Charlie Kaufman told writers not to seek “the approval of people with money” and instead to “work for the world” by telling truthful stories. The Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and Being John Malkovich mastermind spoke as he accepted the Writers Guild of America Laurel Award for Screenwriting Achievement.
Kauman addressed the annual award ceremony as another writers strike looms: The guild will begin negotiations March 20 with Hollywood producers.
His speech was a highlight of an evening in which Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert, the duo known as The Daniels, won Best Original Screenplay for their film Everything Everywhere All at Once. Sarah Polly won Best Adapted Screenplay for Women Talking.
After an introduction by Jessie Buckley, who starred in the recent I’m Thinking of Ending Things, which Kaufman wrote and directed, one of Hollywood’s most original and uncompromising screenwriters confessed that he believes he has tried to hard to please the powers that be.
Charlie Kaufman Attends a Pitch Session
He began by recalling a session he watched 20 years ago, in which a series of writers received supposed lessons on how to pitch their screenplays.
“One by one supplicants approach a microphone, at the foot of the stage, upon which sits a panel of experts — producers, executives, et ceteras — no writers,” Kaufman said.
He recalled the first writer nervously starting with the words, “We open on a barge in the middle of—” before an “expert” interrupted. “Stop! You’ve lost me already.”
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“And so it goes — these young people step up to be shot down,” he said. “Training, I think. We writers are trained by the business. We are trained to believe that what we do is secondary to what they do,” Kaufman said. “We are trained to do the bidding of people who are motivated, not by curiosity, but by protecting their jobs.”
The room erupted in cheers.
“And we lose sight of what our work is. It is not to contribute to their fortunes. Or our own. It is not to please them, or critics, or even the audiences, who have also been trained. Our work is to reflect the world, say what is true in the face of so much lying. The rest is window dressing at best, ‘Triumph of the Will’ at worst,” he said, referencing the 1935 Nazi propaganda film by Leni Riefenstahl.
Kaufman also cited poet Adrienne Rich, who wrote: ‘”I do know that art means nothing if it simply decorates the dinner table of the power which holds it hostage.”
“The world is a mess. The world is beautiful,” Kaufman continued. “The world is impossibly complicated. And we have the opportunity to explore that. If we give that up for the carrot, then we might as well be the executives. The et ceteras. Because we have become their minions.
Charlie Kaufman: ‘Don’t Get Trapped in Their World of Box Office Numbers’
Then Kaufman offered some regrets, and urged the audience to learn from what he considered to be his mistakes.
“I have dropped the ball. I have wasted years seeking the approval of people with money. Don’t get trapped in their world of box office numbers. You don’t work for the world of box office numbers. You work for the world. Don’t worry about how to pitch. Don’t pitch. Be nervous. Be vulnerable. Just make your story honest and tell it.
“They’ve tricked us into thinking we can’t do it without them. But the truth is they can’t do anything of value without us,” Kaufman said.
Main image: Charlie Kaufman delivers his WGA Awards speech.