His credentials equal those of any working American director, but Philip Kaufman is rarely mentioned in the same breath as fellow iconoclasts Robert Altman or Martin Scorsese. That may be because his involvement in two of his most popular successes was limited to the page, first as screenwriter for 1976's The Outlaw Josey Wales and later as a co-creator of the story of 1981's Raiders Of The Lost Ark. As a director, his studio projects continue to edge into more idiosyncratic territory, introducing a European sensibility to mainstream American genre films. After beginning his career with a pair of underrated period pieces, 1972's The Great Northfield, Minnesota Raid and 1974's The White Dawn, Kaufman hit his stride with 1978's Invasion Of The Body Snatchers, a powerful humanist rethinking of Don Siegel's often-imitated classic. Kaufman's follow-up, 1979's The Wanderers, tends to get overlooked, but it's a funny and evocative coming-of-age tale about a gang-ruled high school in the Bronx. Kaufman only directed two projects in the '80s, but both are fluid, intelligent adaptations of seemingly unadaptable material, ranking among the decade's best films. At three and a half hours, his exhilarating 1984 space epic The Right Stuff captured the essence of Tom Wolfe's kaleidoscopic novel, while 1988's The Unbearable Lightness Of Being held the integrity of Milan Kundera's politics and philosophy without losing its playful eroticism or underlying poignancy. Kaufman's fascination with literature and sex informed his deeply personal Henry & June in 1990, but the film's mature depiction of the relationship between Henry Miller and AnaĂŻs Nin was branded with the inaugural NC-17 rating and fell victim to the resultant controversy. Controversy again dogged his 1993 adaptation of Rising Sun, which boldly departed from Michael Crichton's borderline xenophobic look at Japanese business practices in America, but was tagged with the same charges of racism. Kaufman's new Quills is a darkly comic examination of the Marquis de Sade's last days, spent confined to a mental institution. Geoffrey Rush stars as de Sade, whose scandalous writings meet opposition from a stern moralist "doctor" (Michael Caine) and the conflicted priest (Joaquin Phoenix) who runs the asylum, while Kate Winslet co-stars as a laundress who smuggles the Marquis' writing to an underground publisher. Kaufman recently spoke to The Onion A.V. Club about censorship, the potency of free speech, and the increasingly rare privilege of making movies for adults.

The Onion: Were the financiers nervous about backing a movie about the Marquis de Sade?

Philip Kaufman: No, actually. Fox Searchlight brought it to me. My history has always been to force what I consider more interesting projects through the system, but in this case, it arrived at my doorstep. This movie is what I think companies like Fox Searchlight should be doing, but all too often they don't do more daring material. They may do one movie that's interesting, and then they start doing basically lower-budgeted versions of standard Hollywood fare. In this case, they developed something that's definitely out of the mainstream of the usual Hollywood thinking, and I think that's very healthy. There's a big audience that has stayed away from movies, an audience that's more adult and doesn't look on the word "adult" as being tainted in any way.

O: Since Quills is based on a stage play and it's hemmed-in in terms of location, how did you go about making it cinematic?

PK: You start by thinking how the camera can move. In a stage play, obviously, you're sitting in the audience looking at the action from a set distance. One of my great experiences going to the theater was seeing [director] Peter Brook's Marat/Sade on Broadway. I was down front and the lunatics were all around me, up in the boxes playing drums and other instruments. My feeling is that when Brook moved that to film, he didn't quite do it in a way that had the same effect. So it's not just simply moving around with the camera. You have to reconfigure it and rethink it and feel your way inside the emotions of the story to decide when you'll be in close on a shot or when you'll be moving. For example, when Geoffrey Rush is totally nude, where should the camera be? How close should you be? Should you be on his face? Should you see him in the midst of his surroundings? There are many, many choices with each shot, and the key is simply to figure out what approach is best for the storytelling.

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O: How did you see this story and these characters as being relevant to these times?

