Philip Kaufman

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For other people of the same name, see Phil Kaufman (disambiguation).
Philip Kaufman
Philip Kaufman 03.jpg
Kaufman at the 1991 Venice Film Festival
Born (1936-10-23) October 23, 1936 (age 79)
Chicago, Illinois, U.S.
Occupation director, screenwriter, producer
Years active 1964–present
Spouse(s) Rose Kaufman (1958–2009; her death)
Awards Saturn Award for Best Direction
1978 Invasion of the Body Snatchers
KCFCC Award for Best Director
1983 The Right Stuff
NSFC Award for Best Director
1988 The Unbearable Lightness of Being

Philip Kaufman (born October 23, 1936) is an American film director and screenwriter who has directed fifteen films over a career spanning more than five decades. He has been described as a "maverick" and an "iconoclast,"[1] notable for his versatility and independence. He is considered an "auteur", whose films have always expressed his personal vision.[2]:1

His choice of topics has been eclectic and sometimes controversial, having adapted novels with diverse themes and stories. Kaufman's works have included genres such as realism, horror, fantasy, erotic, Westerns, underworld crime, and inner city gangs. Examples are Milan Kundera's The Unbearable Lightness of Being (1988), Michael Crichton's Rising Sun (1993), a remake of Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978), and the erotic writings of Anaïs Nin’s Henry & June. His film The Wanderers (1979) has achieved cult status. But his greatest success was Tom Wolfe's true-life The Right Stuff, which received eight Academy Award nominations, including Best Picture.

According to film historian Annette Insdorf, "no other living American director has so consistently and successfully made movies for adults, tackling sensuality, artistic creation, and manipulation by authorities."[2]:1 Other critics note that Kaufman's films are "strong on mood and atmosphere," with powerful cinematography and a "lyrical, poetic style" to portray different historic periods.[1] His later films have a somewhat European style, but the stories always "stress individualism and integrity, and are clearly American."[3]

Early life[edit]

Kaufman was born in Chicago, Illinois in 1936, the only son of Elizabeth (Brandau), a housewife, and Nathan Kaufman, a produce businessman. He was the grandson of German-Jewish immigrants.[4] One of his grammar and high school friends was William Friedkin, who also became a director.[4] He developed an early love of movies and during his youth he would often go to double features.

He attended the University of Chicago where he received a degree in history, and then enrolled at Harvard Law School where he spent a year. He returned to Chicago for a postgraduate degree, hoping to become a professor of history.[1] In 1958 Kaufman married Rose Fisher, a year after they met as undergraduates. They later had a son, Peter.[5]

Before graduating Kaufman became involved in the counterculture movement and in 1960 moved to San Francisco. He took various jobs there, including postal worker, and befriended a number of influential people, such as writer Henry Miller.[1] He and his wife then decided to travel and live in Europe for a while where he would teach.[3] After spending time working on a kibbutz in Israel, he taught English and math for two years in Greece and Italy.[3] During his travels he also met author Anaïs Nin, whose relationship with her lover, Henry Miller, later became the inspiration and subject for Kaufman's film Henry and June (1990).[1]

After backpacking in Europe with his wife Rose and their young son, they returned to the United States. His time in Europe heavily influenced Kaufman's decision to become a filmmaker, when he and his wife would wander into small movie theaters showcasing the works of experimental new filmmakers such as John Cassavetes and Shirley Clarke, among others.[1] He recalls the effect of being exposed to those filmmakers as the "start of something new" which would later inspire the European flavor of many of his films:

"I could feel the cry of America, the sense of jazz...So I came back to Chicago in 1962 and set about trying to learn as much as I could, seeing every foreign movie I could."[2]:4


Goldstein (1964)

Kaufman returned to Chicago, ready to make his first feature film. He went around town looking for funding for his directorial debut, Goldstein (1964), co-written and co-directed with Benjamin Manaster. Kaufman initially conceived of the story in an unfinished novel, but at the urging of Anaïs Nin he then made it into a "mystical comedy" film.[2]:5 It was inspired by a story from Martin Buber's Tales of the Hasidim, and was filmed on location in Chicago with a cast composed of local actors from The Second City comedy troupe.[2]:5

The film won the Prix de la Nouvelle Critique (New Critics Prize) at the 1964 Cannes Film Festival,[4] with French director Jean Renoir calling it the best American film he had seen in 20 years.[4] François Truffaut, another leading French director, was visiting Chicago when the film premiered and he came to the opening. Kaufman recalled that Truffaut "leaped to his feet" in the middle of the screening and began applauding.[2]:8

Fearless Frank (1967)

Two years later, Kaufman went on to direct Fearless Frank (1967), a comic book/counter culture fable, which he wrote, produced and directed. It costarred Jon Voight in his debut film. Kaufman spent four years trying to find a distributor, but the film was a box office failure when it finally played. And while the movie didn't gain as much attention as Goldstein, it did help Kaufman land a contract in Universal Studios' Young Directors Program in 1969.[6]

