Charlie Kaufman on being Kaufmanesque: ‘I don’t know what it means’
The Oscar-winning screenwriter and director on his singular approach to filmmaking
Now 61-years-old, Charlie Kaufman still exhibits a bit of that social reticence
Until a little over 20 years ago few of us knew who Charlie Kaufman was. He’d toiled for National Lampoon magazine. He’d worked on experimental plays. He’d helped write a few situation comedies. By the middle of the following decade he’d become an adjective. If you played around with your film’s time structure and give a few lines to an elk, you ran the risk of being labelled “Kaufmanesque”. Such was the impact of Being John Malkovich, Adaptation and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Such are the challenges of success. Everyone wants to boil what you do into an easily replicable formula.
“I don’t know what it means,” he says. “The stuff that comes out that invokes my name doesn’t feel like stuff I would do. Also, since I arrived on the scene, I have been sent material and people have said: ‘This is perfect for you.’ And it’s just this weird stuff that doesn’t appeal to me. I just don’t know what people mean by ‘Kaufmanesque’. Dreamy? Surreal? Weird?”
I was on stage and I was playing a silly character and I got laughs. The whole world opened up to me. And I thought: that’s what I wanted to do
As Charlie arrives at the Virgin Media Dublin International Film Festival to discuss his extraordinary career, we get the chance to more rigorously examine the wheels and cogs within the mechanism. If his techniques could be so crudely summarised then they wouldn’t be worth savouring. Experimentation with structure is certainly part of it – Being John Malkovich took place partly within the eponymous actor’s psyche – but there’s also a characteristic world view. The pessimism of Synecdoche, New York and Anomalisa is on a scale that Beckett might have admired. His laughter is often the laughter of hollow despair.
“I can see that view,” he says. “I know why people would say that. Though I don’t know if I agree. They have these test screenings for movies. They have these in part to determine if people are satisfied and fulfilled at the end of the movie. They’ll change it to make that happen. There’s a falseness to that. You have something to say. You struggle to say it as honestly as you can.”
It took Charlie a while to get to say what he wanted to say. Raised in Connecticut and New York State, he attended Boston University before moving on to New York University. There followed a long period on the wilderness before he got work on telly and then some further biding of time before – then past 40 – he hit creative pay dirt with Being John Malkovich. Who was Charlie Kaufman before he was Kaufmanesque?
“I was a really shy kid,” he says. “In grade three or so I starred in a play at school. I fell in love with it I think because ... I don’t know why. I was on stage and I was playing a silly character and I got laughs. The whole world opened up to me. And I thought: that’s what I wanted to do. I did theatre. I had a Super-8 camera and I made movies. My dad was a was an engineer but he was also an amateur visual artist – painting and sculpture. So, we had that sort of influence in in our house.”
He talks movingly about how, years later, he realised that his late parents had worried when he drifted into creative fields.
“Yeah, but they never said anything. They lent me money when I needed it. But I later learned they believed it wasn’t going to work out.”
Did they live long enough to see his success?
“They did, yes.”
Charlie feels that he “scrambled” his way through his twenties. His wife, who is an artist, worked in childcare and qualified as a teacher. Eventually they moved to Los Angeles and he began to get jobs in television. He secured credits on such shows as The Edge, The Trouble with Larry, and Ned and Stacey. He had a long run on the well-remembered Drew Carey Show. I expect him to argue that the lessons he learned on such series were invaluable (that’s the sort of thing people say). But he’s not playing that game.
“The quality of TV shows has improved,” he says. “But some of the things you were taught writing sitcoms at that time you need to unlearn. What I did get was an opportunity to get over my shyness. I got through the social situations where I had to talk about my ideas. That was hard for me. But I got over it.”
Now 61-years-old, Charlie still exhibits a bit of that social reticence. He is not the sort of fellow to burst into a room and hand out cigars. But, having met him at regular intervals over the last 20 years, I have always found him enthusiastic about explaining his peculiar ideas and willing to consider unexpected analyses of the work that results. That articulacy must have been useful when trying to flog Being John Malkovich in 1999. He eventually persuaded Spike Jonze, then the hippest video director on the block, to direct the picture, and (crucially, it hardly needs to be said) convinced one J Malkovich to co-star. As Kaufman explains, Malkovich liked the screenplay, but initially wanted someone else’s name in the title.
“Yeah, I mean, from what I’ve heard John said he didn’t want it to be him. He wanted it to be somebody else. And he wanted to direct it. I think he felt it was a no-win situation for him. Yeah. If the movie did well, he’d be stuck with that identity for the rest of his career. And if it didn’t do well it would be a very big embarrassment to him. But once he committed he completely committed and he was great. And I’m very grateful to John Malkovich because I think I owe him my career.”
Someone else in the title? Who else could it have been?
