“I feel like I fucking blew it.”
Charlie Kaufman was talking about his career. More specifically, he was addressing his supposed failure to capitalize on the momentum generated by his scripts for “Being John Malkovich,” “Adaptation” and “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.” Once upon a time, Kaufman’s name was spoken at Hollywood lunches with the same breathless excitement and opportunistic fervor that studio executives tend to reserve for young starlets — back then, he commanded more attention (if not more money) than any other screenwriter since “Lethal Weapon” scribe Shane Black. His potential in the industry seemed positively zoo-sized.
These days, so far as Kaufman is concerned, that’s no longer the case.
“I don’t feel like I’ve got that cachet that I had at a certain point,” he said, looking hard at the table between us. “I see people seizing the moment when they have the same kind of explosion that I had, and I just didn’t do it. I didn’t know how to do it — I didn’t want to do it. I just thought ‘Oh, this is good! I’ll be able to just keep working.’” He scoffed at himself, one of the most visionary men in Hollywood wondering how he could have ever been so shortsighted.
“ You don’t know how lucky you are being a monkey. Because consciousness is a terrible curse. I think. I feel. I suffer. And all I ask in return is the opportunity to do my work. And they won’t allow it… because I raise issues.” — “Being John Malkovich”
Kaufman was sitting in — or being cradled by — an oversized armchair in a room above the lobby of the Grandhotel Pupp, a monument to old money that’s wedged into the top of a Czech spa town like the head of a turtle. The building served as one of the main inspirations for Wes Anderson’s “The Grand Budapest Hotel,” a film which grossed more money than everything that Kaufman has written or directed combined; it wouldn’t be surprising if that thought had occurred to him.
“One speculates a lot on one’s failures,” Kaufman said, as though happening upon the title of his memoirs. Of course (as per usual), he was selling himself a bit short. To say that Charlie Kaufman speculates on his failures would be like saying that Donald Trump fixates on his successes — even if he didn’t have any missteps or regrets, you get the sense that he’d invent some just for love of the game.
Let Kaufman ponder them for too long and his thoughts invariably return to his directorial debut, the 2008 project that ended his hot streak. “I think ultimately if ‘Synecdoche, New York’ had made $50 million, or even $20 or $30 million, then things would have been different,” Kaufman said. (It grossed $4.4 million.) “People want to be associated with things that they think are cool, and the business — the indie business, especially — is built on that. I wonder if it’s not cool or sexy to be in business with me.”
More distressingly, it may no longer be profitable. December of 2015 saw the release of “Anomalisa,” Kaufman’s second film as director (a role he shared with Duke Johnson). An independently financed and critically revered stop-motion masterpiece that was distributed by Paramount and nominated for an Oscar, “Anomalisa” was meant to be the grand return of one of Hollywood’s most necessary talents. A tragicomic story about a narcissistic self-help expert, the film has so far recouped less than $6 million of the $8 million it cost to create — you sense that the film might be the most crushing disappointment of Kaufman’s career, just as you sense that telling him how much you loved it would only make things worse.
Ever the glutton for punishment (and the fiend for irony), Kaufman accompanied “Anomalisa” to Europe in order to be fêted at the picturesque Karlovy Vary International Film Festival for his contributions to the world of cinema. Magnificently lit posters for the gala screening were festooned along the bridges and restaurants on main street — one is illuminated in a position of honor just outside the festival headquarters, a glowing emblem for the best and most exciting new work that the medium has to offer. During the bonkers opening ceremony, in which naked models recreated the birth of cinema through dance and a horse galloped through the front of the movie theater, Kaufman even received a trophy.
For many people, that might seem like something of a consolation prize — for Charlie Kaufman, who once adapted a celebrated Susan Orlean book about a flower into an electrically bleak meditation on creativity and regret — the award is more like an open-casket funeral for a newborn child. It’s enough to make you appreciate why “Synecdoche” hero Caden Cotard didn’t stop gestating his magnum opus until the day that he died.
“What I came to understand is that change is not a choice. Not for a species of plant, and not for me.” — “Adaptation”
“One speculates a lot on one’s failures,” Kaufman said again, “but there’s not really a lot of reason to speculate, because the only reason to speculate about bad box office is to decide that you don’t want to do something that you believe in next time in order to make more money — that’s not a choice I’m willing to make.”
