Charlie Kaufman, One of Hollywood’s Best Screenwriters

Charlie Kaufman. Courtesy of PopMatters.

The face of movies tends to be actors and directors–many behind-the-scenes contributors go unnoticed in the public’s myopic obsession with celebrities. While it goes without saying that all these contributors are essential to moviemaking, one in particular–the screenwriter–is absurdly overlooked. After all, the screenwriter is where the story originates. Everything else fleshes out the skeletal structure the story provides.

There are some screenwriters who’ve made names for themselves. Charlie Kaufman is one. Kaufman’s screenwriting talent debuted in the 1999 movie Being John Malkovich, about an unemployed puppeteer who discovers a portal into actor John Malkovich’s brain behind a filing cabinet. With Kaufman’s emotionally intricate brand of dark humor, the movie meditates on themes like loneliness and selfhood (which recur in all of his movies) as the lives of its characters spiral out of control.

His next movie, Adaptation, was an epiphany to me. I admit the only reason I saw it in middle school was because it was rated R for drugs, violence, and sex–everything I wanted in a movie–but only when I saw it again in high school could I appreciate the movie’s complexity. Adaptation is a metamovie about Charlie Kaufman (and his invented twin Donald) trying to adapt The Orchid Thief by Susan Orlean, a writer for The New Yorker. Charlie wants to make an honest movie that doesn’t fall into Hollywood’s formula, but he struggles because The Orchid Thief lacks plot. Donald, on the other hand, is a commercial screenwriter who makes a six-figure salary with his first screenplay. The two stalk Orlean and the subject of her book, Laroche, and I won’t go into detail because you should see this movie. It isn’t just any metamovie–it’s a metamovie that plays with itself in every respect: story and even the form itself. (See the movie and then think about why the movie’s screenplay is credited to both Charlie and the fictitious Donald.)

Kaufman later wrote Human Nature and then the more popular Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (for which he won an Oscar). But it’s his directorial debut, Synecdoche, New York, that’s his best movie. Synecdoche is about a theater director, Caden Cotard, whose life is falling apart–his health is failing, his wife and daughter leave him to go to Berlin. When he’s awarded a MacArthur Genius Grant he decides to construct a facsimile of New York in an abandoned warehouse. He hires actors to play himself and the people in his life. In this warehouse he also constructs another facsimile of the original facsimile, and hires actors to play the original actors (including the actor playing himself)–and, since it’s a movie, this theoretically goes on in this somehow infinite space. Caden loses himself in this world, becoming an actor himself. The movie explores fatherhood, loneliness, marriage, love, the fronts we put up for others–it spans his life from about forty into old age. It’s an epic movie, one that maximizes the medium by visually and narratively pushing the boundaries of cinematic storytelling. It’s been the most formative and personal and important movie to me.

Synecdoche was released in 2008. Since then Kaufman hasn’t made a movie due to lack of studio funding (Synecdoche was a box-office flop), despite promising projects that’ve come and go on IMDb (like a musical satirizing politics starring Jack Black, Steve Carrell, etc.). He’s working on a Kickstarter-funded stop-motion movie–Anomalisa–based on the radio play of the same name he wrote years back.

Take the time to explore one of Hollywood’s most creatively refreshing and adventurous screenwriters. Eternal Sunshine‘s a good place to start, since Valentine’s Day is coming. (But a V-Day movie you should only watch if you’re looking for a bitingly honest and sad–but nonetheless beautiful–onscreen representation of love. If you’re single, DO IT.)

And check out his BAFTA lecture, which is inspiring on a general level and for aspiring writers, too: https://soundcloud.com/bafta/charlie-kaufman-screenwriting-lecture

Posted by James

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