INTERVIEW: Charlie Kaufman, the Man behind "Malkovich"
by Anthony Kaufman
“I don’t like talking about myself,” says Charlie Kaufman, writer of the wildly inventive, surrealist new Spike Jonze film, “Being John Malkovich,” starring John Cusack, Cameron Diaz, and Catherine Keener in a love triangle fought over the battleground of John Malkovich‘s brain.
Though Kaufman may be shy and rather unassuming, his is the mind now coveted — by Hollywood. He has a laundry list of development deals at major studios. These include the Warner Bros. Chuck Barris biopic “Confessions of a Dangerous Mind” (ranked by Entertainment Weekly as one of the best unproduced screenplays); “Adaptation” at Sony, and “Scanner Darkly” at Universal. His next project “Human Nature,” is already in the works at Good Machine with Kaufman and Jonze producing, and accomplished vid-director Michel Gondry set to direct. (When probed about “Nature,” Kaufman says, “It’s a comedy, but it’s sad. It’s about people who are not accepted,” he adds with a little laugh.)
But it wasn’t always this way for Kaufman — who more resembles one of his outcast characters than a successful screenwriter — a New Yorker who has since moved to Pasadena, where “there’s no sense of people looking at you to see who you are.” Before getting into television writing in 1991, Kaufman was adrift, “trying to figure out how to get into the business.” But he finally accomplished his goal after hounding an agent for a year. “I hadn’t demonstrated that much persistence before in my life,” he says. When he wrote “Being John Malkovich” — his first film script — five years ago, he never even expected it to get produced — at a round table press junket for the film last month, one journalist asked him, “Then why did you write it?” Kaufman’s answer: “Because I’m a writer.”
Kaufman speaks with indieWIRE about getting into the biz, breaking the rules, and retaining his freedom in an industry that eats writers for breakfast. . . like toast.
indieWIRE: What were you doing before “Being John Malkovich”?
Charlie Kaufman: I spent a lot of years, not knowing anything and thinking about how to get in the business and how it worked. I’d write scripts and send them to friends who might be in the business, or might know someone in the business or send a script to some director who I got the address off of a Rolodex. Those things were invariably either sent back or ignored, or there was a letter saying, “We can’t read this for legal reasons” or whatever they say. I was also all over the place; I was sending short stories to magazines, writing screenplays. Finally, I said okay, and I just started to see names of people that I’d known crop up on credits of TV shows, and thought ‘Okay, so what do I do to get on a TV show? At least, I won’t be working answering phones,’ which is what I did a lot. And so I did it. And still, I didn’t feel like I sold out. I wrote a very odd spec television show. And it got me in — it got me my first job.
iW: And your unique sensibility is paying off now?
Kaufman: It seems to be good. I’m very happy that there’s some stuff going on.
iW: You said earlier that you didn’t set out to write a story about John Malkovich, that it came later in the process and you were working on the relationship between the main characters, Craig and Dottie and it just evolved. Is that always the way you work, with little or no structure or outline?
Charlie Kaufman: Not always, but it’s more fun for me to do it that way. I don’t understand why there is this rule about how screenplays have to be, and what they have to be, and how they have to be written, so I rebel.
iW: I’m sure not everybody follows that Syd Field book.
Kaufman: No, not everybody, but enough people do and I think enough of what comes out of Hollywood seems to follow that, or at least, they have that sense of things. So I try to keep myself engaged by working in the way I like to work. Also, I feel like if you’re exploring something, then you’re exploring it. Writing is exploring. You can’t have it established before you begin. I can’t, anyway.
iW: How much research do you do, for example into characters, before jumping into the actual script?
Kaufman: I think about things for a long time. I think about things a lot. I write notes to myself, I take long walks and write things down on a little pad in my pocket, which is there now. And then I get frustrated and I think about it, and then I start writing. Then maybe I’ll outline and I’ll get bored with it and it’ll be lifeless. It’s like without a safety net, it makes it more interesting, because you can fail. I have to say that my situation might not be typical and I don’t know, because it’s only my situation. But because I have a reputation now because my stuff is weird and people like it, that maybe they’re giving me more freedom than other people might get.
iW: You’ve written for television, as well, I can’t imagine you were able to allow yourself that freedom for TV.
Kaufman: I had as much as I could on TV. I wrote a lot of pilots that didn’t get produced, but that got attention, and they were pretty weird. Movies became more welcoming to me, so this is where I’ll stay, but there was a time when I was trying to get a lot of stuff on television, and becoming very frustrated by it.
iW: So writing for film, even though there’s more money at stake, you’d say the process is freer?
