Sunday, November 26, 2000
Los Angeles When Hollywood decided it was time for a film about that most sexually lurid of writers, the Marquis de Sade, it was not hard to settle on a director.
Philip Kaufman has made a career out of adapting difficult literary material for the screen. He relished the prospect of crafting the harrowing yet wildly comic "Quills," a fictionalized account of de Sade's asylum years as a writer oppressed by the state.
The film stars Geoffrey Rush as the brutally subversive de Sade. Kate Winslet co-stars as a laundress who smuggles de Sade's writings out for publication, Joaquin Phoenix is the asylum Abbe who is sympathetic to de Sade's need for expression, and Michael Caine plays a vicious doctor dispatched by Napoleon to "cure" and silence de Sade at any cost.
"In a way, it smacks of a fable almost ï¿½ a fairy tale," Kaufman said. "An ogre in the dank cave writing away, his work being smuggled into the outside world by a virginal maiden, with a virginal abbe in the place. Then the emperor sends someone to repress this guy, and this game begins of expression vs. oppression."
As director of "Henry & June," the first movie saddled with the NC-17 rating ï¿½ a box-office kiss of death ï¿½ Kaufman does seem an ideal choice to spin the tale of an artist fighting a puritanical bureaucracy.
The 64-year-old director often has taken on extreme material and characters from unconventional points of view.
He spun an anti-hero variation on the Western with his depiction of the Jesse James gang in "The Great Northfield, Minnesota Raid" in 1972. He made acclaimed films out of such seemingly uncinematic books as Tom Wolfe's "The Right Stuff" and Milan Kundera's "The Unbearable Lightness of Being."
He audaciously remade "Invasion of the Body Snatchers," transforming the sci-fi classic from a tale of small-town paranoia to one of urban madness with a chillingly hopeless ending.
The lusty "Unbearable Lightness of Being" failed to grab mainstream audiences. "Henry & June," an explicit tale of sexual relations among Anais Nin, Henry Miller and his wife, initially did strong business under the NC-17 rating but faded as theater owners balked at showing it.
Still, Kaufman said he thinks "Quills" and other intelligent, sexually charged films have box-office potential if given a chance.
"I know there's a big audience for movies like this," Kaufman said. "I feel that films that expand the libido, that are sexy in nature, that are about sexuality, things we talk about all the time in our everyday lives, they can be stimulating and healthy. Yet the hypocrites who want to control everything say they are unhealthy."
Since his last film, 1993's "Rising Sun," Kaufman had struggled futilely to get other movies off the ground. Then he was approached by Fox Searchlight for "Quills"; it was the sort of dark project Kaufman typically had to pitch to reluctant studios.
"Quills" screenwriter Doug Wright, who adapted the script from his own play, said he was thrilled when Kaufman signed on.
"I thought he had the fearlessness and wicked sense of humor that was right for the movie," Wright said. "He makes incredibly smart movies that never feel rarefied or dry, and this particular tale needed to feel like a reckless, full-throttle ride."
Before meeting Kaufman, Rush had wondered whether the director's earlier adversities might have left him "embittered, world weary and despairing. Instead, I just met this vibrant dynamo of enthusiasm and lucid ideas," Rush said.
Kaufman shares a connection with writers such as Miller, "artists compelled to express with no restraint," Rush said. "He almost occupies a comparable position in the film industry. He keeps wanting to create, which I think he does very well, really serious but delightful adult entertainment."
Kaufman came of age in the 1950s, when he felt U.S. movies had been diminished by Hollywood blacklisting. Living in Europe in the early 1960s, he was influenced by new-wave cinema from France and Italy, along with the films of Akira Kurosawa, Ingmar Bergman and other international directors. His films often have been described as European in sensibility.
The unemployment blues
Kaufman, who has collaborated with his wife, Rose, on several films and whose son Peter was a producer on "Quills," hopes to avoid another run of tough luck like the one he had before this movie, when project after project fell through.
He is focusing on three projects: a film biography of Liberace, an adaptation of Saul Bellow's "Henderson, the Rain King," and a film about convicted spy Aldrich Ames.
"I hope I don't spend a lot of time in bitterness," Kaufman said. "I can tell you that being unemployed for long periods of time is never a happy time. I and the people around me suffer from that. I'm unemployed more than many of the unemployed are unemployed. Years go by.
"But at the same time, I'm always optimistic. I'm always looking for something else that I'm going to be involved in. And when the going gets tough, you go for cappuccinos."