Today, many of cinema’s best writers are politely squeezed out of position while the industry’s actors, directors and producers are placed at the forefront of film advertising and distribution. The writer provides his story, leaving it up to the bigger men to turn it into whatever they are capable of. In many cases, he’ll be almost entirely forgotten. This issue was brought up when Charlie Kaufman was asked about his consistent and ongoing work with directors Michel Gondry and Spike Jonze (Eternal Sunshine, Being John Malkovich). He told interviewer, William Arnold, ‘The usual thing for a writer is to deliver a script, and then disappear. That’s not for me. I want to be involved from beginning to end and these directors respect that’. This was his response and is his general attitude to pretty much everything that he is involved in. He even directed his own script for the first time with Synecdoche, New York in 2008. Perhaps this is why he was so infuriated when he handed his script of Confessions of a Dangerous Mind over to George Clooney to direct. Clooney made enormous and uncharacteristic changes to the story without talking to Kaufman at all. Instead, he approached Chuck Barris (the man whose story the film was based on) and disregarded the writer completely.
At the front of every great film, you’ll find the director’s name immediately qualifying it as the director’s film. The writers are seldom known and almost always kept quiet. Kaufman doesn’t seem to accept this and while others like him are placed to the side, he has unfailingly made sure that his words and his stories are developed as he has envisaged in his mind. In his own words, ‘the only person who’s the complete inventor of the movie is the writer. The director’s interpreting material. Actors are interpreting material. Everybody’s interpreting the script. And I’m not saying that the writer is more important than the director or other people, but I’m saying the writer needs to be given his or her due in the process’.
Charlie doesn’t like labels. It is almost impossible to put him in a distinct category and it wouldn’t be that fun to do so anyway. His films deal with a number of things and issues in a unique and surreal sort of way, from existential possibilities, isolation, human identity and the purpose or indifference of our lives. His films almost always revolve around a male protagonist, damaged and always searching for something – take for example, Craig Schwartz, Caden Cotard and Joel Barish. He has announced that his influences in writing range from Franz Kafka to playwright, Samuel Beckett and Alexander Pope. The essence of these writers is always in some way evident in Kaufman’s work while infused with his own bizarre and infinitely complicated outlook. Have a look at the majority of the dialogue in Being John Malkovich. It is in some way reminiscent of the dreamlike, almost claustrophobic atmosphere that Kafka stirs up in his famous novel, The Trial.
Think about the scene in which Craig Schwartz turns to his pet monkey and tells him, ‘You don’t know how lucky you are being a monkey. Consciousness is a terrible curse’. The title of his 2004 masterpiece, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is taken directly out of the Alexander Pope poem, ‘Eloisa to Abelard’.
It is true that when watching anything written by Charlie Kaufman, understanding the film as a whole requires multiple viewing. Each feature is so complex that with every time you stick it on, you’ll find something you never even knew you existed. Talking about his work, Kaufman once stated that he’s ‘trying to create a living piece of theatre, make film feel alive’. He likes the idea that film has the ability to change over time – as you change as a person, for instance, or as you experience it in a different situation. On watching Kaufman’s work, I’ll spend my time trying to grasp the outline of the film at first, before I’m able to really pay attention to the details and the other things that make the film what it is. His films seem to resonate in the viewer’s mind and develop afterwards, throughout the day or overnight. He disapproves of those films that are created for pure entertainment and immediate response – films that have too much money in mind. ‘I guess it’s an unfortunate kind of direction for something that’s an art form, or it should be or can be’.
Search Unsung Films for “Charlie Kaufman“