Being Charlie Kaufman Part Two -


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Being Charlie Kaufman Part Two

The screenwriter behind BEING JOHN MALKOVICH discusses his career, past and present

By Paul Zimmerman     April 21, 2002

Nichols Cage stalks Meryl Streep in ADAPTATION
© 2002 Fine Line

Screenwriter Charlie Kaufman is best known for his critically acclaimed BEING JOHN MALKOVICH, but he currently has three films coming our way: HUMAN NATURE, ADAPTATION and CONFESSIONS OF A DANGEROUS MIND. Today we continue our discussion with the unique writer.

If one looks at Charlie Kaufman's films as a whole (i.e. BEING JOHN MALKOVICH), they seem totally original and fresh. But if you look closer, like to HUMAN NATURE's running gag about a repressed parent's obsession with table manners, you can see his sitcom roots. Kaufman began writing in the 1990's for the Chris Elliot cult hit GET A LIFE, a comedy about 30-year-old paperboy who lives in his parent's basement.

"It was my first job and I think maybe I was hired for that because maybe my sense of humor was similar to the show's," Kaufman says. "I don't know how much it changed me but getting hired gave me some confidence because I hadn't been working professionally before that. Of the TV show's I worked on, GET A LIFE is definitely the one I'm most attached to and had the most influence."

Kaufman came to TV after he'd struck out trying to get into movies. Around the same time, he made a crucial discovery and offers it to any budding writers out there looking for some advice.

"The only advice I have," Kaufman says wearily, " and it's really stupid and simple, but it was something I didn't understand for a long time, is that you need an agent. That's it. And I didn't know that and I tried for years. When I decided to try and get into TV, I was very pragmatic about getting an agent. I wrote spec scripts to get an agent, which is what you have to do. And I think once I got my foot in the door, everything was a lot easier. I hate to say that because philosophically it doesn't sit well with me, but it seems to be true."

Nichols Cage stalks Meryl Streep in ADAPTATION

Critics of both MALKOVICH and BEING HUMAN have accused Kaufman of being something of a cynic. Some of his good guys suffer in the end and some of the bad guys get away.

"It's not a conscious decision. I kind of bristle at happy endings in general because they seem to be very seductive, but not very true to my experience. So maybe I do that but it's not a conscious decision. There's very little conscious going on when I write."

Gathering steam Kaufman then says," I don't think of anyone as villains. I try to think of what they're desperate about, what their needs are and what they're going to do to get what they need. Because I think that's true at least in my experience. I like everybody in my movies."

With such complicated scripts, one would think Kaufman is eager to direct some of his own stuff, and you'd be right sort of.

"I wanna do it at some point, just not yet. I've been busy. Everything has sort of piled up in the last few years since before MALKOVICH. So I've been taking care of my obligations and then I need to write a spec script because I think that's the best way to have the leverage to get to direct it. I've almost cleared my plate.

So there isn't some giant stack of other wonder filled scripts filed away somewhere?

"No, I'm kind of out now," Kaufman laughs. "It's a busy year for me and it cleared me out."

Cameron Diaz stars in BEING JOHN MALKOVICH

Next up for Kaufman is a script called ETERNAL SUNSHINE OF THE SPOTLESS MIND that he's been working on for some time with Gondry.

"A friend of Michel's had an idea," Kaufman explains, "which was you get a card in the mail that says 'you've been erased from someone's memory.' And Michel came to me with that and we developed a pitch based on that one thing and went out and pitched it and sold it."

Just like that? Just like that.

"It's about this guy who finds out that his girlfriend of two years has had this surgical procedure which has erased him from her memory," Kaufman continues. "So he's sort of freaked out and trying to figure how to live with this and realizes that he can't. So he decides to have the same procedure. So most of the movie takes place inside his brain as she's being erased. And you see their relationship moment by moment backwards from the sort of bad end to the better beginning. And halfway through when the memories start getting better he decides he doesn't want it to happen anymore. So he's trying to hide her from this thing and that's the movie. Jim Carrey (will play the lead) along with a woman who isn't determined yet."

Hmm. Fractured story... part mystery... sound familiar?

"The backwards chronology is pre-MEMENTO," Kaufman says quickly laughing. "And I want to point that out because it took me three years to write this thing because it's very complicated."


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