Please update your flash player...

Interview with Philip Kaufman, Director of 'Hemingway and Gellhorn:' Part One

Clive and Nicole

HBO

In 'Hemingway and Gellhorn' you have two great actors, Nicole Kidman and Clive Owen.

Philip Kaufman

Really great. I loved them before I worked with them and love them more now. Their skill level is extraordinary.

HBO

This is such a sweeping story. Did you discuss any specific concerns with them about conveying this epic romance?

Philip Kaufman

The challenges are that they are playing actual historical figures. Hemingway is probably the most famous American writer of all time. His fame surpassed everyone's because he lived life in full public spectacle. He was this genius, competitive young guy and we saw his decline and tragic end. I can still remember that day that he shot himself. Reading about it, it stunned everybody. So it's a challenge to play someone of that size and scope. And Martha Gellhorn, I had known about but she had receded for all the wrong reasons, even though she was still active.

As Hemingway says, "All writers are liars." Even actual reportage is so often a lie. But through these "lies" is a way to truth. We asked: Could this have happened factually? How might it have happened between them? There's a way of being true to the real person not by lying, but by sorting these things out. So the actors had to read a lot and transform themselves. (And there was film on them, particularly Gellhorn.)

So the film begins with this paradox of the old Martha Gellhorn, using quotes from real interviews, saying she's not interested in sex. She's not interested in love. What she's interested in is action: "I'm a war correspondent. That's what interests me." And she says, "but there are wars, and there are wars"...and in black and white we are into the past. Hunting the marlin. And then the blood comes, and the black and white turns...and out of the blood comes Martha Gellhorn into Hemingway's life. And we are into a story of passion and sex and sexuality. All of this is validated by reading her letters and his writings to her.

They had an incredibly passionate relationship. Later they both sort of dismissed it -- things fall apart, life goes different ways. It might not have gone a different way, had there not been so many wars, so much turmoil. All those lines from Finland are essentially drawn from their writings when she comes back and they both say almost simultaneously that they will never leave each other again. And very soon there is a war in Finland and now she must go. And he says, "You mean one of us must leave." And one of my favorite lines is he says "But I'm writing a novel here." Such a guy thing: "You should be happy, I'm doing what I want!"

HBO

You use a lot of famous Hemingway lines in the film.

Philip Kaufman

Like: "Happiness in intelligent people is one of the rarest things I know." When Clive says it, you realize Hemingway's style was meant to be spoken. People parody it, they say it was a condensed artificial thing.  But one of his famous  lines was, "I have to find the one true sentence." And he struggled for years in the way that a master acupuncturist has to find the one thing that frees the senses. If you read Hemingway, as I did, at a formative time, there was something so exciting. "Yes he got it!" He captured a male kind of thing,

HBO

Do you think Gellhorn would have become a war correspondent if it weren't for Hemingway?

Philip Kaufman

The film posits that she might not have been as great a war correspondent without him. In fact her style borrows from him. That scene where he says, "Get out in the ring, let's see what you're made of..." that actually happened. Throughout Spain there are lots of lessons he gave her. She's gradually finding her voice. She had a voice. She was a good writer. But together they were that magical combination of people and ingredients stirring together, the thrill of being the most famous couple in the world and going on adventures together. The relationship didn't go on a straight arc. You keep hoping that these two people will be together. That Clive Owen and Nicole Kidman will be together.

HBO

Did that go into your decision to cast these two actors? The fact that they are celebrities who have dealt with some of the same issues of fame?

Philip Kaufman

We never talked about that. But, for example, in the scene where they are at Carnegie Hall and she gets up, miffed, and suddenly the flashes go off and he puts on his public persona. The minute he passes the photographers you see his face drop. And at that time, they aren't even that interested in Gellhorn, but I think Nicole, in a celebrity moment, knew how to glide gracefully into the room. It was something they both knew.

HBO

It's not common for a writer to have so much fame. What was it about him?

Philip Kaufman

Hemingway, like American movies, brought something to the world that was not like any other culture. Underneath it all was a Hemingway code of behavior. A recognition of death and not talking too much about things. Grace under pressure.  Some people say Hemingway looked like Clark Gable but the reverse is true: Hemingway was writing before Clark Gable. And Gary Cooper. They were his friends and were in turn influenced by the Hemingway style that they put on the screen. Clive Owen has moments of having the Clark Gable "Frankly my dear I don't give a damn" thing.

But what always excited us about the story was that Hemingway could not live up to these "manly virtues" and Martha Gellhorn could. She had the right stuff, the true grit. She's so far ahead of her time. In fact, one of the main things we looked at in our research was a BBC documentary about Gellhorn narrated by Marie Colvin (the British journalist who was killed this year in Syria).

Hemingway didn't recognize the true beauty of the feminine hero. He thought he could charm his way -- even at the end when he tries to charm his way back into her life. There are bookended door scenes where she opens the door and he says: "The only way you can tell if you trust someone, is to trust someone." She's willing to do it. But at the end he tries that again and she can't trust him.

HBO

There are some fun cameos in the film.

Philip Kaufman

Brooke Adams came with Tony Shalhoub and people don't even notice she has a cameo, running in and saying in Spanish, "They're dropping the bombs!" It's like her role in 'Body Snatchers' when she runs in saying "The pods are here!"

Hemingway & Gellhorn

HBO Films

Interviews