the hand or shoulder of a familiar passerby in their adopted
hometown. At one of the restaurants, Steps of Rome, Kaufman literally
has his own table, still photos from his movies pasted under a thick
layer of shellac, a collage of underappreciated talent.
had tried the Bay Area twice in the 1960s but left to travel and shoot
films, finally making San Francisco his home in 1973 after five years
in Los Angeles, a fortress of studios where all directors seem to
start out or end up. He joined other recent L.A. émigrés
John Korty, Francis Ford Coppola, and George Lucas to form a community
of Hollywood outsiders who engaged in independent projects or studio
films with a comfortable 374-mile buffer zone between them and L.A.
you can't swing a dead extra in this enclave without hitting a filmmaker-
Chris Columbus (Home Alone, Harry Potter), Joan Chen (Xiu
Xiu: The Sent Down Girl), Sean Penn (The Crossing Guard),
and Wayne Wang (The Joy Luck Club, Smoke) among them-many Los
Angeles expats living the indie life away from the Hollywood shuffle.
Just blocks away from Kaufman's door is Coppola's American Zoetrope
studio, the cornerstone of the NoCal film community, which brought
to the screen such gems as American Graffiti, Apocalypse Now,
and the Godfather trilogy. Often indie directors use Zoetrope's
space to launch their projects. Lucas, who co-founded Zoetrope with
Coppola in 1963, lives at his Skywalker Ranch just across the Golden
Gate Bridge in Marin County.
most filmmakers Kaufman relies on studios to make his films because
that's where the money is-in conversation he simply calls Hollywood
"the Bank." Five years in L.A. left a bitter flavor in Kaufman's
mouth, one he can still taste every time he begins a studio film only
to have it flushed down the tubes after months of work. The egress
of talent to the Bay Area has not loosened Hollywood's grip on the
money belt, and although the community is more supportive among the
North Beach outlaws, the money is still controlled by the meddling
Hollywood inlaws. To oversimplify, in Hollywood film is an industry;
in San Francisco it's an art form.
Beach's fame as home to the beat writers appeals to Kaufman's
literate sensibility, a trait heavily influenced by his undergraduate
years at the U of C, which he attended after growing up on Chicago's
North Side and spending two years at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
"When I was at the University of Chicago literature was everything,"
he says. "It was the end of the Hutchins era but the aura was still
there. It was a very intense time." As a third-year living in Burton-Judson
in 1956-57 he was surrounded by Korean War veterans entering college
on the G.I. Bill. "These guys were older, in their mid-20s, and
all they wanted to do was study and learn." A self-described autodidact,
Kaufman was a sponge, "trying to read as much as I could about
as many things as I could."
literature, Kaufman encountered another love at Chicago that would
shape his future: his wife Rose Fisher, X'59, whom he saw sunbathing
on the Midway while he was walking with his friend Ted Gertz, AB'58.
(Gertz's father, Elmer Gertz, PhB'28, JD'30, would later successfully
defend Henry Miller's banned Tropic of Cancer before the Supreme
Court. Miller paid Gertz in original watercolors, which covered the
Gertz family's walls.)
was spring 1958, and Kaufman was set to attend Harvard Law School
in the fall. Rose stayed in Chicago, but they visited often and were
married in Boston in 1959 as Kaufman began to question his educational
goals. "I went to law school because I didn't know what else
to do. My parents said, 'It wouldn't hurt.' But it did. On top of
the pain, I missed Hyde Park and the atmosphere of the U of C."
Harvard after a year, he returned to Chicago to pursue graduate studies
in history but left before finishing his master's. "I guess I
was looking for another kind of history," Kaufman says, "the
kind not found in the books we were reading, which were all too scholarly,
analytical, and bright."
had just begun reading Henry Miller and became more enthralled by
the world of literature than that of academe. "Miller was filled
with a generous spirit of appreciation," says Kaufman. "The
problem with the academic world is it's too often about depreciation
rather than appreciation. I believe in being critical, but you can
be both critical of something and enthusiastic about it. Henry was
very generous about finding the life spirit of things. To a degree
he was like Kerouac, Ginsberg, and Ferlinghetti-there was an energy
about them that was coming out of the literature, and they put it
back into life."
moviegoers, Rose and Phil found a similar energy in European films,
falling in love with Bergman, Fellini, Pasolini, and especially French
New Wave directors such as Truffaut and Godard. "They were breaking
the rules, moving out on the streets and using handheld cameras,"
recalls Kaufman. "Hollywood had fallen into a post-blacklist
doldrums, and there weren't many really interesting films in the late
1950s and early 1960s. In Europe film was an art form, a form of excitement."