Kaufman: More money in film? No, I actually think the problem with television is that the people who run that business need a show to run for 100 episodes, because they make their money in syndication. So if you write a funny pilot that everybody seems to love, they’ll say, “But, can this sustain for 5 years?” so what happens is that everything gets bland and bland and bland. So I think there’s more money at stake for producing 100 episodes of a television show or losing money for the first two years.
iW: When you were writing “Malkovich” and you weren’t under the pressures of industry, is it different from when you’re writing now and you’ve got producers, directors and studios attached. Are you able to maintain the same freedom?
Kaufman: Yes. I intentionally don’t do anything or write anything or think anything that I don’t feel is risky. Not even if I’ve taken a job, if I can’t see what the risk is or danger is or how it could fail miserably, then I can’t do it. Because I feel like that’s cheating and it’s not worth anything. You’re not giving anybody anything. You’re not doing anything. And I want to do something. I want to put something interesting, as interesting as I can be, into the world. I’ll still take chances. I just wrote this script for Jonathon Demme’s company, which is a very weird script; I can’t really talk much about it, and so far, they seem to like it.
iW: You haven’t been in the industry long, but do you feel the cliche is true of writers being abused and thrown away . . .
Kaufman: My most elaborate situation so far is with Spike — I mean that’s the only movie I’ve written that’s been produced at this point and it’s been a great experience for me. So I’m very happy with that. But yeah, I see it, I feel it. Some people aren’t interested in doing anything. . .
iW: . . Anything with originality?
Kaufman: Anything, they’re not interested in doing anything. I see it: “What do we do? What do we do to make this like that?” That’s actually their goal. I would be mortified if I felt like I was doing that, even inadvertently. There’s a lot of people trying to protect their jobs; it’s not like they feel they’re being cynical or corrupt. They feel like this is what their job is, their job is — and maybe their right — to make money for a studio. I just think there might be different ways to make money for a studio. It’s exactly the same with television; the batting average for these networks is just atrocious with doing the safe stuff, so why not make part of your shows as insane and different as you possibly can and see what sticks? They’re not winning this way. But there is the mentality that if you pick something safe, as an executive, and it fails, you’re not blamed, because you can justify it. . . . Am I digging my own grave here by saying all this stuff?
iW: I don’t think so. It’s stuff that everyone knows already, so it’s not a revelation, but it’s nice to hear someone’s personal experience. And I think the strengths of your scripts have proven you a commodity, I guess. . .
Kaufman: Oh goody. In addition to that, which is maybe not digging myself out of it, but I do want to say and this is absolutely true, that Steve Golin, from Propaganda Films, who is the producer on this movie who got us our greenlight, God bless him. He really took a chance, and when stuff like that does happen to people in his position, I can’t respect it any more.
iW: What sort of changes went through in the making of “Being John Malkovich,” how involved were you in the script changes?
Kaufman: I wrote them.
iW: Did you go to the set?
Kaufman: As much as I could. I was writing something at the time, but Spike and I always talked, even when I couldn’t be there.
iW: Do you think that’s something you’ll want to maintain or will it be project to project?
Kaufman: Oh, God, it’s so important. If it can be arranged and the director is willing to have that relationship with me, it’s everything. The only way to protect and defend your material.
iW: What’s it like to be with a project for so long? I mean, you wrote “Malkovich” five years ago and you’re still talking about it?
Kaufman: I wanted the thing to get made and I wanted to be as helpful as I could be in making it as good as it could be. It was my first movie, and you get to see it shot and cut, and you get to do this. It was very much fun going to the New York Film Festival. It’s hard to get that it was really happening. But people really seemed to like it and were laughing a lot. It probably isn’t the same as if I had written it yesterday and it was all truncated and compact like that, because it has been around forever.
iW: So you’ve been doing all this press, probably more than you ever bargained for. Has there been anything than everyone wants?
Kaufman: Why John Malkovich? That’s the question, I should probably think of a joke or something, but I don’t have one. I don’t like to answer questions about what my work anyway, it’s not important for me to tell. I like that people have their own experience. And it’s not like it’s about anything. Like it’s about the dangers of being. . . . I would hate to think that something can be reduced to that. I was interested in the characters, I was interested in the struggle of the characters and their desperation and their unhappiness and all the other stuff that came with it.