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
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
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
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 novel.
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 and uncreative."
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 tribe.
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
Pictures worth a thousand words