In the wake of “Anomalisa,” Kaufman’s choices are growing limited. He’s recently been forced to confront the idea that he may no longer be able to direct his own screenplays. “I feel like the stuff that I write is personal, and I would like to be in charge of it,” he said, before sincerely reiterating how much he loved working with filmmakers Spike Jonze and Michel Gondry, who shepherded Kaufman’s scripts to the screen before the writer finally achieved the juice necessary to step behind the camera. “There aren’t people champing at the bit to hire me as a director, and I’ve really held out with things, for years now, because that’s what I want.”
In person, Kaufman is hardly the Eeyore you might imagine — he’s considerate and talkative, candid to a fault. As you sit there and listen to him self-diagnose, it occurs to you that he interrogates himself better than you ever could. Writing a profile on Charlie Kaufman is like taking a photograph of Pablo Picasso — what is there to learn about him that he hasn’t volunteered to us through his art? For every observation you make, there’s a line in a Charlie Kaufman movie that has already made it better.
But in this recent conversation, he spoke in linear, practical sentences, sounding less like an idiosyncratic artist than he did someone who was having a heart-to-heart with his accountant. “If I change my attitude towards the business and I think ‘Well, I do need to make a living and I want these movies to get made, and there are directors I trust and like to work with, and if they’re interested then maybe that would be a thing to do, and I could continue to sort of make a living and have some say in how things go,’” he said. “It’s not my first choice, but I could reconcile.”
One has to wonder if that’s true. For Kaufman, creation has always been inextricably linked to control — control of a production, control of a body, control of space and time and memory. That premise is baked into the trajectory of his career: In “Being John Malkovich,” his protagonist was a puppeteer; with “Anomalisa,” he finally became one himself. The hero of “Synecdoche” is consumed by a paralyzing feeling of helplessness until he turns his life and everyone in it into a living work of art that he can author as it unfolds. “They say there is no fate, but there is,” says the minister in that film. “It’s what you create.”
“Do I smile while I’m on the phone? Well, they can tell, if you’re smiling, even if they can’t see you.” — “Anomalisa”
So how did this neurotic writer, whose avatar in “Adaptation” could hardly work up the courage to ask Judy Greer out on a date, ever find the authority required to run a film set? The answer: with great difficulty.
“I was very shy and introverted when I started in the business,” Kaufman said, crediting his time working in television — in writers’ rooms, especially — for teaching him how to put himself out there. Laughing, he recalled his first directing experience: “I did this play in 2005 called ‘Hope Leaves the Theater,’ where I had to direct Meryl Streep. I didn’t know her — I had met her a bit for ‘Adaptation,’ but I didn’t know her. And she’s Meryl Streep. So it was like ‘Okay, I have to do this now, I have to be the guy who does this.’ I think that’s what allowed me to go work with Phil [Seymour Hoffman].”
Becoming “the guy who does this” meant changing who he was. “I realized I couldn’t be who I was in show business as a writer if I wanted to be a director.,” he explained. “I couldn’t be shy, I couldn’t be moody. I had to be like ‘Okay, this is my job here. My job here is to take care of other people, and therefore I have to be kinda steady.’”
But changing is really Kaufman’s Achilles’ heel. Think of the scene in “Adaptation” in which Charlie manically fumbles to tell a studio executive about the script he’s distilling from Orlean’s book. (“I don’t want to cram in sex or guns or car chases… or characters, you know, learning profound life lessons or growing or coming to like each other or overcoming obstacles to succeed in the end…life isn’t like that.”)
Kaufman’s writing seems to be a reflection of the internet age (“Being John Malkovich” hinges on avatars, “Eternal Sunshine” relates to the mutability of identity at a time when it can be easily erased, and “Anomalisa” speaks to the egocentrism of social media). When asked about this tendency, he explained that inauthenticity is the subject that interests him most. He even cited “Frank or Francis,” a script that he’s been trying to get made for years, as another gestating treatise on the topic. In order to write any of his films, he had to be Charlie Kaufman — in order to benefit from their success, he couldn’t be.