PK: There's a lot of ways into that answer. Certainly, there's resonance in a lot of the hypocrisy that's going on in terms of censorship versus freedom of expression. I hope, though, that we've raised all sides of the issue in Quills by showing that there's a potency and a potential danger to art that must be taken into account. We did take the most extreme case to this day: The Marquis de Sade is such an extreme example to be defending for freedom of expression. But by really examining the character and having a great actor like Geoffrey Rush play him, I think we were able to explore some of the things that other people, particularly French philosophers, had done in rethinking Sade. Simone de Beauvoir and various members of the French Academy had written essays on Sade that I had read back in the '60s, when he was first published. And they all were bringing us into Sade in a way that makes sense in light of your question, making the case that he was relevant to our time. In some strange way, he was the first of the Romantic writers, which is not to say he was writing about romance exactly. But it is the question of the artist who was totally obsessed with art: Historically, you don't really have too many examples before Sade. Usually, you start with someone like Van Gogh or [Vaslav] Nijinsky or Oscar Wilde. So that was relevant to our time, this idea of the artist who puts his writing above all else. Also, when I read Doug Wright's script, it was during the time when the president was being pursued by the special prosecutor [Ken Starr], who was determined at all costs to bring him down. I thought there were a lot of very contemporary reference points that were very interesting, keeping in mind that Doug Wright's play had been done years before. Even today, you sense that there are deep hypocritical currents running through the political landscape.

O: The main criticism leveled against the film is that in order to advance an argument against censorship, you gloss over or soft-pedal the Marquis' own atrocities.

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PK: People say that, but it's not true. The Marquis was a writer. His own atrocities are alluded to in the film. There were a couple of things he was charged with that are mentioned which happened many years earlier, when he was the young rake Marquis, part of the upper class in France at the time, which you have to consider with some historical perspective. His actions and the actions of the upper class in general were awful, and I don't think we're soft-pedaling that at all. Certainly, the words he's writing are pretty horrendous. When you really examine those stories of tongues being cut out and so forth, you discover that his own story is visited upon him. And that's a wicked irony, because his life story becomes a Sadeian tale. In some ways, he's made to suffer as the story he's cackling about is turned on him. It's an interesting point that the Marquis was against the death penalty. We make films about Al Capone, don't we? We make films about Bonnie and Clyde. We make films about Jesse James. We make films about all sorts of murderers and outlaws. Westerns are replete with good characters going overboard for vengeance and actually murdering people. The Marquis, in fact, never murdered anybody. It's just the potency of the literature that makes him so dangerous. In my mind, it goes way too far, too. I mean, a great director like Pier Paolo Pasolini did a film [adaptation of de Sade's work] called Salo that's virtually unwatchable. [Laughs.] Again, it's not that the Marquis was really such an awful man. There are murderers walking the streets in this country after spending 15 years in prison. The Marquis was imprisoned in mental asylums for 30 to 40 years, essentially for his writing, and perhaps in some ways for crossing his mother-in-law. [Laughs.] So I don't think we soft-pedal it. Doug Wright has read that criticism numerous times, and his hair has stood up on end. Because right from the beginning, when Napoleon is hearing that story about the wafer "plunging into her very intestines," his scenarios are awful. It's just that the context makes it seem kind of funny. We're laughing at it, but it's not meant to soft-pedal that at all. In some ways, Wright meant to restore to the Marquis his sense of humor, which had been taken away by history. That's why I think it's important to view the film with a certain sense of wicked humor. The front part of the movie is a setup and it's often funny, but then the story takes a Sadeian turn and the payoff is very potent and powerful, I hope. We didn't want to make a film for "children of all ages." We feel that in myth and folktale, there's real power to these stories, but that's been watered down. Now, we have very violent Hollywood movies with happy endings and we've lost the mystery and potency of something like "Hansel And Gretel," which is a pretty scary story. [Laughs.] You look at the Garden Of Eden, and suddenly, there's a serpent speaking to Joaquin Phoenix and Kate Winslet, saying, "Take a bite out of this apple," and it's Geoffrey Rush's voice, saying, "You will get the knowledge of good and the knowledge of evil." There's the primal folk-myth of all Western civilization. When they're expelled from the asylum and put out into the world, they're faced with the French Revolution. History is far more pornographic than anything the Marquis could do. That's what we're balancing his story against. All those beheadings, with children watching and so forth, far surpass anything he ever did. You have to put it in context. He was writing about things that he witnessed.

O: What intrigues you so much about the connection between eroticism and the creative impulse?

