Nicole, Clive, Ernest, and the Spanish Civil War
HBO’s Hemingway and Gellhorn takes place in eight countries but was filmed in our backyard.
As director Phil Kaufman started production on his new movie, Hemingway and Gellhorn, he faced an interesting challenge: how to tell the love story of two bigger-than-life characters—writer Ernest Hemingway and war correspondent Martha Gellhorn. Kaufman needed to give the film an epic feel—the story unfolds over several decades, in eight different countries—on a television budget, without leaving the Bay Area. How did he do it? The short answer is that Kaufman landed two of the world’s biggest stars, Nicole Kidman and Clive Owen, in the leading roles. He also leaned heavily on the East Bay for creative talent and locations: Oakland and the Tri-Valley are the background for much of the movie. Here’s the backstory to Hemingway and Gellhorn, premiering May 29 on HBO.
Part 1: The Filmmakers
Phil Kaufman’s filmography speaks for itself: He wrote the screenplay for The Outlaw Josey Wales and helped write the story for Raiders of the Lost Ark, and directed the masterpieces The Right Stuff and The Unbearable Lightness of Being. But the long illness and passing of his wife, Rose, in the early 2000s pulled Kaufman out of filmmaking to a point that he thought his artistic career might be over.
But Hemingway and Gellhorn was too fascinating a project to pass up. “It’s an amazing story, with these two mesmerizing characters who have this incredible love story,” says Kaufman, 75. “I saw it as a chance to make the kind of movie that really isn’t being made these days—a movie for adults, with a big scale. No one is really making Doctor Zhivago–type movies anymore.”
The material suits Kaufman, who had directed mature films about the writers Henry Miller and Anaïs Nin (Henry and June) and the Marquis de Sade (Quills). The trick was to make a big movie on a TV budget.
“We had to keep things tight. We shot the entire two and a half hour film in 47 days,” says Kaufman. “But we made the movie as if it were for the big screen.” (Hemingway and Gellhorn will play in theaters in Europe.)
Kaufman’s reputation, and an outstanding screenplay by Jerry Stahl and Barbara Turner, helped bring a cast of A-list stars on board. In addition to Kidman and Owen, the film features Parker Posey, Tony Shalhoub, Connie Nielsen, Joan Chen, Peter Coyote, and David Strathairn. And watch closely for a cameo by the legendary Robert Duvall, playing a military officer who provokes a game of Russian roulette with the famously macho Hemingway.
“Duvall had worked with me on a movie called The Great Northfield Minnesota Raid back in 1972, and we’ve remained friends,” says Kaufman. “He said he’d be happy to play this Russian general and did not even want a screen credit for his work. So we have an unbilled cameo by Robert Duvall—maybe the only one in his career.”
When Peter Kaufman was a student at the Athenian School in Danville in the late 1970s, he was able to treat his classmates to the coolest field trip ever: a visit to the set of his father’s classic science fiction movie, Invasion of the Body Snatchers. It would be one of many experiences the younger Kaufman would have on the set of his father’s acclaimed films: Peter’s first job after graduating from UC Berkeley was working as an assistant on The Right Stuff.
Kaufman, who started developing the Hemingway and Gellhorn project almost nine years ago, was pleased that family connections not on his father’s side helped bring in the movie’s main star. Peter’s wife, Christine Pelosi, and mother-in-law, Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi, invited Peter and Phil to an event hosted by Nicole Kidman for Unifem, a United Nations Development Fund program.
“Nicole promotes women’s rights and gender equality throughout the world, and was taking part in a forum to stop domestic violence,” Peter recalls. “Christine encouraged us to come really just to get us out of the house.”
At the event, Kidman told the elder Kaufman how much she admired his movies. “It was a very serendipitous thing; [my father] had not shot a film in a long while. Phil and Nicole just had this great moment together,” Peter recalls.
Soon after, having read the script for Hemingway and Gellhorn, Kidman reached
out to the Kaufmans again.
“Nicole told us, ‘Whenever you want to do this, I’m in,’ ” Peter says. “That was a pretty exciting phone call.”
Part 2: The Actors
“I do not see myself as a footnote in someone else’s life,” Martha Gellhorn says, toward the end of the film. It’s an appropriate line because Gellhorn spent her life covering every major conflict around the globe—and is possibly the greatest war correspondent ever.
“Martha Gellhorn is the film’s revelation,” says director Phil Kaufman. “Here was this woman who was the first correspondent on the beaches of Normandy. She had this amazing career—but was always referred to as ‘Ernest Hemingway’s third wife.’ Gellhorn is an amazing character, and we were so fortunate to have an actor as brilliant as Nicole Kidman to play that part.”
Kidman crushes her performance as Gellhorn, showing us a woman who was driven, astute, caring, sensual, and intensely passionate in her efforts to report about the Spanish Civil War of 1936—and essentially every other major world conflict for the next 60 years.
“Nicole came to work without an entourage, just a backpack over her shoulder,” says Lars Ulrich, who plays legendary documentary filmmaker Joris Ivens. Ulrich, who was moonlighting from his day job as drummer for Metallica to act in the film, was impressed by Kidman’s creative process. “It was incredible to watch her work. She knew every detail of what this woman was really about.”