Being Charlie Kaufman
“How could you have somebody held prisoner in a basement and… and working at a police station at the same time?” — “Adaptation”
When asked if there were any films he wished he had written, Kaufman replied, “I feel like the things that I do are so specific to me that, when I watch other things that I love, I can’t imagine ever making them myself. I love Mike Leigh’s ‘Naked,’ but I wouldn’t make that movie. Not because I wouldn’t want to, but because it’s not me. I kinda wish it were, but it’s not.”
He can’t wear two hats, he can’t pretend to be someone he’s not. It’s hard to be a writer who feels the need to apologize for his existence, and simultaneously also a director who barks orders at everyone. Reconciling may not be as easy as it seems. It’s telling that, when asked about his secret to adjusting to life on set, Kaufman says that he “Handpicked nice people to work with whenever I could because I was terrified of getting a diva or something.”
He’s even more terrified of becoming one. His natural compulsion is to run a set like he’s hosting a party, his chief concern being that everyone is having a good time. “I’m definitely that way,” he said, “and I do think it could hurt the quality of a movie. But I decided that I’m not Werner Herzog. I’m not that guy, and I’m never going to be that guy, so how do I use the fact that I like people to have a good time to my advantage? Maybe it makes things less true or something… I don’t know.”
He exhaled, reflecting on his words as though he were playing them back on tape. “But people work with assholes. Nobody wants to work with an asshole, but if you’re a successful asshole then everybody will work with you.”
But what if all the assholes are in charge, now? What if the assholes are running the asylum? “Well,” Kaufman replied, “you certainly see that in the world, don’t you?”
“He’s seducing my girlfriend with MY words and MY things! He stole her underwear! Jesus Christ, he stole her underwear.” — “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind”
What you see in the world are a lot of Charlie Kaufman movies made by other people (some of whom are probably assholes). Kaufman didn’t volunteer the notion that he’s been ripped off, but he certainly responded to it: “Oh, okay,” he said. “Yes. I sometimes see things and think ‘Oh, that may have been influenced by me,’ and people tell me that they’ve been influenced by me. But I’ve also seen critics say ‘This is a Charlie Kaufman-type movie, and so-and-so made it.’ And it’s like… why do they get to make Charlie Kaufman movies and I don’t? I think about that all the time.”
It’s a rhetorical question, but you still think of all the people who have seized his moment. Caden Cotard was obsessed with dying, but he outlived everyone he cared about; Kaufman is obsessed with failure, but his films will outlast all of the ones that ripped him off. The more time you spend with him, the more you realize that “Synecdoche” was less of an existential crisis than it was a terminal fantasy.
Out the window over Kaufman’s shoulder, tourists dawdled along the rustic streets of Karlovy Vary, unsure of where they were going. Another writer’s words came to mind, only in part because the first chapters of Milan Kundera’s “The Unbearable Lightness of Being” are set in one of the local spas: “What can life be worth if the first rehearsal for life is life itself?”
And so, towards the tail end of our time together, one pressing question emerged: Is it any consolation that those other movies will fade, and in 20 years people will only remember you for blazing those trails, for breaking those molds? He answered almost immediately, leaving just enough time to regret asking in the first place. “In terms of people looking back in 20 years, that doesn’t help me now, because I have to pay my mortgage,” he said. “The truth is that I want the freedom not to have to worry about paychecks.”
I thought again of the minister from “Synecdoche,” and the eulogy he delivers to an empty casket as Cotard begins to lose control over his grand creation: “And the truth is I feel so angry, and the truth is I feel so fucking sad, and the truth is I’ve felt so fucking hurt for so fucking long and for just as long I’ve been pretending I’m OK, just to get along, just for, I don’t know why, maybe because no one wants to hear about my misery, because they have their own.”
And I wanted to say: “People want to hear about your misery because they have their own.”
And I wanted to say: “There’s a movie playing tonight called ‘Anomalisa.’ I think you should see it.”
But what I did say was: “You’re Charlie Kaufman — you’re still only one hit away from getting your cachet back.”
And Charlie Kaufman responded: “Hope springs eternal. But I tend towards depression.”