finding heavenly light

‘It’s Probably the Longest Movie Ever Made Without a Plot’

Philip Kaufman on the film fibs, demons, and labia that made The Right Stuff just right.

Sam Shepard as Chuck Yeager in The Right Stuff. Photo: Warner Bros.
Sam Shepard as Chuck Yeager in The Right Stuff. Photo: Warner Bros.

Philip Kaufman’s film The Right Stuff is widely regarded as one of the best movies of the 1980s, one of the most quintessentially American, and a gold mine of quotable moments (cue “Hey, Ridley, got any Beemans?”). But like John Glenn orbiting the planet, Kaufman’s epic had to circle the pantheon many times before splashdown. It was adapted from a bestseller by Tom Wolfe, a rare rockstar-famous writer, and produced by Irwin Winkler and Robert Chartoff, who oversaw the Rocky series and Raging Bull; however, Kaufman’s opus about test pilots, astronauts, and their partners came and went from theaters, receiving mixed reviews from critics and earning $21 million in ticket sales against a $27 million budget.

Kaufman, now 87, partly blames the press’ fixation on just one of the many characters, John Glenn (played by Ed Harris), a former astronaut who had gone on to become the senior Democratic senator of Ohio and was then being floated as a Democratic presidential candidate. (“Can a Movie Help Make a President?” asked Newsweek’s cover story, over a close-up of Harris’s chiseled, blue-eyed face.) But a bigger factor, says Kaufman, was the determination of releasing studio Warner Bros. to sell the film with images of astronauts in faceless flight suits rather than the cowboy-cool test pilots who dominated the early part of the tale. “I kept thinking, you’ve got a bunch of great-looking guys in cool leather jackets, and you’re not going with that?” says Kaufman, laughing.

Kaufman — who still lives and works in San Francisco, and has several as-yet-unmade films in the works with his son, producer Peter Kaufman — is always happy to talk about The Right Stuff, arguably his towering achievement in a career that includes many other notable films, including the cult western The Great Northfield, Minnesota Raid, the 1978 remake of Invasion of the Body Snatchers (which introduced the pod-people shriek), and the adults-only historical dramas The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Henry & June, and Quills. A long road led him from inheriting The Right Stuff from its original screenwriter, William Goldman (All The President’s Men, Misery, The Princess Bride), to throwing toy planes off buildings to re-create Chuck Yeager’s (played by Sam Shepard) test flights to watching the uncategorizable epic that he’d sweated over for years slink in and out of multiplexes, be rediscovered on cable and home video, and then, in 2013, get inducted into the National Film Registry alongside Mary Poppins and Pulp Fiction.

Were you familiar with Tom Wolfe prior to the publication of The Right Stuff?
I am pretty sure I’d read just about everything he’d written. He was the great New Journalist, really, of that time.

What was your attraction to Wolfe?
I was a midwesterner. After I quit Harvard Law School, I went back to Chicago and went to the University of Chicago to study American history. Basically all my films up till The Right Stuff had been about my versions of the American experience. It was The Wanderers and The Great Northfield, Minnesota Raid, and the remake of Invasion of the Body Snatchers. There was something in Tom Wolfe that just spoke to me — it was the sense of Americana.

I felt an obligation to try to get that Tom Wolfe energy and spirit into the film. I’ve said a number of times that it’s probably the longest film ever made without a plot, except in that the characters are developed. There is a main character, if you look at it properly.

Who is the main character?
The main character of The Right Stuff is something called The Right Stuff. The movie is about the transmigration and adventures of a quality that Tom Wolfe identified, particularly that he found inhabiting Chuck Yeager. Every scene is really about the adventures of a quality known as The Right Stuff, including the scenes about the wives of the pilots and astronauts and how the spirit inhabits them, or maybe how the anti-spirit inhabits them.

Can you clarify the relationship between the screenplay draft prior to yours, which was written by William Goldman, and the screenplay of the movie that we eventually saw, which bears the credit “Written and Directed by Philip Kaufman”? Orion Pictures brought you in to help Goldman work on the script to the western Tom Horn, right? 
Bill Goldman was probably the most powerful screenwriter in Hollywood at that point. Mike Medavoy, the executive who co-founded Orion, told me Robert Redford didn’t want to do Bill’s Tom Horn screenplay, even though they had a prior relationship from working together on other movies, including Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and All the President’s Men, and that the project was gonna be over unless I could go in and help Bill Goldman anonymously work on the Tom Horn script and get it to where Redford would want to star in it.

