Ask people to name a contemporary screenwriter and even some of the most ardent film buffs might be left scratching their heads. In a business where actors are all the teeth and glamour and the director takes any creative plaudits that are being handed around it’s refreshing (from a personal point of view at least) to know that someone who sits alone in a room and scratches his head in front of a computer screen all day is receiving the credit he deserves.
And make no mistake, Charlie Kaufman, now one of the most high profile screenwriters in Hollywood, deserves it. His output across five feature films has been entertaining, original, irreverent, poignant, esoteric, preposterously outthere and jarringly real all at the same time. His ability to merge his own neurosis with wide-ranging themes of alienation, inadequacy and frustration would suggest that his personal life is a disaster area, (unsurprisingly he wouldn’t say) It’s not, however, an exaggeration to say that his screenplays, and their realisation in collaboration with certain directors (Spike Jonze, Michel Gondry) have breathed new life into mainstream American cinema. Suddenly you have sit there and think again. How refreshing.
His latest work, the darkly moving Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is currently playing in cinemas. Future Movies managed to get an insight into the mind of a virtuoso wordsmith when Charlie was in town to promote the film…
The idea of the film came to you from Michel Gondry (the film’s director) is that right?
Charlie Kaufman: No, not exactly. Michel’s friend had an idea about a letter that tells you that you’ve been erased from someone’s memory. With Pierre’s permission, Michel brought it to me and we worked out a story and then pitched it around.
That’s interesting, because to us this is classic Charlie Kaufman territory, is that how it seemed to you when you came across it?
Charlie Kaufman: Well it really wasn’t anything, it was literally: “this is the card, that’s the story”. There was no story attached to it. I’ve adapted entire books before, so there’s a lot more information there to start with than what we had on this movie. I think Michel and I are interested in the same things; we’re both interested in memories and dreams and that kind of world.
Did you find it a constraint having such a narrow brief starting out?
Charlie Kaufman: I think there was much more freedom in this than in adapting a book. I dealt with the issues of the responsibilities of adapting a book was something that I explored in “Adaptation”. My big block in writing “Adaptation” was that I had somebody else’s work which I had a responsibility to, and I felt it, which made things very difficult. Also, I did an adaptation of a Philip K Dick novel, one which I really liked and wanted to be faithful to; that was an enormous responsibility and an enormous constraint. Eternal Sunshine was easier; it wasn’t easier to write but it was an easier thing to come into.
Did you and Michel have very different ideas about the story that might come from this concept?
Charlie Kaufman: I think we were pretty much in agreement. I don’t remember arguments; of course they came later once the thing was written.
The film uses space in a very interesting way as a touchstone to dreams and memories, did you visualise it that way in the script or did Michel’s input articulate these transitions?
Charlie Kaufman: We talked a lot about the transitions before I had written the script, then I went away and wrote it in a very specific way that inspired Michel to think of other things. Issues of budget also determined how things were ultimately achieved but certainly Michel brings a lot of ingenious visual ideas to this movie.
How do things change when a distinctive performer such as Jim Carrey becomes involved? Is there a temptation to tailor it to his strengths?
Charlie Kaufman: No, quite the opposite. We really wanted Jim to play Joel Barish, and Jim was in total agreement. We didn’t have any interest in making this a Jim Carrey movie. He came to us to do this character and I think he recognised that this was an ensemble movie and he responded to that. Early on we asked him to not wear make-up in this movie, which is something he wouldn’t ordinarily do, and it gave him a very look, which helped to create the character.
For what it’s worth I agree with you, but I suspect that once the people who put the money up realised that this was a Jim Carrey movie they may have envisaged something quite different because of their interest in the box office?
Charlie Kaufman: Well, they’re interested in the box office, this is why they wanted Jim Carrey in the movie but it’s also important to know that Jim Carrey wasn’t paid what Jim Carrey usually gets paid, so it wasn’t an investment in Jim Carrey the star. He took very little money; his usual fee would have been the entire budget of the movie.
In “Adaptation” we get a very depression insight into the writer’s role, particularly on set. How different was your role from that on “Eternal Sunshine”?
Charlie Kaufman: To be honest my role in both movies I did with Spike Jonze and the two I did with Michel were very different from that. They’re both really good collaborators and I was involved in every aspect of the film from beginning to end. There’s clearly less for me to do during production than at other times, everybody is rushing around with s specific job to do and I am just standing there; this tends to give me the impression that nobody likes me! So, that was the joke of that scene in “Adaptation”, but I wasn’t cut out of those movies at all, everybody was very welcoming.
Some sections of the audience are inclined to believe far more outlandish ideas than the one put forward in “Adaptation” that you have a twin brother who helped you adapt the story. Do you take pleasure in catching out people who think they know better?
Charlie Kaufman: That was really the whole point of the movie, to take a number of stories that had truth, fictionalise them, and crucially not say what’s what. Spike and I were constantly being asked is this true, did this happen and we just wouldn’t answer it. It is important during the course of the story to know that Donald Kaufman (his fictional twin brother) is co-writing the script, and to take that out and to put his name alongside mine in the credits adds definition to the story. Of course it’s fun, it’s a fun idea.
