Try to visualize the following scene: An American filmmaker travels to Europe to meet a celebrated novelist whose book he is about to make into a movie and pledges to the novelist that he is going to "violate" his work.

And the novelist smiles.

The American filmmaker is Philip Kaufman. The novelist is the exiled Czech writer Milan Kundera. The novel is "The Unbearable Lightness of Being." And the smile, it seems, was genuine.

"That delighted him," Kaufman says, thinking back over the moment. "I think he knew that I meant it in the full Kundera sense of the word -- that I meant to violate it in the best sense possible. Somehow that fit into his view of how things should be."

Looking out the window of his New York hotel room, Philip Kaufman could be one of the heroes in his films -- either Tomas, the hero of his latest film, "The Unbearable Lightness of Being," or maybe the Chuck Yeager figure Sam Shepard played in "The Right Stuff." As he poses for a photographer, eyes searching the skyline -- or that little fragment of it visible through the glass -- he seems to have some of the same aura of loneliness and self-containment that he gave to those characters. Some of what went into being a guy with the right stuff.

What you'd expect from the man in this picture is a lot of terse talk, perhaps a few pithy aphorisms. In short, a tight-lipped Jewish Gary Cooper type. Physically, he has the look -- rangy and thin, with penetrating eyes and a beard and a lot of thick, dark hair shot through with gray. But Kaufman is too full of boyish affability to comform to the strong, silent stereotype. He likes to talk. But underneath the gregariousness and intelligence and charm, underneath the genuine eagerness to make contact, are an elusiveness and remove, a desire not to give too much of himself away.

There's a sequence at the beginning of "The Right Stuff" in which we're told about the demon that lived out at Mach 1 and the plane that was built to chase it and the men who came out to the high desert of California to fly it. "These men were test pilots," the voice on the sound track says. "And no one knew their names."

This is the ideal, one suspects, that Kaufman aspires to in his work -- the ideal of the test pilots, the men with the true right stuff, who did their jobs for the love of it and not for the glory. Does that mean that he would prefer not to put his name on his movies? Probably not. Would he continue to make them if he couldn't? Absolutely.

Kaufman is a man who prefers questions to answers. Throw one his way and he'll mull it over, roll it around his head for a while, and then, likely as not, respond with a question of his own. Nailing things down doesn't interest him. What interests him are the infinitely wondrous possibilities that spring from letting things dangle out there in relation to all the other not-nailed-down things in the world.

"At some point you have to say what your movie is about," Kaufman says slyly. "When you go to talk to the studios, for example, they like you to tell them what kind of film you intend to make. But I don't like to articulate what I'm trying to do in a film. Because as soon as you do that it limits what it is. And it's never about only one thing."

True to his word, when Kaufman submitted his script of "The Right Stuff" to his producers at the Ladd Co., he described it as "a Search film, a quest for a certain quality that may have seen its best days ..." The movie that was born out of this "quest for a certain quality" was more than three hours long, had more than 130 speaking parts and cost in the neighborhood of $25 million. It was also one of the most audacious, entertaining and original films of the past decade.

"The Unbearable Lightness of Being," Kaufman's first film since "The Right Stuff," is no less audacious, no less original and no less entertaining. It's also sexy and emotionally complex in ways that American movies seldom are. In making a movie out of Tom Wolfe's ballistic journalism, Kaufman managed to get at some of his own Right Stuff. Here he's found his way into Kundera's head as well.

If indeed what Kaufman has perpetrated is a violation, then it's hard to imagine a more felicitous one. Kaufman has attained this same sort of intimate union with other artists' work in previous films -- for example, in his 1979 version of the Richard Price novel "The Wanderers," and even his '70s reworking of the '50s horror classic "Invasion of the Body Snatchers" was more an adaptation that a remake. In this case, Kaufman prefers to call his work a variation on Kundera's original, and the musical connotations of the word convey precisely the kind of contact Kaufman has made.

In working with source material from another medium -- especially with plays or books by artists they respect -- filmmakers will often efface their own personalities, humbly stepping aside with a bow to the superior artist.