So I went to New York and met Bill, and we became friends. I think I might’ve even played tennis with Bill and Redford down in Malibu. Well, Redford ended up not doing it anyway, and the script was sold to Steve McQueen. Then Irwin Winkler and Robert Chartoff came to me and asked me if I’d be interested in directing the film version of The Right Stuff, which had a script adapted by Bill Goldman. I said, “Great! I love the book, and I love Bill. He’s a friend of mine.”

What was your reaction when you read your friend’s script?
My reaction was, “The movie is called The Right Stuff, but the Right Stuff isn’t in it.” There was no Chuck Yeager, for one thing. I had a meeting with Bob Chartoff, Irwin Winkler, and Bill, and I told Bill, “I think you gotta put Chuck Yeager in this. He’s the key to what this whole thing is about.”

And obviously, he disagreed.
I don’t think Bill even liked Tom Wolfe’s book that much. From the script, it seemed like he wanted to do a jokey thing about the adventures of the astronauts. He’d even created a scene that wasn’t in the book where a bunch of the astronauts go to a Mexican whorehouse. I think John Glenn came in to save them or something. It was kind of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid Go to Outer Space feeling.

Turns out Bill only had ten days available to do any additional work on The Right Stuff because the next thing he was gonna work on was a script about the Iranian hostage crisis. Ross Perot was backing a movie about it, and Bill Goldman was filled with patriotic fervor about going in and saving Americans. All of which was fine. But my opinion and feeling about movies is, “Don’t do it unless you’re gonna give it all of your energy and take all the time you can get to make the movie as good as possible.”

Well, Bill stood up at the meeting and said, “This is how the movie’s gotta be,” and he made his point. And then I stood up thinking, “Wow, here we go, this is a great writer’s conference, the kind where we’re all gonna say what we’re gonna say and all come together.” I outlined essentially the movie that is now The Right Stuff, beginning with Yeager. I sat down, feeling pretty good. I saw Chartoff light up with a smile. And Bill Goldman left. He quit the movie.

The question for Chartoff and Winkler was, “Who do we go with? The biggest writer in Hollywood, or this young guy?” They said, “Phil, we wanna go with your script.” There was nothing left of Bill’s script by the time I got done with my adaptation. Bill applied for credit with the Writers Guild, and 99.9 percent of the time in a situation like this, they give the original writer at least a shared credit because they don’t want writer-directors coming in and poaching credit. But they gave me the sole credit.

I want to go back to the thing you joked about earlier, about how this is the longest movie ever made with no plot: Watching it again this morning before calling you, I felt like I was watching an anthology of short films strung together to create a feature, with various configurations of pilots and astronauts and their wives taking turns being the focus. But it doesn’t seem disconnected. 
When you start working on a movie, the first thing you ask yourself, or at least what I ask myself, is: What is the mystery? What is the thing that draws all these people together and binds them together?

That’s not something you can sum up in words. In Red River, the great Howard Hawks movie about the cattle drive with John Wayne and Montgomery Clift, the plot is fine, but the movie is not about that. It’s about when they cross a river and the music rises up and you hear the whoops of those guys. That’s when you feel that thing that is available only through film: that feeling, that mood, that something that sweeps you away. You feel it in earlier films: Sergei Eisenstein, for one.

I grew up sitting in balconies and seeing double features in Chicago. We went, probably, to make out. Getting laid was out of the question, so you had to be satisfied with getting to neck. But then suddenly, these moments would come up on the screen and we would stop and be riveted. It was as if a spirit had just inhabited us. That’s what we were looking for as we made this movie. But there was something specifically American in what we were going for.

Your films often use Americana in an ironic or questioning way. Your Invasion of the Body Snatchers remake oddly foretells the transformation of counterculture hippies into Reagan yuppies.
And MAGA, for that matter.

But The Right Stuff isn’t like that. It has a counterculture aspect, particularly in the slapstick and the anti-establishment satire, like the portrayal of LBJ. But at the same time, it’s unabashedly in love with Americana. With this movie, do you kind of get to eat your apple pie and have it, too?
My definition of Americanism and heroism entails skepticism. The American Film Institute sent me a thing a few years ago saying that The Right Stuff had been named one of the 100 Most Inspirational Movies of all time. Well, yeah, thank you — and yes, the film is inspiring. But I’m not interested in just that. I’m patriotic, but my form of patriotism is not pablum patriotism.

