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Being Charlie Kaufman Part One

The elusive author of BEING JOHN MALKOVICH and ADAPTATION steps out from behind his typewriter

By Paul Zimmerman     April 20, 2002


Nicholas Cage stars as both Kaufman brothers in ADAPTATION
© Revolution

A search on the Internet Movie Database reveals nothing. The press notes from one of his films are equally as helpful. Even the buzz around Hollywood is cold and silent. The simple truth is Kaufman is a soft-spoken man, sporting a thick beard, curly brown hair, and a self-effacing laugh. He hails from Long Island, attended NYU film school and, after working on sitcoms like GET A LIFE and THE DANA CARVEY SHOW, struck gold in 1999 with BEING JOHN MALKOVICH.



The critics went wild, an Oscar nomination for Best Original Screenplay soon followed and before you could say Tarantino, he was suddenly the "it" writer in town. Spike Jones signed on to direct his ADAPTATION script with Nicolas Cage starring, while George Clooney snagged CONFESSIONS OF A DANGEROUS MIND as his directorial debut.



Meanwhile, an early script called HUMAN NATURE began lensing with French video director Michel Gondry behind the camera. Best known for his Bjork videos and Levi jeans commercials, HUMAN NATURE is Gondry's first big screen effort.



A bent tale about a very hairy woman (Patricia Arquette), a sexually repressed behaviorist (Tim Robbins), a man raised in the wild (Rhys Ifans) and a couple of mice being trained proper table manners, HUMAN NATURE is part farce, part social commentary and highly suspect. And let's not forget the monkey. He appeared in BEING JOHN MALKOVICH and he's back in HUMAN NATURE.



The one-sheet for Spike Jonze's BEING JOHN MALKOVICH.

"Monkeys are funny, every comedy writer knows that," Kaufman deadpans, while recently promoting the film in Beverly Hills. Put on the spot Kaufman confesses the inspiration for BEING HUMAN "came from a bunch of things. I wanted to write about a feral man. And I was thinking about those idolized portraits of pure people raised in nature that seem to appear in movies a lot and kind of make fun of that. I'd been reading about behaviorism and the sort of torture experiments. And I wanted to write about a woman who was outside and couldn't get in and so the hair thing which seems to be a large issue in our culture and I just kind of combined them."



That his films make so much sense despite their labyrinth plots and genre mixing is a testament to Kaufman's talent. Of course, he merely shrugs the compliment off.



"I like to work that way. It's a way of sort of collaborating with myself because I'm throwing in disparate things and it sort of forces me to think in directions I wouldn't think in if I had a very clear cut single idea."



But why center a movie on a hairy woman who breaks into song while strolling naked through the woods? It's his way of commenting on what he perceives to be America's contrary obsession with hair.



"You have to have it in certain places; you're not allowed to have it in other places especially with women. But it's also happening with men now. It's considered unattractive to have hair where you naturally have hair. It just seems such a culturally enforced notion."



He seems to go off on a tangent when someone points to his beard and asks if it is a fashion statement or a sign of rebelling. He smiles, "I'm rebelling all over my body."



Director Spike Jonze on the set of BEING JOHN MALKOVICH

And, according to Kaufman, his rebel spirit came early in life.



"I read a lot and I watched a lot of movies," he says. "I made movies when I was a kid, little Super-8 things. I was always interested in what I thought of in junior high school as sort of subversive comedy to me at the time. National Lampoon and Monty Python, stuff that made me feel like they were kindred spirits in the world. Maybe that's why I moved more to the periphery."



After high school, Kaufman attended NYU's famous film school. Thinking back he says, "Uh, I wouldn't do it again. It wasn't terrible, but I probably wouldn't go to film school. Because I'm not sure that it helped me. It didn't help me in any kind of practical way."



He's got a dash of Woody Allen self realization in himself, a trait that shows its head briefly in a witty aside and then dives for cover. When someone asks him if his contrary script turns arise from his writing with a repressed Freudian bent, he answers with a perfectly straight face, "Not consciously."



Be sure to check back tomorrow for the second part of CINESCAPE's Charlie Kaufman profile.


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