When Simple Isn’t Good Enough : Director Philip Kaufman is once again the center of a storm with his adaptation of Michael Crichton’s bestseller ‘Rising Sun’

<i> Gene Seymour is a staff writer for Newsday</i>

“Rising Sun,” the bestseller about murder and intrigue in the Los Angeles headquarters of a Japanese conglomerate, is characterized by its author, Michael Crichton, as a “wake-up call” for an America he believes is in danger of becoming a second-rate power.

Philip Kaufman, who directed the filmed adaptation of “Rising Sun” opening Friday, agrees America needs a “wake-up call"--but a different kind.

“If a movie is very good, it doesn’t end when the credits roll,” the 56-year-old filmmaker says one morning in a New York hotel room, his voice as placid and cool as a mountain lake.


“It follows you out into the street. It transforms everything around you. Maybe you’ll want to see it again. Maybe something about its images upset or disorient you. But it’s reached you. It’s awakened you to something you nmever felt before or to some idea, image or mode of behavior.”

Right away, you detect a problem here. Sometimes opposites don’t attract. The making of “Rising Sun,” the movie, was one of those times.

Those who have tracked Philip Kaufman’s career can only sigh and say, “What’s new?”

His fate is an amalgam of two heroes from his 1983 film, “The Right Stuff.” Like Chuck Yeager, he is a fearless, stolid adventurer, putting his artistic hide on the line, “pushing that ole envelope jes’ a tad” to seek greater heights. And like Virgil (Gus) Grissom, he is someone to whom stuff always seems to happen.

“Rising Sun,” the novel, ignited all kinds of political fuses because of its pointed attack on U.S.-Japan trade policy. But even with the glow-in-the-dark marquee names of Sean Connery and Wesley Snipes as leads, “Rising Sun,” the film, enters the multiplexes weighed down by unwieldy baggage.

Much of this baggage has been collected because of disputes between Crichton, the author of mass-market literary successes like “Jurassic Park” and “The Andromeda Strain,” and Kaufman, the hip, daring auteur of such quirky critical favorites as “The Wanderers,” the 1978 remake of “Invasion of the Body Snatchers,” “The Unbearable Lightness of Being” and “Henry & June.”

A first-draft screenplay, written by Crichton and Michael Backes, closely followed the novel. Kaufman made several changes that irked both writers.

The two changes arousing the most public attention had to do with ethnicity. The casting of African-American Snipes to play a cop partnered with Connery was perceived by Crichton and others as implausible, in part, because the special LAPD unit Snipes’ character works for has no black officers in real life.

The other far more controversial change was of the identity of the murderer. In the book, a Japanese corporate executive is the killer. But Kaufman believes that “it wasn’t in the cards for a Japanese businessman to behave in this manner.”

When word of this revision became public, the buzz was that Kaufman was softening the political edge of Crichton’s novel partly because of external pressure, most of it coming from Japanese-Americans who believed the source material was racist and that the film could incite anti-Asian fervor.

But Kaufman says the changes he made, along with everything else about the film, emerged solely from his own subjective interpretation of the novel.

“I don’t think the movie soft-sells any of the (political) issues at all,” he says. “In fact, if anything, it opens up discussion.

“But the thing is, you can’t make a movie that lectures or has a bibliography of sources the way the novel does. I was concerned with, you know, what do you make a movie about here? What’s the story?”

Indeed, what attracted Kaufman to the thriller when he read it six months before publication wasn’t its political theme so much as the possibilities it offered for pure mystery storytelling.

“You don’t see detective movies very often any more. Think of ‘Chinatown,’ the Bogart films. Even the Charlie Chan films where there’s a man who cleverly works his way through clues that don’t seem to mean what they do.

“And I also saw this fable, this adventure where the hero (Snipes) gets the call and along the way meets the wizard (Connery) who guides him to the dark tower through strange customs and unfamiliar, even hostile territory.”

Not exactly what Crichton or Backes, who left the project after seven weeks, had in mind.

And yet Kaufman believes the parting was far more amicable than published reports implied. “From what I’d read, Crichton and I were supposed to be chasing each other with baseball bats around the block and all kinds of wild things that just never happened.”

Kaufman also questions published reports that Connery, also the film’s executive producer, was miffed that the director couldn’t get the film beneath its two-hour, eight-minute length. “I never heard anything like that from Sean,” he says. “The first cut I showed with the cuts I had in mind was two hours and 15 minutes. And that was already close to where we wanted to be.”

“We both think Phil’s a terrifically talented filmmaker,” Backes says. “Phil . . . what’s the word I’m looking for? Phil likes more complex solutions. Crichton and I would have wanted things a little more black and white.”

Having seen the film, Backes says, “In a way, it’s probably best for the movie that we left. If we had stuck around, it really would have hurt Phil’s ability to tell the story he wanted to tell.”

Early in “Rising Sun,” Web, the character played by Snipes, arrives at the scene of the crime muttering, “If it’s not one thing, it’s another.”

The phrase is neither original nor especially profound. But for Kaufman, a man who seems otherwise allergic to cliches, it serves nicely as a description of his life as a filmmaker.

