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CANNES 2012: Philip Kaufman Talks Tumultuous Romances and Trying Out TV With 'Hemingway & Gellhorn'

Photo of Alison Willmore By Alison Willmore | Indiewire May 24, 2012 at 4:13PM

It's been almost five decades since Philip Kaufman first came to Cannes with his 1964 debut "Goldstein," an indie comedy co-directed by Benjamin Manaster. In the time since, his varied work has encompassed wide-ranging themes, from the multiple Academy Award-nominated test pilot saga "The Right Stuff" to the 1978 sci-fi classic "Invasion of the Body Snatchers" to the NC-17-rated period drama "Henry & June."
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Philip Kaufman on the set of 'Hemingway & Gellhorn' with Nicole Kidman and Clive Owen
Karen Ballard/HBO Philip Kaufman on the set of 'Hemingway & Gellhorn' with Nicole Kidman and Clive Owen

It's been almost five decades since Philip Kaufman first came to Cannes with his 1964 debut "Goldstein," an indie comedy co-directed by Benjamin Manaster. In the time since, his varied work has encompassed wide-ranging themes, from the multiple Academy Award-nominated test pilot saga "The Right Stuff" to the 1978 sci-fi classic "Invasion of the Body Snatchers" to the NC-17-rated period drama "Henry & June."

This year, Kaufman returns to the festival with what's his first feature since 2004 -- "Hemingway & Gellhorn," a sprawling romance tracking the relationship between Ernest Hemingway (Clive Owen), already famous and twice married when the film starts in 1936, and Martha Gellhorn (Nicole Kidman), a tireless war correspondent in an era when being a female in the field was unheard of.

The two have a tumultuous, fiery connection that begins when they travel to cover the Spanish Civil War and continues over the making of "The Spanish Earth," the writing of "For Whom the Bell Tolls" and assignments in China, Finland and to the concentration camps at the end of World War II. Gellhorn's famous for being Hemingway's third wife, but she was also a significant writer and journalist in her own right, with a storied career during which she reported on most of the world's major conficts.

"Hemingway & Gellhorn" screens out of competition at Cannes tomorrow, May 25th, before making its broadcast premiere on HBO Monday, May 28th at 9pm. Indiewire caught up with Kaufman by phone to talk about the film, being a muse and whether there's any difference in making a feature for television.

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What first appealed to you about this story? It's one you've been working on for a few years now, is that right?

About eight, maybe even a little more by now. There were many things about it that were interesting, but the centerpiece was Martha Gellhorn and the love story, thinking about the relationship between probably the most famous of all the American writers and a woman who was one of the greatest war correspondents of all time.

The idea that they had this passionate relationship, and knowing what happened to Hemingway after they broke up, was intriguing -- and that Gellhorn went on to work for 30 years, covering every war well into her 80s. She was everywhere in the world, and yet the world didn't really remember her except as Hemingway's third wife, the most beautiful woman he was married to and the only one to have ever left him.

Was it difficult to get the film made?

A number of years ago it was brought by James Gandolfini's company to Picturehouse. We had it set up there, we were working on it, and then Picturehouse stopped releasing feature films. At some point, as time passed, Len Amato at HBO read the script -- he's head of the motion picture division for television, and he had come out of the feature world. He called me and said I want to make this movie, would you do television? We all know that the line for HBO used to be, "It's not TV. It's HBO." I'd never done anything for television before, but just talking with Len about it, his excitement and committment to the project -- I had one of the best story conferences I'd ever had with anyone over the phone with Len.

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We brought in Jerry Stahl, the novelist I'd worked with on three or four other projects in the past, and we got very serious about putting this together and how we could make it for an HBO budget and still get the scope that we wanted to get, and that we got. I had a feeling that I could stylize it, using techniques that I'd used going way back, particularly in "The Unbearable Lightness of Being" and "The Right Stuff," where we'd used archival footage and blended it with our actors.