PK: Well, I just think they're linked. I think that part of dreams, the libido and all of that, is naturally rooted in the creative impulse. For some reason in America, the word "adult" has a bad connotation. I don't quite know why that is. It certainly wasn't true in the '30s. Humphrey Bogart was an adult actor, and so were Spencer Tracy and Barbara Stanwyck. Those were all adults acting in adult roles. Somehow, perhaps coming out of the post-blacklist '50s and all those attempts to repress Hollywood over the years, we've created a more infantilized, formulaic society. I think that when we were able to deal, in those movies of the '30s, with sexuality and other adult issues, movies in many ways were more creative. I don't mean to denigrate all movies now. I'm just talking about the mainstream movies that just rely on formula. I've enjoyed those formulas, but I'm tired of them, and I want to get into areas of adult concern. It's strange that daytime television is far sexier then the time after six, when the pundits appear and suddenly we're into "important" stuff. We've just been with talk shows and soap operas, and there has been all sorts of boffing and screwing and freaks running up and down the aisle on Jerry Springer. Then, suddenly, we get serious. And I think we get serious at the wrong times now.

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O: Did you have this connection at all in your mind between Sade and Henry Miller?

PK: Not really. In fact, I even went back to read through Henry to see if he ever talked about Sade, but I couldn't find anything, perhaps because Sade wasn't really being published back when [Miller] was writing, particularly in the '30s and '40s. It wasn't until Henry got published that Sade was starting to get published, as well. The two are really at opposite sides of the spectrum. Henry was a very generous, humorous guy, and he was trying to write the language of the American streets in some way, like the way Lenny Bruce was as a comedian. In some ways, of course, Miller was outrageous, but he was mostly just passionate about literature. He was an heir to Lawrence and James Joyce and all the other banned writers of the 20th century, but he was American and had a voice like a GI serviceman. I think that's how Miller got very popular. GIs were coming back from Europe reading his work, believing that he was really telling it like it was. The Marquis is a much more complex case and certainly a more unlikable guy, even though Geoffrey shows, through the force of his acting abilities, that he's really hiding some qualities that are more admirable. Of course, he'll never let you get at them. He's a real handful. In some ways, he's childish. He slaps his wife. He really behaves badly. As I said before, he's the most extreme case and thus poses the greatest challenge to free-speech defenders. The question then becomes, "What kind of impact do his words carry, and is freedom of speech worth the consequences?"

O: How do you see the corporate landscape as having changed since Rising Sun? Did you feel at the time that Crichton's paranoia was sort of overblown?

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PK: I'm not sure about the corporate stuff, but certainly the ethnic stuff, which I tried to tone down in the film version. The screenplay was written before the book was published. I was interested in a lot of the stuff that was later protested in Seattle. I wanted to make a movie that was a sort of Raymond Chandler view of Los Angeles in the Technological Age, and see how business operated. And I still feel there's a valid paranoia that the global conglomerates they demonstrated against in Seattle are truly dangerous.

O: But Crichton's book was targeted specifically at the Japanese.

PK: Right. I changed the villain and made a lot of other changes, too, to support my way of looking at it. Along with the book, the movie was attacked in advance as racist, but once people saw Sean Connery cherishing the highest of Japanese values and teaching them to Wesley Snipes, I think they could see that there's a great cultural tradition that we could learn a lot from. But that interplay of corporations is dangerous and deadly. Now we're about to have two oilmen running our country. Watch out.

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The Onion: Were the financiers nervous about backing a movie about the Marquis de Sade?

Philip Kaufman: No, actually. Fox Searchlight brought it to me. My history has always been to force what I consider more interesting projects through the system, but in this case, it arrived at my doorstep. This movie is what I think companies like Fox Searchlight should be doing, but all too often they don't do more daring material. They may do one movie that's interesting, and then they start doing basically lower-budgeted versions of standard Hollywood fare. In this case, they developed something that's definitely out of the mainstream of the usual Hollywood thinking, and I think that's very healthy. There's a big audience that has stayed away from movies, an audience that's more adult and doesn't look on the word "adult" as being tainted in any way.

O: Since Quills is based on a stage play and it's hemmed-in in terms of location, how did you go about making it cinematic?

