Power Couple, Covering War (And Waging Their Own)
Before Christiane Amanpour, before Ann Garrels, before Lourdes Garcia-Navarro, there was Martha Gellhorn, one of the first great female war correspondents.
From the Spanish Civil War through Vietnam, she covered every major conflict of the day. But Gellhorn’s reputation as a journalist was sometimes overshadowed by her marriage to one of the great American writers, Ernest Hemingway.
HBO has made a film about Hemingway and Gellhorn, starring Clive Owen and Nicole Kidman. The movie puts the spotlight back on the lady in question, a striking figure — leggy, smart and impassioned.
In 1983, a British TV interviewer posed this loaded question to Gellhorn, then 75 and still gorgeous: “I.F. Stone once described governments as comprised entirely of liars and nothing they say should ever be believed.”
The response was a typical no-holds-barred Gellhorn opinion: “Quite right. And Tolstoy once said governments are a collection of men who do violence to the rest of us. Between Izzy Stone and Tolstoy, you’ve got it about right.”
Gellhorn felt her duty as a journalist was to bear witness. She told stories not of generals and politicians, but of powerless people — the victims of war. Biographer Caroline Moorehead says that for Gellhorn, it was less a job than a calling.
“I think she felt all she really could do was write,” Moorehead says. “It was all she knew how to do. And she was still feeling that in her 80s. And since nobody else seemed to be writing — to her — about the children and napalm in Vietnam, then even though she was getting on and she wasn’t accredited to a newspaper, well, then, she’d go and write about it.”
But HBO’s film suggests Gellhorn wasn’t always that way. In 1937, trying to cover the bloody Spanish Civil War with her lover Hemingway, she runs to his hotel room.
“He’s typing away furiously, sort of pages falling to the floor,” says actress Nicole Kidman. “And she’s like, ‘Help, I’ve got nothing. I don’t know how to write about it. I’m seeing all of these things, but I don’t know how to write about it, because really I just want to write about people.’ ”
In the film, Hemingway replies: “Do what you did in Appalachia. Write about ordinary people and war and Madrid. … Get in the ring, Gellhorn. Start throwing some punches for what you believe in.”
“Basically, he pushed her into her style of writing, [which] then became so famous,” Kidman explains.
Philip Kaufman, who directed Hemingway and Gellhorn, says that scene is rooted in the truth.
“She was learning her craft,” he says.
And Gellhorn learned quickly. A sample from her Madrid coverage:
“You could pass a high pile of rubbish and smell suddenly the sharp, rotting smell of the dead. Further on would be a half-decayed carcass of a mule, with flies thick on it, and then a sewing machine by itself blown out into the street. It was sunny and quiet, and the whole place was infinitely dead.”
Gellhorn had her own style, although Hemingway’s influence is clear. Preparing for the role, actor Clive Owen read all the Hemingway he could find.
“It’s so economical, it’s so concise,” he says. “He can, in just a few sentences, create whole worlds and whole relationships. It was such a lesson in sort of discipline and economy.”
There was little about Hemingway himself, of course, that was restrained. As a person, he was famously larger than life.
“Charismatic, compelling, magnetic, destructive — you need more words?” Kidman laughs. “Extraordinarily talented, selfish, yet a great teacher. Thank God he was around.”
Hemingway was 37 and famous when he met Gellhorn. She was 28, building a professional reputation.
“I think he met his match, really, in all sorts of ways,” says Owen. “It was hugely passionate. It was an epic romance.”
They married in 1940. Four years later, she expected to cover D-Day for Collier’s magazine. By that point, her marriage was fraying, and when Hemingway took the job instead, the indomitable Gellhorn stowed away on a hospital ship and beat her husband to Normandy.
The day World War II ended, she went to a German concentration camp. On British television, Gellhorn described her reaction to the atrocities she witnessed there.
“I got out of Dachau in a state bordering on uncontrolled hysteria,” she recalled, “and went and sat in a field waiting to be removed with American prisoners of war.”
Compassionate and driven, Gellhorn has been described as a kind of adrenaline junkie — someone whose motives may have gone beyond simply bearing witness.
