Philip Kaufman - Director

Nationality: American. Born: Chicago, Illinois, 1936. Education: University of Chicago, graduated 1958; attended Harvard Law School, 1958. Family: Married Rose Fisher, 1958, one son, Peter. Career: Moved to San Francisco, then to Europe for two years while attempting to write a novel; worked on a Kibbutz in Israel; entered Universal Studios Young Directors' Program, 1969. Awards: Prix de la Nouvelle Critique for first feature, Goldstein , Cannes Film Festival, 1964. Agent: Creative Artists Agency, 9830 Wilshire Blvd., Beverly Hills, CA 90212, U.S.A.

Films as Director and Scriptwriter:




Fearless Frank


The Great Northfield Minnesota Raid


The White Dawn


Invasion of the Body Snatchers


The Wanderers


The Right Stuff


The Unbearable Lightness of Being


Henry & June


Rising Sun



Philip Kaufman
Philip Kaufman

Other Films:


The Outlaw Josey Wales (Eastwood) (co-sc)


Raiders of the Lost Ark (Spielberg) (co-story)


By KAUFMAN: articles—

Interview with B. Krohn, in Cahiers du Cinéma , no. 358, 1984.

Interview with A. Baecque, in Cahiers du Cinéma , no. 405, 1988.

Interview with F. Guerif, in Revue du Cinéma , no. 437, 1988.

Interview with M. Ciment, in Positif , no. 357, 1990.

Interview with Gavin Smith, in Film Comment , July 1993.

On KAUFMAN: articles—

Dempsey, Michael, "Invaders and Encampments: The Films of Philip Kaufman," in Film Quarterly , Winter 1978/79.

Goodwin, Michael, "Riding High with The Right Stuff ," in American Film , November 1983.

Sojka, Gregory S., "The Astronaut: An American Hero with The Right Stuff ," in Journal of American Culture , Spring 1984.

Lavery, David, "Departure of the Body Snatchers," in The Hudson Review , vol. 39, no. 3, 1986.

Klinger, Judson, "The Casting of Henry & June ," in American Film , September 1990.

Lindroth, Colette, "Mirrors of the Mind: Kaufman Conquers Kundera," in Literature/Film Quarterly , vol. 19, no. 4, 1991.

Fellows, Catherine, " The Unbearable Lightness of Being on Film," in Cinema and Fiction: New Modes of Adapting , edited by Colin Nicholson, Edinburgh, Scotland, 1992.

Mitchell, Sean, "Strangers in a Strange Land," in Premiere , August 1993.

Ehrenstein, David, "War Business," in Sight and Sound , October 1993.

Hendershot, Cyndy, "Vampire and Replicant: The One-Sex Body in a Two-Sex World," in Science-Fiction Studies , November 1995.

See, Fred G., "'Something Reflective': Technology and Visual Pleasure," in Journal of Popular Film and Television , Winter 1995.

Cattrysse, Patrick, " The Unbearable Lightness of Being: Film Adaptation Seen from a Different Perspective," in Literature/Film Quarterly (Salisbury), July 1997.

* * *

Philip Kaufman has not set any records for productivity, but the few films he has made have been intelligently and independently done. His choice of topics has been eclectic. He has adapted novels as far removed as Milan Kundera's The Unbearable Lightness of Being and Michael Crichton's Rising Sun. He adapted Tom Wolfe's journalistic epic about the space program, The Right Stuff , brilliantly; he also adapted the personal writings of Anais Nin in Henry & June. His work has ranged from realism to fantasy: The White Dawn , for example, is an historical film about three whalers from New England marooned in the Arctic, shot in a documentary style, while Invasion of the Body Snatchers is a remake of the Don Siegel science-fiction classic, satirically updated. The satire that surfaces in some of Kaufman's work might be considered part of his artistic "signature," even though the satire of The Right Stuff can be traced back to Tom Wolfe's source. The director has asserted himself when artistic differences surfaced: Kaufman quarreled with Clint Eastwood and lost on The Outlaw Josey Wales , which Kaufman originally was to have directed; he quarreled with Michael Crichton and won on Rising Sun , changing the sidekick, the villain, the balance, the tone, and the conclusion of the novel to suit his own purposes and taking the edge off Crichton's warning about the Japanese.

Kaufman has been a risk-taker. The erotic content of Henry & June tested the limits of the MPAA Code and was the first film released with an NC-17 rating (No Children under 17 Admitted), created to remove the stigma of the old "X" rating. In terms of the candid treatment of adult relationships, this constituted an artistic breakthrough, achieved by an unconventional filmmaker who was willing to take a chance and put his career on the line. But Kaufman probably has not worried too much about his career.