Advertisement

PK: You start by thinking how the camera can move. In a stage play, obviously, you're sitting in the audience looking at the action from a set distance. One of my great experiences going to the theater was seeing [director] Peter Brook's Marat/Sade on Broadway. I was down front and the lunatics were all around me, up in the boxes playing drums and other instruments. My feeling is that when Brook moved that to film, he didn't quite do it in a way that had the same effect. So it's not just simply moving around with the camera. You have to reconfigure it and rethink it and feel your way inside the emotions of the story to decide when you'll be in close on a shot or when you'll be moving. For example, when Geoffrey Rush is totally nude, where should the camera be? How close should you be? Should you be on his face? Should you see him in the midst of his surroundings? There are many, many choices with each shot, and the key is simply to figure out what approach is best for the storytelling.

O: How did you see this story and these characters as being relevant to these times?

PK: There's a lot of ways into that answer. Certainly, there's resonance in a lot of the hypocrisy that's going on in terms of censorship versus freedom of expression. I hope, though, that we've raised all sides of the issue in Quills by showing that there's a potency and a potential danger to art that must be taken into account. We did take the most extreme case to this day: The Marquis de Sade is such an extreme example to be defending for freedom of expression. But by really examining the character and having a great actor like Geoffrey Rush play him, I think we were able to explore some of the things that other people, particularly French philosophers, had done in rethinking Sade. Simone de Beauvoir and various members of the French Academy had written essays on Sade that I had read back in the '60s, when he was first published. And they all were bringing us into Sade in a way that makes sense in light of your question, making the case that he was relevant to our time. In some strange way, he was the first of the Romantic writers, which is not to say he was writing about romance exactly. But it is the question of the artist who was totally obsessed with art: Historically, you don't really have too many examples before Sade. Usually, you start with someone like Van Gogh or [Vaslav] Nijinsky or Oscar Wilde. So that was relevant to our time, this idea of the artist who puts his writing above all else. Also, when I read Doug Wright's script, it was during the time when the president was being pursued by the special prosecutor [Ken Starr], who was determined at all costs to bring him down. I thought there were a lot of very contemporary reference points that were very interesting, keeping in mind that Doug Wright's play had been done years before. Even today, you sense that there are deep hypocritical currents running through the political landscape.

Advertisement

O: The main criticism leveled against the film is that in order to advance an argument against censorship, you gloss over or soft-pedal the Marquis' own atrocities.

PK: People say that, but it's not true. The Marquis was a writer. His own atrocities are alluded to in the film. There were a couple of things he was charged with that are mentioned which happened many years earlier, when he was the young rake Marquis, part of the upper class in France at the time, which you have to consider with some historical perspective. His actions and the actions of the upper class in general were awful, and I don't think we're soft-pedaling that at all. Certainly, the words he's writing are pretty horrendous. When you really examine those stories of tongues being cut out and so forth, you discover that his own story is visited upon him. And that's a wicked irony, because his life story becomes a Sadeian tale. In some ways, he's made to suffer as the story he's cackling about is turned on him. It's an interesting point that the Marquis was against the death penalty. We make films about Al Capone, don't we? We make films about Bonnie and Clyde. We make films about Jesse James. We make films about all sorts of murderers and outlaws. Westerns are replete with good characters going overboard for vengeance and actually murdering people. The Marquis, in fact, never murdered anybody. It's just the potency of the literature that makes him so dangerous. In my mind, it goes way too far, too. I mean, a great director like Pier Paolo Pasolini did a film [adaptation of de Sade's work] called Salo that's virtually unwatchable. [Laughs.] Again, it's not that the Marquis was really such an awful man. There are murderers walking the streets in this country after spending 15 years in prison. The Marquis was imprisoned in mental asylums for 30 to 40 years, essentially for his writing, and perhaps in some ways for crossing his mother-in-law. [Laughs.] So I don't think we soft-pedal it. Doug Wright has read that criticism numerous times, and his hair has stood up on end. Because right from the beginning, when Napoleon is hearing that story about the wafer "plunging into her very intestines," his scenarios are awful. It's just that the context makes it seem kind of funny. We're laughing at it, but it's not meant to soft-pedal that at all. In some ways, Wright meant to restore to the Marquis his sense of humor, which had been taken away by history. That's why I think it's important to view the film with a certain sense of wicked humor. The front part of the movie is a setup and it's often funny, but then the story takes a Sadeian turn and the payoff is very potent and powerful, I hope. We didn't want to make a film for "children of all ages." We feel that in myth and folktale, there's real power to these stories, but that's been watered down. Now, we have very violent Hollywood movies with happy endings and we've lost the mystery and potency of something like "Hansel And Gretel," which is a pretty scary story. [Laughs.] You look at the Garden Of Eden, and suddenly, there's a serpent speaking to Joaquin Phoenix and Kate Winslet, saying, "Take a bite out of this apple," and it's Geoffrey Rush's voice, saying, "You will get the knowledge of good and the knowledge of evil." There's the primal folk-myth of all Western civilization. When they're expelled from the asylum and put out into the world, they're faced with the French Revolution. History is far more pornographic than anything the Marquis could do. That's what we're balancing his story against. All those beheadings, with children watching and so forth, far surpass anything he ever did. You have to put it in context. He was writing about things that he witnessed.

