Director Philip Kaufman on What Makes ‘The Right Stuff,’ 30 Year Later

It has been 30 years since "The Right Stuff" rocketed into theaters. Three decades later, it remains the definitive tale of perhaps America's greatest adventure - the early days of the space race. We talked with director Philip Kaufman by phone from his San Francisco office about the film, the men and the ineffable substance, that make "The Right Stuff."

We are now farther away from the release of "The Right Stuff" the "The Right Stuff was from the Mercury program itself.
Philip Kaufman:
Yeah, I know. Isn't that strange, that time? It's kind of baffling and mysterious. That's right.

In the early '80s, even, it must have felt that the Mercury program was at that point already the distant past.
Sure. Yeah. And you know, the truth was that it required 20 years or whatever it was to get perspective, and that's what Tom Wolfe did. People who were writing about it at the time, really took more of the Life Magazine approach. It was all about the PR and the heroism and so forth. But Tom Wolfe, being the great investigative journalist that he was and he is, really got into the story behind that and really talked about not only what were the obstacles, the technological things and space, but then what that quality, the pilots with the right stuff; what they had to face with engineers, with scientists, with politicians, with the press corps, with public relations, and with their own personal lives. That gave great dimension to the definition of what the right stuff was. It's not just being heroic in a public way. There were all kinds of conflicts that they had to face and overcome to do what they did.

How would you compare what The Right Stuff meant in the early '60s to what it meant in the early '80s when you made the film, compared to now?

The whole film is not about any specific person. It's really about something called the right stuff. The right stuff is the hero of the movie. It's a quality that in a way transmigrates from one to the other. I mean, in our film and in Tom Wolfe's book, it sort of begins with Chuck Yeager, but it could be certainly be traced back further, whether it's to Teddy Roosevelt or to the American West or to Ernest Hemingway, who gave part of the definition that Tom Wolfe used – grace under pressure – as one of the qualities of the right stuff. So in the '60s, we weren't really aware of how that quality connected to the American past, to the American psyche. It was a moment in time that was extraordinary, but it was in the midst of space race. There's where you get the World Series kind of thing. It's us against the Russians, and it was that eagerness to win that got people excited. And of course, it was amazing when John Glenn finally orbited, and as Tom Wolfe points out, that was probably the last moment where all Americans could agree on something, that they all cheered in the same way.
How has the perception of that quality changed since then?
20 years later, when Tom Wolfe wrote the book and we made the film, the world had changed, and there were varying political breaks and sides, and time had passed. We had been to the moon. He brought forth the story of the pilots, of these unsung heroes, and really gave it a kind of a literary depth and meaning. That would be the only movie I would have been interested in making, was something that lent character, that went to the human experience. And now, I don't know. There's been wonderful films. "Gravity" is amazing. I don't even know how they did that stuff. But it's not quite about the same.

His book was almost more of an essay than a story. How did you construct a plot from it?
Well, that took a lot of time. I spent, all total, about five years on the project. The original plan was to take the material and create some people worth talking about. You know, sort of fictional events to give it more of a traditional movie thing with conflicts and this and that. There was some earlier version that even left out Chuck Yeager. I just felt, if you made the hero of the piece a quality, as the right stuff - if you were going to do something about the Knights of the Round Table, and you wanted to explore chivalry, and you had all these different guys going out on the various quests and so forth, each with his own story, but within the bounds of the magic of Camelot and that kind of glorious time.

Chuck Yeager served as an advisor to the film. How was working with him?
PK: At first, everyone said, “Oh, you'll never get Yeager,” and even in the book, you can see that Yeager stood apart from the astronauts. He really wanted to continue flying the planes. He was of a different generation and so forth, but I approached him and talked to him and brought him to San Francisco, and we talked a lot. You know, he's a tough guy, and it was not easy to bring him in, but once he was into the project, he was with me, with us.

