On Sunday, Kaufman will be in Olympia to receive the Olympia Film Festivals Lifetime Achievement Award and host a screening of his 1983 film The Right Stuff, his most-acclaimed film with four Academy Awards.
Although he directed well-known films such as Invasion of the Body Snatchers and Henry & June and was involved in developing the story for Raiders of the Lost Ark, Kaufman is not exactly a household name.
Its not about the credits, he said in a phone interview last week. Its about the movie. ... Im really interested in just spending as much time as I can getting the movie right, whatever it takes.
That focus has paid off in critical respect if not in fame.
Annette Insdorf, a film professor at Columbia University and author of Philip Kaufman, summed up the director this way in a May article for the Huffington Post: No other living American director has so consistently and successfully made movies for adults.
Kaufman often writes his own films as he did with The Right Stuff but regardless of his official role, he approaches the process the way a sculptor might approach a block of marble.
Its endless nights and often months and years of constantly working over the material and trying to get it to where I feel that its a movie that has whatever dramatic storyline were trying to tell.
I want to find the movie thats there.
Kaufmans latest film, HBOs Hemingway & Gelhorn, about author Ernest Hemingways relationship with his third wife, was screened at Cannes before it made its TV debut. Though he doesnt have a writing credit, Kaufman developed the film over eight years, working closely with son Peter Kaufman, who produces many of his fathers films, and with screenwriter Jerry Stahl.
Such an approach is typical for the director.
For The Right Stuff, about the development of the U.S. space program, he initially signed on to direct a script by William Goldman, based on Tom Wolfes novel.
We had such a big disagreement about what the movie should be that I sat down and wrote it myself, Kaufman said. I spent maybe a year writing the script, and Ive done that with many of these movies and with many scripts that havent been made.
Although ticket sales werent phenomenal, The Right Stuff was a critics darling, and its popularity and influence have grown over the ensuing decades.
It has influenced numerous directors Quentin Tarantino has called it the first hip epic and it was one of the first feature films to mix in historical footage.
We found all this great footage that NASA had, Kaufman said. We found ways of having our actors shake hands with President Kennedy. We were trying to be clever and creative in certain ways that at the time were not generally being used.
Though you might have seen it on TV, the director said that if you havent seen the film on the big screen, you havent really seen it.
It was made for a very big screen with surround sound, he said. They had a big premiere at the time at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C.
My sound mixer was up in the projection room. I said, I want the rumble of the bass to be so strong that I can see Henry Kissingers chin shaking. When the rockets were launched, I was looking over at Kissinger. In the whole room, chins were vibrating.
That experience is not there for people who have seen it on television.