“We had come up with some other names, but none felt as good. People like Willem Dafoe – on the odd end of the spectrum. But it wasn’t quite right. Also, frankly, Malkovich’s name was right for our purposes. The name itself worked.”
Then came the bizarre diversion that was Jonze’s Adaptation. Kaufman was commissioned to write an (ahem) adaptation of Susan Orlean’s The Orchid Thief, a sober investigation of flower enthusiasts in southern Florida. He ended up writing a meta-comedy in which “Charlie Kaufman”, a self-loathing writer of high-end movies, struggles with Orleans’s book while enduring the idiocies of his twin “Donald Kaufman”. The Oscar-nominated script was credited to the brothers, despite Charlie having no such relation.
“Ed Saxon was the producer at the time when Jonathan Demme was going to direct it,” he explains. “I went the whole hog with it and I had my name and Donald’s name on it. Apparently, Ed was really angry because he didn’t know what the script was becoming. ‘Why did he farm out part of the screenplay to somebody we did not hire?’ But he read it seemed to really like it.”
There was a period there where Charlie Kaufman seemed like the hottest thing in Hollywood. His reputation has not declined (if anything, it has risen). But he seemed to find it harder to get work after the much-admired Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind in 2004. Four years later, Synecdoche, New York, his directorial debut, debuted to genuinely mixed reviews – that’s to say some hated it, some ultimately classed it the best film of the decade – at the Cannes Film Festival. It was not until 2015 that Anomalisa, a wonderful, crowd-funded animation co-directed with Duke Johnson, scored an Oscar nomination and modest audiences. I have read interviews in which he suggested he didn’t properly capitalise on that millennial success.
“Yeah it’s a weird thing,” he says. “I have professional jealousy probably. I think that that might have been motivating my thoughts at that point. Somebody gets a lot of attention and then they’ve got like an overall deal. They’re producing a million television series or whatever. I got a lot of attention and I didn’t do anything with it. I’m not sure I should have done anything with it. I just tried to keep working.”
When people denigrate Netflix or say that they’re ruining cinema, that is coming from people who don’t have the experience that the rest of us have
He practically howls with laughter when I ask (slightly facetiously) if producers were queuing up to work with him after Anomalisa. Yes, the film had limited commercial success. But it was among the most critically adored films of the year. Is it naïve of me to think such things matter?
“It’s frustrated me in the past when people liken someone else’s movie to something I’ve done and, and I think: well, why can’t I do that? What it comes down to is that I’m trying to be a director now as well as writer. No one really wants me to do that. Right? And I’m risky in that way because we haven’t made money. It would be easier if I wrote the kind of film Christopher Nolan wanted to do.”
The solution turned out to be – as it so often does these days – a company with a big red “N” as its logo. Charlie is currently finishing an adaptation of Iain Reid’s novel I’m Thinking of Ending Things (the perfect Kaufman title) for Netflix. He is unreserved in his enthusiasm for the streaming giant and dismissive of those who see it as the annihilator of cinema.
“When people denigrate Netflix or say that they’re ruining cinema – as upper-echelon directors are fond of saying – that is coming from people who don’t have the experience that the rest of us have, which is not being able to get a movie made. You certainly can’t get a small movie made. They don’t make them anymore. Adaptation was made by Sony. They would never make a movie like that now. If you’re mad at what’s happening to movies that anger should be at the studios.”
He is equally enthusiastic about our own Jessie Buckley, who replaced Brie Larson in the picture.
“I can't tell how happy I am to have Jessie in the movie,” he says. “She happened to be in London at the time. I saw her in this movie Beast and she was unlike anything I’d ever seen before.”
If Netflix can make up their differences with Cannes (unlikely) then I’m Thinking of Ending Things might turn up there in May. It seems more likely Netflix will take it to Toronto or Venice in the autumn. Before that he is looking forward to the publication of his first novel, Antland, and, of course, his imminent visit to the Dublin International Film Festival.
Everything is sorted now. Right?
“No, I’m looking for work. That’s what I’m doing now – trying to get another job. I am always looking for work.”
Charlie owns up that he has never before been to Dublin and agrees that he’s eager to set his feet on the streets that James Joyce once walked. Who better to talk us through his career than the agreeable polymath Mark O’Halloran? The Clare man is known for writing the screenplays of Adam & Paul and Garage for director Lenny Abrahamson. The two also worked together on the TV series Prosperity. Paddy Breathnach’s Viva, shot in Cuba from Mark’s script, was long-listed for best foreign film at the Oscars in 2016.
This year’s Dublin International Film Festival will host the Irish premiere of his latest work Rialto. Directed by Peter Mackie Burns, it stars Tom Vaughan-Lawlor as a Dubliner who sparks an unlikely relationship at a time of great personal stress.
Charlie Kaufman and Mark O’Halloran will be in conversation at Cineworld on Parnell Street on March 4th