Charlie Kaufman: Outlaw Scribe

Screenwriters have a tendency to operate by a specific set of traditional rules: Establish your characters and their situation, introduce a conflict, and resolve it. And then there’s Charlie Kaufman, who respects the art of storytelling but also acknowledges Godard’s famous maxim: A film should always have a beginning, middle and an end. but not necessarily in that order.

Ever since a little script he wrote called Being John Malkovich (about a puppeteer who finds a portal into the famous thespian’s frontal lobe), made waves around the Hollywood circuit and became one of 1999’s must-see movies, Kaufman has steadily built a career by infusing offbeat sensibilities, an out-of-left-field wit and the ability to negotiate complex narratives into screenplays that have become instant pop culture phenomena.

But what’s truly revolutionary about his work is that, despite some of the oddities he’s come up with-say, the romance between a primitive man and a woman covered in body hair that forms the basis of Human Nature (2001) or a film version of Susan Orleans’ nonfiction book The Orchid Thief that deals entirely with a writer named Charlie Kaufman trying to adapt it into a film in Adaptation (2002)-his scripts never shirk the human element. No matter what outrageous concepts he introduces into the mix, Kaufman’s interests revolve around exploring the emotions and awkwardness of people trying to connect with other people. His absurdist view is never an end unto itself, but a starting point for examining what it’s like to be a speck on this big blue marble.

His latest film not only continues this trend, but may be his most daring experiment yet: A love story told in fragments. and backwards. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind answers the age-old question “How do you mend a broken heart?” with the reply “Free your mind, and the rest will follow-literally.” As readers undoubtedly know by now, Joel (Jim Carrey) finds out that his ex-girlfriend Clementine (Kate Winslet) has had him permanently “erased” from her memory, thanks to a new medical procedure from the Lacuna Corporation. Confused and hurt, Joel decides to undergo the treatment himself, only to fall in love with Clem again as his slate is slowly wiped clean. This means he must hide her in his memory as the doctor (Tom Wilkinson) and his assistants (Mark Ruffalo, Elijah Wood and Kirsten Dunst) chase them through Joel’s mind.

Collaborating again with Human Nature‘s director, Michel Gondry, Kaufman has once again used the fantastic as a forum: for modern love, for investigating memory’s connection with identity and for literally flipping the script on linear storytelling. Fortunately or us-and unfortunately for Kaufman-this means he has to do press for the film, something that the notoriously shy scribe has compared to bad dental work. Luckily, his sense of humor remains intact even when the call of duty beckons. Hunched over a cup of coffee as he walked into our interview, Kaufman instantly cut the tension by standing up and introducing himself by way of “Hi. I’m drunk.” He then motioned to a chair on the far side of  the room and deadpanned “You’ll be sitting over there.” Thankfully, he didn’t erase the interview tape. or this journalist’s memory.

David Fear, MovieMaker Magazine (MM): The concept of professional memory erasing which fuels the film is pretty incredible. How did the idea first come up, and how did it develop into the story you wanted to tell?

Charlie Kaufman (CK): This artist friend of Michel’s, Pierre Bismuth, had this notion about sending out cards to people that they’d been erased from someone’s memory. It wasn’t even a movie idea, just this conceptual thing he’d come up with. Michel liked it quite a bit, however, and he asked me to develop a story around it. We both decided early on that we wanted the narrative to revolve around a relationship; the idea opens up all sorts of possibilities, naturally-you could do a spy thriller or go in countless other ways with it-but the relationship angle really resonated with both of us. We started pitching it around, and surprisingly people responded to it. But then, well. (laughs, then sighs) then I had to write it.

MM: Judging from your past scripts, I would imagine that the non-linear format was part of that original plan, as well? I don’t mean to suggest that it’s gimmicky or that you’re just repeating yourself.

CK: No, no, I understand. Very early on, both Michel and I conceived of the chronology of the story to be somewhat reversed in the telling of their relationship. (pauses) It’s ironic. I spent a lot of time thinking about memory and what I remember and what I don’t remember while I was writing this, and now I’m trying to recall how the out-of-sequence storytelling came about! (laughs) I mean, this project goes back to 1998 or 1999-before Human Nature, even-so it’s hard to say how that occurred to us. I remember it seemed natural, given the memory-erasing idea, that this was the way to construct it. It was never like “Oh, hey, wouldn’t this be cool if we did it this way and then let’s figure out how we can wrap a story around that!”