You’re also known as a sensual filmmaker whose characters fight to express that part of themselves. Henry and June is one of the films responsible for the invention of the NC-17 rating. That film, The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Quills, and the HBO movie Hemingway & Gellhorn are all to some extent about the politics of sex. Where does The Right Stuff fit into the Philip Kaufman carnality canon? 
There is a suggestion Tom Wolfe had that John Glenn was the group’s Dudley Do-Right, and we went with that. When those two girls in the bar start walking towards John Glenn and Scott Carpenter, I think their opening line is “four down, three to go,” like they’ve fucked four of the guys already and they’re closing in on the others. There’s a flicker, almost, with John Glenn where you wonder if he’s gonna go with them. But then there’s a cut to John Glenn with the other guys in the locker room, and he’s telling them they have to keep their pants zipped and their wicks dry!

Also, there’s the scene where Yeager breaks the sound barrier. We needed something to show the audience what that looked like, and we got something that goes to your idea of the film’s sexuality or carnality. And this is where artist Jordan Belson, who created special effects for The Right Stuff, came in. For the scene where Yeager breaks the sound barrier, Jordan asked me what I wanted, and I said, “A memory of birth. Like the sky is opening up as man is first born. You can sort of see that there’s a kind of labia opening up in the sky, and man is going beyond where the demon is, to birth.” And that’s what Jordan gave us.

A labia in the sky.
Jordan also did other effects in the film, including those tiny lights that seem to swarm around the capsule when John Glenn is orbiting the Earth. Those effects were created by one man in a one-bedroom apartment up in Telegraph Hill, where Jordan somehow made all these incredible films with a spiritual dimension. We were close friends, but he wouldn’t let me come up to his place to see how he did his work! I don’t even know what his setup was there. He would just ask me what I needed and he would come in with stuff to show us and go, “What about this? Do you like this, Phil?” And sometimes I wouldn’t, but I’d still say, “Jordan, yeah — just keep pushing it.”

Beyond all of the stuff that special-effects supervisor Garry Gutierrez did for the movie, which is basically all the stuff in the film with planes flying, the stuff by Jordan had a spiritual dimension. It opened up another world. When we came to him to ask his help in taking the audience out into space, he was already out there in space, you know?

Photo: Vivien Killilea/Getty Images

You mentioned Eisenstein, one of the architects of constructivist montage, where shots are put together in an almost rebuslike way, to create meaning, commentary, or a joke. The Right Stuff does that a lot, like in the scene of the Americans failing to get a rocket off the launch pad, which becomes a sad comedy of impotence. There’s also a scene at the Happy Bottom Riding Club where the movie dissolves from a close-up of Chuck Yeager drinking a glass of whiskey to a plane that’s lifting off the runway. It looks like the plane is taking off from a runway inside of the glass! 
Chuck Yeager is dancing with his wife Glennis to “The Tennessee Waltz.” Scott Crossfield, who is Yeager’s competitor, is there, too. There is a thing between Yeager and Crossfield: Who is the GOAT? Crossfield has just broken Yeager’s record and is at the top of the ziggurat. Crossfield raises a glass in toast, and even though Yeager doesn’t turn around, it’s like he senses it and raises his glass, then drinks. It was difficult to get that shot right. We needed Sam to tip the drink so that the liquid in the glass was level so we could dissolve to Yeager taking off — the next stage in the competition between these guys — and have the liquid line up with the runway.

That transition made me think: These guys are addicts; they’re addicted to adrenaline, and here’s Chuck Yeager drinking a glassful of jet plane! 
That’s great. It’s whatever you feel! We wanted people to watch it that way. Film is intellectual, it’s ideas, but it’s also a visceral feeling of some kind. Like, what is the Right Stuff? You can’t quite define it. Gordo Cooper almost lets the cat out of the bag at the end when he’s at the barbecue in Houston and a reporter asks him who’s the best pilot he ever saw, and he starts to say, “I knew one guy who had the right — ,” but the press isn’t interested, and they’re just throwing him the next question, and he realizes it and gives them ego back: “Who’s the best pilot? You’re lookin’ at him.” And that’s what the press wants: the ritual of the press conference. Those guys all know that.

That’s why we blended together the big barbecue scene where the astronauts are rewarded and the lone pilot Yeager going out there to do what he always did, which is try to break the record.