We put together a show reel based not only on my past films but showing locations -- Spain, China, Finland, photographs and archival footage combined with places in San Francisco that matched them. When the HBO saw that, they realized we could make the movie for that price and we could make it in San Francisco, because of all cities, it's the most varied in terms of topography, urban landscapes and buildings.

There's nothing about the film that signals it was made for TV -- what are your expectations on that front in terms of screening it at Cannes?

It's a big honor, really. I don't know that any American film specifically made for TV has ever gone to Cannes. There was "Carlos," by Olivier Assayas. But it's more or less without precident that this is happening. We're honored and excited by that.

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Your first film, "Goldstein," premiered at the festival in 1964. Any thoughts on how the festival has changed over the years?

We can have this discussion better after I'm back! But I was there 48 years ago with my first, the smallest film at the festival, an independent American film financed for a very small amount of money. It was shown in a section called Nouvelle Critique. and it shared a prize with Bernardo Bertolucci's "Before the Revolution."

Then it was a much simpler place -- it was all about filmmaking and not so much about the glitz and sparkle and bling of what Cannes has become. It went back to that era of independent films, European films -- French New Wave was the exciting thing in the air. It was great. I'm looking forward to being there again. I was back once or twice passing through town during the festival trying to raise money for "The Unbearable Lightness of Being," but really didn't participate.

Alongside the premiere of "Hemingway & Gellhorn," you'll also be leading a Master Class at the festival.

I'll be in discussion with Michel Ciment, who's one of the most respected critics in France. He's going to be showing excerpts from six or seven films that I've done, and I'll be discussing them, leading up to a section from "Hemingway & Gellhorn."

"Then it was a much simpler place -- it was all about filmmaking and not so much about the glitz and sparkle and bling of what Cannes has become."

Hopefully some of the techniques and themes that I've worked on in the past will lead into this new film, whether it's stylistic, or in themes of sexuality, writers -- "Henry & June," the Marquis de Sade in "Quills" -- or films about individuals trying to stand up for certain values. Tom Wolfe's concept of "the right stuff," part of which was grace under pressure, came out of the Hemingway "code." We'll be talking about style and cameras, but we'll also be discussing "Hemingway & Gellhorn," which will be screening for the first time a few hours later.

"Hemingway & Gellhorn" is, as you mentioned, about writers, but it's also about filmmaking -- you even see Gellhorn filling in as a foley artist at one point.

I know! [laughs] Joris Ivens [who directed "The Spanish Earth" and is played in the film by Metallica's Lars Ulrich] was a documentary filmmaker, but those early, primitive techniques are so relevant and interesting to young people who want to be making films.

The idea of the muse haunts the film -- the sense that part of the pair's conflict is based on both of them needing to pursue individual creative goals, instead of one existing to support the other.

You feel early on in their relationship that they would never leave each other. It was a marriage deeply based in literary feelings and a similar viewpoint of the world. They were incredibly passionate together. But wars turned the world topsy turvy -- the Fascists were winning. [Gellhor] felt she had to leave, and that was the beginning of the tensions that started tearing them apart. Hemingway had his other problems, with alcohol and having his entourage, certain things that began to transform him.

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There's that basic theme of her learning, particularly in Spain, about how to behave in combat, how to keep your head down, what you do. Hemingway was so into the specifics of how you behave under pressure and in action. He teaches her, in a way -- the guru and the student. But in the end the student surpasses him. She carries that banner of the Hemingway code, the manly code now embodied in a woman.

That's part of the story, but it's also a theme I find very exciting, the student and master. When we did "Rising Sun, it was the senpai and the kohai, Sean Connery and Wesley Snipes. Those relationships between people whether you learn the good or the bad -- Jesse James and Cole Younger [in "The Great Northfield Minnesota Raid"], the Marquis de Sade and the Abbé, Henry Miller and Anaïs Nin, those themes have always interested me.

This article is related to: Television, TV Interviews, Interviews, Cannes Film Festival, Philip Kaufman, HBO , Hemingway & Gellhorn, Clive Owen, Nicole Kidman