Interview: Philip Kaufman At Cannes With 'Hemingway And Gellhorn' HBO Premiere

Unlike last year when three entries in the Official Selection of the Cannes Film Festival went on to grab Oscar nominations for Best Picture (and The Artist even won) this year it’s different, at least going into the final weekend.  Cannes doesn’t seem to have even one sure candidate for Oscar’s big prize. But in a real twist the world’s most famous film fest is launching a surefire Emmy contender: HBO’s Hemingway And Gellhorn which premieres here tonight with a Red Carpet gala at the Grand Theatre Lumiere three days before debuting on HBO May 28. Movie stars Nicole Kidman and Clive Owen will be giving the paparazzi lots to shoot and 75-year-old director Philip Kaufman – whose career includes such acclaimed works as The Right Stuff, The Unbearable Lightness Of Being, The Wanderers, The White Dawn, Henry And June and Invasion Of The Body Snatchers in addition to writing Raiders Of The Lost Ark – will be ascending those famous stairs for the first time. And how ironic this quintessential filmmaker is doing it for a TV movie, albeit one on HBO. But this movie about the tempestuous marriage of Ernest Hemingway and his third wife, war correspondent Martha Gellhorn has the look and feel of an epic spanning the Spanish Civil War, the conflict between the Soviets and Finland, the Japanese occupation of China and World War II.

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Kaufman knows people will see it on TV but he’s hoping critics watch it first on a big screen. I watched it on my 61-inch set at home before heading here as it was sent out a few weeks ago in HBO’s Emmy For Your Consideration box. He wanted them to hold it back but HBO was intent on getting it to the voters. He is very excited to see how it will look on the giant Grand Theatre Lumiere screen.

Despite making the kinds of films Cannes seems to love, Kaufman has had very little contact with the Festival. 48 years ago he was here and awarded  the Prix de la Nouvelle Critique (the Young Critics award) for his first film, Goldstein (tying with a very young Bernardo Bertolucci who is also back in Cannes with his new film Me And You). When we talked this week at an outdoor cafe overlooking the beach Kaufman told me he has only been back a couple of times to raise money for films he was trying to make. TV movie or not, Cannes was anxious to give him the full treatment (although the film is out of competition). “I don’t think they have ever done this with an American movie before. There was Carlos which was a miniseries made for French TV but Olivier Assayas is Cahiers Du Cinema and this is a French film festival. What an honor for me for a movie made for television to be selected here. I know HBO is thrilled.”

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Kaufman said he has never before worked in television but was able to adapt because he has always made films in an economical way. “Even when I made big epic movies they weren’t that expensive. The Right Stuff  for what it was, was in the low 20’s and Unbearable Lightness of Being was somewhere in the teens. I have had some experience in controlling budgets. I am not a director who wants to go out and spend large sums of money. You have to be careful,”  he said. But just because this was made for the faster-paced world of TV production it took just as long to get in front of the cameras as any of his other movies.

“This was eight years in development. Almost all of the movies I have done I spent a long time on. That’s part of the pain and pleasure of working on films,” he said. He wanted to put all that time into this because he always liked Hemingway’s writing style and was taken with Martha’s literary style and her bravery. But initially he didn’t want to do it and even though there were other writers beginning with Barbara Turner he felt it was too long and he couldn’t get the script to the point he liked. He brought in his longtime collaborator Jerry Stahl, and then actor James Gandolfini got involved. Although he was never sure if he wanted to play Hemingway he did get it to HBO and the now-defunct Picturehouse which released HBO’s theatrical films. After Picturehouse folded Len Amato, new to HBO Films, flipped for the script and was determined to make it. Kaufman said Amato put himself on the line to make it and gives him a lot of credit.

The director credits his cast for the film’s success too. “Nicole is just spectacular. She is a great, great actress. And Clive Owen is fantastic. Clive thought out everything in advance. He is a strong, manly guy and who could play Hemingway better? Who could embody that spirit which is great and sexy and then goes astray as the film goes on?”  he asked.

Without the budget or time to shoot this truly  epic 2 and 1/2 hour period film around the world where it takes place, Kaufman shot it all in his hometown of San Francisco where he often likes to work. “In film it is just what you are getting on the lens. You can find a certain angle and make it look like China. You can do all sorts of stuff. We shot Finland two blocks from our office,” he said.

