Category Archives: Writer Series: Charlie Kaufman

Adaptation. (2002)

I have no idea who Charlie Kaufman is. I’m aware that he’s a screenwriter, that for a while he was known mostly as “the Being John Malkovich guy”, that he’s forayed into directing, and that he’s the esteemed subject of this Writer Series (one lucky guy). I’ve seen his movies, read his scripts, watched his interviews. I’ve done all of that all over again. I could zip over to Almighty Wikipedia and tell you his middle name and age and birthplace and favorite Dr. Seuss book (probably Hop on Pop), but the point is that when the only access point to a person is their art, it’s difficult to say you really know that person at all. In much the same way that a picture of a person is not, in fact, the real person, poring over an artist’s work hardly gives any insight at all to what kind of person they really are.

…that’s the easy answer, at least, and it’s one of many possible answers to the fantastic knit ball of questions that is Kaufman’s second collaboration with director Spike Jonze. The beautiful, prismlike nature of Adaptation. really can’t be overstated: dynamic and poignant, sensible and absurd, heartbreakingly sad and riotously funny. It respects and follows a certain structure while simultaneously succeeding in not giving a single shit about structure, consequently managing to start at the literal beginning of time and nonetheless distilling those billions of years into a single keystroke.

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Confessions of a Dangerous Mind (2002)

Charlie Kaufman’s feature screenplays have only been adapted by four directors. There’s Spike Jonze (Being John Malkovich and Adaptation.), there’s Michel Gondry (Human Nature and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind), there’s Kaufman himself (Synecdoche, New York and the upcoming Anomalisa). The fourth is none other than George Clooney, who chose the Chuck Barris biopic Confessions of a Dangerous Mind as his directorial debut.

Confessions was a battle of personalities from the start. Kaufman, still a youngish scribe, was already gaining a reputation as a writer very involved with a given film at every stage (up until now that was a point in his favor; stay tuned). Kaufman attracted some big interest, and Bryan Singer was originally attached to direct Johnny Depp in the lead role. Once the two of them moved on it was Clooney who moved into the director’s chair, arguably enjoying the height of Clooneydom following O Brother, Where Art Thou? and Ocean’s Eleven. And the largest personality of them all might be Chuck Barris himself, author of the autobiography Confessions, host of a dozen late-night gameshows, veritable connoisseur of crap TV. Barris claimed he worked as an international CIA assassin on the side while producing television by day, which has never been confirmed or denied but does indeed make for one hell of a story.

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Human Nature (2001)

“Good. Eve. Ning. Lay. Dees. And. Gen. Tel. Men.”

Human Nature is without a doubt the overlooked film in writer Charlie Kaufman’s body of work. It’s tough to say why, exactly. Tim Robbins, Patricia Arquette, and Rhys Ifans lead a cast that includes appearances by a few other well-known faces, so it’s probably not a fault in the casting. Director Michel Gondry did cut his feature-length teeth with Human Nature, so you could chalk it up to a lack of name recognition in that category. But then again, Kaufman’s first produced screenplay was Being John Malkovich, directed by then-unknown Spike Jonze, and that film remains far more popular today than Human Nature.

Whatever the reason, Human Nature is only slightly less inventive than Malkovich and nearly every bit as humorous. Arquette’s Lila is born with a strange defect that causes her to be excessively hairy all over her body, providing further evidence that Charlie Kaufman was nursing a serious obsession with primates during his early screenwriting days. Rhys Ifans is Puff, a man raised in the wilderness by a father who was driven to monkey-dom by the murder of JFK (“Apes don’t assassinate their Presidents!”). Tim Robbins is the conspicuously well-mannered doctor who brings everything together. Sound zany enough? That’s because it’s really Kaufman and Gondry who bring everything together, and they do it remarkably well.

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Being John Malkovich (1999)

Let me tell you about the ending of Being John Malkovich.

For a long time prior to 1999, the spec script by Charlie Kaufman bounced around Hollywood without causing much hubbub. Kaufman’s 1994 draft made no mention of John Malkovich whatsoever, and only after two years and dozens of refusals did eventual director Spike Jonze get ahold of the screenplay. Jonze was primarily a music video director at the time and had never directed a feature film before, but clearly something about Being John Malkovich piqued his interest. He brought it to Propaganda Films and a year later casting was underway.

At this point, though, Being John Malkovich had a final act that was so bonkers and off-the-wall wild that, frankly, it put the rest of the bonkers and off-the-wall wild film to shame. The Being John Malkovich that we know ends on a subdued, somber note, uncomfortably tragic, undoubtedly affecting. Craig, the puppeteer played by John Cusack, abuses the magic portal to John Malkovich’s brain and becomes trapped in the next “vessel”, the brain of a prepubescent girl, from where he presumably is forced to watch her life unfold as a caged and powerless homunculus. The original draft of Malkovich didn’t have this muted, chilling conclusion – instead, it had chainsaw juggling, human-chimp intimacy, a reincarnated Harry Truman battling a firebreathing Malkovich, Kevin Bacon, and the Devil himself.

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