Born to a cultured German-Jewish family, Kaufman grew up on Chicago's North Side, studied history at the University of Chicago, and, after a year at the Harvard Law School, enrolled in the master's program in history at his alma mater. Eventually a wanderlust took Kaufman and his wife Rose to the Bay Area of San Francisco, where he held various odd jobs while attempting to write a novel; he then moved to Europe, taught in Greece and Italy, and worked on an Israeli Kibbutz. By 1962 Kaufman was back in Chicago, where he developed a screenplay from his unfinished novel, working with his friend Benjamin Manaster as co-writer, director, and producer.

Kaufman's debut feature, Goldstein , made for $50,000 with friends from Chicago's Second City, was, according to one source, loosely based on one of Martin Buber's Tales of the Hassidim and starred Lou Gilbert as Goldstein, a parody prophet. Kaufman took his film to the Cannes Film Festival in 1964, where it shared the Prix de la Nouvelle Critique with Bernardo Bertolucci's Before the Revolution , an incredible stroke of good fortune.

Encouraged by this success, Kaufman then wrote and directed a second Chicago film, Fearless Frank , in 1965, with Jon Voight making his film debut as a farm boy who goes to the city and falls in love with a gangster's moll. This film also utilized the satiric talents of the Second City players but won no prizes at Cannes in 1967. In fact, Fearless Frank failed to find an American distributor until American International picked it up in 1969, after Jon Voight's success in John Schlesinger's Midnight Cowboy. Though Fearless Frank was not a critical success, Jennings Lang of Universal Studios invited Kaufman into Universal's Young Directors' Program. At Universal Kaufman then wrote and directed The Great Northfield Minnesota Raid , starring Robert Duvall as Jesse James and Cliff Robertson as Cole Younger. This film opened to mixed reviews in 1972.

Kaufman adapted his next film, The White Dawn , released by Paramount in 1974, from a novel by James Houston, telling the story of three whalers who survived a shipwreck in Baffin Bay in 1896 and were rescued by Eskimos. The film, starring Warren Oates, Timothy Bottoms, and Lou Gossett, was shot in northern Canada under difficult conditions, but it was not given full support by Paramount and was not widely seen. The following year Kaufman was assigned to direct The Outlaw Josey Wales after having worked on the script for Clint Eastwood, but Eastwood soon took over the direction himself. Kaufman got credit with Sonia Chernis for the screenplay, adapted from the Forrest Carter novel Gone to Texas. In 1981 Kaufman also worked as a writer when he helped George Lucas develop the original story for Raiders of the Lost Ark , but most of his work has involved directing.

In 1978, at a time when his Hollywood career needed a boost, Kaufman had a major windfall when he was assigned to direct the remake of Don Siegel's Invasion of the Body Snatchers for United Artists, working from W. D. Richter's updated screenplay adaptation of Jack Finney's novel. Kaufman moved the action to San Francisco and redefined the alien threat in a way that was disturbing, humorous, and believable. This was followed by The Wanderers, his adaptation of Richard Price's comic novel about Italian high-school gangs in the Bronx, set in 1963.

Kaufman's greatest success was his blockbuster hit The Right Stuff, which earned eight Academy Award nominations, including Best Picture. Kaufman also earned Writers Guild and Directors Guild nominations for his satiric adaptation of Tom Wolfe's account of the astronaut program. Kaufman has a talent for adaptation. Terrence Rafferty praised Kaufman's adaptation of The Unbearable Lightness of Being for its fidelity "to the novel as it exists in the mind of the reader," rather than to the novel as an autonomous entity (Kaufman changed and simplified the structure), claiming that "the movie's most interesting character is Philip Kaufman."

And that claim might be made for other Kaufman films as well. The adaptations are centered in the personality of the filmmaker. For example, Kaufman turned Rising Sun into his own reinvented story. His strength is in the whimsical, the satirical ( The Invasion of the Body Snatchers, The Right Stuff , and Rising Sun ), and in the erotic and the lyrical ( The Unbearable Lightness of Being and Henry & June ). Though the films themselves seem impossibly varied, his best work has a personal imprint. The style of his later films seems vaguely European, but his values, stressing individualism and integrity, are clearly American. Kaufman has not produced a large body of work, but his best work certainly merits critical attention.

—James M. Welsh

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