INTERVIEW: Can't Get No Satisfaction, Philip Kaufman Thrusts Again with "Quills"
by Andrea Meyer/indieWIRE
(indieWIRE/11.28.00) — Philip Kaufman is no stranger to controversy. He’s been making sexy movies that push people’s buttons for years: “The Unbearable Lightness of Being” (1988) is his adaptation of Milan Kundera‘s deeply erotic and political masterpiece. “Henry and June” (1990) explored the personal lives of Henry Miller and Anaïs Nin, two of history’s most celebrated writers of narcissistic soft-porn. Now Kaufman is back on sexual turf with “Quills,” his big-screen version of Doug Wright‘s smart, complex play that fictionalizes the Marquis de Sade‘s final years in a French mental institution.
Geoffrey Rush plays the notorious dirty storyteller who does battle with a government-sanctioned doctor (Michael Caine) hired to squeeze the pornographic impulse right out of him. With Kate Winslet as muse, Joaquin Phoenix as the good priest who just wants everyone to be happy, and a whole host of eccentric inmates, the result is a sex and gore-filled romp that delivers its argument about freedom of speech with an uncommonly entertaining and intricate punch. indieWIRE talked to Kaufman about sex and violence in the movies, the ratings system, and pleasing your public.
indieWIRE: How have audiences been reacting to the film?
Philip Kaufman: The reaction has been really wonderful. But occasionally there’s somebody who says, “When the film takes a dark turn, why did you do that?” These audiences want “Tom Jones.” They want the romp. They like the part of the film that we call the set-up. But the set-up is leading to a pay-off. And in order to be true to Doug Wright’s work and, in order to be true to that tale, we had to make sure we were using all the Sadean colors. People say, “very funny,” “very sexy,” “very terrifying,” and “liberating” is a word that comes out of the audience. And, strangely perhaps, women seem to really respond to the movie, not just because of the romance that’s involved — even down to the Abbé and the Marquis, to that love affair — but it’s full of love affairs and variations on love affairs, and of course having Kate Winslet and Joaquin Phoenix, as well as the other young couple. One couple is brought down by the works of Sade and the other couple, in a sense, is liberated by the works of Sade. That’s the music of Doug’s work — it’s a sort of symphony. It has its motifs and its dark themes.
iW: Where ratings are concerned, violence is always considered less offensive than sex. What’s your opinion of that?
Kaufman: People can so readily accept WWF world wrestling, where chairs are broken over heads and total sadism reins supreme, and people have their kids watch it. Everyone just says, “oh this is just a romp in the park, it’s a good time,” and it’s far more contagious to children, in terms of setting behavior patterns, than our piece, which is, in a way, a thoughtful piece about all this. That’s my question. Whose behavior is the film going to influence? Is there anything in the film that is going to get people to rush out into the streets to try the very things that we’re discussing in the film? That should be the only really criterion for evaluating something, whether it’s on sex or on violence. We are discussing this, and hopefully it’s within a context of love and beauty, as well as some of the other factors, even Sade’s philosophical feelings about human nature, which was a part of his writing. He was a philosopher in a way, answering some of those things in the extreme. Just as Nietzsche was, who was outcast in many circles, Sade was dealing with what he viewed to be human nature. We see him observing it in the film, and he says to the abbé, “I’ve seen all these things. I’ve lived these things. You’ve only read about them.”
Open the TV set and flip on the porno channel, and it’s way beyond anything we did or were allowed to do or even cared to do. The reason I did this is because it was a great story, a great drama. When I read Doug’s words, I thought, this is a great story. It’s got the power of a “Little Red Riding Hood.” Is this more terrifying than grandma being eaten? When the princess kissed the frog and it turned into a prince, was that bestiality? We have that scene where Joaquin makes love to Kate, and they say that’s necrophilia, which it isn’t. It’s a dream within a dream. Orpheus descending into the nether worlds to get Eurydice — is that his deep yearning for a necrophiliac experience of some sort?
iW: Yet you include a scene in which the work of Sade does incite a violent act. It’s interesting where that fits into the debate about the potentially harmful influence of art.
Kaufman: That’s a very complex thing. The way Doug has written it is astonishingly complex. You could say that it does incite the violent act. On the other hand, the person who perpetrates that violent act was violent before reading Sade. It’s a mind fecund with violence. And Madeleine, she’s a lusty girl, she’s open, she understands that there is room for pornography. I think we all accept that now. Certainly since Freudian times, we all recognize that there is something called the libido, and that there are various ways of inspiring it. And Madeleine is an advocate of the libido. Doug said he wanted to make a movie that didn’t just make conservatives nervous, but made liberals nervous as well, because then you’re dealing with a true dialogue. Otherwise it’s a one-sided polemic.
iW: Was it this dialogue that drew you to this project?