Take his previous film, “Henry & June.” Kaufman’s 1990 account of the erotic triangle involving writers Anais Nin, Henry Miller and Miller’s wife, June, in 1930s Paris kicked up a storm over whether the film would be given an X-rating because of its explicit scenes of lesbian lovemaking.

Despite pressure to make enough trims in his film to secure an R-rating, Kaufman held firm. Just before the “Henry & June” release, the MPAA eliminated the X-rating and replaced it with the NC-17 rating, partly because of support from the press.

At the time, this was viewed as a victory for Kaufman. Yet, he says the film “only got into 140 theaters throughout the country. The final box office wasn’t what it could have been if we had backed off. And of course, when I turned around the press was gone.

“I mean this was really a gentle movie about sex and since then, there have been all kinds of movies that have come in for an R-rating where the sex is far more bizarre, violent and revealing than here.”

Before “Henry & June” came “The Unbearable Lightness of Being,” a 1988 adaptation of Milan Kundera’s novel about love and fate set against the backdrop of the 1968 Russian invasion of Czechoslovakia. The film won high praise for its intellectual energy, haunting narrative style and slyly provocative eroticism.

And even here, there was controversy and misunderstanding. Extreme leftists threatened to disrupt filming in Lyon. Meanwhile, Kaufman, a director who believes that adapting a text requires its violation, remembers telling Kundera that very thing.

“He taught screenwriting and has adapted plays for film, so he knew what I was talking about,” Kaufman recalls. “And he approved. Yet when I arrive in Italy, there are all these headlines quoting me as saying, ‘Yes, I have violated Kundera!’ ” He laughs and winces simultaneously.

“I mean, it was as if I’d raped him or something. I think Kundera, like most good writers, understands what you have to do in film as opposed to books. Tom Wolfe, for example, says he liked what I’d done with ‘The Right Stuff.’ ”

That 1983 film about test pilots, astronauts and America had other problems. Partly because of its three-hour-plus length and epic scope, “The Right Stuff,” had all kinds of grand expectations for mass success attached to it upon release.

While it made Sam Shepard a bona fide film icon, the film somehow got tangled up in the public mind with John Glenn’s unsuccessful bid for President a year later. That critics would come to acknowledge “The Right Stuff” as one of the decade’s best films didn’t help it at the box office.

“Maybe we can release my movies 20 years later and save me the pain,” Kaufman says, one suspects, only half-jokingly.

It’s hard to imagine someone so smoothly ingratiating as Kaufman as a flash point for conflict. Yet somehow he finds himself in scrapes with people like screenwriter William Goldman, who left “The Right Stuff” in a huff. Originally tapped to direct Clint Eastwood’s 1976 Western, “The Outlaw Josey Wales,” Kaufman was fired over what he terms “artistic differences.”

“I don’t see, personally, that I’m that difficult to work with,” Kaufman says. “I’m guessing, but . . . I think there’s a tradition in Hollywood among the stars and the big people and everyone around them, who basically (expletive) on the people around them while being really nice to people in power.

“That’s why I don’t live in Hollywood and choose to stay in San Francisco (where he lives with his wife of 33 years, Rose, a writer, and his producer son, Peter). Because when I make movies, it somehow seems to be the opposite. The cast and crew and I all work together great while I have not always worked that well with stars and studio heads.

“And I don’t know if that’s more noble or more stupid, but that to me is where, if you want your movie to be better, you stand your ground.”

This steadfast refusal to yield to pressure may help explain why Kaufman is drawn to implacable, unflinching hero-figures like Shepard’s Chuck Yeager in “The Right Stuff,” Daniel Day-Lewis’ Tomas in “Unbearable Lightness of Being"--or, for that matter, Connery’s John Connor in “Rising Sun.”

“There’s an unyielding side to Phil, no question,” says Fred Ward, who played Henry Miller in “Henry & June” and Gus Grissom in “The Right Stuff.”

“But I wouldn’t classify it as stubbornness. He’ll certainly take your suggestions if they’re worthy. As an actor, you appreciate someone who’s thoughtful and imaginative and open. If he gives people headaches, I don’t think it’s intentional.”

Whatever abrasions it causes, Kaufman’s steely resolve has helped establish a body of work that is as rich and satisfying as any contemporary American director’s. Yet he thinks part of the reason producers and even critics have trouble with him is because the diversity of subject matter in films like “The White Dawn” (1974), “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” (1978) and “The Wanderers” (1979) makes him elusive to easy packaging. In the present era of film where packaging is almost everything, that can be a handicap.

But the Chicago-born Kaufman, who set aside his dreams of being a novelist in the 1960s after falling under the spell of Truffaut, Pasolini, Kurosawa and Fellini, has faithfully tended a sensual, ecstatically romantic view of the film medium that will probably keep him at odds with the bottom-liners for eternity.

“I keep thinking about the time I saw Fellini’s ‘8 1/2.’ I was in New York,” Kaufman recalls. “And I remember coming out of the theater, just in total bliss, and the world around me was transformed. I was seeing Fellini characters everywhere. That’s what we go to movies for! You can’t come to the end of a movie and just check your watch and think, ‘OK, where do we go next?’ A good movie should leave you changed. Exhilarated.

“Or, at least,” the director says, laughing, “blissfully exhausted.”