How'd you get him hooked?
He read the script. He liked the script, and he liked what I was trying to do with the character and so forth. At one point, and this was before we had started, we were sort of storyboarding a lot of the film up at a place called Colossal Films that did the basic special effects. We were trying to figure all those out. Yeager was up there south of Market Street, and Sam Shepard came over, and I had sort of talked Sam into doing the film, and the two of them met. Of course, Sam's this tall, gangly guy, and Yeager's a compact, tough guy, and they come out of, certainly in some ways, out of different worlds. They sort of looked at each other a little warily and Yeager pulled me aside. He said, “That guy ain't me,” and Sam was sort of freaking out, “I don't want to play a general flying around.” So we started talking. I remember they wandered over to the window and they looked down, and there was Sam's pickup truck outside there, and Yeager said, “What's that?” They started talking about that, and the conversation never ended between the two of them. They hit it off because they had, and shared, a certain kind of strange quality. If you know Sam Shepard's plays, they're largely centered around this kind of search for the mystical father that he never really could understand. During the movie, Yeager was sort of like his father. They were so close and they could talk, not in deep, emotional ways, but there was an understanding between them, and I think I just had an understanding with Yeager about what our task was, what we wanted to do and how to get things as right as we could.

The film has such a great cast. Was there a quality you were searching for in the actors?
Yeah. Yeah. You know, it's not easy to find that in actors, that kind of tough, individualist, rough guys. We interviewed hundreds of actors, and they all did it for very little. It was like a reasonable deal, that nobody made a lot of money doing it, and they did it for – well, I don't know. Off and on, we shot for a good part of the year. We had hiatuses because things weren't ready and the actors had to keep coming back, and they did it with incredible enthusiasm. I mean, Dennis Quaid, he was a naughty boy. He shouldn't have learned how to fly during the shooting, but he did. Once, we were watching Scott Glenn take off from Van Nuys Air Force Base with a camera. We were going to photograph him in a plane. I mean, he was actually in the back seat of a plane. Caleb Deschanel and myself were sitting in the back of a plane. Dennis Quaid just said he could sort of drive to where we could watch the thing, and then, after Scott Glenn took off, suddenly we're taxiing down the runway, and we're taking off with Dennis Quaid as the pilot, flying over Van Nuys. I just was saying, “Holy fuck. He's just an actor, and here we are, flying with him.” I didn't even know he knew how to fly.

It's a space epic, but it was also so low-tech, compared to even in the '80s. How did you capture the effects?
The technological part of it was we spent a lot of time trying to figure out how to do those things, and George Lucas was a friend, and we really explored some of those techniques that he was using in "Star Wars." You know, the motion techniques. There was a certain amount of digital or computer work that he was doing, and we spent a little bit of money early on. It showed us that those techniques that worked in outer space for George didn't work on Earth. They didn't have the same reality that we were looking for, so we sort of went back to more...I just felt in sort of keeping with the theme of the film that what if we started jerry-rigging these things? Obviously, this is before you could do all this stuff digitally, and in some ways, what Jerry Gutierrez and Colossal Films did is a one-off. There's no film I think that before "The Right Stuff" did really develop those techniques, and afterward, people were moving on to other techniques. Now we wanted something rough. We wanted something more like what pilots were encountering, more like Ponchos and the Rat Shack, the rougher things about flying. And the key thing was, how do we go along with the actors and experience as closely as possible what they were experiencing? Not to look at it from the outside, but to experience it from the inside.

How did you achieve that?
I brought on this underground filmmaker, Jordan Belson, who created a lot of those kind of strange, subliminal things of the sky opening up, of the fireflies going around, of the colors changing in the sky, the Earth perspectives as John Glenn is going around the Earth, which strangely, when NASA, a couple of years ago, released the latest stuff, it almost looked exactly like what Jordan Belson had created on Telegraph Hill in just a little room and a camera. He was like an alchemist. I don't even know how he did some of that stuff, but he would come back every few weeks know, I would describe what I wanted, and he would...and he looked like an alchemist. And he looked like an alchemist. I mean, he looked like Gandolf or something from Lord of the Rings. And now, I have to say that Dolby Sound was a big thing in internalizing the experience. How the sounds...well, Dolby and our sound crew and all of that. How do you get inside or under someone's skin in a scene? Not just looking at it from the outside. But you know, to sit in a baseball game, you could be inside the batter's head or a pitcher's head and start feeling that, and that's sort of what we tried to do.

