Quills Interview

07 January 2009

'Quills' director Philip Kaufman and star Geoffrey Rush sound off about the infamously depraved author

'Quills' director Philip Kaufman and star Geoffrey Rush sound off about the infamously depraved author

"Isn't it amazing (timing) that in a year of a Marquis De Sade movie, the two presidential candidates (were) called Gore and Bush?"

These are the kind of gleefully ironic observations coming from slightly hung-over director Philip Kaufman the morning after he and Geoffrey Rush -- the star of his fictionalized De Sade biopic "Quills" -- went to Sam Shepard's new play in San Francisco, then went out on the town with the show's all-star cast of Nick Nolte, Cheech Marin, Sean Penn and Shepard himself.

Kaufman doesn't look terribly rested, and his cheeks are a little red. But his mind is keen and his tongue sharp as he nurses a cup of coffee and perks up to talk about his nebulously sensual film, which plays on themes of censorship that echo free speech controversies of modern times.

The director is no stranger to such issues. The NC-17 rating was created in response to the adult themes of his 1990 film "Henry and June" -- also a provocative biography of a controversial writer, Henry Miller. And the way the intent of the NC-17 has been warped to the point where it's unusable (many theaters chains refuse absolutely to run movies with this rating) still makes him mad.

"We thought we had created a whole new category for adult movies. But once certain exhibitors said 'We're not showing NC-17' and Blockbuster wouldn't stock it, the economic pressures came down. We need more movies about sexuality in America. We have plenty of porno. But those aren't films about sexuality. They're about sex."

"Quills," which received an R rating, is about sexuality -- and censorship, and possibly madness, depending on how you view the Marquis De Sade, the 18th Century philosophical pornographer whose libidinous stories of sexual depravity spawned the term "sadism."

"The guy was a raging set of contradictions," says Rush, whose performance as the film's De Sade is at once delicious and disturbing. "He was someone who presented himself to the world with charm, arrogance and brilliance of mind. But underneath that was this volcanic rage and resentment, and a desire to gain control of any situation by humiliating and demeaning anyone he's with."

Looking a little less ragged than his director from their night out, Rush seems stimulated by talking about this role ("It's interesting as an actor to have a character of such dazzling extremes," he says with a glint in his eye) and the sociological undertones of the film -- which depicts De Sade's final years in a French asylum and imagines his forever-suggestive interactions with a priest (Joaquin Phoenix) trying to save him, a cruel and hypocritical doctor (Michael Caine) trying to destroy him, and a virginal laundress (Kate Winslet) who is fascinated by him.

Rush doesn't see the film as being as much about sexuality as it is about De Sade's "obsessive, almost romantic compulsion" to write his salacious stories.

"For the film, I always thought of him as being a writer rather than a sex fiend," the actor explains. "The story is driven by (wanting) to show interesting aspects of the man behind the depraved mind that wrote what's on the page in his books."

But how does he really see DeSade? As an influential literary talent or a pervert with a great vocabulary?

"Oh, I think he's definitely an influential talent. He's the beginnings of a kind of underground, countercultural view of the writer. He didn't do it for profit. It was an obsessive, almost romantic compulsion."

Rush also draws a parallel between De Sade and Lenny Bruce, the 1950s and '60s comedian persecuted for his lewd stand-up act. Kaufman sees a similar link to Robert Maplethorpe, the photographer whose images nudes and crucifixes submerged in urine spawned a political backlash against the National Endowment for the Arts a decade ago. They both enjoy the film's symbolic and darkly comedic stand against censorship.

"There's something delightful about images of somebody writing with chains on and being quite chipper and gleeful about it," offers Rush.

Adds Kaufman, "History (is) far more pornographic than anything the Marquis ever wrote. History wouldn't even get an NC-17, you know?"

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