Tuesday, 7 August 2012

Charlie Kaufman II: On Adaptation

Adaptation (Directed by Spike Jonze) 
Adaptation tells the story of a misunderstood and socially inept screenwriter called Charlie Kaufman struggling to adapt Susan Orlean’s dense book The Orchid Thief about John Laroche, a colorful character who was arrested in Florida for stealing rare orchids from a state-protected preserve. Facing severe writer’s block, Nicolas Cage (playing Charlie Kaufman) early on states his fateful goal of: ‘I just don’t want to ruin it by making it a ‘Hollywood’ thing. It’s like I don’t want to cram in sex, or guns, or car chases or characters overcoming obstacles to succeed in the end.’ While the film deliberately meanders through the first two acts, the appearance of screenwriting guru and seminar leader Robert McKee sends the third act into motion when he tells Kaufman, ‘You can have an uninvolving, tedious movie, but wow them at the end, and you’ve got a hit.’ The initial draft of Adaptation took this advice and the third act sent Kaufman and his brother, Donald, into the drug lair of Orlean and Laroche, who’ve kidnapped Charlie and plan to kill him in a Florida swamp. Donald bites the dust while trying to save Charlie, but just as the gun is turned on Charlie, an act-two throwaway joke about a mystic Swamp Ape manifests itself into the scene and saves Kaufman. The finished film ended up taking a different course, however...

The following extract is taken from an interview with Creative Screenwriting in which Charlie Kaufman discusses how he came to write the script of Adaptation and why the Swamp Ape never made it into the final cut of the film:

CS: When you began adapting The Orchid Thief were you given free rein to do what ever you wanted?

CK: They approached me with the book, and I liked it a lot. I was getting other kinds of offers, but this one just seemed more substantial to me. It seemed to be about something other than the usual stuff I get offered. So I took it. I kind of thought I would figure it out, and I guess this is how I figured it out. Or not. They certainly left me alone. I don’t think they imagined... I didn’t tell them what I had in mind because I wasn’t sure what I’d do when I took the job. And when I decided I wanted to take the material in this direction, I felt like I needed to write it before showing it to them. Because if I pitched it, I thought I’d be, you know, dismissed! I don’t think they expected this kind of script; they expected something a little more faithful.

CS: You essentially blew your assignment and handed in a script about yourself. Most writers would either be fired or sued for doing this – why weren’t you?

CK: I wasn’t fired when I turned it in for two reasons. First, my work was done. I guess they could’ve fired me and hired another writer to do it at that point, but I think the other reason is that they liked it. I didn’t know that they were going to like it, but I lucked out, and they liked it.

CS: What did your agent think?

CK: I don’t think my agent saw it until [Jonathan] Demme’s company saw it. I don’t remember the chronology exactly, but by the time my agent saw it, I think it was a good thing, not a bad thing. I didn’t tell anybody what I was doing, because by the time I came up with this idea to do it this way, I was pretty much out of ideas. I thought I’d better do it rather than pitch it because if I did, they would say no and I had no other ideas. I wanted to try it even though I thought it was going to be a disaster.

CS: Were you ever worried about the repercussions?

CK: Yeah, I thought I wasn’t going to work anymore. I thought it was gonna be like, ya know, like you said, they paid good money for this thing, they hired me, I took a very long time to write it, and this is what I finally gave them after they’d been waiting all this time. But at the same time, I’d been talking about the movie/script to people, and I got the sense that people thought it was a funny idea, so I had a little bit of confidence that it might not be so terrible.

CS: Do you have any sort of support group, close friends, etc., that reads your material before you go out with it?

CK: No. No one reads anything I write until I turn it in. I thought the mentions in the film of the Casablanca screenplay were a hilarious insider writer’s joke. Most in the industry know that Casablanca was rewritten continually on set, as opposed to being a screenplay that was simply written and then filmed. I’m actually just quoting verbatim Robert McKee. That’s all McKee always talks about, so I was doing a Robert McKee thing.

CS: Interesting. I assume you went to a McKee seminar?

CK: Yes, I didn’t go to it for the reason that Kaufman goes in the movie. I went for research on this film.

CS: Were there ever any plans to have the real McKee in Adaptation?

CK: We talked about it, but we weren’t putting anyone else real in there, so we thought it’d be weird.

CS: What’d he think about being a character in your film?

CK: Ultimately, he really liked the movie. He came to a screening recently and was very pleased.

