Philip Kaufman on Hemingway and Gellhorn

The director of The Right Stuff brings two legendary authors to life for HBO.

Fred Topelby Fred Topel

Hemingway and Gellhorn is one name you know and one you may not. Of course the first could only be Ernest Hemingway. The second is journalist Martha Gellhorn, who was involved with Hemingway while she covered World War II.

Philip Kaufman directs the HBO original film about their years together, which debuts tonight on the premium network. We got to hear Kaufman speak about it with the Television Critics Association earlier this year.


CraveOnline: Is there a specific source this was based on?

Philip Kaufman: Not really. It was sort of based in part on Martha Gellhorn’s memoirs, stories that she wrote. They go to China, together, she wrote a book called Travels with Myself and Another. We went into all the Hemingway material, biographers and so forth.

The idea was when they first meet in Sloppy Joe’s in Key West it’s almost as if when she walks into the room, it’s a character, Lady Brett Ashley coming out of his own novel, walking into his life and then he becomes infatuated with her. He is at the height of his powers and we all know about the Hemingway code of behavior.

Probably, and possibly, the most influential of all American writers. Every writer, Salinger, Norman Mailer, was stamped by Hemingway’s style and so forth. Martha Gellhorn came to learn that code of behavior and in a sense transcended and sort of out-Hemingways Hemingway.

CraveOnline: He was probably attracted to a strong independent woman.

Philip Kaufman: Right.

CraveOnline: But then was he ultimately threatened by her?

Philip Kaufman: Of course at the beginning he’s married. He’s married to Pauline. He set up a life in Key West. At the end he’s married to Mary Welsh, both of which are more secure relationships.

With Martha, it’s the life of adventure. It really is. That’s what was great about Hemingway in a way, was that he wasn’t just a writer. There was nobody more diligent than Hemingway at writing but h also was a man of action. He went into places and he lived the life of the writer.

When he did The Right Stuff, Tom Wolfe was certainly influenced by Hemingway. The idea of grace under pressure, as I say the Hemingway code, grace under pressure, how you behave was something long after Hemingway was gone, Martha Gellhorn carried on. She was an extraordinary woman whose place in history was sort of eclipsed by the passage of time.

CraveOnline: The movie opens with Martha speaking to the camera. Were those her exact words from her writing?

Philip Kaufman: Yes. We had interviews with the real Martha Gellhorn and those were her lines. When we came to that framing device it was somewhere down the line. I worked for a couple of years with the wonderful writer Jerry Stahl who came to San Francisco endless nights and for years really shaping it up and doing all that.

Then at some point the idea of the voice, and you can hear it even in the trailer, of Martha Gellhorn sort of narrating if you will, or reminiscing about the story that came in. They are the real Martha Gellhorn’s words. As much as possible, we have the words of Hemingway and Gellhorn throughout the movie, famous lines that you can read that you would think couldn’t be played in that way.

When you work with genius actors, they have a way of making things real and finding the heart of the matter. At some point, working with these two and the rest of the great actors, my role was just to be an audience, just to sit there. I enjoyed so much watching them work, sometimes I forgot to say cut. What a pleasure.