Philip Kaufman has adapted impossible books like The Right Stuff and The Unbearable Lightness of Being into brilliantly cinematic movies. With the pansexual Henry & June, he forced the MPAA to come up with a new rating, NC-17. He’s perhaps the classiest of Hollywood mavericks.
And he really wants to make a Sub-Mariner movie.
”I love the comic book,” says the 64-year-old director. ”I like the idea of the ‘vengeance of the deep’: how we piss in the ocean and treat everything so badly and that down there is some little guy with wings on his feet who’s gonna come up and stomp some ass.”
That one will have to wait: The hero of Kaufman’s latest film — his first since 1993’s Rising Sun — would rather spank than stomp. Set in post-Revolutionary France and starring Geoffrey Rush, Kate Winslet, Joaquin Phoenix, and Michael Caine, Quills focuses on the incarcerated Marquis de Sade’s struggle to publish his nasty little novels despite censorship. The film could be Shakespeare in Love‘s bad-mannered cousin, and it intentionally makes a case for free speech at its most extreme. ”There’s a reason why we have a First Amendment,” Kaufman says. ”[It’s] not the eighth amendment. It’s the very first one.”
That said, Quills is hardly a tract. On the contrary, it’s just the latest movie from the Chicago-born filmmaker to deal with outsiders who push society’s envelope, whether they’re the outlaws of 1972’s The Great Northfield Minnesota Raid, the teen rebels of 1979’s The Wanderers, the test pilots of 1983’s The Right Stuff, or the erotic libertines of 1990’s Henry & June. His directing style can walk the fringe, too. ”He would whisper lewd, outrageous, sexual connotations, and then roll the camera,” recalls Rush. ”Inside I’d be cackling to myself, thinking, You’re an outrage, Kaufman. This is not professional direction. You can’t work like this.”
The problem may be that Philip Kaufman doesn’t work enough. He’s spent much of the last decade unsuccessfully developing films out of his home base in San Francisco with his wife, Rose, and their son, Peter. The team worked on adapting Caleb Carr’s best-selling thriller The Alienist for two years before Paramount pulled out; Sub-Mariner sunk when Marvel went bankrupt (the company has since rebounded). Then, ironically, Fox Searchlight came calling with Quills, adapted by Doug Wright from his own Off Broadway play, and Kaufman hit the set for the first time in years. ”If you could have heard the discussions with Doug [and the cast],” he says. ”Every day was stunning, not only in terms of each person’s character and how they interacted, but in terms of the nature of sex and pornography and love.” He laughs quietly, back where he belongs. ”It’s a great way to spend your time.”
— Additional reporting by Thom Geier