In that sequence, you show Sally Rand performing her fan dance to “Clair de Lune” in Houston for the astronauts, sandwiched between scenes of Chuck Yeager back at Edwards Air Force Base flying and crashing the NF-104A Starfighter Aerospace Trainer. The astronauts are smiling warmly at each other like, “Only we understand what it’s like to be part of this group,” while Yeager’s out there alone. What were you hoping to say about all of them, at that moment? 
Sally Rand was the symbol of something: whether it the bird of flight, the lure of the clouds, or whatever sexual longing or impossibility. It’s like that Kurt Vonnegut quote from Cat’s Cradle: “Nice, nice, very nice / So many different people in the same device.”

You’re playing around with history there: The parade, which happened July 4, 1962, is presented as being in honor of John Glenn, but Glenn orbited the Earth in February of that year, and the parade was actually commemorating the opening of the new space center in Houston. And Yeager wasn’t flying the NF-104A at the same time that the barbecue was going on. That happened in December 1963. 
In my mind, that sequence was more about how memory, or editing, or dare I say truth, works. Sometimes we arrive at truths through, I don’t want to say lying, but film fibs. You put two things together; it’s like when you rub two sticks together and you get fire.

In that moment when Sally Rand and the music go quiet and the guys look at each other and identify that they’ve been through something together. It’s almost like that meme in horror movies: They detect a presence that’s out there. As to whether our movie is trying to say that all of these events are happening together at the exact same moment, well, it’s more like in basketball, when Steph Curry is feelin’ it and the ball just starts going in magically. That’s sort of what’s going on there.

I’m the child of jazz musicians. To me, movies are music before they’re anything else. Either they swing or they don’t.
I wish jazz had not receded in the public mind. It’s the great American art form. No American art form has more heroes in it than jazz. Once I was gonna do a Louis Armstrong movie, but I never got it made.

Your friend George Lucas also had a major film in 1983, Return of the Jedi, which was probably the technological peak for pre-digital analog effects, including miniatures shot with motion-controlled film cameras. You could have availed yourself of all the latest gadgets at his effects company, Industrial Light and Magic. But you didn’t. Why?
When George was first developing ILM in Los Angeles, we went down there, and we tried to do some motion-controlled stuff, and I realized motion-controlled stuff looks fine out in space, especially when the action is set on some distant planet nobody’s ever seen before, but it doesn’t work on this Earth.

Then one day I was driving home from an area where our offices were, in Dogpatch, and I came over this little hill where you could see downtown, and there up in the sky was a little jet plane flying through the sky. Practically a speck. I thought, Why can’t we just do that? Let’s forget all this technology. Let’s just be resourceful. This is a film about jerry-rigging. It’s about how Chuck Yeager and his friend figure out how to close the door of the X-1 with a sawed-off broom handle.

I got Gary and all the technical people together up on the third floor of this factory building and we decided to put a big map of the High Desert down on the street and throw model airplanes at it and film it with two or three cameras as they headed towards the ground. All the flight stuff was like that. We had models on wires moving through clouds or fog. We were taking it back to some of the earlier masters of special effects, people like George Pal and Ray Harryhausen. What’s the best of all the films about King Kong? It’s the first one because those effects are so magical that it doesn’t matter how realistic they are.

How did 2001: A Space Odyssey influence The Right Stuff?
Certainly you can feel the influence when John Glenn starts orbiting. Without Kubrick, it wouldn’t have been made.

Both movies are also, to my mind, examples of “film as experience.” I rewatch 2001 and The Right Stuff and your friend Francis Coppola’s Apocalypse Now and other visionary epics in the way that I listen to certain songs or albums over and over. It’s about experiencing a feeling.
Francis’s company American Zoetrope was so important here in the Bay Area. We had all these great sound guys working out here, including Alan Splet, Randy Thom, and Ben Burtt. It was the era of Dolby Stereo, which opened up so many possibilities. I was having lunch with Ray Dolby’s widow Dagmar not too long ago, and we were talking about how we’d be editing film and try to come up with surround sounds with the help of Dolby Studios, which was a block away from American Zoetrope. Those were really heady times.

I remember a few years before that when we were editing reels of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, which was kind of the go-to film for a while if you wanted to demonstrate the creative possibilities of Dolby. I went out into the lobby to take a break, and there was Akira Kurosawa. [Laughs] What was he doing there? He came in and sat during the sound mix of one of the final reels of Body Snatchers. He was amazed. Kurosawa was a master of sound himself, but suddenly he was realizing that now there was a new dimension.