1960 Peter was born at the Chicago Lying-in Hospital on campus, and
the couple decided to move again. Kaufman had been readmitted to Harvard,
but as if by instinct, he says, "Instead of heading east we drove
west, out to San Francisco, not knowing what lay ahead." He took
jobs as a mailman and a Fuller Brush salesman and began work on a
Henry Miller lived just down the coast in Big Sur, one of the first
things Phil and Rose did was leave Peter with an uncle and drive down
to meet him. Kaufman had tried to visit him a few years before while
traveling with a friend, so he knew which dirt road wound toward Miller's
house on the shore. "At the end of the road there was a sign
tacked onto his gate asking to be left alone," says Kaufman.
"We were dejected and about to leave when a gardener appeared.
After talking to us for a while, checking us out, he told us to wait
until Henry got up from his nap; he thought Henry would like to see
us. We stood looking down at the crashing Pacific far below for about
an hour. Then Henry was standing next to us."
took them on a guided tour of the trees on his land, telling them
about each one "as if they were his friends. His refrigerator,
which was outside, next to an outside sofa, was on the blink. No ice,
so the gin was warm. We drank and talked all day." As evening
came, Miller offered them a place on his floor to sleep, but they
opted for the beach, awakened at 3 a.m. by a police officer who told
them to move on.
on seemed to be a theme with the Kaufmans. After nine months in the
Bay Area they traveled to Greece and spent the next two years touring
Europe. Kaufman worked odd jobs, continued his novel, and, with Rose,
saw as many films as possible. Their passion for the European cinema
they had watched at the seedy Clark Theater in downtown Chicago and
in Doc Films' early screenings in Cobb Hall was rekindled by their
travels. The European New Wave was in full swing and the New American
Cinema was dawning. "More and more it seemed like film was being
freed from the stifling Hollywood world of the late 1950s and early
1960s," says Kaufman. After catching Cassavetes' Shadows in Florence
and Shirley Clark's The Connection in Amsterdam, Kaufman was
inspired to make his novel into a film, and in 1962 they found themselves
back in Chicago.
after arriving, Kaufman visited the University to see Anaïs Nin-then
known more for her intimate association with Miller than for her own
risqué writings-speak on the films of her husband Ian Hugo.
"Everyone thought of Nin as this black-caped bohemian icon,"
Kaufman recalls. "So we all came wearing our black outfits and
sandals, and she showed up in this pink dress." He approached
Nin after her speech and took up the afternoon talking to her about
his story. With Nin's encouragement, and still intoxicated by his
recent travels, Kaufman joined forces with his friend Ben Manaster,
AB'59, and raised $40,000 to make his first film, Goldstein, a story
about a modern-day prophet who rises from the waters of Lake Michigan
to wander the streets of Chicago. "As far as I can remember I
don't think there were more than six or seven independent filmmakers
in all of America," says Kaufman. "We were the only ones
in Chicago making [independent] features."
first screening was at the Coronet Theater on Rush Street in March
1964. Francois Truffaut, who happened to be in town visiting the set
of another film, attended the show and at one point jumped up and
started applauding, much to Kaufman's delight. Truffaut's enthusiasm
was not isolated-Goldstein went on to win the Prix de la Nouvelle
Critique at Cannes, sharing the prize with Bernardo Bertolucci's first
film Before the Revolution.
director] Jean Renoir said it was the best American film he'd seen
in 20 years," says Kaufman. "That was all swell, but we
were still broke, and it was hard as hell to get another film going."