Did Donald live on in any sense beyond the film?
Charlie Kaufman: He’s on the IMDB, with a co-credit on the movie!
Do you think you’ve got influence now as a screenwriter in Hollywood, since people know who you are?
Charlie Kaufman: It seems like people know who I am, I am not sure that this equates to influence. I think what gives you influence in Hollywood is whether or not your movies make money, that’s really the bottom line.
You’re especially identified with a specific kind of project, one in which you question forms of reality. Is that an area you would be keen to move away from in the future, or is it something that is endlessly fascinating to you in the work that you do?
Charlie Kaufman: I don’t know, I don’t know what’s going to happen. I’m thinking about what I’m thinking about at the time and that’s what the scripts are about. I am always interested in subjective reality and so it keeps coming up, but that isn’t to say that there won’t be other things I could be interested in.
As a screenwriter people at the moment expect a certain thing from you, so if you wanted to put something out that was completely from leftfield you could do it under a pseudonym to avoid typecasting.
Charlie Kaufman: But what would that project be?
A straight down the middle romantic comedy?
Charlie Kaufman: But I wouldn’t do that because I don’t have any interest in it. “Eternal Sunshine” was my way of addressing those lies. I don’t consider this movie a romantic movie; it’s about a very dysfunctional relationship. The fact that it is perceived as romantic is great but it came honestly, it wasn’t what we set out to do. I wouldn’t want to do something that feels like a lie to me. I am writing a scary movie right now but I have no interest in making a genre horror movie, so I keep trying to make sure that’s not what I am doing, so I keep trying to figure out what’s really scary, not what’s scary in movies because that is too easy, and it’s a real struggle, but it’s a struggle that I choose.
Is this something you’ve been commissioned to do?
Charlie Kaufman: Yes, I’ve been commissioned and it’s something Spike is going to direct, somewhere down the line.
Going back to “Adaptation”, I was wondering what Robert McKee (real-life screenwriting guru, played in the film by Brian Cox) thought about his depiction in the film, did you get any feedback from him?
Charlie Kaufman: Oh we had to. Everybody who is real in that movie had to give their permission. Spike and I met with McKee early on, and he had some notes and some thoughts and some requests and he turned out to be a very good sport. He said that every movie needs an antagonist and he was that antagonist in this movie. I took his word for it because I don’t know about such things!
You hadn’t read his book then?
Charlie Kaufman: I took his course. When I decided to put him in I needed to do it for research purposes, I also thumbed through his book. He’s a good guy.
Did he try and give you notes on the script?
Charlie Kaufman: He wasn’t really concerned that much about how we portrayed him, but he was concerned that I shouldn’t portray his students as stupid. We certainly didn’t want to do that.
In doing his course it didn’t affect your own approach to screenwriting?
Charlie Kaufman: No. I’m very resistant to those types of things. I don’t want anyone telling me that there’s a certain way to do something. Which isn’t to say that there’s value in it, there may well be, but it isn’t my way of working.
Are you, and I speak as somebody who has a healthy fear of deadlines, one of these people who resists the act of writing because it can sometimes be hard to get to the place where you need to be?
Charlie Kaufman: yeah, I resist it because I have no idea of how to proceed and so I do a lot of stalling, but I think there’s a value to that too because it gives you time to mull things over and come up with something that is a lot more interesting. I have often decided to give up writing and then two days later I will come up with an idea that, had I not quit, I wouldn’t have found. I have worked to deadlines, especially when I worked in TV, so I can do it.
Do you have any specific to overcome writers block?
Charlie Kaufman: I try to think about the particular trauma that is in my life at that moment and somehow incorporate it. In a very literal sense that’s what I did with “Adaptation”, the only thing I could think about was how I couldn’t manage to do the adaptation. Through thinking about these things I try to keep the work I do truthful to my own experiences. This makes all my work really personal.
Does success make it harder to plot your own course, because maybe one of the things that drives you initially is to make a living?
Charlie Kaufman: But I still have to do that. It’s not like I have become independently wealthy from four movies. I’m still driven by economic factors, but it’s more about I’ve done this what do I do now. How do I make myself worthwhile?
But even beyond the process of writing it’s prudent for you to surround yourself with like minded individuals, like Spike Jonze, Michel Gondry or even George Clooney, who have the power to resist pressure to take a project in a different direction from that originally intended?
Charlie Kaufman: I think George Clooney (with Confessions of a Dangerous Mind) did take the project in a different direction from the one I had intended but he’s certainly powerful enough to take any direction he likes. That he didn’t include me in the process is irksome. Of the three directors that I have been involved with I would say that the other two were preferable. Of course, they have their opinions, and some of the time they win, but I am always involved in the discussions.
Are you intending to start directing your own scripts?
Charlie Kaufman: Yes, it’s certainly something I’m planning to do, I’m also acutely aware that it could make me a very public failure. But that’s ok; I’m interested in it so I’m going to do it.
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