“There’s that amazing line they came up with,” says Kidman: ” ‘We were great in war. And when there wasn’t a war, we created one of our own.’ When they could be in the midst of the chaos and the war, and they could be writing, and they could be charged up by that … even though they’re tragic events, that somehow fired them up. I think there was an adrenaline that propelled her with that. But you’re not going to do that unless you really do want to be a witness. You know, it’s not like she did it for a decade. She did it for a lifetime.”
Gellhorn’s impulse to witness, to travel, affected her marriage to Hemingway; they divorced in 1945.
“She refused to kind of live her life through him,” Owen says. “He would have preferred her to just hang with him while he wrote novels, and she wanted more than that.”
And Gellhorn got more, for the rest of her long life. She was 89 when she died, in 1998. (Hemingway committed suicide in 1961, at age 62.) Film director Philip Kaufman says that in her grace under pressure, her courage and her terse prose, she carried on the Hemingway legacy.
“Martha Gellhorn, for 30 years after Hemingway’s death, in a way was the bearer of the Hemingway code,” Kaufman says. “She went to all the battlefields of all the major wars of her time. Whether he ‘made’ her or not, she certainly carried that spirit. And she outdid the master.”
Director Philip Kaufman Talks HEMINGWAY & GELLHORN Starring Clive Owen and Nicole Kidman
Hemingway & Gellhorn – premiering on HBO on May 28th and directed by Philip Kaufman (The Unbearable Lightness of Being, The Right Stuff, Henry & June) from a script by Jerry Stahl and Barbara Turner – recounts the passionate love affair and tumultuous marriage of literary master Ernest Hemingway (Clive Owen) and trailblazing war correspondent Martha Gellhorn (Nicole Kidman), following their relationship through the Spanish Civil War and beyond. As the two witnessed history, they covered all the great conflicts of their time, but just couldn’t overcome their own conflicts at home. The film also stars David Strathairn, Molly Parker, Rodrigo Santoro, Parker Posey, Lars Ulrich, Santiago Cabrera, Saverio Guerra, Peter Coyote, Diane Baker, Joan Chen and Tony Shalhoub.
During this exclusive interview with Collider, accomplished filmmaker and multiple Academy Award nominee Philip Kaufman (whose writing credits include Raiders of the Lost Ark) talked about how this film was brought to him, making his first feature for television, how Nicole Kidman and Clive Owen came to the project, his decision to intersperse black and white and color footage throughout the film, and shooting entirely in San Francisco, which doubled for seven different countries. He also talked about how he’s currently developing a number of projects, but doesn’t know which one he’ll do next. Check out what he had to say after the jump:
Collider: How did Hemingway & Gellhorn come about for you?
PHILIP KAUFMAN: It was brought to me by Barbara Turner, who had done an early draft, and Alexandra Ryan. It was this very huge, long thing and I wasn’t sure if I could quite see it, but I knew Gellhorn’s work and I loved Hemingway, as a writer, so we began working on it for awhile. And then, Alex Ryan formed a relationship with [James] Gandolfini, and he was interested, but he never committed to doing it. He brought it to HBO, as a producer, and was thinking about whether he could be in on it and play that role. And then, he really decided that he wasn’t right for the role, and he just wanted to be involved in some sort of producing capacity.
That’s how we got set up at HBO. It was originally going to be a feature because it was Picture House, at the time. And then, when Picture House went out of the feature business, they asked me if I would do this for HBO ‘cause I’d never done television. I had a talk with Len Amato, the head of HBO, and he was so bright, in talking about Hemingway, that it was one of the best story conferences that I’d had. It just was great to be involved with this company that really was excited to do this project.
What brought Nicole Kidman and Clive Owen to the project?
KAUFMAN: I met Nicole [Kidman] and she said that she wanted to work with me. I didn’t give her the script, but I told her I was doing it. She secretly got ahold of the script somehow and called me and said, “I want to do this. I want to work with you. Whenever you make this, I want to be in on it.” I showed the script to my lawyer, who’s one of my best friends and has been my lawyer forever, and he read it and said, “I think Clive Owen would love to do this.” So, we sent it to Clive and he called me from London and said, “I’m in!” And then, we just had to work out their schedules and when they could do it together. They knew each other, but had never worked together. Of course, both of them had great admiration for the other’s work.
clive-owen-nicole-kidman-hemingway-gellhorn-imageDid you give them any specific direction or research, in embodying these individuals?
