Monday, 30 July 2012

Charlie Kaufman I : On Screenwriting

Being John Malkovich (Directed by Spike Jonze)
One of modern cinema’s most celebrated screenwriters, Charlie Kaufman’s work includes surreal fantasy Being John Malkovich, cerebral sci-fi Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and comedy dramas Human Nature and Adaptation. The following extract is taken from an interview with Creative Screenwriting in 2001 in which Kaufman discusses his work with David and Jeff Goldsmith (the second part of the interview, devoted to Kaufman’s script Adaptation, to follow next week).

CS: When you write, do you take into consideration commercial potential or how an audience might respond to the writing?

CK: I think it’s my responsibility to write about the things that interest me. I feel that I’d be doing a disservice to anybody and everybody to not do what I thought was good. Because other than that, you should be in advertising or something.

CS: Unfortunately, too many screenwriters approach the job like they were in advertising.

CK: I think that’s what you’re trained to do. I think that’s what the studios do to a certain extent. But I think you have to ask yourself, ‘Is this interesting to me?’ ‘Is this funny to me?’ ‘Is this something I’d want to see?’ That’s something I always ask myself: ‘Is this a movie that I would go to see?’ And if the answer is yes, then it’s something to pursue. Otherwise you’re being cynical.

CS: It seems to me that your stories resonate with audiences because they’re as honest as they are imaginative.

CK: I’m fortunate to be able to do that. I guess at some point I may not be able to write that way, and I’ll have to make a living. Then I’ll have to write what other people want me to write. But right now I’m going to grab the bull by the horns and do what I want.

CS: How do you go about deciding on subject matter?

CK: I don’t conceive of things from a very conscious place. I just write about things that interest me – that I find moving – and then I trust it. I don’t think it serves me to do it any other way because that’s where I get the most passion and intimacy in my work. So I don’t know the answer; I like an idea, and then I tend to have three or four ideas that I might combine – which I did in Human Nature. Then I try to force myself to figure out how these things might fit together. I did the same thing in [Being John] Malkovich, and with Adaptation. It’s taking disparate ideas and then working out how and why they should fit together. How the story should be told.

CS: You began in TV and years ago wrote some TV pilots that remain produced. One was called Ramblin’ Pants, the other Depressed Roomies. Are there any plans to get these off the ground?

CK: I actually wrote four or five and nothing happened with them. They already made the rounds years ago.

CS: But you’re a different person now, those could be greenlit overnight.

CK: I am, but I think that I’d rather come up with something new than just go back to those.

CS: There are some fairly successful screenwriters who view their work as a grind. I get the feeling you’re someone who really loves writing.

CK: It’s important to me to do the best I can; I don’t think I’d want to approach it in any kind of weary way. I’d be ashamed to do that. Human Nature was a spec script. I wasn’t even working as a screenwriter professionally when I wrote it; I was working as a television writer. The same with  Malkovich. They were written during my television years; I just did them during hiatus.

CS: That was a while ago. How did Human Nature come to be made now?

CK: Both of those scripts had been kicking around for several years. I think I wrote them in the mid-nineties. Malkovich got made and it got positive attention; then people were interested in this one. Michel Gondry wanted to direct it. There had been others interested in directing it – at one point I was going to direct it – but Michel wanted to do it. I figured that would be good, so I came on as a producer, along with Good Machine and Spike Jonze.

CS: What was your involvement as a producer?

CK: I was involved throughout the production in every stage: pre-production, production, casting, and post. I was very involved in the editing along with Michel and Russell Icke, the editor; and the other producers, Anthony Bregman, Ted Hope, and Spike.

CS: Was that a new situation for you?

CK: This is my second film as producer. The first one was Malkovich, which I was involved in unofficially because I had a relationship with Spike, and he respects my opinion...

My involvement as producer is creative; I’m obviously not scheduling and doing that sort of stuff. It’s important for me to be there because it’s a way of having my voice heard and protecting my intentions... I’m engaged and involved because the people who direct these movies realize, correctly I think, that it’s important to have the person who wrote the material there to talk to. It doesn’t happen a lot, but I think it’s stupid, very stupid, not to utilize your resources, and the person who invented something is a very valuable resource. We’re doing post-production rewrites as things get moved around. There’s a lot of stuff to finesse or fix.

CS: Do you mean moving scenes around? Or rewriting and re-shooting?

CK: We didn’t do any re-shooting for Human Nature. We did some for Malkovich and we’re going to do some for Adaptation. But when you’re cutting a movie down and moving scenes around there’s stuff that doesn’t work anymore. You have to cheat in dialogue, to smooth it, so there’s that kind of writing to do.

CS: Being involved in the editing process must give you a new perspective on screenwriting.

CK: It really does. I think editing is most akin to writing the movie, more than any other aspect of production. It really is writing, you know? You’re doing a lot more than I would have imagined: finding connections that weren’t intended, but that work in this new form. It’s very interesting, and it requires you to really let go of what you’ve gone in with. You’re not really in service of the script anymore. Now it’s, ‘This is what you have,’ and, ‘This is what it is; now how do you make this work?’ As opposed to keep going back and saying, ‘Well this isn’t what I wrote.’ Or, ‘this isn’t how I wrote it.’ I’m fortunate because all writers should be in this situation. But it’s good for me that I’m a partner in this because I know a lot of stuff gets taken away from writers and it doesn’t resemble what their intentions were anymore.

Human Nature (Directed by Michel Gondry) 
CS: Has producing changed the way you write?

CK: One of the things I’ve realized is that in all three of the movies I’ve been involved in is if we see a softness or a problem in the script, it should be corrected at that point. The idea of ‘you’ll fix it later’ or ‘nobody will notice’ is insane. Maybe nobody does notice, but we notice and it becomes a major issue in post, like, ‘How do we solve this problem,’ etc. And then it’s glaring, and we have to do all this extra work to fix it. It happened again and again, and the thing that struck me in all cases, without going into detail, is that in almost every case we saw [the problem] before and didn’t think it would be as big a deal as it ended up being for us. So, I think motivation, character intention to the most miniscule degree, needs to be attended to.

CS: Thanks, Mr. McKee. [screenwriting guru Robert McKee]

CK: [Laughs] Right, I guess he would say something like that, but he’d be right.

CS: What’s it like for you to enter the editing room as both a writer and producer and be creatively involved with those important decisions?

CK: It’s hard, but it’s great. I definitely wouldn’t trade it in. It’s exhausting, and it’s frustrating, and it’s an enormously long process. You lose track gradually over all the different versions of the movie. You lose perspective; you don’t know what you’re watching anymore, and that’s where test screenings become very, very important.

CS: You actually like test screenings?

CK: Yes, for that reason. I don’t mean the test screenings with the numbers or whatever those things, the official ones, are. For us, I mean you can cut out a whole scene in a movie that you’ve been working on for three years, and your brain makes the connection between this moment and that moment because you have the information from the previous draft. But you can’t really know if an audience will make that same connection. So you get people saying, ‘I don’t understand the ending. I don’t understand what happened here,’ and to me that’s the most valuable thing about screenings. ‘Do we like this character?’ or ‘Is the character redeeming?’– that kind of shit I don’t care about, but I do care about if the movie makes the sense that we wanted it to make. What’s most interesting is when someone interprets something differently than you had expected them to, like the reason a character does this is because of something you wouldn’t have even considered, but it makes sense now and you understand where they’re coming from.

– Extracted From: ‘Charlie Kaufman Interviewed By David F. Goldsmith & Jeff Goldsmith. Creative Screenwriting, Volume 9, #2 (March/April 2002) & Volume 9, #6 (November/December 2002)’.


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