He did manage to raise money for a second feature two years later,
Fearless Frank, a comic-book inspired tale featuring the debuts
of actor Jon Voight and cinematographer Bill Butler, who would go
on to shoot Grease and Jaws. Not as critically praised
as Goldstein, it nonetheless was enough to secure him a small
contract with Universal and a move to Los Angeles. Over the next several
years he wrote and directed his first Western, The Great Northfield,
Minnesota Raid, featuring a young Robert Duvall as a more evil
than heroic Jesse James, and got his first taste of working within
the Hollywood studio system. "I like a lot of people down there,"
says Kaufman of L.A., "but I found the general atmosphere of
strife and struggle and competitiveness and commerciality to be nerve-wracking
oppressive atmosphere of L.A. prompted the move to San Francisco in
1973, which Rose coordinated while Phil was shooting a polar adventure
story called The White Dawn. This was Kaufman's first of four
projects with cinematographer Michael Chapman, who built his name
on such classics as Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, and The Fugitive.
Filming kept Kaufman in the Canadian Arctic for four months, where
he and his crew endured dysentery and fatigue to produce a realistic
account of an 1896 encounter between shipwrecked whalers and an Inuit
as in The Great Northfield, Minnesota Raid - where Kaufman
contrasts Jesse James's backward-looking denial to Cole Younger's
forward-looking stoicism - in The White Dawn he explores contradictions
of honor and shame, insider and outsider, and civilized and uncivilized
as the whalers exploit the Inuit charity, each group considering the
other a barbarous and lesser species. This exploration of dichotomies
in everyday life would become a hallmark of Kaufman's directing.
before leaving to film The White Dawn, Kaufman took what turned
out to be his last pilgrimage to visit an aging Henry Miller, who
would die in 1980 after suffering a stroke. "He was quite elderly
then," recalls Kaufman, but his living arrangements remained
unconventional: "The dining room was filled by his ping-pong
table. The last image I have of him is of two beautiful Japanese women
taking him up his staircase to bed."
five years in Hollywood Kaufman found a new sense of artistic
freedom in the laid-back film community of North Beach but experienced
a string of near misses through the 1970s. He developed the Raiders
of the Lost Ark story with George Lucas, only to see it shelved
for five years until Spielberg was chosen to direct it, and wrote
The Outlaw Josey Wales-described by Tom Gunning, professor
of art history and cinema & media studies at Chicago, as "perhaps
the last great Western script"-but again lost the director's
chair, this time to producer Clint Eastwood. Kaufman also spent eight
months developing the first Star Trek film, then watched the
studio scrap the project (declaring that science fiction was dead)
one week before Star Wars was released.
in 1978 he had his first commercial success with a remake of the classic
sci-fi horror film Invasion of the Body Snatchers, which established
him as an artist who could direct in multiple genres, a talent he
proved again and again. Moving from Western to Arctic adventure to
sci-fi remake, he avoided being pigeonholed as a thematic auteur.
This versatility, however, came at the cost of anonymity, because
he did not forge a brand name by which the general public could recognize
his work. A hallmark of auteurism is the recognizable style of the
director: Scorsese will deliver loners, New York, and Robert De Niro;
with Spielberg it's suspense, special effects, and a clear idea of
who the bad guys are; Tarantino sends the viewer home quoting clever
dialogue and wondering from which movies he borrowed some of those
scenes. Kaufman, on the other hand, is a chameleon, a Howard Hawks-like
figure able to flit from genre to genre, guiding the material to tell
its own story rather than stamping his imprint on each film. "I
don't really ascribe to the theory that a distinguished filmmaker,
an auteurist, makes a movie at 19 with guys shooting guns at each
other and is supposed to replicate that movie for the next 50 years,"
he says. "It may make it easier for the critics to identify the
director as an 'auteurist,' but personally I'm interested in lots
of things." Indeed you could see every Kaufman film back to back
and not suspect all had the same director.
years after Invasion of the Body Snatchers he made The Wanderers,
a cult classic about a group of pre-Vietnam War Italian-American high
schoolers growing up in the Bronx. The film's release was unfortunately
timed within months of the Walter Hill film The Warriors, which
was criticized for promoting gang violence. Although Kaufman's treatment
is more of a humorous coming-of-age story, his film was found guilty
by association and languished in second-run theaters. "The
Wanderers was a real sleeper masterpiece," says Chicago's
Tom Gunning. "It should be better known."
