Why Charlie Kaufman Made a Short About Human Connection on a Cell Phone

Exclusive: The filmmaker tells IndieWire how he came to reteam with poet Eva H.D. after their "I'm Thinking of Ending Things" collaboration for a not-so-secret short, which you can watch now.
Watch Charlie Kaufman's Dreamy Short Film 'Jackals & Fireflies'
Shooting "Jackals & Fireflies"
Charlie Kaufman/Samsung

Each Sunday morning, the New York Times publishes the Metropolitan Diary, short tales about city life submitted by readers that capture the wonder and serendipity of life in NYC. Not surprisingly, filmmaker Charlie Kaufman loves those “little stories.” “I love the Metropolitan Diary. It’s my favorite thing on Sunday to read,” he told IndieWire during a recent interview.

Kaufman’s latest film, a short entitled “Jackals & Fireflies,” conjures up the same feeling of the Metropolitan Diary. Shot entirely on a Samsung Galaxy S22 Ultra by cinematographer Chayse Irvin (part of the company’s #withGalaxy campaign), the film reunites Kaufman with poet Eva H.D., whose poem “bonedog” was used in his “I’m Thinking of Ending Things.”

H.D. adapted the script from her own poem and also stars in it as the unnamed narrator. Per the film’s official synopsis, the short follows “a woman [who] wanders the streets of New York City, takes buses and trains, sits in bars and coffee shops, experiencing the city’s diverse neighborhoods, while thinking about her life, her loneliness, unrequited love. She finds moments of communion with various people she meets along the way and with the city itself.”

“So much of it is about the experience of being anywhere, but specifically in New York, and we shot as much as we could all over the city,” Kaufman said. “Everybody involved in it became very sort of aware. We had people say things like, ‘I always walk around with earphones on or earbuds, and I’m not going to do that anymore. I’m starting to listen to people’s conversations that I’m passing on the street.’ I thought that the poem, and then consequently the movie, did a service in that regard, in that it reminded people to be in the world that they’re in.”

When I mentioned that the short made me think, oddly enough, about various stories (some of them kicked off by viral tweets, others backed by actual science) about people who have no inner monologue, Kaufman reacted as expected (which is to say, just like anyone who does have an internal monologue).

“I have an internal monologue,” he said. “A lot of my internal monologue, unfortunately for me, blocks out the world, because if I have things that I’m obsessing over or have anxiety over, that takes over my thoughts and closes the world to me often. But when I can break out of that, and I do try to, it’s a much larger experience of the world that I have at those moments.”

Kaufman and H.D. first met when they were completing artist residencies at MacDowell in New Hampshire (Kaufman was working on his novel, while H.D. was crafting a new poetry manuscript). Their connection was quick, and Kaufman says they remain “very close” to this day. When he read “bonedog,” he knew it was a good fit for “I’m Thinking of Ending Things,” and H.D. granted him permission to use it in the Netflix feature (Jessie Buckley’s character recites it in the film).

“Jackals & Fireflies” came after that experience proved satisfying. “She had written this poem and recorded it, and her friend Brian Kobayakawa, who scores this, put it to music, and I heard it,” Kaufman said. “I thought it was really beautiful, and I thought we should try to make it into a movie.” (Kaufman credits producer Stefanie Azpiazu, who produced “I’m Thinking of Ending Things” through her Likely Story label, for finding the Samsung partnership.)

And, no, despite the relatively low profile of the project, the film wasn’t exactly a secret. They shot around New York City and Toronto, and despite having a smallish crew, it was quite clear to anyone who noticed that they were making a film, though Kaufman laughed when asked if people recognized him during the shoot.

“We made it under the radar,” Kaufman said. “We weren’t hiding it from anybody, but there wasn’t any publicity machine working with us. We were just trying to make it. … I don’t think as many people recognize me as you might think. We had a pretty low profile in the making of this. It was a very small crew, and we were kind of making it by the seat of our pants. Because we had money, but we didn’t have that much money.”

Throughout the film, H.D. overhears various New Yorkers going about their days, chatting with friends or on the phone, and weaves what they’re saying into her own running monologue. Kaufman said those co-stars are a mix of professional performers and people they just found on the street. When they were being cast, Kaufman said, potential stars were asked very New York questions: “what’s your favorite pizza?” or “what’s your most New York experience?”

“They were so amazing and so natural and interesting and quirky, and it was exciting,” he said. “We found the ones that best fit what we were looking for, and they came to the set that day, and they did the line. They often had an earpiece so that they could hear the recitation of the poem, which we recorded before we shot, so they could mouth it along with what the narration of the poem.”

On Thursday night, the short was set for its theatrical debut, playing alongside “I’m Thinking of Ending Things” at New York City’s IFC Center. Asked about the connections he hoped the audience might find between the two films, beyond the obvious Eva H.D. link, Kaufman said he wasn’t sure, and was looking forward to what the audience might see and share with him.

But less than an hour later, Kaufman seemed to have come to a different conclusion, sending me an email with refreshed ideas of what viewers might discover in watching the two films in tandem.

“One is about a lone woman in the world; one is about a lone man,” Kaufman wrote. “Whereas the man’s experience is one of rural isolation, the woman’s is one of urban community. The male character in ‘ITOET’ wants to imbue the woman with idealized traits and the female character in ‘J&F’ accepts the world’s embrace, its multifarious and variegated forms. It is true that in general men become more isolated as they age and women form communities. Perhaps the two films reflect this.”

He added, “The idealized woman in ‘ITOET’ is an attempt by the male character to make the world bite-sized, controllable, consumable. The woman in ‘Jackals & Fireflies’ allows the world to come to her as it is. This documentation of others is a form of honoring and remembrance. Whereas the janitor, who is not interested in seeing people as they are because that lies beyond his control in that, has difficulty remembering the real world and conflates it with ideas and images from books and films.”

Kaufman hopes the IFC event will lead to other screenings of his work at the theater. He mentioned that his John Hawkes-starring FX pilot “How and Why,” which the network passed on in 2014, might pop up there too (FX recently gave him permission to screen it, and said). Otherwise, Kaufman says he’s perhaps less busy than people might think.

Asked what he’s got cooking next, Kaufman said, “I don’t have anything. I wrote a screenplay that Ryan Gosling might do, might act in, and we’re going to go out with it at some point, I guess, and see if we can get it set up. And I’m working on a second novel, and I’m fretting. And that’s my schedule.” Sounds good to us.

Watch Kaufman’s latest film, the short “Jackals & Fireflies,” available exclusively on IndieWire below.

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