As much as possible, we wanted the audience to be with Joel where he is at any given point. In the beginning of the movie, when Joel meets Clementine on the train and he
doesn’t know that he’s met her before, we don’t give the audience any information that he actually has met her before. You could easily think they’re meeting for the first time and falling in love. Only later do you find out-as he finds out-that there’s a whole history there. Having it unfold backwards allowed us to then put viewers where Joel is when he’s “erasing” her, which is at the end of the relationship and where he’s miserable about all of it. Then, as he starts going into the deeper memories, the dramatic pull to stop it becomes greater. It just made perfect sense.

MM: How close is the final product to what’s on the page? Was there anything major that got “erased?”

CK: It’s pretty close. There was a bookend device in my first draft that took place 50 years in the future, which gave the film a new beginning and a different ending. But that got removed very early on.

MM: I‘m curious, what was the bookend? Was it them in the future looking back?

CK: No, not quite. It’s a little complicated. It started with an old woman trying to sell this book about memories. You don’t know who it is at first, and then
later you found out it was the Mary character (played by Dunst), only much later in life. Plus, there was this idea I was developing in an earlier draft about Joel and Clementine going through this continuous cycle of doing the erasing procedure and then falling in love again, and then getting the procedure again. So in the original version’s ending, you see Clementine as this old woman going through the Lacuna treatment one more time. It was organic to the original story I wrote, but honestly, it just didn’t fit the movie we ended up making. It would not have worked in the film we have now, so it’s better that it got left out.


But that’s part of moviemaking. It’s always
Actually, there was one other element that everyone was rather sorry to see go, and that was this character of Joel’s other girlfriend, Naomi. There were scenes with her that served to give you more information on Joel; it grounded him in this other relationship and it made you see the difficulty he faced leaving that relationship to be with Clementine. But it was a whole other story, and eventually her part kept getting smaller and smaller as we cut the film until she just appeared at the end. Then you’re dealing with a film that already has momentum; we were worried that if we suddenly introduce this new character, people would be left thinking “Wait, who’s this?” So she’s a footnote, sadly, because the actress who played her was wonderful and on paper, the scenes were important to me. I’m sorry we couldn’t figure out a way to keep it in.

It’s hard to second-guess decisions, and you’re always left asking the question: Would it have been better? Was it correct to have
taken this or that out? It’s impossible to say; that’s an alternate universe that I don’t live in. I love the film that we have; I feel that it works the way it is. I’m incredibly happy with what Michel and I did.

MM: Can you talk about your working relationship with Michel? He actually paid you a very high compliment recently.

CK: Really? Why don’t you tell me what he said before I answer that? (laughing)

MM: He said that what he likes most about your scripts is that they don’t read like scripts. They’re like reading a really good book.

CK: Yeah, he’s told me that before. He said he thought scripts had to be boring until he read Being John Malkovich. I’d always thought it was up to the director to make things interesting. Maybe it’s this legacy of alleged directorial arrogance that all filmmakers are supposed to have. (laughs) I don’t know. It’s always gratifying to hear a filmmaker say that.

Michel is a smart guy, a very opinionated guy. We get into a lot of fights, but even if we have different takes on things, he wants what I want and that’s to make these characters feel alive. He can be endlessly clever when it comes to making things look great, but that’s not his first concern. He wants to bring their story to life in a very truthful, emotional way rather than make some advertisement for how brilliant he is.

MM: You have a knack for putting absurdism into the mixes of your narratives, but it never feels like wackiness for the sake of wackiness. There’s always a strong and rather surprisingly moving emotional undercurrent that seems to blend in with it. How do you maintain that balance?

CK: I don’t know if I maintain it in a conscious way. My theory about creative work is that 99 percent of it is intention. When you go in with the intention of exploring something real, then that’s what you’ll get no matter what’s around it. It may not even be successful-people may not like it and it may make no money-but that is what you’ll have. And if you go into something with the intention of showing off and just being absurd for absurdity’s sake, then hey, that’s what you’ll get. I’m interested in trying to find a real moment
between people, and hopefully that’s what people get out of my work.

I took an acting class when I was in college and our first exercise was to go across the room and pick up a pen. And no one could do it. Everybody was just acting like
they were picking up a pen! It was a very difficult thing to do, because you have this idea of being a character and what acting is and all this shit, when your intention is really just pick up that pen. Just do that! Let all that other stuff go. It was a very basic sort of truth that’s stuck with me in what I do creatively.

