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Being Charlie Kaufman

Charlie Kaufman, screenwriter of Spike Jonze‘s big-screen debut, the mesmerizing, dreamlike Being John Malkovich, warns me up-front that he doesn’t give good interview. “This may end up being a real bust for you, and I apologize in advance,” he says as we take our seats at Fred 62, Los Feliz‘s Poseur Central. “Don’t worry,” I say, “that‘s one perfect quote already.” I ask a few preliminary background questions, only to find myself facing a Pinteresque chasm of silence. “Aahhhh . . . I’m from the East Coast, Long Island. I‘m trying . . . ah, I’ve sort of made a habit of not talking about these things.”

The slight, curly-haired Kaufman‘s reluctance to play the Tinseltown PR game is all of a piece with the decidedly un-Hollywood nature of his scripts. When Variety listed “Ten Scribes To Watch” back in September, the 30-ish Kaufman was the only one not pictured. In Esquire’s recent group portrait of up-and-coming screenwriters, his name was prominent, but again he was the photo‘s only no-show. For someone now able to command a milli-on dollars per script, this is splendidly self-effacing stuff. And it chimes perfectly with his strong distaste for conventional screenwriting practice as preached by plot-point and script-template buttheads like Syd Field and Robert McKee.

“I hate all that stuff,” Kaufman says, slowly warming to his subject. “Actually, in something I just wrote, there’s a lot about those story-structure seminars. They feel like factories for people to make a product: ‘If I learn these rules, I’ll make a million dollars.‘ I think that’s how they sell these seminars, and I think it‘s crap, taking advantage of people, and I don’t think we need more people learning to write that way. Why would you want to impose these limits on yourself? I think you should put yourself in a movie, and if something gets in the way of your thinking, it‘s a bad thing. I hate movies that lie to me. Should I sit there thinking my life sucks because it’s not like the ones on the screen, and I‘m not getting these life lessons? My life, anyone’s life, is more like a muddle, and these movies are just dangerous garbage.”

Kaufman‘s own writing habits are altogether different, which perhaps accounts for the perfectly coherent dream-logic of Being John Malkovich, in which John Cusack’s doleful puppeteer discovers a portal that leads into Malkovich‘s brain. “I don’t start out with a plan,” he explains. “I just start thinking, then stuff comes in and later I have to go back and justify it, so if it ends up being surprising in its twists and shifts, then that‘s because it was surprising to me, too.” I tell him Malkovich reminds me a little of Buñuel’s work, with its calm acceptance of even the most bizarre events. “Yeah, there‘s this idea of not dwelling on the strange stuff. It’s like, okay, that happened, let‘s move on. Rather than saying, ’Oooh, that‘s weird,’ which isn‘t interesting at all. I really tried to ground Malkovich in what these people would be going through. I wanted the desperation of the characters to be taken seriously. I didn’t want anything to feel wacky in any way. Spike‘s way of doing that was to keep it very dark and grounded, and I think he was right.”

The more adventurous among Hollywood’s heply-tailored suits appear to be catching on: Kaufman‘s work is in heavy demand. Nicolas Cage may star in his “Untitled Memory-Recovery Project” for USA Films. Jonathan Demme is looking at another script. And Mike Myers is sizing up his adaptation of Gong Show loony Chuck Barris’ nutty autobiography, Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, in which Barris claims to have been an assassin for the CIA. “It‘s not a joke,” says Kaufman. “At least he’s very serious about it. What interests me aren‘t the biopic elements but, like, is this true? And if not, why did he say it? It’s such a preadolescent fantasy. If you wanted to build up your life, why would you choose to say you were once a murderer?”

Like all Kaufman‘s scripts, Malkovich and Confessions of a Dangerous Mind seem to spring from the landscape without discernible antecedents, and they’re more or less inimitable. “If your goal is to create yourself as this character, a hip, cool director or writer,” he says as we finish our soggy sandwiches, “then everything you do is just gonna be garbage.”