The Great Northfield Minnesota Raid (1972)

In 1972, Kaufman wrote and directed The Great Northfield Minnesota Raid starring Robert Duvall as Jesse James, in what was his first commercial film after the previous two independent ones. He spent a lot of time researching the real life characters when writing the screenplay, although the film took some liberties portraying some of the factual details.[7] The Los Angeles Times wrote that "Kaufman is not an angry revisionist, but seems to be trying to tell it like it must have been, with an amused detachment, which sees the events as something close to an absurd spectacle."[7]

The White Dawn (1974)

Kaufman directed The White Dawn in 1974, a drama based on the novel of the same name by James Houston. Shot in documentary style, a story about whalers, played by Warren Oates, Louis Gossett, Jr., and Timothy Bottoms, stranded in the Arctic at the turn of the century. To survive they battle polar bears and take advantage of the Eskimos who had originally saved them.[8]

The Outlaw Josey Wales (1976)

Kaufman wrote and began directing The Outlaw Josey Wales (1976) but was fired as director after disagreements with its star, Clint Eastwood, who then directed the film himself. Before filming began, Eastwood felt the screenplay needed more suspense and hired Kaufman to polish the story. He also thought Kaufman would be a good choice to direct, after being impressed by the realism he created in White Dawn.[9] Critic David Thomson explains that Eastwood was later bothered by the number of takes Kaufman wanted, which Eastwood considered a waste of time and expense.[9]

Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978)

Kaufman directed the science fiction thriller, Invasion of the Body Snatchers in 1978, which became his first first box office hit. It was a remake of the 1956 version. In this version, Kaufman moved the setting to San Francisco and recreated the alien threat as more a horror film than science fiction,[10] and in a way that was disturbing, humorous, and believable.[3] Cricit Pauline Kael said "It may be the best movie of its kind ever made."[11]

The Wanderers (1979)

In 1979, he directed The Wanderers, based on comic novel by Richard Price. The direction of the film illustrated Kaufman's mastery of genre quite different than his previous films. It's the story of a benign Italian gang of teenagers in the Bronx of 1963, with Ken Wahl and Karen Allen.[8] It was Wahl's debut film, and Allen's second role, and the film has become a cult favorite.[12][13]

Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) co-writer

In 1981, Kaufman became involved with the first Indiana Jones film, Raiders of the Lost Ark, for which he received story credit. The character of Indiana Jones was created by George Lucas and Kaufman came up with the story about the pursuit of the Ark of the Covenant.[3]

The Right Stuff (1983)

In 1983 Kaufman directed and wrote the screenplay for the critically acclaimed film, The Right Stuff, an adaptation of the best-selling book of the same name by Tom Wolfe. The story is based on the events and lives of the original test pilots who were selected to become the first U.S. astronauts. The film helped launch or boost the careers of numerous little-known actors, including Ed Harris, Scott Glenn, Fred Ward and Dennis Quaid.

Kaufman hired William Goldman to write the screenplay, but after a number of disputes about the focus of the story, Goldman quit and Kaufman wrote the screenplay himself. Goldman wanted the story to portray patriotism and center mostly on the astronauts, whereas Kaufman wanted much of the story to focus on Chuck Yeager (played by Sam Shepard), who Goldman's script left out completely. Goldman writes in his memoirs, "Phil's heart was with Yeager."[14] And Shepard's biographer, Don Shewey, explains that "though its chief subject is the astronauts, Yeager is the apple of Kaufman's heroic eye."[15] Critic David Thomson agrees:

I think Kaufman picked Shepard for the way he represents the movie star as real man and existentialist...a man in a leather jacket on a horse meeting a jet plane in the desert. That is an arresting image, and Shepard is all that Kaufman wanted in The Right Stuff.[16][17]

Historian Michael Barson considers it one of the most ambitious pictures of the Eighties.[8] Roger Ebert said the film was "impressive," noting that the way Kaufman had organized the material into one of the "best recent American movies, is astonishing."[18] The film was nominated for 8 Oscars, including Best Picture, won 4 Oscars, yet failed at the box office.[8] Kaufman earned the Writers Guild and Directors Guild nomination for his satiric adaptation of the astronaut program.[3] "It may be the last movie of the heroic 1970s," writes Thomson."[16]

The Unbearable Lightness of Being (1988)

The Unbearable Lightness of Being was directed and co-written by Kaufman in 1988. The film is based on the novel by Milan Kundera which takes place during the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968. Kaufman was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay.[19]

Henry & June (1990)

In 1990, he wrote and directed Henry & June, a re-creation of the affairs among and between Henry Miller, Anais Nin, and June Miller in 1931 Paris. The film created some controversy when it was released.[8] It was the first film to be given an NC-17 rating by the MPAA.