relatively obscure Wanderers was followed in 1983 with the
three-hour space-race wonder The Right Stuff. Not commercially
successful, it was nonetheless lauded by critics and earned four Oscars
and a nomination for best picture, scoring high on Siskel and Ebert's
top ten films of the decade. The Right Stuff could have been
simple-a two-hour gloss of Tom Wolfe's astronaut chronicle-but Kaufman
favored a nuanced look at how the training and media attention affected
the individual men and their wives. Where many directors try to pepper
epic adventure tales with bits of the characters' personal lives,
Kaufman turns this formula on its head, subsuming the epic to the
everyday moments of the characters. Much like the Iliad and Odyssey,
the backdrop may be impressive, but it's the intimate moments that
carry the story.
achieves another coup with The Right Stuff by giving the hero
of the story less screen time than the rest of the cast. The astronauts
owe their fame to Chuck Yeager, the test pilot who broke the sound
barrier-chasing the sky demon, the pilots called it-but managed to
avoid the stardom that dogged the others. Yeager is a ghost haunting
the celebrated men: not famous, but essential to the fame of others.
three hours is a magic length for Kaufman. In 1988 he released
The Unbearable Lightness of Being, slightly shorter than The
Right Stuff and hailed by some critics as his best film. Adapted
from Milan Kundera's thickly layered novel, the film probes a love
triangle during the 1968 Russian occupation of Prague. As in his previous
films, Kaufman alternates his focus between the epic themes-in this
case free speech and open sexuality-and the private-the choices individual
characters have to make in their personal lives as their country caves
in about them. A scene in which Tomas and Tereza put their ailing
dog to sleep carries under Kaufman's hand the same weight as the backdrop
of rival nations and artistic repression.
is able to blend both the epic and the intimate because he doesn't
merely film subjects, he explores them as he goes, forcing awkward
situations for their deeper truths rather than stringing action/sex/drama/comedy
situations along between plot points to form linear, two-dimensional
stories. "I don't know that I work with theory to begin with,"
says Kaufman. "The more you get into a film the more you abandon
the chalk outlines and just begin working with colors. Storytelling
is about rhythms. It's not just something you find in the editing
room later. You should feel a rhythm as you're filming a scene, seeing
how it's going to fall into the movie. A lot of films seem to have
no beating heart, no life, because they're fabricated later by editing
or music thrown over the top."
freehand worked well for The Unbearable Lightness of Being,
earning him the National Society for Film Critics Awards for best
picture and best director, the British Academy Award for best adapted
screenplay, two Oscar nominations including best screenplay from another
medium, and the 1988 International Orson Welles Award for best filmmaker.
"Some directors have had greater successes [than Kaufman]-Spielberg,
Lucas, Coppola-and others greater critical acclaim as auteurs-Scorsese,
Altman, and Allen," says Columbia's Insdorf, who teaches the
course on Kaufman. "My criteria are neither box-office numbers
nor whether we can tell that a few films were made by the same director
with a recognizable personal style. Rather, I ask of the best films
a layered richness."
Unbearable Lightness of Being became a critical success partly
because no one believed such a complicated book could ever be made
into a film. Kaufman's follow-up, 1990's Henry and June, was
equally tricky. It took Kaufman and Rose a year to design a plot for
Henry and June, which was based on the diaries of Anaïs
Nin. This film was truly a family project, marking Peter's producing
debut for Walrus (he has since produced all of Kaufman's films). But
Henry and June got much of its press for its X rating from
the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA).
appealed the decision, believing that mainstream theaters should allow
adults to watch films that have mature themes but lack gratuitous
sex or violence. "[Henry and June] was made with the same
guidelines as The Unbearable Lightness of Being," says
Kaufman. "But when I spoke to the head of the ratings board he
said, 'I missed that screening of Unbearable, but I would have
given that an X too,' because at that point they disliked two women
in bed. Violence was allowed. You could get an R rating for cutting
off a breast, but you could get an X for fondling a breast. Violence
was-and still is-much more accepted in America than sexuality."
