Charlie Kaufman is, without question, one of the most unique voices in contemporary cinema. His are the words behind films like Being John Malkovich, Adaptation, and Human Nature, and Confessions of a Dangerous Mind – penetrating, deeply cerebral movies that teem with imagination and self-reflection. It’s this reflexive undercurrent that propels most of his scripts; a lingering, and often explicit awareness that the story at hand, the characters onscreen, exist within a fractured and layered reality — one constructed not with prose or causality, but with the subjective uncertainties and psychological frailties that, for Kaufman, have come to define the human condition.
Kaufman’s screenwriting isn’t as concerned with telling a story as it is with filtering through reality. There are no easy truths in his scripts; the clean is consistently eschewed in favor of the complex, the minute, and the human.
Kaufman spoke about his approach to writing during a riveting speech in London last year (embedded below), as part of the Screenwriters’ Lecture Series produced by the British Academy of Film and Television Arts (BAFTA), in conjunction with the British Film Institute (BFI). Gliding with elegance between the profound and the comedic, Kaufman spent most of his time onstage talking about the hardships inherent in any form of writing, and especially in writing for film. Though it alludes to some of the societal and commercial forces that can stifle a writer’s creativity, Kaufman’s speech largely avoids generalities, instead focusing on his own, intensely personal experiences, and on his struggles to translate those experiences into compelling narratives.
Writing is a struggle, of course, because it invokes the personal. It requires Kaufman and his contemporaries to take a psychological inventory — to look within, and to come to terms with their own darkness, their own shortcomings, and their most well-concealed weaknesses. But it’s from precisely this weakness that Kaufman’s creativity springs; from a vulnerability that, according to him, lurks within everyone:
So you are here, and I am here, spending our time as we must, it must be spent. I am trying not to spend this time, as I spend most of my time, trying to get you to like me; trying to control your thoughts, to use my voodoo at the speed of light, the speed of sound, the speed of thought, trying to convince you that your two hours with me are not going to be resented afterwards.
It is an ancient pattern of time usage for me, and I’m trying to move deeper, hoping to be helpful. This pattern of time usage paints over an ancient wound, and paints it with bright colours. It’s a sleight of hand, a distraction, so to attempt to change the pattern let me expose the wound. I now step into this area blindly, I do not know what the wound is, I do know that it is old. I do know that it is a hole in my being. I do know it is tender. I do believe that it is unknowable, or at least unable to be articulable.
I do believe you have a wound too. I do believe it is both specific to you and common to everyone. I do believe it is the thing about you that must be hidden and protected, it is the thing that must be tap danced over five shows a day, it is the thing that won’t be interesting to other people if revealed. It is the thing that makes you weak and pathetic. It is the thing that truly, truly, truly makes loving you impossible. It is your secret, even from yourself. But it is the thing that wants to live.
It is the thing from which your art, your painting, your dance, your composition, your philosophical treatise, your screenplay is born.
In many ways, the writer’s delivery reads like one of his own scripts. It darts and flits from anecdote to anecdote, but somehow maintains a unity and form that only become more apparent as the lecture progresses. Kaufman’s text is characteristically self-aware, as well, rife with musings and meditations not only on the difficulties of writing, but on the difficulties of writing a speech about the difficulties of writing. At one point, he even launches into a story about himself onstage at that very moment, dissecting his sweat-drenched anxieties and neuroses in the third-person, as if he were little more than a passive observer.
Kaufman never arrives at a solution; he offers no magic formula, no silver bullet. “I can’t tell anyone how to write a screenplay because the truth is that anything of value you might do comes from you,” he says. “The way I work is not the way that you work, and the whole point of any creative act is that. What I have to offer is me, what you have to offer is you, and if you offer yourself with authenticity and generosity I will be moved.”
At times, it seems as if the challenge is more fascinating to Kaufman than the solution itself. It’s a somewhat Zen-like way to conceive of writing — one that privileges “journey” over “destination,” and exploration over achievement — though it doesn’t necessarily make the task any easier. Because at the end of the day, screenwriting demands the impossible: to bridge a connection from one person’s mind to a mass of hyper-variant audiences, pixelated with unknown personalities and anonymous histories.
Constructing a filmic experience capable of resonating with even a portion of this public can be daunting, but it can also stoke dormant creative embers, and may even result in new narrative paradigms. Kaufman explains this phenomenon, rather beautifully, with the following example:
Think about your reaction to me, think past it. Why do you have that reaction? Why do you react a certain way to certain things? What does your reaction have to do with your wants? How does it correlate? How would your reaction to what I’m saying change if I were older? Younger? Female? A different race? British? What does it mean about you, that it would change? What does it mean about the subjectivity of your opinions? What if I was me but had a different demeanour? What if I was more confident? Less confident? What if I was more effeminate? What if I was less effeminate? What if I was drunk? What if I was on the verge of tears?
Think about all the assessments, all the interpretations that occur with each interaction. Think about all that you bring to each encounter. Multiply that by all the people here. How much is going on in this room and how do we weave that into a movie?
The challenge of multiple points of view forces us to come up with solutions, to throw away conventional approaches. Movies tend to be very concrete in their construction of events and characters. It’s a tricky medium in which to deal with interior lives. But I think it’s really a great medium for it. Movies share so much with dreams which, of course, only deal with interior lives. Your brain is wired to turn emotional states into movies.