Writing Outside of the Rules:

Charlie Kaufman

by Paul dunne

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Charlie Kaufman is a screenwriter and filmmaker like no other. He knows no other style than revolutionary as he refuses to play by the rules or fit inside generic boxes. He takes risks where others load their films with clichéd archetypes and pre-packaged emotional moments. He plays with pathos like other writers do out of place comedic one-liners. His protagonists don't fall in love because they're beautiful or the top billed actors, rather they often fall out of love, becoming lost in the mazes of their own lives. Kaufman isn’t afraid of frustrated, directionless characters or confusing, complex stories. He embraces the poetic and imperfect over predictable plot developments and happy-ever-afters. His dialogue strays as far as possible from film speak, opting to include the stutters, hesitations, and misunderstandings of regular conversation while avoiding the pitfalls of humdrum mumblecore or the rapid babble of Indiewood. Kaufman brings to life an eccentric, yet mundane reality unlike any other screenwriter or filmmaker, which all too closely reflects our own. I recommend watching his entire oeuvre, but for those unconvinced I will provide a taste of three of his best films, in my opinion of course.  

Being John Malkovich is the ideal introduction to Kaufman as it was his introduction to the mainstream. As worthless as awards are, Kaufman’s script received an Academy Award nomination and won a BAFTA despite its surreal subject matter and having been turned down by multiple studios. The film is about a puppeteer (John Cusack) who discovers a portal that leads into the titular John Malkovich’s mind. There is no better summary of the film than Cusack’s own thoughts after discovering the portal ‘’it raises all sorts of philosophical type questions about the nature of self, about the existence of a soul, you know, am I me? Is Malkovich Malkovich?”

With this film, we are introduced to themes and motifs that run across all Kaufman’s works. His near-obsession with puppets and their inherent issues of identity and agency are explored thoroughly. Various sub conscious and puppetry scenes provide a wonderful blend of philosophy, physicality and the psychedelic as we are allowed behind various characters’ eyes. Cusack, Cameron Diaz, and Catherine Keener all give terrific performances as an ever-shifting love triangle, punctuated by equally comedic and tragic moments. Being John Malkovich may sound complex or serious but it is one of Kaufman’s more fantastical and comedic works, making us, not just think but laugh too.

I don’t know where or how to begin writing about Adaptation except at its beginning. We are presented with a black screen and a manic monologue from Nicholas Cage. He expresses his doubts, anxieties, and fears in an unfiltered, aimless ramble of inner thought. Adaptation is about a screenwriter called Charlie Kaufman adapting a biographical novel into a screenplay and the challenges he faces with this job and within himself (based on Kaufman’s failed attempts to adapt that same novel in reality).

The script breaks all the rules of every screenwriting class or book. No one should write a script about someone writing a script, and yet Kaufman did. His meta-film incorporates behind the scenes footage of the filming of Being John Malkovich and places Kaufman himself as the protagonist, portrayed by none other than Nicholas Cage. By all accounts, this movie should be a horrific mess. However, it works fantastically, so well in fact it received and won various nominations and awards across all notable cinematic award bodies.

It is a film loaded with inter-referential layers, it secretly describes and comments on itself as we watch it. The cast of weird and wacky characters expose themselves, the oncoming plot developments, and the mechanics of screenwriting to us. Their anxieties, awkwardness, and adaptations to their lives sprawl across the run time in a mesmerising riddle of formulaic, but fresh, film.

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Synecdoche, New York is Kaufman’s magnum opus, his masterpiece. It is an epic postmodern tragedy engaged with the ineffectiveness of communication between people and the inevitable death that awaits us all. It embraces classic and universal issues throughout, forcing us to face Caden’s (Philip Seymour Hoffman) mistakes and misgivings. Ultimately, leading us to question our own past, present, and selves.

Hoffman gives the performance of his life as a hypochondriacal, artistic genius who sets himself an impossible task: to create a theatre piece that will honestly tell the story of every living human, their disasters, their delights, their dilemmas, all at the same time.

Kaufman’s achievement in writing and directing this fractal film, of blending and bleeding multiple narrative layers of the fictional and the real together, of creating an equally cathartic and complex mess of absurdity and truth, is no small feat. Like Caden himself, I struggle to find a way to express this film’s effect. Its dense web is difficult to unwrap but incredibly rewarding. Watch it, not once, not twice, but as many times as you can handle. I’m not being hyperbolic, each time you do, you will glean something new.

Kaufman’s works measure heady filmic issues, existential philosophy, manic depression and surreal sadness without ever sacrificing entertainment. He never gets caught talking to himself or us, rather his movies are a marvel visually, thematically, comedically, emotionally, and structurally. His pain and passion permeates past the end credits. I've caught myself identifying with his characters and their situations far too often.

Kaufman’s works are sadly revolutionary, in a way I wish they weren’t but they unfortunately are. In his worlds not every hero saves the day, not every guy gets his girl, and not every story is wrapped up nicely with a bow on top. You can go to your local cinema right now and watch the latest release that feels like it came out last week, last month, last year, last decade. Those stories and how they're told, those characters and their outcomes are always the same. But Charlie Kaufman offers you something else, something sad, something funny, something tragic, something thoughtful. It’s challenging, it’s complex, it’s revolutionary. Give it a chance.