What's were the tricks you used?
Well, you know, it's both photographic. To some degree, it's, I suppose, certain close-ups, but it's not theater. It's the great thing about film, it's how you build up to the close-ups and then surround them with the sounds and try to create, as closely as you can, that feeling of what it might have been like. When you see Sam Shepard breaking the sound barrier, John Glenn being launched or Ed Harris or Dennis Quaid at the end, Caleb Deschanel was able to put reflections know, we didn't have digital tools, of course. We had to bounce stuff off of the rear screens, and you could feel inside the capsule, for example, the reflections of the switches as they were clicking them on. At one point, I always think it sort of looks like teardrops coming down from John Glenn's eyes as he clicks them on. It was that process. Now, cinematographers would just shoot it and let people play with it. They can do all kinds of stuff now. But that may have helped create the reality for the actors of what their task was at the time and what they had to feel. The fact that this stuff had to be create...they weren't responding so much to imaginary green screen stuff. That's going to appear later.

Another thing the film captures is the beginning of a modern celebrity culture and what it feels like to be in the midst of that. How did you feel about that?
Tom Wolfe had sort of described the press corps as, he used a number of adjectives, but as sort of swarming locusts all around them, and then we created..the sounds were partly of locust swarms and different things that evoked the kind of metaphoric quality that Tom Wolfe was talking about and the sense that not only were they know, it's easy to think, “Wow, they just went into space and they were brave and they could have died,” but some of the scariest things for these brave men who weren't used to dealing with the press, or were most people. Now, in a vast culture of 15 minutes of fame, everybody sort of goes to school to learn how to deal with this, but these were sort of raw men who were somewhat outsiders to this and then they had to face that. They had to stand up to it. In some cases, they were humiliated by it, and it was one of the beginnings of the modern era of publicity.

Is there a key scene in the film?
As we got along, I felt the real story was lonely men out in the desert facing death, and that's where the black and white opening begins, with that there was a demon that lived in the air, and it ends sort of with Dennis Quaid saying, “Oh Lord, what a heavenly light,” that there is a kind of...I don't want to say it's a fable, but it's a reality that sort of approaches a folk tale or a fable, that these men, when all is said and done, went on. I think that's what we were trying to do, create almost a mythical epic.

Do you think our culture produces people with the Right Stuff anymore?
Oh, boy. That is a really profound question for me to...and in some ways, disturbing. I mean, you wonder about people, why they want to take risks and how they prepare themselves for the risks. You wonder if we've lost something. We've lost a flavoring, a seasoning or the recipe is missing something nowadays, and back then, certainly at the beginning of the film, you could trace that Western Gary Cooper on a horseback, things that my generation sort of grew up on, the lonely, laconic man. You didn't talk about it, you did it. And as Yeager says at the beginning, he's going to do it, really, for nothing. The idea of pushing the outside of the envelope was a challenge and it was you did it without thinking about public recognition. It was just something that you did it for yourself or your fellow man and race for your country. It's a story of great adventure. An incredible number of men died, and there's nobody killing anyone else. Men dying in noble battle with the heavens, and that kind of thing of the exploration of the outside of the envelope, of doing something because you had the urge to push the frontier. We have different frontiers now, and unfortunately now,...well, I mean, some of the people who are brilliant who push the frontiers don't do it in a physical way. There's another great kind of heroism, but unfortunately, a lot of the heroism is meant to translate into money, into a kind of lifestyle that really wasn't what Yeager, at the time in "The Right Stuff" was meant to convey.