KAUFMAN: They’re great actors. Clive [Owen] was Hemingway. A guy from French cinema, who knows everything about movies and knew Hemingway’s work, said that Clive is 100% Hemingway. He just felt that. And then, we had film of Martha Gellhorn, but Nicole [Kidman] just transformed into the character. They’re both brilliant actors, and they’re both extremely modest, which was great.
And then, there were all the other people. Bobby Duvall didn’t even want credit on the movie. We’re old friends and we worked together 40 years ago or more, when he played Jesse James, when he was just a young guy, when I did The Great Northfield Minnesota Raid. When I called him to ask him to do a small but great role as the Russian, he just came in and did it and said, “I don’t want any credit for this. People will see it in the movie.” For me, it was a great personal thing because it was a lifelong relationship with one of the greatest actors in the world, who came back to do this.
Brooke Adams, who was in Invasion of the Body Snatchers, came in as a woman in Spain when the bombs are falling. She’s married to Tony Shalhoub, but she speaks Spanish because she’s lived in Spain. That was a little homage to our moment, 25 or 30 years earlier, where she had played the lead in our earlier movie.
nicole-kidman-clive-owen-hemingway-gellhorn-imageHow did you develop the look of the film, with the black and white interspersed with color? Was any of the black and white footage real footage from the time?
KAUFMAN: Well, it was a big mixture. Showing HBO how I was going to make the movie, I said, “I can shoot this entire movie in San Francisco, for all these places, and I want to show you how I can do that.” So, I put together other movies I had done, like The Unbearable Lightness of Being, where we had the invasion scene. My editor, Walter Murch, edited that and he’s an old friend of mine. Even when Peter [Kaufman] and I were preparing the pitch for The Right Stuff, we put together a lot of documentary footage. People don’t realize how much documentary footage was in The Right Stuff. I had used black and white in a couple other movies, and I’d even shot one of my earlier movies in black and white. So, we put together this whole presentation and included places and locations in San Francisco that could blend, almost exactly, with Spain, China and all of these places. HBO came up with six people, and Len Amato saw it and said, “Well, I guess we can go home now. We’re going to make this movie.”
clive-owen-hemingway-gellhorn-imageThat was great. I loved that. I never left San Francisco, for casting or anything. We just stayed up there. I had worked with virtually everyone on the movie, in some other movie. I had worked with the cinematographer and the assistant directors. The set designer, Geoffrey Kirkland, did The Right Stuff. Walter Murch has won many Oscars for films. So, we blended the footage. In Unbearable, we sometimes degraded the footage, so Daniel Day-Lewis and Juliette Binoche looked like they were actually in those battle scenes, and we had to carefully match them. Now, there are techniques where you can nest people into the past. Chris Morley, from Tippett Studios, who do a lot of the special effects, really got into the movie.
We did green screen, too. For example, when Martha Gellhorn comes back from Finland, that is Hemingway’s house in Cuba. Morley went down and photographed it and put it in, so she’s actually entering the real Hemingway house. And then, inside is our set, which is matched carefully. It’s not exact, but it was matched carefully with all of the diagrams and pictures we had of the Hemingway house. A lot of the footage was blended with the action footage of people shooting and running. We were able to nest them in, in a way that we couldn’t do in The Unbearable Lightness of Being. This is a relatively low-budget movie with incredible scope. It’s about seven countries, all shot in San Francisco.
nicole-kidman-hemingway-gellhorn-imageHow difficult was it to cut so much story down to about two and a half hours?