MM: Speaking of actors, do you ever write with actors in mind?

CK: Well, except for one pretty obvious case–John Malkovich–I never have written with a specific actor in mind. And even then, it was only because I was writing
him in as a character. I think my job, as I see it, is to write characters and develop them as people. Writing for actors is something else. You’re not putting a “real” person on the page then; you’re trying to conform something to this pre-existing notion of someone an actor “plays.” Besides, it’s the actor’s job to find the character, not the other way around.

MM: Since you’ve been a playwright and a TV writer, do you feel like you were sufficiently schooled in the fundamentals that you can get away with writing more
complex, puzzle-like narratives?

CK: I honestly don’t think I ever really knew the rules enough to break them. I feel like I knew how to write a TV script because I’d watched a lot of TV as a
kid, and because I had a natural affinity for understanding how comedy works–joke, set-up, punchline, that sort of thing. When I started screenwriting, I never really knew what I was doing, but I instinctively understood how to do it. (laughs)

MM: Well, sure, but it has to take a solid foundation to write off the beaten track and still make it understandable, right? Okay, take Picasso, for example: Look at his early work, you’ll see he was more than capable of doing straight, realistic portraiture painting.

CK: When he was 12! And the stuff he did even when he was 12 was amazing!

MM: Exactly! He was perfectly capable of doing the “classical” form of the art, which allowed him to break away from it. And considering that playwriting and TV writing emphasize a traditional three-act structure, and are very “Point A to Point B” when it comes to conveying information, I’d think that having to write in that discipline gave you the basis to practice.

CK: Cubist screenwriting! (laughs) Yeah, I see what you mean. Most screenwriting is very formulaic writing, and the reason my stuff breaks away from that is that
I’m just not interested in the formula. But maybe it’s in there in my head, and on some other level I do understand how I’m breaking away from it. I’ve never really thought about it that way… Sometimes I do things as a reaction to the conservativeness of the medium. But more often, it’s just that I feel I have the freedom to do whatever I want in my writing.

I was doing this Q & A session at a college a few weeks back and this kid came up to me afterwards and said “I’m trying to write a movie where the resolution comes first. Can I do that? Is that possible?” I wasn’t sure what to tell him other than, well, yeah, if you can do it, then it is possible!

MM: Did he think you were Robert McKee?

CK: Ha! No, I think he just thought I was a professional screenwriter or something! (laughs) And in no way am I making fun of this kid, because really, that’s
the kind of question I would think about. “Okay, for this purpose, I need to have the resolution come first. Can I do that?” In Eternal Sunshine, the issue with the backwards stuff was the reversal of cause-and-effect, and how that affects something dramatically. I mean, you need that to take an audience from one point to another, and when you’ve got someone crying in one scene and the reason for why he or she is crying doesn’t come until the next scene. I wasn’t sure it would work!

But that was the challenge to me. Not just for abstract reasons, but because it served the story I wanted to tell and I wanted to figure out if it would, in fact, work.
That was what I was interested in doing, and if there’s any sort of disoriented quality to how I tell a story, it’s because I allow it in there. It’s more that I’m interested in doing something that’s distinctly mine. And really, audiences are a lot more sophisticated than most people think. We’re all at the mercy of TV and movies, so we all inherently come from that classical basis, whether you do this professionally or not. We all know how a movie is supposed to play out, which is why I think audiences know when a turn in a different direction happens and why a sophisticated structural joke can work for the laugh you need.

MM: And why you keep getting work!

CK: (laughing) Exactly!

MM: One last thing: Keeping that college kid in mind, and that this is for a magazine called MovieMaker, what advice would you give to somebody just starting out?

CK: It’s a tough question, since I have no idea what someone’s intentions are. If somebody wants to do a big mainstream comedy, I couldn’t give them the same advice
if they wanted to do what I do. But in terms of practical advice: Get an agent! I tried to do this for 10 years without an agent and I couldn’t get anybody to read my work no matter how much I sent stuff out. Do what you have to to get one, and it will make a world of difference in terms of getting directors and producers to read
what you’ve written. It’s allowed me to have a professional life doing this. MM

Images courtesy of Focus Features, Columbia TriStar and United International Pictures. 

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