I feel like it’s in the sound more than anywhere else that you find an equivalent of Tom Wolfe’s prose. Whenever the media besieges the astronauts, there’s this bed of noise underneath it that sounds like locusts, almost. And the sound of the rockets blasting off has a primordial quality that I can’t explain, though maybe you can?
Tom Wolfe described the press corps as being kind of like boll weevils. We have an element of locust hordes mixed in there. When the rockets begin to blast off, various sound people put in other elements, like a pig’s squeal. We also did this thing that was kind of like in a Japanese horror movie, with each successive rocket containing the sounds of all the previous rockets. But even as the film goes on and the rockets get bigger and bigger and the sound of the rockets grows louder and louder, they always incorporate the sound of all those early rockets.

It’s kind of like how the film opens with small-screen black-and-white, and then suddenly the screen expands and goes full color. Of course most people don’t have the chance to experience the film in a way that lets them fully appreciate that. That’s a thing that I hope we can preserve: the big screen experience. With the biggest presentation, we can take full advantage of all the technologies and methods we’ve developed. But not to present boring movies! Technology can advance spirit and ideas. It’s kind of like what we were talking about with 2001 and Kubrick. And Oppenheimer. The idea that a film like Oppenheimer is gonna make a billion dollars? Amazing!

Excuse me, Matt, I’m ranting on and on! When I mention the opening of the film, remember that it begins with this kind of strange electronic sound, with the camera moving through the clouds. “And there was a demon that lived in the air,” the narrator tells us. The film is about battling demons. We learn in the opening that whoever challenged the demon would die, that the demon lived at such-and-such on the Mach meter. And I believe that the last line an actor speaks in the movie is when Dennis Quaid’s Gordo Cooper goes into space and looks up with a smile and says, ‘Oh, Lord, what a heavenly light.” So there is a spiritual component to The Right Stuff.

There’s a mythological element as well. In the same section of the film you mention, we see Chuck Yeager riding through the desert in this series of John Ford–like compositions, then stopping at the airstrip and looking at the X-1. The staging of it makes it seem like he and the plane are having a staring contest.
I think I put in the screenplay that when he looks at the plane, it’s like he’s looking at the bronc that can’t be broken. I wanted to take the cowboy spirit of Gary Cooper and say, “Now, with this movie, that spirit will be launched.” The only special effect that we put in that scene was the little glimmer that comes off of the window of the X-1, which is sort of speaking to him. It sort of freaks his horse out a little bit, but he knows, “I’m gonna get that fucker. I’m gonna tame that bronc.”

I wasn’t there when Tom Wolfe saw the movie for the first time. Irwin Winkler showed it to him at a private screening in New York. When Wolfe got to that moment of Yeager and the airplane, he jumped out of his chair. When the film was over, he asked Irwin, “Can we see it again?”

I still have a hard time getting my mind around how long it took for The Right Stuff to be recognized as a classic.
The Right Stuff played five years in Paris. They went with the title L’Étoffe des héros, which translates as The Stuff of Heroes. And the poster was more like what I wanted them to do here: Chuck Yeager walking away from a plane crash. When France won the World Cup many years later, the headline on one of the major newspapers was L’Étoffe des héros. They love it in France!

Your films have always been more appreciated abroad than they are here.
Well, yeah. [Laughs] That’s why I don’t get out much!

Glenn ran in 1984 but lost the nomination to Walter Mondale. The film ended up being released by First Artists, another production company under the Warner Bros. umbrella, with a screenplay credited to Thomas McQueen, and Bud Shrake. A Bay Area experimental short filmmaker (1926-2011) who created cosmic vistas on a shoestring budget. According to a Brooklyn Rail appreciation written just after his death, he “held fast to the idea that the flaming, spinning mandalas and spacescapes in his works were representations of an inner consciousness.” An animator, film director, and producer who oversaw many special-effects-driven Hollywood films, including The War of the Worlds (1953), Tom Thumb (1958), and The Time Machine (1960). A stop-motion animator whose creatures starred in many classic fantasy and science-fiction films, including The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms (1953), Jason and the Argonauts (1960), and Clash of the Titans (1982). The sound designer on many David Lynch films. The director of sound design for Skywalker Sound. A sound designer on the first six Star Wars films, the first three Indiana Jones films, and Kaufman’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers.
‘It’s Probably the Longest Movie Ever Made Without a Plot’