KAUFMAN: We carefully prepared the movie. With every shot, we knew exactly what we wanted to do, where the green screen would be, where the actors would come in, and what the actors were going to do. We had storyboards. We even had little constructions that we made, where you could see how the actors would come. We had all the stock footage. We built a little screening room, at the end of San Francisco, in an area called Dogpatch. There were some empty warehouses that the city let us use. There were some old abandoned offices that we moved into, and we had all of our people sitting in different offices. Our composer (Javier Navarrete) came from Spain and spent a lot of time there. The editor and the special effects people were there. It was this great, “Let’s make a movie,” feeling. All these guys were geniuses, really. The stages were unheated and we had the worst winter ever, in San Francisco. For scheduling, we had to shoot with all the rain and the cold, and keep the birds away from outside. It was under really difficult circumstances, but everybody was into it. We knew the movie we wanted to make, and it wasn’t that much longer than that, when we first cut it.
So, there aren’t a lot of deleted scenes then?
hemingway-gellhorn-philip-kaufman-clive-owen-nicole-kidmanKAUFMAN: No, there’s not a lot of stuff. We knew the movie.
Do you feel like, when two people are both so passionate, it’s impossible to have any kind of relationship, other than a completely tumultuous one?
KAUFMAN: Well, Hemingway has that quote, “If two people love each other, there can be no happy end to it.” There are some great Gellhorn quotes, too. Historically, people took one side or the other. Hemingway was too macho. Hemingway was a great writer. It’s a very tragic story because he was great, but he drank and got obsessed with fame. There were a lot of frailties that he had, where he couldn’t live up to his own standards. And, Martha Gellhorn became this tough old bird. She was really, really tough. People who knew her in London said she was amazingly tough, and they were incredibly tough with each other.
What’s next for you?
KAUFMAN: I’m working on a bunch of things, but nothing is at that point where I can really talk about it. I’d love to work with Clive [Owen] again. I’d love to work with Nicole [Kidman] again. I’d love to work with them both together again. I’d love to work with the same group of people in San Francisco, who made the movie. It was a magical thing. There was such a good feeling. Peter [Kaufman] and I are trying to think about how we can keep this kind of filmmaking together, and not have to go to Hungary, Romania, Vancouver or Louisiana. We can do these movies in San Francisco. I did most of The Right Stuff in San Francisco, and Invasion of the Body Snatchers. I’m looking for something where we can do what we did on Hemingway & Gellhorn in San Francisco. We shot 100% of that in San Francisco.
‘As a Director, I’ve Never Had Star Power’
‘I’m amused when someone writes ‘the reclusive director Philip Kaufman,’” says Philip Kaufman in his room at the London Hotel here. “I’m not reclusive. Lately I’ve just been a little hard to find.”
You can usually find Mr. Kaufman in his beloved Bay Area, which he seldom leaves. He was in New York last month for the Museum of Modern Art’s retrospective of his films “The Right Stuff,” “The Unbearable Lightness of Being,” “The Great Northfield Minnesota Raid,” “Henry and June,” and his first feature, “Goldstein.”
On May 16, Mr. Kaufman was honored with a tribute at the Cannes Film Festival, where his first work in eight years, “Hemingway & Gellhorn,” was presented. The HBO film, which stars Clive Owen and Nicole Kidman and has its U.S. cable premiere on May 28, is a 2½-hour account of the tempestuous relationship between Ernest Hemingway and his third wife, the renowned journalist and war correspondent Martha Gellhorn.
Born in Chicago in 1936, Mr. Kaufman met his own wife, Rose (with whom he collaborated on all his films before her death in 2009), at the University of Chicago. He attended Harvard Law School, moved to San Francisco, and made “Goldstein” at age 28. (It shared the 1964 Prix de la Nouvelle Critique at Cannes with Bernardo Bertolucci’s “Before the Revolution.”)
Though his career has spanned nearly half a century, “Hemingway & Gellhorn” is just his 13th film. “I’ve never worked well in Hollywood,” he says by way of explanation. He was fired as director of 1976′s “The Outlaw Josey Wales” by Clint Eastwood, over what Mr. Kaufman calls creative differences. In 1981, though, he was credited, along with George Lucas, for developing the story for “Raiders of the Lost Ark.”
Despite the support of such critics as Pauline Kael (who wrote of “The Unbearable Lightness of Being” that “it was like a dream you long to return to”), he insists that “as a director, I’ve never had star power,” and tells self-deprecating stories to back this up. For instance, there was his brief employment as the director of the first “Star Trek” movie in 1977.