But Kaufman and his co-scenarist, Jean-Claude Carrie`re, have chosen the opposite tack, and in doing so they've turned a nifty Kunderaesque trick. What they've managed to locate in putting their screenplay together is the point where empathy and violation merge, and where the personalities of the adaptor and the adapted both shine, to borrow D.H. Lawrence's phrase, like "twin stars in equilibrium."

Kundera's smile could stand as the metaphor for the relationship between him and his movie collaborators. And to it we can add the first word Kundera spoke to the filmmakers: "Eliminate."

The film begins in Czechoslovakia in 1968 during the period of relaxed Soviet control and burgeoning liberalism known as the "Prague Spring." Its center is a triangle of lovers, Tomas (Daniel Day-Lewis), a brain surgeon and "epic womanizer," Sabina (Lena Olin), a painter and Tomas' "erotic friend," and Tereza (Juliette Binoche), the young woman who loves Tomas and gradually introduces him to the splendors of "heaviness."

In the novel, which was first published here in 1984, Kundera floats his plot on a tide of philosophical discourse that ebbs and flows between the opposing principles of lightness and heaviness, body and soul, sex and love.

"Neither 'The Right Stuff' nor 'The Unbearable Lightness' are really about their stories," Kaufman claims. "They're explorations of qualities. I mean, what is the film about? I don't know, it begins as if it were a film about a womanizer. And in a way, the subject is the downfall of a ladies' man. But during the course of the film, what happens to him? The worst possible thing. Not that he dies, but that he falls in love with one woman. By the end, he's abandoned all his principles, and yet he says he's happy. Now is the ending light or is it heavy? I don't know. The film constantly travels between those two poles. And, in that sense, the movie's conclusions are meant to be the same as those in the book, but it uses different images and different ways of arriving at them."

Kaufman obeyed Kundera's command to eliminate. The film isn't a direct transposition of the novel's events, and it doesn't attempt to give a full rendering of Kundera's system of opposites. But part of the movie's richness stems from Kaufman's success in finding striking visual metaphors for the novelist's complex ideas.

"The way we saw it," Kaufman explains, "we had a novel that we both greatly admired, by a novelist that we both felt was one of the great novelists. Usually when you're in situation like that and you're the screen writer, you know he isn't going to want you to change a word. But Kundera taught at a film school in Prague and he understands how movies are made. He knew exactly what would have to be done to get his book up onto the screen."

Still, though he gave the film his blessing, Kundera never visited the set, even when the crew shot in Paris, where the author lives. (He said watching the filming would be like a father watching his daughter make love.) Their relationship, though, was close, Kaufman says. "I called him every weekend, and he was available whenever I needed to speak to him. He made that clear. He loves film and he wanted this to be a good film. He helped in a lot of ways. He was there but didn't want to intrude in any way."

In describing his approach to adapting the novel, Kaufman takes his cue from its author. "Kundera uses the word 'compassion,' and maybe I tried to have some kind of compassion for this lonely character -- this book -- who has come into my hands, sort of in the way that Tereza comes to Tomaz. The Devil's gift, he calls it. Maybe an adaptation requires that compassionate quality, even though I used the word 'violate' before. Maybe what's needed is acombination of the two or something that lies between them."

He claims, however, that working from material by another author is not so different from working from a script of his own. "Whatever film you're making," he explains, "whether it's an adaptation or not, is a whole other world, and you just try to dream your way into it. If I'm successful, I'm inside the dream and it's no longer Kundera's. But no matter how things get rearranged, he's in the dream with me, in the same way that your parents are always in your dreams. He's there, like my teacher. We're friends now, but that stern look of his was there and I kept encountering it as I rounded corners, that heavy brow. But it has to be my dream."

The road that Kaufman took to become a filmmaker isn't the straight one that runs through film school and a career in television, and then movies. It was long and winding and full of odd detours.

When asked why he became a director, Kaufman says: "As a kid, I played a lot of sports, and I was always the quarterback on the football team. I was the one who made up the plays and called the signals, drawing out my little storyboards in the sand."

