Combustible Celluloid

West 'Sade' Story

An Interview with Philip Kaufman and Geoffrey Rush

by Jeffrey M. Anderson

Some directors who have lived through the American cinema renaissance of the 1970's became burned out and cynical over the more business-like filmmaking atmosphere of today. Not Philip Kaufman, whose Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978) and The Wanderers (1979) are considered small classics of the decade. Kaufman is back with a new movie made with the same gusto and enthusiasm he showed 25 years ago. Moreover, he's still making challenging stories for adults, something that flies in the face of current "wisdom," which says that stupid movies about young people make all the big money.

Part of the reason Kaufman still excels today is that he lives here in San Francisco as opposed to Los Angeles. "Living up here is great; not being in an L.A. environment where you can get broken down. I don't feel competitive with anybody about making films. My only competition comes with the material and trying to do the best I can with it. But in L.A., everybody's at the next table, 'Spielberg's doing what?' Another reason is simply, " I love making films."

Kaufman's new movie is Quills, a story about the infamous Marquis de Sade, whose name inspires raised eyebrows even today, nearly 200 years after his death. When Kaufman set about casting the Marquis, he considered a "short list" of actors of a certain age. He immediately eliminated American actors, who he felt might not be able to "speak the language." The Australian-born Geoffrey Rush came out on top and accepted the job immediately. Rush's greatest tool when working on the role, he said, was a goat. "When I had the powdered wig on, it was fantastic. There was something saucy and sensual and glamorous about the double tail and the ribbing. I thought I looked like some randy old mountain goat. Which became a useful image to work on, because of my own physicality. Historically the Marquis at this point in his life is like a bloated slob, huge. So the idea of this arrogant, self-styled, mountain goat, balancing with great aplomb on craggy edges of a cliff with cloven feet was a really useful thing to play with." Rush also thought about Barbara Stanwyck and Gloria Swanson as Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard (1950). "Because you've got to create and play with that notion of a sort of fascinating dementia. There's something nice about images of somebody writing with chains on and being quite chipper and gleeful about it‹writing and hearing 'rattle, rattle, rattle.'"

Surprisingly, Kaufman had no trouble with the MPAA ratings board on Quills. Kaufman promised them an R movie and he made an R movie. No cuts were made. Kaufman is still angry about being saddled with the very first NC-17 rating in 1990 on his film Henry and June. He wishes a new rating could be imposed for adult stories. "People want to think about these things. We think about it all the time. Everybody in the audience does. Everybody talks about it. The American public is not naďve anymore. We come from a very puritanical background. You can see with the Clinton thing, how the pundits were very repressed, because 90% of them said, 'Clinton's going to be out on his ass.' But the public was like 75% saying, 'ho hum. This doesn't matter to us.'"

"I felt that I wanted to start the movie off with the Marquis' voice in the darkness and you almost think you're in a porno film. A young woman rises up, and she's telling you about how she wanted all kinds of sexual things. Until one day, she met a man who is more perverse than she. And then suddenly you see that the real pornographer is history. It's far more pornographic than anything the Marquis ever wrote. There's even children singing in the street [during an execution]. History isn't even an NC-17 rating."

Quills is comparatively tame. It deals with the Marquis de Sade's last days while in an insane asylum. The young Abbe in charge (Joaquin Phoenix) allows the Marquis to continue writing for therapeutic purposes. A laundress (Kate Winslet) smuggles the pages out to be published. But a puritanical doctor newly appointed to the asylum intends to put a stop to it. The doctor is played by recent Oscar-winner Michael Caine.

Kaufman says that Caine initially did not want the role. "I've always wanted to work with Michael Caine. I've seen all his movies from the beginning. He said, 'I don't want to just play a straight heavy.' So I started telling him, 'in America there's a guy named Ken Starr. Whenever he goes out to the garbage can the press comes around, and he starts smiling at the most inappropriate moments, like when he's talking about bringing the president down.' And Michael says, 'I'm doing it.' And he does that in the movie, right from the beginning. When he talks about putting bars on [his young bride's] window, he smiles, like 'isn't this a great idea?' He's got all the right lines. He's a right-thinking man. Privately, he's a Sadian hero. That character is exactly what de Sade was saying about human nature. So it's like a character come out of de Sade's fiction to haunt him and drive him to death. It's like Frankenstein's monster."

Kaufman and Rush studied de Sade from all angles. At one point on a break during filming in London, Kaufman and Rush went to a pub in London. "It was a bit of an old Irish literary haven," Rush says. "We saw all these extraordinary portraits and photographs on the wall, of Brendan Behan, Jonathan Swift, James Joyce, and Oscar Wilde. And I said 'there's something there where you think, well I know this guy's writing, but look in the eyes. There's something else there that gives you an idea of the personality. We've got to have moments where you look at de Sade and think, 'he's a writer.'"

Rush says of his experience working on Quills, "There are certain roles in your own career where you know that you land on something; that you claim it and that it's your own. I don't know if it's this yet, because it hasn't completed its process. You want to hear if you got the laugh you cracked 12 months ago. It will kind of complete itself as a piece of performance when we know that we've got enthusiastic queues around the block, or perhaps complete indifference. You don't know. So I haven't settled on this one. But certainly as a working process, it was absolutely a special project. You look back and think, 'now what makes that happen? Why can't that happen every time?'"

Considered a "serious" filmmaker whose films are more European than American, Kaufman also sports a subversive sense of humor. In the opening scene of Quills a young lass is beheaded by the guillotine. At the foot of the mechanism is a basket full of heads. Though there's no way for an audience to recognize it, the head in the center is Marie Antoinette, borrowed by Kaufman from Madame Tussaud's Wax Museum.

It's hard to believe that seven years have gone by since Kaufman's last film, Rising Sun. That's a long time to wait for a new film by such a vital filmmaker. Kaufman says he didn't take the time off. "I worked on a lot of things. One thing after another fell through. There's a painful list somewhere in my office of all the things we tried to do. I wanted to do Caleb Carr's The Alienist, about turn of the century young boy prostitutes who are murdered in New York and an Alienist goes about trying to solve the crime. I wrote a script. I spent almost two years on that. At first I asked them 'will you make a film about young boy prostitutes?' [And they said] 'Absolutely. Absolutely.' A year and a half later, the times changed and they wouldn't make something about that. But, fellas? Can I have my year and a half back?'"

To date, Kaufman's only financially successful movie has been Invasion of the Body Snatchers. "I love science fiction," he says. "I love comic books. I'd love to make Sub-Mariner into a movie‹the idea that we piss in the ocean and we shit in it and there's a little guy with wings on his feet who's going to come up and stomp ass."

November 15, 2000

(This interview appeared in a shorter version in the San Francisco Examiner.)

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