Annette Insdorf, author of the Contemporary Film Directors series book Philip Kaufman will conduct a Q&A with the filmmaker at the 30th Anniversary celebration and screening of The Right Stuff hosted by the Motion Picture Association of America in Washington, D.C. on October 9th.
Insdorf, who is well known for her writing and film criticism, is also the director of undergraduate film studies at Columbia University’s School of the Arts. She took a few moments to answer our questions about “The Right Stuff” and Philip Kaufman’s body of work.
Q: Philip Kaufman has always worked on the edge of “popular” film, with hits like “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” and “The Right Stuff” as well as with his screenwriting credits that include “Raiders of the Lost Ark.” Even though these are mainstream Hollywood films, you say he has a more “European” style. How do his films reflect this style?
Annette Insdorf: I consider Kaufman to be as much a “European” filmmaker as a “Hollywood” director, not only because he makes films for adults, but for the sophistication of his storytelling. Like Truffaut, he combines humanist concerns with stylistic mastery, leading us to reflect not only on his characters and stories, but on how he uses the cinematic medium.
Q: How does “The Right Stuff” stack up against the rest of the body of Kaufman’s work?
Insdorf: I think it’s one of his two greatest achievements, alongside “The Unbearable Lightness of Being.” I presented “The Right Stuff” on the big screen at both the Museum of Modern Art in Manhattan and the Jacob Burns Center in upstate New York last year. The audience response was terrific: many viewers acknowledged that—even if they saw the film on TV or DVD—they were essentially watching it for the first time. Thirty years after its release, “The Right Stuff” remains riveting, smart, and big-hearted.
Q: Is “The Right Stuff” a derivation from some of the themes that are present in Kaufman’s other films?
Insdorf: I think Kaufman was drawn to “The Right Stuff” for reasons similar to his choice of “The Great Northfield Minnesota Raid,” “The White Dawn,” and “The Wanderers.” Male camaraderie is an ongoing theme in his work, particularly as he explores the possibilities and limitations of heroism.
Kaufman is deft at delineating the tensions between the individual and the community (also apparent in his script for “The Outlaw Josey Wales”).
Q: Not many films get the “30th Anniversary” treatment. What has made “The Right Stuff” connect with audiences decades after the film’s release?
Insdorf: His epic of 1983 is a towering achievement, including ambitious scale, bravura filmmaking, and a genuine vision that celebrates bravery (individual as well as collective) while incorporating a healthy irony.
Q: How did Kaufman take on the challenge of translating Wolfe’s non-fiction book, with its very distinctive style, to film?
Insdorf: He did a lot of streamlining, compressing Wolfe’s sprawling book into a kind of Western. “The Right Stuff” is a thrilling and quintessentially American motion picture about pilots conquering space the way cowboys once mastered Western land. Using spacecrafts instead of horses, they stake out new territory.
Kaufman brilliantly depicts how the astronauts are glorified—and perhaps exploited—by the media like circus performers. He brings Wolfe’s best-selling book to cinematic life with over 130 speaking parts, whose center remains Chuck Yeager (Sam Shepard), a World War II hero who broke the sound barrier.
With marvelous casting (mostly of then-unknown actors), Kaufman creates an almost musical counterpoint between the solitary Yeager at Edwards Air Force Base in the California desert, and the “harmony” constituted by the Project Mercury team that includes John Glenn (Ed Harris), Gordon Cooper (Dennis Quaid), Alan Shepard (Scott Glenn), and Gus Grissom (Fred Ward).
Q: Kaufman has a solid body of work, but no string of giant hit films. His most recent film, “Hemingway & Gelhorn,” was released on HBO. Are filmmakers such as Kaufman being pushed toward alternate forms of release for challenging projects for adult audiences?
Insdorf: Yes, HBO and other cable networks provide a needed venue for directors like Kaufman (“Hemingway & Gellhorn”), David Mamet (“Phil Spector”) and Greg Mottola (“Clear History”), who are drawn to quirky stories.