During his famous 2011 screenwriting lecture with the British Academy of Film and Television Arts (BAFTA), screenwriter and director Charlie Kaufman told his audience, “I’d love to write a novel. I don’t know if I know how to do that.” Nearly a decade later, the acclaimed filmmaker released his debut novel, Antkind, last week.
Kaufman, whose writing credits include Being John Malkovich, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Synecdoche, New York, and Anomalisa (he also directed the latter two), is possibly the most celebrated screenwriter of the 2000s. Yet, he’s has always been somewhat ambivalent about the spotlight.
As such, his 70-minute BAFTA speech on inspiration, self-consciousness, and life in general, is a rare and invaluable educational opportunity for any moviemaker or cinephile.
Nine years later, what makes this speech so interesting is Kaufman’s earnest belief in his own lack of writing expertise. “I don’t know anything,” Kaufman began. “And if there’s one thing that characterizes my writing, it’s that I always start from that realization and I do what I can to keep reminding myself of that during the process.”
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Kaufman’s own self-criticism, and struggle with the label of “writer,” is his lecture’s main thesis. “I even feel odd calling myself a writer or a screenwriter,” he admitted. “I do when I have to — I put it on my income tax form — but I feel like it’s a lie, even though it’s technically true.”
In overcoming the pressure of having a label, or being called an expert, Kaufman believes honesty is humanity’s greatest weapon. “Say who you are, really say it in your life and in your work,” Kaufman advised. “Your writing will be a record of your time. It can’t help but be that.”
Kaufman went on to discuss how his own struggle with self-consciousness became the fuel for his creativity. “In many cases a major obstacle is your deeply seated belief that you are not interesting,” Kaufman said. “Think, perhaps I’m not interesting, but I am the only thing I have to offer, and I want to offer something.”
With his speech winding down, Kaufman transitioned to the Q&A portion of the evening. It was then he noted his hesitance to venture into other mediums.
“I’m serious when I said before that I don’t consider myself a writer,” Kaufman reiterated. “And not only because I don’t want to label myself, but I’ll read something that somebody wrote and go, ‘Shit, man! I don’t know how to do that.’”
When asked about approaching a novel, Kaufman was unsteady. “I’ve thought about it, I really want to, but I always get scared when it comes to doing it.”
In the years since, it would seem that Kaufman has overcome his fear. His novel Antkind is an near 800-page swirling epic — not unlike his films. He is now poised for a rather prolific two years, with I’m Thinking of Ending Things arriving on Netflix in early September, and another film anticipated for 2021.
Listen to his full speech below or read a transcript here: