San Francisco filmmaker Philip Kaufman won the job directing the magnificent “Hemingway & Gellhorn” based on his experience with movies about lovers in times of social unrest (“The Unbearable Lightness of Being”) and writers’ tormented relationships (“Henry & June”).
Not a retread, but a triumphant return to form, “Hemingway & Gellhorn” screens Sunday at the Castro Theatre and debuts Monday on HBO.
Kaufman, whose last film, the underrated “Twisted,” was released eight years ago, feels lucky to have discovered cable TV.
“For us, HBO was a revelation,” says Kaufman during a recent phone interview, noting that years ago, his movies played for weeks at a time in San Francisco’s single-screen houses. That’s no longer the case.
“You want your movie seen, and this movie will be seen. We’re in a new time,” he says.
Though the movie takes place all over the world, Kaufman managed to shoot a large portion of it in the Bay Area, for a fairly low budget.
“This area is amazing, not only for topography and architecture, but if you want China, we’ve got Chinatown,” he says. “We’ve got a diverse group of actors, and all kinds of talent.”
Hollywood’s Clive Owen portrays Ernest Hemingway and Nicole Kidman is Martha Gellhorn. Also on board: legendary editor and soundman Walter Murch (“Apocalypse Now”), who likewise calls the Bay Area his home.
“I’ve never seen Walter happier,” Kaufman says of their San Francisco workspace.
Murch was instrumental in creating the unique look of the film, which tells the turbulent love story of the famed, hard-drinking author and the beautiful and respected war correspondent who was not content to be a “footnote in someone else’s life.”
For some sequences, Kaufman and Murch phased the film between color and black-and-white and added textures like scratches, sepia tones or freeze-frames to indicate photographs.
“We had done that for parts of ‘Unbearable Lightness of Being,’” he explains. “I don’t know of any other movie that’s done it from beginning to end, but there was always a reason for everything we did.”
Through a career spanning almost 50 years, Kaufman miraculously has remained true to his longtime vision: to work independently, based in San Francisco.
“I never go to L.A.,” he says. “We get a lot of offers, but they’re not things we want to do. But we get to live here. That’s the compensation.”
IF YOU GO
Starring Nicole Kidman, Clive Owen, Robert Duvall, David Strathairn, Joan Chen
Written by Jerry Stahl, Barbara Turner
Directed by Philip Kaufman
Running time 2 hours 30 minutes
Note: The movie screens at 5 p.m. Sunday at the Castro Theatre, 429 Castro St., S.F. Seated is limited; to RSVP, call (888) 560-5856.