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When Simple Isn't Good Enough : Director Philip Kaufman is once again the center of a storm with his adaptation of Michael Crichton's bestseller 'Rising Sun'

July 25, 1993|GENE SEYMOUR | Gene Seymour is a staff writer for Newsday

NEW YORK — "Rising Sun," the bestseller about murder and intrigue in the Los Angeles headquarters of a Japanese conglomerate, is characterized by its author, Michael Crichton, as a "wake-up call" for an America he believes is in danger of becoming a second-rate power.

Philip Kaufman, who directed the filmed adaptation of "Rising Sun" opening Friday, agrees America needs a "wake-up call"--but a different kind.

"If a movie is very good, it doesn't end when the credits roll," the 56-year-old filmmaker says one morning in a New York hotel room, his voice as placid and cool as a mountain lake.

"It follows you out into the street. It transforms everything around you. Maybe you'll want to see it again. Maybe something about its images upset or disorient you. But it's reached you. It's awakened you to something you nmever felt before or to some idea, image or mode of behavior."

Right away, you detect a problem here. Sometimes opposites don't attract. The making of "Rising Sun," the movie, was one of those times.

Those who have tracked Philip Kaufman's career can only sigh and say, "What's new?"

His fate is an amalgam of two heroes from his 1983 film, "The Right Stuff." Like Chuck Yeager, he is a fearless, stolid adventurer, putting his artistic hide on the line, "pushing that ole envelope jes' a tad" to seek greater heights. And like Virgil (Gus) Grissom, he is someone to whom stuff always seems to happen.

"Rising Sun," the novel, ignited all kinds of political fuses because of its pointed attack on U.S.-Japan trade policy. But even with the glow-in-the-dark marquee names of Sean Connery and Wesley Snipes as leads, "Rising Sun," the film, enters the multiplexes weighed down by unwieldy baggage.

Much of this baggage has been collected because of disputes between Crichton, the author of mass-market literary successes like "Jurassic Park" and "The Andromeda Strain," and Kaufman, the hip, daring auteur of such quirky critical favorites as "The Wanderers," the 1978 remake of "Invasion of the Body Snatchers," "The Unbearable Lightness of Being" and "Henry & June."

A first-draft screenplay, written by Crichton and Michael Backes, closely followed the novel. Kaufman made several changes that irked both writers.

The two changes arousing the most public attention had to do with ethnicity. The casting of African-American Snipes to play a cop partnered with Connery was perceived by Crichton and others as implausible, in part, because the special LAPD unit Snipes' character works for has no black officers in real life.

The other far more controversial change was of the identity of the murderer. In the book, a Japanese corporate executive is the killer. But Kaufman believes that "it wasn't in the cards for a Japanese businessman to behave in this manner."

When word of this revision became public, the buzz was that Kaufman was softening the political edge of Crichton's novel partly because of external pressure, most of it coming from Japanese-Americans who believed the source material was racist and that the film could incite anti-Asian fervor.

But Kaufman says the changes he made, along with everything else about the film, emerged solely from his own subjective interpretation of the novel.

"I don't think the movie soft-sells any of the (political) issues at all," he says. "In fact, if anything, it opens up discussion.

"But the thing is, you can't make a movie that lectures or has a bibliography of sources the way the novel does. I was concerned with, you know, what do you make a movie about here? What's the story?"

Indeed, what attracted Kaufman to the thriller when he read it six months before publication wasn't its political theme so much as the possibilities it offered for pure mystery storytelling.

"You don't see detective movies very often any more. Think of 'Chinatown,' the Bogart films. Even the Charlie Chan films where there's a man who cleverly works his way through clues that don't seem to mean what they do.

"And I also saw this fable, this adventure where the hero (Snipes) gets the call and along the way meets the wizard (Connery) who guides him to the dark tower through strange customs and unfamiliar, even hostile territory."

Not exactly what Crichton or Backes, who left the project after seven weeks, had in mind.

And yet Kaufman believes the parting was far more amicable than published reports implied. "From what I'd read, Crichton and I were supposed to be chasing each other with baseball bats around the block and all kinds of wild things that just never happened."

Kaufman also questions published reports that Connery, also the film's executive producer, was miffed that the director couldn't get the film beneath its two-hour, eight-minute length. "I never heard anything like that from Sean," he says. "The first cut I showed with the cuts I had in mind was two hours and 15 minutes. And that was already close to where we wanted to be."

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