Combustible Celluloid

Interview with Philip Kaufman

The Space Between

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

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It was the film that had everything going for it. It was three hours long, featured an outstanding cast of up-and-coming stars, great special effects, a great script, jaw-dropping cinematography, chest-thumping American patriotism, and just a little subversiveness thrown in to keep the cynics happy. It earned eight Oscar nominations and took four awards home.

But somehow Philip Kaufman's The Right Stuff was a bitter, crippling flop. Perhaps in the year of Return of the Jedi moviegoers were still more interested in fantasy than in the reality of American astronauts risking their lives for knowledge.

Fortunately, history tends to right wrongs, and The Right Stuff has been released on a wonderful new 2-DVD set, which retails for $26.99. After twenty years, the film still sucks you in with its professional, consummate storytelling, warm humor and gut-wrenching drama. In fact, once loaded into the DVD player, it's difficult to stop watching -- in spite of the film's daunting 190-minute length.

Along with Sergio Leone's Once Upon a Time in America it's the last great American epic -- the kind of film that couldn't be made today.

Kaufman agrees. The 66 year-old San Francisco filmmaker took time out from finishing up his newest film, The Blackout Murders (a.k.a. Twisted), to discuss his space masterpiece. He was headed out in a few days to see the film again at the Egyptian theater in Los Angeles. "This may be the last time I ever get to see it on a truly big screen. The last time I saw it on a big screen was at the Kennedy Center in Washington. When the rockets took off, I wanted to see Kissinger's sleeves flapping in the breeze."

According to one of the disc's many documentaries, Kaufman was hired on the basis of his 1974 film The White Dawn, which takes place in the Arctic. The producers figured that any man who could tough it out like that could handle Tom Wolfe's massive, sprawling book.

And indeed, Kaufman adapted the screenplay by himself. "The main character is a guy called the right stuff," he says. "I didn't just want to do the astronaut story without doing the circus world that Tom Wolfe described. We tried to follow that theme through all of its permutations, like a musician."

Kaufman says the central moment is when a reporter asks Astronaut Gordo Cooper (Dennis Quaid) who the best pilot he ever saw was. Cooper begins to answer the question legitimately and, when he sees the reporters losing interest, corrects himself with, "you're looking at him."

"That's the right stuff," Kaufman says.

Despite being set all over the country, Kaufman managed to shoot a huge chunk of the film right at home in the Bay Area. They matched stock footage of a New York ticker tape parade on Montgomery Street, and disguised Hamilton Air Force Base in Novato as Cape Canaveral.

In the film, Jeff Goldblum and Harry Shearer are teamed up as a Mutt-and-Jeff-like pair of recruiters. They had a scene together at the air force base one morning and were preparing to spend the previous night there.

"My son Peter and I went to scout it the night before, and here were Jeff Goldblum and Harry Shearer in this bunk situation. And they were jousting, doing their movie relationship in real life." The Kaufmans took pity on their actors and let them stay in San Francisco at Phil's apartment. When they woke up, the two actors were doing yoga together, still in character.

The rest of the actors hung out in San Francisco as well, but mostly at Tosca's in North Beach. "I could call Jeanette at any time and ask her how the guys were doing," Kaufman says. "They lived rough. They really were getting into all that stuff that Wolfe describes in the way that they live. It was a wonderful, raucous time. There's still pictures on the wall."

In addition to the cast and crew, none other than Chuck Yeager himself hung out at the famous cafe. Yeager worked as a technical consultant on "The Right Stuff" and even appeared in a cameo.

"He's a real guy," Kaufman says. "He's humorous. He casts a wry eye on BS. But at the same time, he appreciated the whole enterprise. All the actors bonded with him, particularly Sam Shepard [who plays Yeager in the film]."

Yeager even took Kaufman up for a test flight, handed over the controls and turned the engine off to see if the director would freak out. Kaufman says he handled it well and just steered until Yeager took control again.

But Yeager had one strange attribute. While driving a car, "he never exceeded the speed limit of 55. Driving out to the set, everyone would pass him and flip him the bird. But he wouldn't budge."

It's not so surprising, then, that the final film beautifully mixes playfulness and heroism. "I believe in heroism and the great enterprises of man, but I believe that we have to keep and eye at all times on the absurdities and trickeries that go on in society," Kaufman says. "We're blessed by heroic acts. And the risk to these pilots was even greater than if they went into gunfights."

Today Kaufman is still proud of the film and is delighted with the new DVD. "Rose and I stayed up late at night and watched it all. It stays in the mind like it was yesterday. But the other events of 20 years ago have faded."

June 20, 2003

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