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He’s waited 48 years, but Philip Kaufman is back on the Croisette en force with his new film, Hemingway & Gellhorn, and a master class at the festival.
The story about the turbulent relationship of Ernest Hemingway and wife and war correspondent Martha Gellhorn hosted its world premiere in Cannes in an out of competition slot just a few days before it airs on HBO on Monday.
Kaufman may be 75 years old, but is still busy bringing novels and novelists to the big screen after global success for his films like The Unbearable Lightness of Being, The Right Stuff and Henry and June.
Clive Owen stars as Ernest Hemingway in the HBO film opposite Nicole Kidman as Martha Gellhorn. The love story set against a political backdrop takes the 20th century writers and lovers through the Spanish Civil War to the Soviet-Finnish conflict, the Japanese occupation of China and World War II.
The film’s producer Peter Kaufman and the director spent more than eight years developing the project.
“I became more and more interested in Hemingway and this wife who was a great writer,” the director explains of the film’s origins, adding: “The more you read of her the greater you felt she was as a writer, but you felt she was almost relegated to be a footnote in history as Hemingway’s third wife.” Kaufman, however, wanted to shed new light on the lesser known female character. “This was a stellar woman. Maybe she was the greatest war correspondent man or woman of the last century,” he says.
Instead of focusing on the ubiquitous Hemingway, Kaufman chose to center the story around Gellhorn and portray Hemingway through her eyes and through their relationship.
“Who is this woman? This Hemingway wife and how did she become this brave woman almost into her nineties covering every war, every battle zone in the world? And what was her relationship to Hemingway ?”
The film may be called Hemingway and Gellhorn, but a more appropriate title might be Gellhorn and Hemingway.
“It’s more her bringing us into the story of her turbulent relationship with Hemingway. As Gellhorn said, ‘We were good at war. And when there was no war, we made our own’, and it was a turbulent, violent and sexy relationship,” the director says. While “violent and sexy” may be synonymous with HBO’s ambitious programming, even Philip Kaufman had to spend time pitching the project to the network.
“First we had to prove to HBO that we could make a big movie for an HBO budget and that took some time,” he admits.
Kaufman met Kidman in a chance meeting in San Francisco. “As soon as we met, there was electricity — she said she wanted to work with me. She read the script, I don’t know how she got ahold of it. It was supposed to be a secret. She called me and said ‘I want to do this. I want to work with you, I’ll do it whenever you’re ready’,” he remembers, adding that “Clive virtually said the same thing. He got he script he read it got excited.”
However, Kaufman had to wait a year before the A-list talents were both available. Then, everyone dove into the ambitious project.
“Clive gained all that weight, they learned their American accents, they studied Hemingway’s voice and listened to Gellhorn on tape,” Kaufman explains.
The film juxtaposes archival footage with its fictional scenes and, says Kaufman, “A lot of the lines in the film are taken right out of Hemingway and right out of Gellhorn’s writings so it tells you about the succinct way Hemingway wrote and the way he tried to emulate speech.”
Many of Clive Owen’s lines are real Hemingway quotes, and a lot of Martha Gelhorn’s lines and narration is taken directly from her writing.
For Kaufman, Hemingway is an exciting protagonist.
“He wasn’t an academic writer. He wrote every single day, but he lived life, he lived with gusto, he hunted, he went on adventures, he drank, he was always surrounded by people and he knew how to play the media,” he says.
While Kaufman has been an audience and Academy favorite throughout his long career, his films haven’t seen much play in Cannes.
He won the Young Critics Award for his first film Goldstein, came back for Me and You, and hasn’t been back since, but the director is thrilled to have returned to the Riviera town.
“I’ve been to other festivals, but Cannes is great. It’s this great religion of fllms here. And it’s the kind of religion I like which isn’t dictated by scripture and voices on high. It’s a religion of people who get enraptured by things and then fight and argue what is the nature of a good film,” he says.
Plus, being in the country famous for its “seventh art form” is “so exciting” for the filmmaker. “The French New Wave got me excited in the first place to make movies and I’m glad to be back,” he says.
Hemingway & Gellhorn will air on HBO on May 28th.
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