Being Charlie Kaufman

February 3, 2016
With his acclaimed new film hitting cinemas this week, we revisit and rank the screenplays from the unique mind of Mr. Kaufman.

The first film of 2016 to receive a perfect rating from the FilmInk team, Anomalisa has been heralded another triumph for its writer/director, Charlie Kaufman. It’s just the second film that he’s directed (well, he co-directs the stop-motion animation with Duke Johnson), but Kaufman is the rare type of screenwriter who is also the true auteur behind the majority of movies he writes. It’s his dazzling, original and unconventional screenplays that are instantly recognisable. Inspired by the release of Anomalisa this week, we revisit Kaufman’s feature screenplays.

humannature6.Human Nature (2001)

It’s testament to Kaufman’s supreme gifts as a screenwriter that this slight but compelling feature would rank as his “worst” film. Kaufman’s second screenplay after Being John Malkovich, Human Nature follows three characters – Patricia Arquette’s nature writer, Tim Robbins’ scientist and Rhys Ifans ape-man – and questions whether there’s a happy medium between natural impulses and the restrictions of civilization. Kaufman wraps these fascinating questions in his trademark madcap humour, and finds an ideal creative partner in French director, Michel Gondry. The pair would, of course, go on to make a modern classic – see No. 1.

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5. Synecdoche, New York (2008)

For Charlie Kaufman’s directorial debut, the filmmaker would further plumb the meta depths he had explored in earlier favourites like Being John Malkovich and Adaptation. The film stars Philip Seymour Hoffman as a jaded New York playwright (no doubt a proxy for Kaufman) who receives a grant and sets about making a play about life. All of it. It’s perhaps the toughest film of Kaufman’s to navigate, but it’s also richly rewarding. This is how FilmInk’s Julian Wood described the film upon release: “Like a writer attacking his fourth draft with a red pen, Synecdoche, New York is in danger of refining and revising itself into non-existence. Its hall of constantly cranking and self-inverting mirrors both dizzies and fatigues, and in those bleak moments when the plot mechanics feel only at the service of a self-obsessed writer, it becomes an uninvolving exercise in formalism. But when emotion starts to ooze out of this central premise, it becomes a haunting meditation on ageing, the purpose of art, and the nature of mortality.”

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4. Confessions of a Dangerous Mind (2002)

Kaufman’s known as a screenwriter heavily involved in his projects even after the script is complete, but he had little involvement in George Clooney’s take on his film about Chuck Barris (Sam Rockwell), a successful game show host who lives a double life as a CIA assassin. A recent guest on Mark Maron’s WTF podcast, Kaufman said: “I didn’t like it. That was a movie in which I was not consulted. I mean, George Clooney changed the script, he didn’t talk to me during production. We kind of didn’t get along. I was invited to see the movie when he was pretty much done and I wrote a bunch of notes and gave them to him and I guess it was offensive to him.” While Kaufman wasn’t a fan, the critics largely were. And while it’s tough to judge Kaufman’s original screenplay given it was reportedly changed, the resulting film was one that FilmInk’s Erin Free said “beautifully treads the line between humour, surrealism and seriousness”. As for our thoughts on Clooney’s directorial debut? “It’s the kind of roll of the dice that only a daring and visionary artist would take, and with the startling, funny and compellingly original Confessions Of A Dangerous Mind, George Clooney has proven himself to be both.”

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3. Being John Malkovich (1999)

The film that launched the careers of Kaufman and Spike Jonze follows this crazy premise: a puppeteer (John Cusack) finds a portal into the mind of John Malkovich and becomes involved in one wacky love triangle. Still one of the most original comedies to be released in the last two decades, Kaufman’s exploration of identity and desire feels even more relevant and poignant in today’s online world where access to celebrities is a mere click away. Interestingly, Malkovich had shown interest in directing the film on one condition. “I called them to tell them that I thought the script was great,” the actor told FilmInk when we interviewed him in 2003. “I told them I would love to do it as a director or a producer if he’d change it from Being John Malkovich to ‘Being’ someone else… like William Shatner.” Revealing Kaufman’s commitment to his original vision even as a novice screenwriter, he refused. He wanted Malkovich for the title role, and he got him.

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2. Adaptation (2002)

If Being John Malkovich was a head trip, where to begin with Kaufman and Jonze’s second collaboration? In a script that provocatively blurred the lines between fact and fiction, Kaufman took on the daunting job of adapting Susan Orlean’s acclaimed novel The Orchid Thief, but found himself utterly overwhelmed by the task. Instead, he penned a film about a screenwriter named – surprise! – Charlie Kaufman (played by Nicolas Cage) struggling to adapt The Orchid Thief, while dramatising the proceedings of the book in parallel. It adds up to a darkly funny send-up of the factory-like nature of Hollywood, while also offering a profound meditation on the creative process, and the pain and loneliness that can accompany it. “The movie is pretty accurate in its portrayal of me,” Kaufman told FilmInk at the time of the film’s release. “I will acknowledge that. I wanted to quit the whole time I was writing it and I couldn’t.” When asked whether it was a cathartic process, the screenwriter answers in the negative. “It’s not therapeutic in any sense. I just think you put yourself either literally or figuratively in your work and I did it literally this time. You know, I’m fine. I have my problems but everybody does.”

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1. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004)

Taking home the Oscar for Best Screenplay, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind explores the age old adage of “it’s better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all” in exquisite and unforgettable fashion. Kaufman’s story unspools in a world in which technology allows us to erase memories from our past. But that peace of mind comes at a cost, as a career-best Jim Carrey comes to realise when he attempts to erase his true love Clementine (Kate Winslet) from his mind. Mixing sci-fi, romance, comedy and drama into something very, very special, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind finds Kaufman at his pitch-perfect best: balancing innovation and imagination with humanism and heart.

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