The last time that film director Philip Kaufman met the American press, he was the reluctant point man in one of the most overly staged and ultimately most unsuccessful movie promotions in Hollywood history.
The picture, released in the fall of 1983, was “The Right Stuff,” and even with the benefit of hindsight, it is hard to explain the box-office failure of a movie with so many rich commercial elements.
It was a big, expensive, sweeping epic about America’s space program--adapted from the best seller Tom Wolfe, with one of the most engaging casts imaginable, and featuring the same kind of dazzling aerial footage that turned the otherwise banal “Top Gun” into a blockbuster hit nearly three years later.
Critics were divided on “The Right Stuff,” but exit polls showed that people who saw it were glad they did, and at Oscar time, it rang up a total of eight Academy Award nominations.
But Kaufman, who had been heralded as one of America’s next great directors before “The Right Stuff” was released, was left out of the critical celebration. As if he were being punished for the commercial outcome of his movie, Kaufman was overlooked by both the writers’ and directors’ branches of the academy.
“I’m still reeling,” Kaufman said last week. “It was a huge disappointment to everyone, but particularly to me.”
There was trepidation in Kaufman’s voice, as he began discussing his latest movie, “The Unbearable Lightness of Being,” another grand-scale film, this one based on Czechoslovakian novelist Milan Kundera’s story of love and eroticism set against the Soviet invasion of Prague in the late ‘60s. The film opens here Feb. 5.
“I am not very good at promoting my films,” Kaufman said. “I don’t like to articulate what I’m trying to do in a movie. I would rather let critics figure out what’s in there. In a way, that’s part of the game, isn’t it?”
It’s a strange and often unfair game that directors are asked to play. It’s all a part of the cultural kitsch that Kaufman feels pervades this era. There is a lack of passionate commitment, he says--to the arts, to politics, to relationships, to living itself.
It is also an era, at least in the United States, where people in the popular arts are so much mulch in a media feeding frenzy. They are not always measured by the quality of their work, but by the commercial heat they generate, and when the heat is off, so are the media.
In the case of Kaufman, who suffered both a commercial failure and a critical snub by his writer/director peers, it was quickly a matter of out of sight, out of mind.
“Somebody wanted to interview me recently about a piece he was doing on directors who have disappeared,” Kaufman said, laughing. “I didn’t know what to say. I have been busy all the time.”
Kaufman, 51, said that he spent the year after “The Right Stuff” adapting some 1920s adventure stories into a script. But producer Saul Zaentz showed up at his door at just the right moment--Kaufman was facing a location trip to the Himalayas at the start of monsoon season--and asked him to direct “The Unbearable Lightness of Being.”
Kaufman immediately shifted his interests from adventure to eroticism, which was the essence, theme and fuel of Kundera’s novel about the relationships among three people--a womanizing doctor (played by Daniel-Day Lewis), his free-spirited sexual playmate (Lena Olin) and the innocent country girl (Juliette Binoche) who becomes his wife and his emotional mentor.
The only similarity between “The Unbearable Lightness of Being” and “The Right Stuff” are their running times. “The Right Stuff” ran a little more than three hours; “Lightness” runs just under three hours.
“I felt it took that long to tell this particular story,” Kaufman said. “More than anybody, I wanted to make it as short as possible. As I get older, I find that eroticism takes a longer time.”
Kaufman said “Lightness” is the kind of movie he had been wanting to make for years. He was a fan of Kundera’s novels, which he said conveyed the same sort of passion for living that he had found in the Henry Miller novels that consumed him as a young man.
There were, in fact, parallels between Kundera’s Prague and Miller’s Paris, Kaufman said. Both cities, as described by the writers, teemed with intellectuals and romantics and fostered vital, free-wheeling social environments.
In Prague, that atmosphere was suffocated by the Soviet invasion of 1968, an event that is almost miraculously re-created in “Lightness.” Kaufman used archival footage of the invasion shot by Czech citizens to set up additional scenes with his cast. The new footage, edited by longtime Francis Coppola associate Walter Murch, was degraded in the lab to match the archival source material.
The result is a long documentary montage--of both black-and-white and color film--that places characters from “Lightness” in the midst of the chaos in the streets of Prague. If it weren’t for those actors, it would be impossible to tell which scenes were real and which were staged.
Kaufman had supervised similar illusions in “The Right Stuff,” blending newsreel footage of the 1962 Manhattan parade for astronaut John Glenn, after his pioneering orbit of the Earth, with scenes filmed on a Sunday morning in 1982 on a cordoned-off street in San Francisco.
To come full circle in this story, it was John Glenn who may have inadvertently sabotaged the box-office reception to “The Right Stuff.”
You may recall that Warner Bros. (under the direction of the Ladd Co., according to Kaufman) partially connected “The Right Stuff’s” marketing campaign to John Glenn’s 1982 campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination.
There was great speculation in the media about the effect that “The Right Stuff” might have had on Glenn’s political fortunes, and it certainly wasn’t discouraged by the movie’s backers. In fact, the studio seemed to have scored a major coup when Newsweek put the movie on the cover shortly before its opening, asking the question, “Can a movie elect a President?”
“That was fatal to us, I believe,” Kaufman said. “It was considered a political movie from then on.”
The pain of “The Right Stuff” dragged on for months for Kaufman, culminating on a day when he was called by three different people and told that he had been nominated for Academy Awards, only to learn later that he hadn’t.
But the lowest point occurred a few days before the movie opened. The film’s marketing people had arranged an elaborate promotion in Washington, D.C., including a ceremonial “fly-by” over the Potomac and a premiere screening for news, political and military dignitaries.
“The fly-by was a total fiasco,” Kaufman said. “They were going to be 100 airplanes flying over, led by Chuck Yeager, and there were supposed to be two million people lining the banks of the Potomac.
“We were all standing up on the roof of the Kennedy Center. I looked down and there was one guy with a fishing pole on the Potomac and when the planes came, there were only four of them. They were so high, you could barely see them, then they were gone.”
Kaufman said he feels a lot better about the opening of “The Unbearable Lightness of Being.” There has been no media hype for this one, and with its theme and its all-European cast, it certainly doesn’t come to the market with unrealistic expectations.
It will have to judged on merit, because there isn’t anything else.
“I am a lot of more comfortable with this kind of material,” Kaufman said. “We’ll just let it speak for itself and see how it does.”