Elaborating, he says: "Something like what happens in this film happened to me. By chance, I made some choices and, by chance, I pursued a certain course. For whatever reasons, I found myself following things, often returning to places down dark streets. There are other words for it. Fate, I suppose, is one of them."

The earliest influences, he claims, are the primal moviegoing experiences he had as a boy in Chicago, where he was born 51 years ago. "It all started with the great times we used to have in Chicago up there in the balcony of the Granada Theater just hollering down at Tony Curtis as he was swinging around on things, just trying to get laughs from the audience. It was there that I learned that a dark theater was a place to have fun in."

The idea of actually becoming a filmmaker didn't hit him until much later. After graduating from the University of Chicago, he spent a year at Harvard studying law and another year back in Chicago studying American history. At this point, aside from a vague desire to be Henry Miller, there wasn't a lot of direction in Kaufman's life. "I just didn't know what I wanted to do -- be a teacher, own a bookstore, something like that."

Eventually, Kaufman and his family, which now included his wife Rose and their son Peter, found themselves living outside San Francisco. To support himself, he says, he "thought about being a carpenter," worked as a mailman, sold Fuller brushes, and in his spare time worked on his novel.

But San Francisco wouldn't become their permanent home -- not yet. In the early '60s, Kaufman lived in Greece, where he taught English; spent a year driving a tractor on a kibbutz in Israel; and taught math in Italy.

The common thread running through these wandering years, Kaufman says, is that he began to see new and wonderful things at the movies. "We saw the films that Truffaut, Godard and the rest of the French New Wave were making and became excited," he recalls. "Also, I remember seeing Bergman's "The Seventh Seal" at Harvard and staying up all night talking about it ... And the impression that these films made on us was that movies didn't have to be these candy-colored Hollywood movies. They made us think about what movies could be."

It was while Kaufman was living in Europe that he made up his mind about the direction his life would take. "While I was there I said, 'This is what I want to do. I want to make films.' "

Returning immediately to the States, he set up his family in Chicago and spent the next year trying to teach himself how to make movies and to raise some money. By 1965 he had completed his first film, an urban comedy titled "Goldstein," which shared a prize at the 1964 Cannes Film Festival with Bertolucci's "Before the Revolution."

Following "Goldstein," Kaufman made a second film, "Fearless Frank," which featured a very young Jon Voight in his first movie role, and began dreaming of creating a new wave of his own right there in Chicago.

But instead of staying in his hometown to pursue this vision, in 1967 Kaufman moved his family to Los Angeles and signed a contract with Universal. During the next 10 years, he wrote a lot of screenplays that sat in drawers, took a lot of meetings and completed only two features, "The Great Northfield, Minnesota Raid," a revisionist western about Jesse James and his gang starring Robert Duvall, and "The White Dawn," a lyrical adventure story about three whalers lost among the Eskimos in the Canadian Arctic. For various reasons, both fared badly at the box office. He began one other film, "The Outlaw Josey Wales," which starred Clint Eastwood and was based on Kaufman's own script, but was fired, reportedly for wanting to do more that one take.

"The late '60s was a time when a lot of filmmakers had opportunities to do really interesting things," Kaufman says, "but it was really a tough time for me. I was down in Hollywood and I couldn't get anything going. I lived there for six years until finally I did 'Northfield Raid,' which I had written four years earlier. We had a really rough time in L.A., Rose and Peter and I. We had almost no money. We really struggled."

In 1976 his "Star Trek" project was canceled -- a scant couple of weeks before the opening of "Star Wars" -- because the brains at Paramount had determined that audiences weren't interested in science fiction stories. This, along with the rough treatment his earlier films received, permanently soured him on Hollywood. He hasn't lived or worked there since moving back to San Francisco while finishing the editing on "The White Dawn" in 1974. And he has found that it is possible to make Hollywood movies while having as little as possible to do with Hollywood.

