The screenwriter has traditionally been the wag of the Hollywood film industry. Living a life of obscurity filled with the pressures of deadlines, re-writes and more deadlines, often it’s the writer who provides the first signs of life to any film. Without a script all you have is a dream. There have been many great screenplays, possibly more so than there are great films and most of us never know who wrote them.
Charlie Kaufman is not just a screenwriter; he is quite possibly the most wanted screenwriter in Hollywood. Despite the modest number of stories he’s penned for the screen, any one of them is probably more original, startling and intelligent than most of us will ever write in our lives. Truthfully, at the moment he has as much box office appeal as any director or actor for me, and if I hadn’t known that he wrote Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (‘04), I probably wouldn’t have gone to see it in the theatres. With his strange and complex tales of insecure protagonists, he creates original personal works about small people in the big world of their own lives.
Part of the appeal is the lack of broad strokes. His characters are never snatched from the page of the formula handbook, and their arcs are real in a way that most characters aren’t. In Adaptation (‘02), his main character is Charlie Kaufman the screenwriter — or probably the Kaufman he imagines himself to be. In the film, Charlie Kaufman (the character) struggles to write the most honest and beautiful story ever; one devoid of plot action, character arcs and personal growth. A story which he sees as paralleling real life, one where characters don’t change and keep making mistakes. Along side of this, the film follows his less talented but more personable brother as he sits down one day and writes a Hollywood Blockbuster of a script. Oh the conflict. However Adaptation then takes a voltage jump as the two brothers wind up in a film with drugs, swamp hunts and car crashes. It is Kaufman’s understanding concerning the nature of expectation, from both us as the audience and as people that generates a wildly original exploration of personal destiny.
But it is not just his capacity to slash together a strange tale that makes him one of the only screenwriters to have a contract that secures him choice over who directs the film. It’s that his stories are about cinema as much as they are about people, which may be why they are so pleasurable to watch. Both explicitly and implicitly his screenplays are written with a vision for cinematic storytelling techniques. From the multiple Malkovichs in Being John Malkovich (‘99) to the collapsing house in a guy’s mind in ES of the SM, Kaufman has worked with directors he felt could bring his story to the screen. With Spike Jonze directing BJM and Adaptation he got a young talent who after years of groundbreaking music videos, knew how to play with the rules.
With both these highly conceptual stories, the capacity of a director to render both the story and the ideas visually is paramount. The same can be said with ES of the SM. Not only did the film work as an emotionally visual investigation into the nature of mind and memory but it gave birth to a new genre of film — the Romantic Nightmare. This film was the second pairing of Kaufman and French director Michel Gondry. Perhaps because of the less than fully realized (though still strange) comedy Human Nature (‘01), Kaufman and Gondry decided to give it a second shot, and the result was a film with Jim Carrey but without Jim Carrey, an Oscar nomination for Kate Winslet and a little bald gold bastard for Kaufman.