The innovative, humanist director was speaking in reference to his seminal film THE UNBEARABLE LIGHTNESS OF BEING, but could easily have been talking about his new HBO movie HEMINGWAY & GELLHORN, the true story of iconic writer Ernest Hemingway [Clive Owen] and ground-breaking journalist Martha Gellhorn [Nicole Kidman].
The movie spans decades and continents, as their tempestuous relationship unfolds and ultimately implodes: meeting in Key West, becoming passionately involved when covering the Spanish Civil war, establishing their home in Cuba, and then various conflicts arise, both personal and national…including Hemingway stealing Gellhorn’s assignment to cover America’s immersion into World War II, yet Gellhorn is the first correspondent at Omaha Beach on D-Day.
“You have to authenticate your film when you're putting people in the past,” Kaufman states. “A lot of our footage was blended with the actual historical footage of people shooting and running. We were able to nest them in, in a way that we couldn’t do in UNBEARABLE….This is a relatively low-budget movie with incredible scope. It’s about seven countries, all shot in San Francisco.”
To ensure the accuracy of the sets and the seamless flow, Kaufman relied on Set Decorator Jim Erickson SDSA, Production Designer Geoffrey Kirkland, and legendary Film Editor Walter Murch.
Erickson reveals, “It was a really interesting project, because not only were we establishing time periods and places, we were also trying to tie in with all the stock footage. How do you tie in with something that’s already established and real? And, we’re in San Francisco,” he laughs “…creating Spain, Finland, London, Normandy, China and the Caribbean! And then, Walter Murch doing his magic…the way he was able to integrate the stock footage. I mean that was quite breathtaking.”
Hotel Florida, Madrid, Spain
"Our little crew was hungry for authenticity,” Kaufman notes. “[They] had to make sure the sets matched and fit and were distressed and had the right feeling….The test comes when in the Hotel Florida where [famed photojournalist] Robert Capa is taking pictures, and virtually any place we looked in the room with hundreds of people and froze the frames…that could have been a Robert Capa photo of the period.”
The luxurious Hotel Florida in Madrid becomes the stomping ground for international journalists during the Spanish Civil War…journalists who often took an active role in the events. While Hemingway, Gellhorn and their friend novelist John Dos Passos [David Straithairn] work with Capa [Santiago Cabrera] and documentarian Joris Ivens [Lars Ulrich] to record and witness the anti-Fascist efforts in the field and trenches, and to also create a film to present to fundraisers in America, Russian journalist and manipulator Mikhail Kolstov [Tony Shaloub] holds court daily in the hotel lobby, secretly aiding in the kidnapping, arrests and disappearance of key Loyalists.
As the war progresses, the hotel withstands several bombings and becomes a makeshift hospital, the lobby overflowing with the wounded and displaced. [See photos above] Erickson describes, “It was important to me to actually carry some things in from the stock footage, like…from shots of the exterior of the Hotel Florida after it’s been bombed and after there are soldiers outside… there’s a very distinctive stretcher that they were using that probably didn’t really exist anywhere but in Spain at that time. We got enough information from the photographs that we could see basically how they were constructed. So I had some made, and thus, we could literally take something from the stock footage and bring it into the interiors.”
From Gellhorn’s book, THE FACE OF WAR:
“The…Hotel has its old furniture, but it smelled of ether and was crowded with bandaged men. It is the first military hospital of Madrid now. I went around to the operating room, which used to be the reading room…There were bloody stretchers piled in the hall, but it was quiet this afternoon. The Empire bookcases, where they used to keep dull reading for the hotel’s guests, were now used for bandages and hypodermic needles and surgical instruments, and there were brilliant lights in the cut-glass chandeliers to make operating easier.”
To create the Hotel Florida, the production used a derelict train station, which Erickson points out, is about five times larger than the lobby of the actual hotel! He explains, “Because Phillip lives there, the City of San Francisco said, ‘Please do it here, and we’ll do whatever we can to make it work for you.’ So anything that was basically owned by the City of San Francisco, we had access to, which could be wonderful, but often was challenging. An open train station for the Hotel Florida?? Rather horrendously huge, vast… How do we scale that down? It presented a lot of problems. For instance, the windows were 20 feet by 40 feet high. I put hard pelmets on them to shrink the size, otherwise, it just becomes ridiculous. In the end, it worked fairly well. There were good bones in there, but boy, it was a lot of work to get it where we needed it to be.”
Caribbean and China
“The locations did have something, some aspect that keyed in,” he continues. “There was usually a corner or a specific element in these locations that worked for us. The historic St. Anthony’s Church had columns that were just like the columns in the actual Sloppy Joe’s Bar where they first meet…and there were some windows that worked for us. So we used those elements and built around them. And we shot the Shanghai street scenes in Chinatown, which lends an atmosphere of authenticity…except that I had to change everything, because it’s modern Chinatown, not 1940’s Shanghai, obviously. All the buildings are heritage buildings, which means you can’t put a screw or a nail in them, so you have to have a self-standing set within the location.”