"I'm not married to Hollywood. We're just dating," Kaufman says. "Strangely, a lot of my support over the years has come from Hollywood, even though with the exception of "Invasion of the Body Snatchers," my films haven't made money. Still, I don't go to Hollywood much, even though it's only an hour away. Sometimes years will pass between visits. I prefer San Francisco, where it is still possible to walk around or to sit in a coffee shop and read a book without having to overhear what Spielberg is doing over at the next table."

The period after Kaufman moved back to San Francisco was a vital time for him. Since then he has completed four films, "Invasion of the Body Snatchers," which was set in the city, "The Wanderers," "The Right Stuff" and "Unbearable Lightness." For a time, too, the city itself seemed to become a kind of haven for filmmakers and other artists. But in Kaufman's view, much of that vitality seems to have passed.

"I think we're in a time where we're all a little stupefied, a little dazed by what's happening in the world. Maybe we suffer from too much ambition, or maybe we've all gotten too much sleep. I don't know, now that we're deep into the Reagan years, maybe we can see that the metaphor of the Body Snatchers was truer than we had imagined. There's a great temptation to become a pod person every day, and we're forced continually to struggle against it."

In making "The Right Stuff," Kaufman signed on for the struggle of his life. Up until then, he had been a director of smaller films with a limited, almost cult, appeal. But from the beginning this picture was conceived as an epic with the potential to reach a mass audience. Instead, because of the confusion over its association in the public's mind with John Glenn's presidential race, it was an epic disappointment -- a movie tangled up in history. And after all the smoke had cleared, the experience left him feeling betrayed and disillusioned.

The most painful episode of all, Kaufman remembers, was the gala premiere the studio staged for the film in Washington.

"We were told for months and months that we had to get the film finished because there was going to be this huge opening at the American Film Institute in Washington with something like a hundred planes flying by. That Yeager and all the other pilots would be in the planes overhead, sort of like a reunion of the history of aviation. That 2 million people would be lining the banks of the Potomac, and cameramen from all over the world would come to record the event. And that this would all be so spectacular that the film itself would be launched like a rocket. They even said that perhaps they could arrange a fly-by with the space shuttle."

It was a plan he immediately disliked.

"When we finally got to the top of the Kennedy Center, there were quite a few cameras. It did attract a lot of coverage. But when we looked down, instead of seeing thousands of people down by the Potomac, there was this one guy with a fishing pole looking up rather shyly at all these cameras. Then someone said, 'Here they come!' And there were about four or five dinky little airplanes so far off in the distance that you couldn't see them. So I said, 'Couldn't they fly by again?' And they said, 'Sorry, that's it. But wasn't it great? Chuck Yeager was leading them.' It was so symbolic. I had made a film critical of the great American circus that surrounded the astronauts, and here they were creating the same kind of thing that I was trying to expose. We just stood there up on the roof of the Kennedy Center and I could feel what was about to happen."

The only good thing to come out of the opening in Washington, Kaufman adds, was that at the reception following the film, Walter Cronkite seemed enormously upset by the film, especially its treatment of the press. "That to me was a sign that I must have done at least something right."

Kundera would appreciate the position that Kaufman now finds himself in as he prepares to venture "back out into history" with another film. It's the sort of dilemma that may bring another smile to his lips. For Kaufman, though, the promotional routine is excruciating. But luckily, it's the only part of the process he doesn't like.

"I like making movies," he says. "I like going to the set in the morning and meeting the crew. I like those those morning hellos, those elaborate greeting rituals. I like being there with the cameraman and working out some things, planning things with the actors. I like the life.

"The part I especially like, in a way, is the ragtag quality of it, the almost bohemian aspect of filmmaking. There's a still a little bit of the circus in filmmaking. A lot of strange things happen. And it really is a different world than any other world that's out there. And what you hope is that the end result of your work is a totally new thing. And seeing this new thing, you are sent back out into the world, and as you walk down the street, each face you see can become a variation on a theme, and if you're thinking the right way, it fills you with vitality. That's what happens when you see a good movie. With a dull movie, nothing is revealed."