Going to extremes 

Quills director Philip Kaufman uncovers de Sade and the dangers of censorship

The day after Thanksgiving, having enjoyed a holiday feast at a San Francisco Chinese restaurant with his family, Quills director Philip Kaufman relates what he's grateful for. "I'm thankful to be working again, with so many great people. And not just the four leads," he says, referring to Quills stars Michael Caine, Kate Winslet, Joaquin Phoenix and Geoffrey Rush as the anti-heroic Marquis de Sade. "I had a wonderful time making this movie with all the rest of the cast from British theater. Down to the last person, they all loved the wickedness and fun of the film."

Quills is Kaufman's first project since directing Michael Crichton's Japan-bashing Rising Sun in 1993. He is a fitting choice to helm Quills, which offers a grisly and at times darkly comic discussion of literary censorship. With a film career spanning four decades, Kaufman's movies cross genres but frequently share frank attitudes toward sex and rich textures as literary adaptations, especially with The Unbearable Lightness of Being, The Right Stuff and Henry and June.

Henry and June found controversy in its depictions of bisexuality in the lives of Anais Nin and Henry Miller, which made it the first film rated NC-17 (no matter that Kaufman's previous film, Unbearable Lightness of Being, was far more explicit). Kaufman says his own brushes with censorship didn't draw him to the debates of Quills. "No, I was drawn because I thought it was a terrific story," he says. "Fox Searchlight sent it to me, and I tried to preserve its gothic, Grand Guignol styling. It only turns out that it's confrontational in a political way."

Loosely based on the historical record and adapted by Doug Wright from his play of the same name, Quills finds the Marquis de Sade confined to Charenton Asylum for his decadent writings, which flow unabated thanks to the help of a laundry wench (Winslet). Hard-liner Dr. Royer-Collard (Caine) longs to use Inquisition tactics to "cure" de Sade, while Abbé Coulmier (Phoenix) sees his sympathy turn to hostility when the Marquis refuses to stop writing, despite increasingly severe punishment.

"I do feel like the Joaquin character," Kaufman admits, citing Coulmier's early willingness to let de Sade write for therapeutic value. "I'm somebody who likes to surround himself with art and believes in its curative power, but I also recognize the value of extreme art." Kaufman feels that the Marquis is only the latest extreme character in his body of work. "Henry Miller was called extreme, but I found him very generous. [Right Stuff test pilot] Chuck Yaeger was certainly extreme: Not everyone in the world is willing to go into the area where demons live."

But he doesn't feel that Quills' depictions of sadomasochism go too far. "The first two-thirds of the film aren't horror. Only at the end, when it literally becomes a de Sadean tale, does it become horrific. Even in its most graphic scenes, you don't really see what happens. In Arnold Schwarzenegger movies, you see people literally blown away. By the time the film reaches that point, hopefully we've set up the characters in ways that it has a philosophical pay-off."

Coming at the end of an election year unusually critical of Hollywood, Kaufman's aware that Quills' provocative message and bawdy content could draw the wrong kind of attention. "Quills could become a target, but I think it's one of the best presentations of art potentially being dangerous in the extreme, as well as the dangers of censorship."

He confesses to lacking de Sade's eagerness to infuriate. "If it became a target, I suppose the Marquis would have taken glee, but I wouldn't. We take an extreme case here, but I think in the interest of a larger discussion. I hope people can go back to the time when we talked movies for hours afterwards, or would go back to a film and see it again and again. I'm thinking of the ones that inspired me so much, like Antonio, Fellini or Bunuel -- who was admittedly influenced by de Sade."

In the film, the Marquis' ribald, violent tales flow unabated, despite the loss of his quills, his linens, his clothes -- anything he can write on or with -- until a story he whispers to other inmates leads to murder. "It does argue the conservative point that extreme art can be destructive, and I think that goes to the heart of the whole thing, because in some ways, he is responsible." But Kaufman points out that the inflamed were dangerous from the outset. "I'm not sure there's a final answer -- it's meant to be a complex thing and a source of discussion."

Rush gives a zesty, hyper-verbal turn as the Marquis, whose sexual provocations and grisly interests recall the name of his Mystery Men archvillain, Casanova Frankenstein. De Sade has fewer nude scenes here than the original play, but the actor does spend time in the buff. Kaufman says the secret for filming nude scenes is, "Turning the heating up on the set." Laughing, he adds, "You have to rehearse a lot. In Unbearable, we shut down the set for a day to make sure that Juliette Binoche and Lena Olin felt as though nothing was being forced on them.

"On Quills," he continues, "our costume designer Jacqueline West said that being naked was Geoffrey's final costume: When he loses his clothes and wig, the story feels very contemporary from that moment on. It literally strips away his haughty-naughty defense mechanisms. We have frontal nudity, but it's in a wide shot, against a cold and dripping background, so we can feel his vulnerability."

Kaufman may be a renowned director of bookish films, but he also had a hand in one of our favorite "movie-movies," sharing story credit with George Lucas for Raiders of the Lost Ark. "George and I wanted to do a Saturday morning serial movie, and we worked together on it for about six weeks, but then I had to move on to something else. I mostly contributed just the whole idea about the lost Ark itself. I'd gone to the University of Chicago, so that was why Indiana Jones taught there."

Two of Kaufman's favorite collaborators, however, are his son, producer Peter Kaufman, and his wife Rose, with whom he scripted Henry and June and The Wanderers. "We've been married 42 years and have always traveled together and read a lot. We live in San Francisco, outside the Hollywood world, with friends from different areas. My son and I work together every day and it's a great pleasure. We're not trying to go the standardized Hollywood route, although we did one thing for television -- China: The Wild East -- which he directed."

Currently Kaufman is developing various projects, with sources ranging from a Nobel Prize-winning novelist to Marvel Comics. "I'm waiting for rewrites for a Liberace movie, I've been developing a version of Saul Bellow's Henderson the Rain King, which Jack Nicholson's long been interested in, and working another script about the spy Aldrich Ames. And I talked with Marvel comics for a couple of years about the Sub-Mariner, who was their first hero." Whichever emerges as the front runner, Kaufman can be expected to author another film about people who aren't shy about going to extremes.

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