Homes across the world… Hemingway’s house in Key West Florida and cabin in Ketchum, Idaho…Hemingway & Gellhorn’s Cuba estate, Finca Vigia…Gellhorn’s London flat…
The sets for the Hemingway houses and Gellhorn’s London apartment were built “onstage” in a warehouse on Pier 80. “There was a fair amount of research regarding the Key West house and Finca Vigia, their home in Havana, Cuba,” Erickson imparts. “The Hemingway museums offer some reference – the key is to remember that they do their own ‘styling’ in exhibitions, so not everything may be exact – and then, actual photos of his houses exist, as well as a list of all the paintings he had. So we did the best we could. Of course, you run into problems with copyrights and clearances, but we had pretty good cooperation from the Hemingway estate, and on some things, we had to do the dance and make the piece look like it, but not be the actual image.” Signature pieces, such as animal hides and taxidermy, bullfight posters and paintings, African artifacts, and a poster of the film of Hemingway’s novel A FAREWELL TO ARMS, establish the Key West home in the mid-1930s.
It was cool blues for Key West, warm, steamy tones for the house Hemingway shares with Gellhorn in Havana, rustic woodland hues for the cabin in Idaho…but all were kept desaturated, sometimes slipping almost into a monochrome to fit in with the footage. “I think it should have just been all in black and white, it would have added so much authenticity to the whole thing,” Erickson discloses. “So Geoffrey and I made a conscious decision to try to desaturate…to take out all the contrast that we could…and just try to make our own black and white film in a way. It helped to consolidate some of our decisions.”
The budget was miniscule for the historical sweep portrayed. But Erickson, who has worked with a range of directors from Stephen Spielberg and Oliver Stone to Michael Mann and Roland Emmerlich to auteurs Terrence Malick and Paul Thomas Anderson, says, “I don’t mind working on low-budget films…if we’re all on the same page. We can make it work, as long as the director and everybody else is on the same page. Phillip knew the limits that he had, and he was confident he could make it. He was a pleasure to work with. Of course, one of the main reasons I took the project was to work with him.”
Kaufman divulges, “We shot during one of the harshest winters in San Francisco history and the scope was so huge. It was a difficult shoot but when you go into ‘war’ like that with good people with you, there is exuberance…This film is about enthusiasm and the making of the film should be about that, too.…Capturing that is important to me. That's what I love about Hemingway's and Gellhorn's writing. They are trying to capture those moments.”
From Gellhorn’s war coverage:
"After the desperate years of their own war, after six years of repression inside Spain and six years of horror in exile, these people remain intact in spirit. They are armed with a transcendent faith; they have never won, and yet they have never accepted defeat.”
To work within the budgetary limits of this HBO movie, Erickson called on some of the classics in Hollywood, “Warner Bros. Props, History for Hire, and Omega Cinema Props couldn’t have been more generous. They bent over backwards and really helped me out. I could not have done it as richly as I did without their really, really generous help.” For those who know the Warner Bros. prophouse, “On the first floor, they have all these huge, heavily carved European sideboards and comparable period pieces. They were the scale that I needed for that immense Hotel Florida set, so I took them all!”
Occasionally, Erickson found the perfect piece in the local shops, as in the fabulous 40’s sofa suite that anchors the living room in Finca Vigia, where Hemingway writes FOR WHOM THE BELL TOLLS as Gellhorn covers the early WW II conflicts in Finland and Europe, not content to simply be his muse. The exotic languor of the setting accentuates their passions, but the eventual torpor heightens her restlessness and need to do more. “Someone has to go. Someone has to write about this,” she says. We see the love-nest in continual disintegration each time she returns. “They covered all the great wars of their time,” says Kaufman. “But the war they couldn’t survive was the one between themselves.”
Hemingway’s Idaho cabin is shown at the end of his life, in the 1950s, early 60s. “Mid-century modern is very hot right now,” says Erickson. “So while I did rent most of the cabin’s furnishings from LA, there were some things that I was able to get in San Francisco…same with Gellhorn’s London apartment.”
“The BBC did a quite good documentary on Martha Gellhorn in 1983, where they’re interviewing her in that apartment,” Erickson notes. “We re-create the interview in the movie, my favorite set. And she’s still dynamic, going off to cover another conflict even though she’s in her eighties.”
In the interview, Gellhorn sums up:
“The thing about war is that it has two sides...The first is the absolute horror of it. The other thing about it is you meet absolutely marvelous people...brave and extraordinary people…
Our job is to give voice to the voiceless.”