So Kaufman retained Harvard lawyer Alan Dershowitz and prepared to
lobby on the film's behalf. "We find ourselves imprisoned in
juvenilia," he told the San Francisco Chronicle. "It's
not the bodies that are naked in our film, but their frankness."
than upgrade the film to an R rating, the MPAA gave out the first
NC-17 rating, allowing adults over 17 to view the film but not to
bring minors with them. "I thought this would be a great thing,"
says Kaufman, "that American film can be made with adult situations
the way Europeans had dealt with those things for years. But what
happened almost immediately was places wouldn't show NC-17-it suddenly
became the new X. Newspapers wouldn't take ads for NC-17 movies, and
Blockbuster wouldn't stock the video. All the critics who were behind
this change suddenly went on to something else, they were no longer
fighting the good fight."
debate surrounding Henry and June was followed by fresh controversy
when his next film, Rising Sun, came out in 1993. The Michael
Crichton corporate murder mystery upon which it is based was criticized
for anti-Japanese sentiments, attracting picketers to the film's debuts
in a half-dozen cities. Ironically, because Kaufman had cleaned up
much of the offending material (so much so that an angry Crichton
walked off the project), he attracted more criticism for being too
P.C. Discussion of the film's artistic merits fell into two camps:
those who saw formulaic, buddy-cop Hollywood fare and those who felt
Kaufman was going for a subtle attack on corporate deception. Both
views were drowned in a sea of picket marchers and juicy press leads.
the rest of the decade Kaufman worked in San Francisco trying to get
studios to bite on about a dozen projects, including a biography of
jazz musician and drug dealer Mezz Mezzrow, a script based on John
Grisham's Runaway Jury, and a screenplay of the Caleb Carr
bestseller The Alienist, which Kaufman spent two years on before
the studio backed out at the last minute.
1998, after years of pursuing projects that died at the
hands of studio politics, a project began pursuing him. Fox Searchlight
Pictures, the artsy arm of 20th Century Fox, delivered a script that
seemed destined to be a Kaufman film: Quills, a pseudo-historical
account of the Marquis de Sade's declining years as a prisoner in
France's Charenton Asylum.
had the opposite effect of Henry and June. Despite its frank
subject matter and male frontal nudity-the big taboo on the
movie screen-the MPAA gave it an R without asking for a single cut,
and the press honored its engaging story as much as the lines it crossed.
It would seem that Kaufman had gotten his message across that there
is a difference between sex and sexuality. Though he does not shy
away from nudity in his films, Kaufman's most intimate encounters
take place in moments that display great trust between characters
in emotional situations. In Quills Geoffrey Rush (who received
an Oscar nomination for his performance) spends a full 15 minutes
completely nude, but the point when the viewer really feels intimate
with him is when the Marquis, stripped of his writing instruments,
yells his prose line by line to the prisoner in the next cell, who
relays it to his neighbor and on down the line to a chambermaid (Kate
Winslet) who writes it down. ("My glorious prose, filtered through
the minds of the insane?" says the Marquis to himself. "Who
knows? They might improve it!")
also marked a turning point in Kaufman's career path. Tired of investing
months and even years into writing projects that don't get made, he
decided to focus on developing other writers' films rather than spending
all of his time and energy scripting pieces himself. Projects in the
works include a Liberace biography with Robin Williams, a drama based
on the life of Louis Armstrong (backed by Max Palevsky, PhB'48, SB'48),
and an adaptation of Saul Bellow[X'39]'s, Henderson the Rain King
with Jack Nicholson.
time will tell if Kaufman is a hero of independent film, and he has
to be pressed to admit he may have made a difference for future directors.
"I suppose you can say that every act is a political act, in
a way," says Kaufman. "Just like Godard said every place
you put your camera is a political act. But I just sort of did it
because that's what I wanted to do."
filmmakers like Kaufman did what they wanted to do, later filmmakers
have had places to put their cameras, to engage in political acts
of their own. Perhaps Kaufman is the Chuck Yeager of filmmaking, breaking
the barriers, a ghost in the independent film world, chasing the movie
demons so later artists can have their fame.
worth a thousand words