O: What intrigues you so much about the connection between eroticism and the creative impulse?

Advertisement

PK: Well, I just think they're linked. I think that part of dreams, the libido and all of that, is naturally rooted in the creative impulse. For some reason in America, the word "adult" has a bad connotation. I don't quite know why that is. It certainly wasn't true in the '30s. Humphrey Bogart was an adult actor, and so were Spencer Tracy and Barbara Stanwyck. Those were all adults acting in adult roles. Somehow, perhaps coming out of the post-blacklist '50s and all those attempts to repress Hollywood over the years, we've created a more infantilized, formulaic society. I think that when we were able to deal, in those movies of the '30s, with sexuality and other adult issues, movies in many ways were more creative. I don't mean to denigrate all movies now. I'm just talking about the mainstream movies that just rely on formula. I've enjoyed those formulas, but I'm tired of them, and I want to get into areas of adult concern. It's strange that daytime television is far sexier then the time after six, when the pundits appear and suddenly we're into "important" stuff. We've just been with talk shows and soap operas, and there has been all sorts of boffing and screwing and freaks running up and down the aisle on Jerry Springer. Then, suddenly, we get serious. And I think we get serious at the wrong times now.

O: Did you have this connection at all in your mind between Sade and Henry Miller?

PK: Not really. In fact, I even went back to read through Henry to see if he ever talked about Sade, but I couldn't find anything, perhaps because Sade wasn't really being published back when [Miller] was writing, particularly in the '30s and '40s. It wasn't until Henry got published that Sade was starting to get published, as well. The two are really at opposite sides of the spectrum. Henry was a very generous, humorous guy, and he was trying to write the language of the American streets in some way, like the way Lenny Bruce was as a comedian. In some ways, of course, Miller was outrageous, but he was mostly just passionate about literature. He was an heir to Lawrence and James Joyce and all the other banned writers of the 20th century, but he was American and had a voice like a GI serviceman. I think that's how Miller got very popular. GIs were coming back from Europe reading his work, believing that he was really telling it like it was. The Marquis is a much more complex case and certainly a more unlikable guy, even though Geoffrey shows, through the force of his acting abilities, that he's really hiding some qualities that are more admirable. Of course, he'll never let you get at them. He's a real handful. In some ways, he's childish. He slaps his wife. He really behaves badly. As I said before, he's the most extreme case and thus poses the greatest challenge to free-speech defenders. The question then becomes, "What kind of impact do his words carry, and is freedom of speech worth the consequences?"

Advertisement

O: How do you see the corporate landscape as having changed since Rising Sun? Did you feel at the time that Crichton's paranoia was sort of overblown?

PK: I'm not sure about the corporate stuff, but certainly the ethnic stuff, which I tried to tone down in the film version. The screenplay was written before the book was published. I was interested in a lot of the stuff that was later protested in Seattle. I wanted to make a movie that was a sort of Raymond Chandler view of Los Angeles in the Technological Age, and see how business operated. And I still feel there's a valid paranoia that the global conglomerates they demonstrated against in Seattle are truly dangerous.

O: But Crichton's book was targeted specifically at the Japanese.

PK: Right. I changed the villain and made a lot of other changes, too, to support my way of looking at it. Along with the book, the movie was attacked in advance as racist, but once people saw Sean Connery cherishing the highest of Japanese values and teaching them to Wesley Snipes, I think they could see that there's a great cultural tradition that we could learn a lot from. But that interplay of corporations is dangerous and deadly. Now we're about to have two oilmen running our country. Watch out.

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