In conversation with Charlie Kaufman, Screenwriter

One of modern cinema’s most celebrated writers, Charlie Kaufman’s work includes surreal fantasy Being John Malkovich, cerebral sci-fi Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and comedy drama Adaptation. The three films mentioned were all nominated for an Academy Award with Kaufman winning the Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay in 2002 with Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.

Initially, I was only going to simply post an audio interview entitled In conversation with Charlie Kaufman (the link is below) but in my research I found a wealth of interviews and information. So much so, I decided to dedicate this post to his screenplay ADAPTATION – one of my all-time favorite movies about “love, sex and death” set against a backdrop of attempting to write a screenplay about flowers. The script also manages to include drugs, guns, car chases, porn, masturbation, alligators, multi-personality disorder and even a serial-killer. It is an intentional mixture of genres: a comedy and a drama and a pyschologicall thriller and an action movie, wrapped up as one esoteric, strange tall tale.

This is a writers movie. A movie about writers, both seasoned scribes and newbies. The film follows the storyline of an article written for a New York magazine which becomes a book, then adapted into a screenplay. The protagonist, a writer, goes to writing seminars, has writers block, struggles with the arc of his character, holes himself up in his room and isolates himself from others in order to finish a writing project, swings between having breakthroughs and hitting the wall, repels writing advice and then seeks it out, et al. As a writer, can you relate?

Kaufman, however, says the main character in the movie is not a parody of himself (or of  his fictional twin sibling). The protag, he claims, is the screenplay itself and its transformation.

At the core of the film is the concept of Charles Darwin’s adaptation theory, which is roughly described in one scene as being “a profound process” and “a way to survive in the world.”

Mislabeled as agoraphobic and interview-wary (to mythic proportions), Kaufman is admittedly shy but a true professional and generous when it comes to promoting films or sharing insights with other writers. We’ve pieced together interviews and information on him and his movies as an initial first step to having a real conversation with him. One day, I hope to interview him or feature him at an event. That would be a dream come true for me.

Until then, enjoy!

-Sequoia Hamilton, founder Ojai Writers Conference & Workshops

P.S. Below are links to the trailer and actual film and trailer (watch the film online for FREE) as well as the Kaufman’s bio, the screenplay, interviews (both video and audio), some favorite quotes from the movie and some writing exercises.

Bio:

Kaufman’s profile on IMBD. IMDb is the world’s most popular and authoritative source for movie, TV and celebrity content. The IMDb consumer site (www.imdb.com) is the #1 movie website in the world with a combined web and mobile audience of more than 150 million unique monthly visitors.

Film:

Trailer 

One-liner – A lovelorn screenwriter turns to his less talented twin brother for help when his efforts to adapt a non-fiction book go nowhere.

Synopsis – While his latest movie Being John Malkovich is in production, screenwriter Charlie Kaufman is hired to adapt Susan Orlean‘s non-fiction book “The Orchid Thief” for the screen. Kaufman struggles with the arduous task of adapting Orlean’s book, which doesn’t have an obvious dramatic line (It doesn’t. I’ve read it. It’s essentially a book about orchids.- Sequoia) At the same time Charlie faces a mid-life crisis, which is worsened by the presence of his twin brother Donald, a less talented but more joyous person than Charlie, who dreams of making a lot of money with screenplays. The movie also shows Susan Orlean as she does her research for the book, and John Laroche, a rare orchid hunter, whose passion for orchids and horticulture make Orlean discover passion and beauty for the first time in her life. Charlie wants to be faithful to Orlean’s book in his adaptation, but despite Laroche himself being an interesting character in his own right, Charlie is having difficulty finding enough material in Laroche to fill a movie, while equally not having enough to say cinematically about the beauty of orchids. The stories of the twin screenwriting brothers in Hollywood and Orlean interviewing Laroche in Florida eventually intertwine, with unpredictable results.

Overview – Adaptation is a 2002 American comedy-drama film directed by Spike Jonze and written by Charlie Kaufman. The film is based on Susan Orlean‘s non-fiction book The Orchid Thief, with numerous self-referential events. The film stars Nicolas Cage as Charlie and Donald Kaufman, Meryl Streep as Susan Orlean, with Chris Cooper as John LarocheCara SeymourBrian CoxTilda SwintonRon Livingston and Maggie Gyllenhaal. The film tells the story of Charlie Kaufman’s difficult struggle to adapt The Orchid Thief into a film. He adds a fictional double for himself, as well as a side story of a fictional romance between Orlean and Laroche.

Accolades – Adaptation achieved critical acclaim, and gained numerous awards at the 75th Academy Awards, 60th Golden Globe Awards and 56th British Academy Film Awards.

Watch Adaptation now for free

Here are a few of my favorite clips:

  • This clip is for all you writers out there! “Charlie attends a McKee Writing Seminar.” Robert McKee is a real life creative writing instructor who is widely known for his popular “Story Seminar”, which he developed when he was a professor at the University of Southern California.
  • “When you Spot Your Flower, Never Let Anything Get in Your Way” 

Audio:

Videos:

  • Susan Orlean (THE ORCHID THIEF) speaking on the making of ADAPTATION (loosely based on her novel). 
  • Nicholas Cage and Meryl Streep interview (She was was nominated for an Oscar in 2003 as best supporting actress for her perfomance in this.) – 
  • Interview with Charlie Kaufman at Göteborg International Film Festival 2011 – 

Script:

In filmmaking, it’s said there are three stories to every script: the shooting script, what is actually filmed, and what is edited – the final product. If you consider the script may have gone through several renditions before it reaches the shooting script stage, well the “adaptations” can be numerous.

Quotes:

Peppered throughout the movie are writing tips and universal messages such as:

  • “Find that ONE THING you feel passionately about …”
  • “It’s intoxicating to be around someone so alive …”
  • “Wow them in the end and you’ve got a hit.”
  • ‘The Characters must change and it must come from them”
  • “When you love, YOU own it and no one has the right to take that away. You are what you love NOT what loves you.”
  • “Help people be fascinated …”

EXERCISES FOR WRITERS:

Something to consider …

  • In real life, as in the film version, Kaufman went through writer’s block and did not know what to think of The Orchid Thief. Finally he wrote a script based in his experience of adapting The Orchid Thief as a screenplay. Of all your writings  – completed or in progress – what piece might be enhanced if you inserted your own life into the story?Write yourself into one of your stories.
  • In the film, Charlie Kaufman writes the way he lives… with great difficulty. His twin brother Donald lives the way he writes… with foolish abandon. Orlean writes about life… but can’t live it. Laroche’s life is a book… waiting to be adapted. As a writer, which character can you best identify with and why? If your life’s a book, perhaps you might want to hire a ghostwriter or partner with someone to write it.
  • Kaufman stated, “I really thought I was ending my career by turning that in!” What have you written that you are most afraid to share, to put “out there?” Post to an online blog, perhaps under a pen name (after all Charle created a twin Donald!) and see how it feels to share it.
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