“I was at a Trekkie convention where people were dressed as characters from the show—feelers on their heads, stuff like that. I was ‘beamed’ down to the stage in a cloud of sparkling dust and introduced as the man who would direct the first ‘Star Trek’ movie. My wife was in the audience and heard a Trekkie say, ‘Oh, God, couldn’t they have gotten someone better?’”
Mr. Kaufman was in preproduction and had even arranged to cast Toshiro Mifune as the head Klingon when he got a call from his producer. “‘We’ve got problems,’ he told me. ‘A high-up Paramount executive just decided that there’s no future in science fiction.’” The movie was off. “I think ‘Star Wars’ came out a year later,” he adds with a laugh.
I ask who the Paramount executive was. Mr. Kaufman takes a sip from his lemon water and shakes his head. “That was, what, 35 years ago. Let’s let it go.”
His first commercial success as a director was the remake of “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” in 1978, but even that film had doubters. “Don Siegel’s 1956 film was a cult favorite,” Mr. Kaufman says. “We filmed one scene in the Tenderloin area [of San Francisco], and a local lying on cardboard on the sidewalk—practically naked—looked at our cameras and asked, ‘What are you doing?’ I said, ‘We’re filming “Invasion of the Body Snatchers.”‘ He said, ‘The original was better’ and turned over.”
Some critics suggest Mr. Kaufman’s problem is that his vision is years ahead of mainstream filmmaking. The classic example is “The Right Stuff.” Released in 1983, the movie drew overwhelming critical praise, but ticket sales were tepid. Over the years, it has metamorphosed in filmgoers’ memories into a megahit. Quentin Tarantino called it “The first hip epic,” and numerous directors have acknowledged cribbing from it.
Have any thanked him personally?
“I was at the Santa Barbara Film Festival some time back,” he says, “and I felt a hand on my back and it was Michael Bay, who made all those big action movies” (including “Armageddon” and the “Transformer” films). “He said, ‘I can’t tell you how many times I’ve stolen from you.’ I thought it was nice because, you know directors, they’re like point guards in basketball—they give no ground to anyone.”
Mr. Kaufman fell into a malaise after the death of his wife and wasn’t certain if he wanted to make another film. (Mr. Kaufman’s films have always been a family affair, with his son Peter serving as producer or his assistant on several of his movies.) A film on Hemingway and Gellhorn was suggested years ago by his friend Barbara Turner, who co-wrote the script with longtime Kaufman collaborator Jerry Stahl. The idea picked up steam when Mr. Kaufman met Nicole Kidman at the groundbreaking for a center dedicated to ending violence against women and children.
“She asked me what I was working on. I told her that an idea for a film on Hemingway and Gellhorn was taking shape. Two days later, she called and said she loved the script. I never found out how she got it.
“She bit into the role with relish,” Mr. Kaufman says. “I don’t think there’s any other actress who could have carried a production like this. I think she’s awesome.”
Then Clive Owen came on board, eager to play Hemingway. A first-rate supporting cast followed, including Robert Duvall, David Strathairn, Tony Shalhoub, Parker Posey, Peter Coyote and Joan Chen.
Is Mr. Kaufman a Hemingway aficionado? “Not exactly, but if you are of my generation, you know, you had to read him. There’s no question about his importance as a writer. He changed so much—virtually everyone who came after him was influenced by him. J.D. Salinger, Nelson Algren, Norman Mailer—I don’t think they would have written the way they did if not for Hemingway.”
Making the film for HBO allowed Mr. Kaufman freedom he couldn’t have had with a big-screen release. “Who does love stories for adults any more?” Mr. Kaufman says. “Who does feature films about history, about the Spanish Civil War and the Chinese Civil War?”
HBO offered another advantage, allowing Mr. Kaufman to film most of “Hemingway & Gellhorn” in the Bay Area, even re-creating Madrid’s famous Hotel Florida in an abandoned train station in Oakland.
At age 75, does he see himself making more films? “I’d do ‘War and Peace’ if they’d let me film where I live.”