Kaufman: I would never have done it if it was just a polemic. I did it because it was a grand entertainment. It was funny and sexy and full of wonderful dialogue. I did it because I couldn’t think of anything like it I’d seen. One of my favorite movies of all time is “Children of Paradise.” And for me, it was this kind of dance that the characters do, one with the other, and the constant morphing and changing of partners that goes on within a film like that has always interested me. And hopefully there’s some of that in “Quills,” that kind of feeling, the complexity of relationships, where each scene provides a new way of looking at things.
iW: Yet the censorship issue that you explore in “Quills” has touched you personally. “Henry and June” was the first film to receive an NC-17 rating.
Kaufman: It still may be the only major studio film with an NC-17 rating. The ratings system needs revamping. We’re perfectly content to be releasing a film that is not for children. And I don’t think in any way we’re courting children to see this movie. On the other hand, when we say, “Not for Children of All Ages,” we’re saying if you’re of a mind to not like a film that makes you think or if you only like a film that leaves you feeling giddy and silly, this is not a film for you.
I felt betrayed with “Henry and June,” because I really felt, within the code as it was, it should have been the same rating as “Unbearable Lightness of Being.” We were ready to go to Washington to protest it, and that week the ratings system was changed, the head of Universal was backing it totally. Tom Pollock said, “let’s be the first NC-17 film out.” Well, it turned out that the film did great business when it first came out. It set records in some places, but very quickly theaters would not book it, because they thought it was the new X rating. We thought there would be a rating beyond this one, that suddenly we had liberated films for adults — things that European films deal with in a more open way throughout my lifetime — but the result was that the X was shrunk down to NC-17. So, in a way, it was the new X.
iW: Have you ever self-edited in order to ensure an R rating?
Kaufman: No, fortunately this movie was given an R without making any changes. It shows that at least the ratings board had expanded its considerations since the time of “Henry and June.”
iW: How do you think the ratings should be revamped?
Kaufman: They just need more sophistication in some way. If it takes putting a warning: Smoking can cause lung cancer. Or maybe they need a few more tiers of ratings. They are always very lax about putting restrictions on violence for children’s movies, which I think is much more harrowing than sexuality for children.
I must say that some of the arguments recently where they’ve been coming down on Hollywood, are partly out of political expediency, even the Democrats. They’re arguing about trailers being shown to children or films being tested with underage children that are violent and so forth, and it’s a valid argument. Filmmakers are arguing with distributors about that all the time. Somehow the argument goes right by the people exploiting the movie and goes back to the filmmakers. But I must say Jack Valenti has been very forceful and bright and cogent in his arguments. I have been very impressed by Valenti in defending Hollywood and free speech. The whole history of the last century — there’s been this incredible battle for free speech, and just when we’re getting some measure of openness and some mature dialogue going, there’s the chance of these reactionary things setting in. And reactionary, we always take it to mean right wing, but there’s a left-wing reaction. It’s all a big circle. There are extremes on either end, but we’ve come to know that left and right join up at the end of the circle.
iW: Are there things you think a mainstream audience won’t like about “Quills”?
Kaufman: American audiences don’t particularly like tragedy, because they like a happy ending. Even if it’s violence — people are killed and so forth — they want a happy ending. That’s why I did my version of “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” the way Don Siegel would have wanted his version to end, where you’re left hanging. But, there is a great tradition of tragedy being liberating. For me, we can go beyond that. You can mix comedy and tragedy. That’s what attracts me to most of the material I do. There’s a mixture that doesn’t fall into an easy answer. I’ve had that problem with my work. With “The Right Stuff,” at the time people said, “how can you make it funny when it’s just supposed to be about patriotism?” Certainly for me, it was not supposed to be about patriotism. As time goes by and the shrill critics back away from it — they don’t even give a shit as they’re saying it, because they don’t stay around a project — “The Right Stuff,” or a project like that, can have a life of its own.
It demands a certain bravery on the part of the audience not to simply pass judgment on the movie when it’s over. We’ve become so conditioned by that response, and certainly critics are conditioned that way. As soon as it’s over, you have to rush to your typewriter. I call to mind the fact that James Agee, one of the great film critics and screenwriters — he wrote “The African Queen” among many other great screenplays — when he was writing for Time Magazine, he wrote on two occasions, “I’ve just seen a movie. It moved me very much, and I can’t write about it this week.” Sometimes it would take him two or three weeks. One was “Monsieur Verdoux,” and the other was de Sica‘s “Shoeshine.” You have to be very brave to do that. We live in that time of sudden satisfaction, or sodden satisfaction or Sadean satisfaction, but taking some time to digest your food before you go into the waters of opinion is a very important thing.
iW: Do you think it might take awhile for audiences to grasp the message that’s being delivered in “Quills”?
Kaufman: They’ll know what it’s about. It’s all there. You can respond to the intelligence, to the wit, of the piece, and you can respond emotionally to the visceral qualities of the piece. It’s not something that people have a real problem getting. It’s not something that’s difficult to get, nor is that outrageous. There will be people who say, “where the fuck’s the spanking?” (laughs) There’s stuff that will be shocking for some and not shocking enough for others, but that’s not the movie we made.