Charlie Kaufman the Oscar-winning screenwriter and one of the Hollywood’s most original thinkers has created some of the boldest films in recent memory. His works are layered with original concepts and basic human emotions. Kaufman is behind Being John Malkovich, Adaptation, and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (for which he won an Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay). I am a massive fan of Kaufman’s work. For me it is almost like his films exist in a parallel universe where the normal rules of either movies and reality don’t seem to apply. But even with all this talent and success he managed to become Hollywood’s forgotten man; it’s almost like the industry has suffered a collective memory wipe, just like the lovers in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.
Kaufman’s unconventional approach to writing scripts and no desire to follow Hollywood studios unwritten laws has been a problem for him since the beginning of his career. Back in the 90’s when he was still writing for television he came up with an idea for his own sitcom, with the unappealing title Depressed Roomies. He shopped its script around, but network executives turned him down repeatedly, they thought it was too dark and weird to be put on the air. Kaufman then turned his energy into writing a movie script and this time he came up with the genius script for Being John Malkovich. Not surprisingly, there were few studios interested in the movie; some of them were intrigued by the premise but also wanted to make some major revisions to the script, which he refused to do. He insisted to only sign on if he was given executive-producer credit as well and the result of this demand was a five years wait for the movie to be finally made.
Being John Malkovich generated positive buzz thanks to its inclusion at various film festivals before its theatrical release In 1999 and also because of the collaboration between Kaufman and director Spike Jonze, which was the director that everyone wanted to work back then. Kaufman had no idea who Jonze was at the time (typical Kaufman), but the two quickly bonded and the result of their partnership was awesome. Charlie followed up Malkovich with Human Nature the film was met with an indifferent reception and failed to achieve the commercial success of the Malkovich movie. But he bounced back with Adaptation, the 2002 film that earned Kaufman an Oscar nomination is another example of how he truly thinks outside the Hollywood standards, Kaufman had been hired to write the screenplay for The Orchid Thief: A True Story of Beauty and Obsession, a nonfiction bestseller by New Yorker writer Susan Orlean.
Kaufman found it difficult to create a plot around it. So he blurred the line between fact and fiction telling the parallel tales of his own struggle to adapt Orlean's book and the tale of Orlean herself, writing about the orchid thief John Laroche. Adaptation did much better than Human Nature still, the studio was very upset when he turned the script in, because that was not what the executives were expecting. Kaufman’s next script, Confessions of a Dangerous Mind which was directed and starred by George Clooney was another example of how he doesn’t fit in the Hollywood scene. Unlike all the previous films, Charlie didn't work with the director and some re-writes were done by Clooney himself. The final cut did not impress Charlie, who disliked the tone of the movie, at the time he said: ”My value to a director is to keep them aware of what the movie's about, but he wasn't interested in that." Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, an original script based on an idea given to Charlie by a friend of the film's director Michel Gondry was one of his most creative writing and the film that finally won Charlie an Oscar. Synecdoche, New York, is his trickiest screenplay to date, which is really saying something and also marked Kaufman's directorial debut. Synecdoche a morbid, opaque manifesto that split critical and audience opinion right in the middle, was one of the most highly anticipated films to screen at Cannes that year, but it left the festival without a distributor. The movie was a flop and it was the excuse that the studios needed to avoid to work with him in the future.
Money talks in Hollywood. Synecdoche made just 4 million dollars worldwide, a fifth of its budget. “Since then, it’s gotten hard for me,” shrugs Kaufman in a interview with Marc Maron at his WTF podcast. “But it also got hard for everyone. Movie studios are making very predictable, conventional movies, and I tend not to write big movies or what are perceived as big movies. So, it becomes harder and harder.” I totally agree with him when he bashes Hollywood movies these days. And before you start complaining that I am being a snob, let me tell you that like any other muppet out there I watch every Super Hero, action packed movie that is released and most of the time I enjoy these movies. I am just saying that we are living in this “Fast and the Furious” culture, and films like Charlie Kaufman's are considered much too weird, hard to follow, not immediately clear and depressing and I think that is a shame. I think we should have the both kind of movies.
So If you’re a Charlie Kaufman fan like me, the past years have been frustrating. Since 2008 he has written three screenplays and three television pilots, and none of them were made. I was craving some Kaufman, badly. But last year he finally made a great come back with the animated film Anomalisa. For Anomalisa, he and his producers decided to raise an initial $200,000 via the crowd-funding website Kickstarter. which was the way around he found to have one of his scripts actually made into a film. The story of the film was inspired by the delusional condition known as the Fregoli Syndrome, which causes the sufferer to believe everyone else is the same person. It is a sad, lonely and anti-love story, a classic Kaufman. Anomalisa was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Animated Feature and it is the most human film of 2015. And it doesn't star a single human. The film proved how Kaufman’s movies still have a place in the industry and it was all thanks to his 5,770 generous Kickstarter backers.
Charlie Kaufman can be difficult to work sometimes and his films are deep and original but also fairly niche and they tend to feature people who are outcasts. Studios likely wouldn't want to gamble on this kind of movies because it easier and safer to justify spending absurd amounts of money on mundane and calculated movies and Kaufman doesn’t do that kind of movie. So I hope the success of Anomalisa help to change the way studio executives think about his work and movies in general. Kaufman has quite a career he is celebrated and acknowledged by his fans and peers, I think it is time for the Hollywood suits to start doing the same.