Rising Sun (1993)

Kaufman directed Rising Sun in 1993, an adaptation of Michael Crichton's thriller which takes place in Japan. The film starred Sean Connery and Wesley Snipes. Crichton angrily withdrew early on as a result of Kaufman softening the book's more anti-Japan posturing.[8]

In 1995, he narrated China: The Wild East a documentary directed by his son, Peter Kaufman.

Quills (2000)

In 2000, Kaufman directed Quills, a satirical thriller film about the increasingly desperate efforts of the Marquis de Sade's jailers to censor his licentious works, starring Geoffrey Rush, Joaquin Phoenix, Kate Winslet and Michael Caine.

Twisted (2004)

In 2003, he directed Twisted, a thriller about a young policewoman whose casual sex partners are murdered while she herself suffers alcoholic blackouts. It starred Ashley Judd, Samuel L. Jackson and Andy Garcia.

Kaufman's wife Rose, who has a cameo appearance in Invasion of the Body Snatchers, co-wrote the screenplays of The Wanderers and Henry & June. Their son, Peter Kaufman, was the producer of Henry and June, Rising Sun and Quills, Twisted and Hemingway & Gellhorn.

Hemingway & Gellhorn (2012)

In 2012, eight years after his previous film, Kaufman directed an HBO biopic about Ernest Hemingway and his relationship with Martha Gellhorn entitled Hemingway & Gellhorn. It starred Clive Owen and Nicole Kidman. The film had been planned for many years, but languished as a project so he could care for Rose, who was fighting cancer.[5] Kidman read the script and told him, "I want to do matter how long it takes. I'm in."[5] The film was nominated for 15 Primetime Emmy Awards, including one for Kaufman for Outstanding Directing for a Miniseries, Movie, or Dramatic Special.

Personal life[edit]

Kaufman lives in San Francisco, where he also runs his production company, Walrus and Associates. His son, Peter Kaufman, has directed his own films and has produced number of his father's films.


Year Film Director Writer Notes
1964 Goldstein Yes Yes
1967 Fearless Frank Yes Yes producer
1972 The Great Northfield Minnesota Raid Yes Yes
1974 The White Dawn Yes
1976 The Outlaw Josey Wales Yes co-writer
1978 Invasion of the Body Snatchers Yes
1979 The Wanderers Yes Yes co-writer with Rose Kaufman
1981 Raiders of the Lost Ark Yes story only
1983 The Right Stuff Yes Yes
1988 The Unbearable Lightness of Being Yes Yes
1990 Henry & June Yes Yes co-writer with Rose Kaufman
1993 Rising Sun Yes Yes co-writer
2000 Quills Yes
2004 Twisted Yes
2012 Hemingway & Gellhorn Yes


  1. ^ a b c d e f Allon, Yoram; Cullen, Del; and Patterson, Hannah, editors. Contemporary North American Film Directors, Wallflower Press (2000) p. 292
  2. ^ a b c d e f Insdorf, Annette. Philip Kaufman, Univ. of Illinois Press (2012)
  3. ^ a b c d e f Hillstrom, Laurie, and Welsh, James M., editors. International Dictionary of Films and Filmmakers-2: Directors, 3rd ed. , St. James Press (1997) pp. 512-513
  4. ^ a b c d Simon, Alex. "Kaufman/Sade", Venice Magazine, December 2000/January 2001
  5. ^ a b c "Philip Kaufman fights grief to make 'Hemingway'", SFGate, December 21, 2013
  6. ^ Philip Kaufman, Film Reference
  7. ^ a b Boggs, Johnny D. Jesse James and the Movies, McFarland (2011) p. 200
  8. ^ a b c d e f Barson, Michael. Hollywood Directors, Noonday Press (1995) pp. 222-223
  9. ^ a b Schickel, Richard. Clint Eastwood: A Biography, Knopf Doubleday (1996) p. 325-326
  10. ^ Morrison, Michael A. Trajectories of the Fantastic: Selected Essays, Greenwood Publishing (1997) p. 195
  11. ^ Menand, Louis. American Studies, Macmillan (2002) p. 189
  12. ^ Maltin, Leonard. Leonard Maltin's 2009 Movie Guide, Penguin (2008) p. 1506
  13. ^ video: Clip from The Wanderers
  14. ^ Goldman, William. Adventures in the Screen Trade, Grand Central Publishing (1983) e-bk
  15. ^ Shewey, Don. Sam Shepard, Da Capo Press (1997) pp. 165-166
  16. ^ a b Thomson, David. The New Biographical Dictionary of Film, Knopf (2002) pp. 454-456
  17. ^ video: Scene from The Right Stuff
  18. ^ Ebert, Roger. Awake in the Dark: The Best of Roger Ebert, Univ. of Chicago Press (2006) p. 160
  19. ^ video: Scene compilation from The Unbearable Lightness of Being

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