CS: I was sad to see McKee’s one-page speech about how you can’t do a one-page speech in a movie go. Why was it cut?

I think it was filmed but cut because the movie was so long... a lot of that stuff was filmed, and the assembly of the movie was so dense, so much stuff happened. Even as it is now it’s a little bit overwhelming. So, we’re trying to get the movie moving at that point, and that was obviously, intentionally a complete stop in everything, so I think that’s why it’s gone. I think we’re going to publish the script as we went into production with it, so that will be in there.

CS: Do you think the film remained true to the tone of the screenplay?

CK: Adaptation is an interesting thing because it’s an extremely modular structure. The order is completely open. It isn’t arbitrary. I mean it’s all intention al on my part, but at the same time when you’re cutting any movie, you’re moving stuff around because you have to, or because you’ve cut out scenes and you need to make things work again. Inevitably, you do move things, and with a more linear story there are certain constrictions; it leaves you options but not as many. There are infinite number of options to Adaptation. It’s sort of a godsend, but it’s also daunting because you never really know how to ultimately structure it. You say to yourself, ‘Oh, you could do this.’ Or, ‘Wait, we could do this. Move this here.’ And it goes on and on. So it’s been tricky. We’re probably about two-thirds of the way through at this point, and we still have to shoot. So we’ll see what kind of shape it takes...

CS: Do you ever take rewrite assignments?

CK: No. I’ve thought about taking rewrite work or production polish stuff, but I haven’t yet. I’ve been busy with my own stuff; it’s what I prefer to do. But I guess at some point maybe I will.

CS: Do you plan to direct?

CK: I’ve been writing something now. I’ve cleaned my plate a bit; I’ve been dealing with stuff that I had to do for a long time now. I finished a draft of another script which Michel [Gondry] is going to direct, and that was something that’s been haunting me for quite a while. So there’s a draft in, and there’s more work to do, but it frees me up to start a new spec. My intention is to direct it.

CS: Tell me about your new project, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. It’s set to star Kate Winslet and Jim Carrey, right?

CK: Yes. What initially happened was Michel Gondry had a friend in France who had an idea – he’s kind of a conceptual artist – and the thought was, ‘What if you got a card in the mail one day that said you’d been erased from someone’s memory?’ So, Michel came to me with that idea, and we kind of worked it into a bit of story. And we pitched it –

CS: Don’t say ‘pitched’; that’s what Donald Kaufman would say.

CK: [Laughs] Yep, Kaufman’s dialogue in Adaptation. I hated when Donald would say that. Anyway, it was my one sort of pitching experience, and I went around to a bunch of different studios with Michel and ended up selling it. I started writing it probably in 1998, and because there was all this other stuff happening with Adaptation and Human Nature, it kind of took a while. It was also very complicated for me to write. The conceit is sort of tricky, because not only is it going backward, but the memory is being erased while the character is going through it, and there are a lot of technical problems there.

CS: I really liked the screenplay. I heard you cut out the sci-fi beginning and ending from your first draft in order to keep things more rooted in reality?

Yeah, I like starting it this way because it doesn’t tell the audience anything about what they’re going to see. I like the idea of taking the audience in one direction and then jerking them in another direction and having them have to catch up to figure out what’s going on, and I think this does that.

CS: Okay, now for the question I’ve been waiting to ask. I loved the Swamp Ape from the first draft of Adaptation and was sad to see it go –

CK: Oh, no...

CS: I’m curious about the decision to leave that and a lot of the other surrealistic scenes from the first draft behind.

CK: It’s a discussion and an argument that Spike [Jonze] and I had for a long time. I think that was Spike’s decision or insistence. The difference in the last part of the movie that we shot and the last part of the movie as I originally wrote it is that it’s less broad. Spike felt it was important that there be no demarcation between the first part of the movie and the last part of the movie – that they blend together so that you could watch the whole thing and be emotionally engaged and then afterward think about it and go, ‘Oh, wait a minute, isn’t that what he said he wasn’t going to do?’ So, that’s the reasoning why it’s not there, and I think ultimately I agree with it, especially in the form that the movie has taken – even though I had an affection for the Swamp Ape too. But I think looking at the movie the way it is, it would have been very out of place.

CS: Were you worried about changing an ending that so many of your various executives and producers loved?

CK: Even Malkovich got changed. Malkovich was a lot sillier than it ended up being as a movie. The last third of Malkovich is completely changed from my original draft. It was very much more comedic, less angst-ridden...

– 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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