It’s a fascinating performance because Kidman, like Gellhorn, has also faced the fickle curse of celebrity throughout her career. The media has been infinitely more interested in her marriages to Tom Cruise and Keith Urban than her remarkable work in To Die For or Rabbit Hole.
“Nicole really wanted to portray this incredibly brave woman as she really was, and she did a wonderful job,” says producer Peter Kaufman. To help prepare Kidman for the part, the filmmakers learned from the work of war correspondent, Marie Colvin, for background research.
“Marie Colvin, who has been referred to many times as the modern-day Martha Gellhorn, was a huge help to us. She narrated a documentary about Gellhorn that was very important in our research,” says Peter. In return, the Kaufmans had hoped to show Colvin the film, but in late February, she was killed while covering the conflicts in Syria.
“It was so shocking and another reminder of the incredible danger that war correspondents face.”
Like Kidman, British actor Clive Owen was immediately interested in making Hemingway and Gellhorn, after reading the script.
“Clive is a consummate actor and spent a great deal of time preparing,” says Peter Kaufman. “He read as much Hemingway as he could.”
It’s a challenging role, to say the least.
While the filmmakers let Gellhorn be the lead character, Hemingway’s brilliance is never overshadowed. Owen makes a remarkable physical transformation, bulking up his weight and growing a thick mustache. And he captures Hemingway’s almost supernatural abilities as a writer, as he stands at his typewriter banging out prose that would become A Farewell to Arms or The Sun Also Rises. His Hemingway is appropriately virile, vulgar, and violent.
Phil Kaufman, who has never shied away from sexual content in movies like The Unbearable Lightness of Being and Henry and June, says Owen was a pro when it came to capturing Hemingway’s more lustful tendencies as well.
“We were filming a very erotic scene that takes place in the dressing room of a Cuban nightclub,” says the director. “We had a set built on Treasure Island and had to shoot very quickly. Nicole and Clive would get into it—and if Nicole wanted to do another take, she would stick one finger in the air,” says the director, laughing. “At one point, Clive’s head popped up and he showed us his whole hand—all five fingers—as in, ‘Let’s do this five more times.’ That got a huge laugh from the crew.”
Part 3: The Creative Team
Patrick Ranahan had the daunting task of finding Bay Area spots that could represent European cities, the Spanish countryside, and mid-century China. He found a gold mine in Oakland at the old Oakland train depot, which becomes Spain’s famed Hotel Florida, a gathering spot for Gellhorn, Hemingway, and other journalists during
the Spanish Civil War.
“When we found the building, there must have been six inches of bird droppings on the floor, and the walls were covered in graffiti and feathers,” says Ranahan, a San Francisco–based location scout who has known Phil Kaufman since working with him on 1983’s The Right Stuff. “But we got the place cleaned up, and the marble floors just shined. The set design team worked magic: All of a sudden, we were in Spain.”
The streets outside of the train depot doubled as war-torn Madrid, and just a few blocks away, Ranahan secured a warehouse space large enough to contain an 80-ton train shipped from the California State Railroad Museum in Sacramento. “It was the first time the train had ever been moved, and it fit perfectly into the warehouse,” says Ranahan.
The Spanish Civil War comes to life as Gellhorn and Hemingway dodge bullets and tanks in the rolling hills of Livermore. “We needed the feel of those golden grasses and high plains of the Spanish countryside, and Livermore was amazing,” says Ranahan. “There are these beautiful wide shots that feel like you’re in Spain—but if you moved the camera a couple of feet to the left or right, you’d see downtown Livermore or a big housing development.”
While filming in the Tri-Valley, the production crew took over the Livermore-Pleasanton Rod and Gun Club. “After quitting time, we packed into the First Street Alehouse,” Ranahan says, adding that the crew weren’t the only ones who enjoyed the area. “Nicole Kidman and her husband, Keith Urban, spent a day driving around Livermore, and came back to the set just raving about how beautiful this area is.”
Visual Effects Supervisor
Nearly 20 years ago, movie audiences were delighted to see Tom Hanks’ memorable Forrest Gump interacting with actual historic figures—Elvis Presley, John F. Kennedy, John Lennon, etc. The special effects technology that was so cutting-edge (and expensive) in Forrest Gump has improved immensely since that 1994 film, and was used for some 300 shots to create Hemingway and Gellhorn’s historic texture.
Visual Effects Supervisor Chris Morley of Berkeley’s Tippett Studio spent almost a year going through historic film footage set in China, Finland, Spain, and New York City, and then mixed the footage with material shot for the film. In one case, Morley and crew found film of two diplomats sitting with Eleanor and Franklin Delano Roosevelt in the White House. With a few cuts and pastes, Morley was able to blend Nicole Kidman and Clive Owen into the shot to represent a meeting Gellhorn and Hemingway had with the first couple in the early 1940s.
Morley has created effects for many big-budget movies—including the phenomenally popular Twilight films—during 11 years at Tippett, and considers Hemingway and Gellhorn a career highlight. “It’s been a fascinating project, one that I’m very proud of,” says the Oakland resident.
After principal photography had wrapped, Morley took a trip to Cuba—on his own dime—to visit Hemingway’s estate. Morley snapped digital photos of the building’s exterior, then blended the shots into the film.
“You can’t work on a movie about Hemingway for an entire year and not get a little obsessed,” says Morley, with a laugh.