To get the sweeping visuals he also enlisted SF-based Visual Effects Supervisor Chris Morley and Tippett Studios to help advance techniques he first used in a different fashion on The Right Stuff  and The Unbearable Lightness Of Being. Along with legendary sound designer Walter Murch Kaufman said he was able to “nest” the characters into actual archival footage of their lives and times. “We never nested on those other movies. Now we nest. There are maybe  dangers for some people, if you let them get into archival footage they can pervert history in some way, but in this case we’re looking for emotional truths. We tried to use the footage to create a compassionate thing and the actors, even though they are working against green screen they have to be conscious of the characters. It’s not just like a lot of green screen which is just get in front of a screen with a sword and they will put a monster in there. That’s not what we were doing.”

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Kaufman is not thrilled with the way the movie business is evolving, at least as far as the majors are concerned. “The small theatres are closing. Hollywood is thinking differently. A film used to be able to play 8-10 weeks. If a film was a pretty good success theatres would hold it, and now it’s two weeks you’re in, you’re out. I think it is inefficient. It’s wasteful of the by products of film they can develop. And it’s not charming,” he says pointing out he couldn’t even get Paramount now to provide a print of The White Dawn for a Lincoln Center retrospective even though he knows a new one was struck 10 years ago but he says they can’t – or won’t – even look. They said just use the DVD.

Kaufman is not sure what he is doing next but has been very happy with his first TV experience and HBO. He says he doesn’t think there are plans for an international theatrical run. “I think they want it for TV. It is more economical to not wait as it plays out  all over the world. While the iron is hot, put it out there. And it’s a new world, it really is a new world of how film is distributed. And they have a game plan which is why they are so successful,” he said.

Using the worldwide publicity of the Cannes Film Festival to launch Hemingway And Gellhorn‘s TV run and the beginning of an Emmy campaign (just four days before the eligibility deadline cutoff) is one reason they are so successful. Hiring filmmakers like Philip Kaufman is another.

  1. One of the most underrated directors of all time. So glad he is finally getting some attention, and hope this will make funding his future projects easier.

    Oh, and the film was absolutely fantastic!

    1. Hilarious…. what have you been smoking?! Huffington Post TV reviews expressed exactly what I felt about the film….. the script wasn’t good and the film was even worse…..surprised, as HBO does top notch programming…guess one slipped away..

      1. This film is unwatchable. The script is terrible. Nicole Kidman can’t even hold a cigarette. To see these two wonderful actors “acting” and screaming this terrible dialogue at each other was beyond painful. I lasted ten minutes.

        Exec Len Amato has all the subtlety of a sledgehammer. The guy has no taste.

  2. The entire cast of Hemingway & Gellhorn including minor characters, is quite impressive. It’s too bad that these classic American writers had to be played by an Aussie (Nicole) and Brit (Clive). That said, both Nicole and Clive have received high marks from all involved with the production. Clive Owen gained some weight and looks a lot like Hemingway did at the time (he was 37). Nicole plays Martha G. (who was 28 at the time) as a head strong, saucy foil to Hemingway. In reality, Martha did not just happen to stumble into Sloppy Joe’s bar in Key West which the film seems to portray and imply. Martha had said on numerous occasions and to friends and acquaintances that she was going to “get Ernest Hemingway”. No one “happens” to be in Key West in December 1936….it takes considerable verve and pluck to make the trip from St. Louis where she and her mother lived, to what was then a sleepy little fishing village at the bottom of the Florida Keys. Hemingway, on the other hand, was ready for a new challenge as his then current wife Pauline and he had pretty much gone in different directions. The Spanish Civil war was a good excuse for Hemingway to leave Pauline at home with the kids. He became truly happy when he was able to get Martha to show up in Madrid as a correspondent and (literally & figuratively) join him. I hope that HBO speeds up the window for a Blu-Ray release because this sounds like a terrific feature film that just happens to be released to TV.

  3. Game Change had 2.1 million viewers, expect a lot less for this one. They’ll be lucky if 10 people tune in.

  4. Seems like HBO buried this one. When are they finally going to make The Defining Moment. Best HBO script I’ve read in years. It’s the love story of Eleanor Roosevelt and Lorena Hickok.

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