Charlie Kaufman went from TV scribe to red-hot screenwriter in 1999 with “Being John Malkovich,” and his timing couldn’t have been better: That’s a year the industry looks back upon as being a flashpoint of American indie cinema, with rule-breaking, ambitious films like “Pi,” “Boys Don’t Cry,” “The Blair Witch Project,” “Three Kings” and “Fight Club” in multiplexes. That was also a time when major studios still ran “classics” divisions for smaller, arthouse (and arthouse-adjacent) fare, and from the vantage point of 2016, it feels like a million years ago.
Charlie Kaufman would be the first person to point that out the difference between then and now — after a string of well-received films directed by other filmmakers (“Malkovich” and “Adaptation” from Spike Jonze, “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” and “Human Nature” from Michel Gondry, “Confessions of a Dangerous Mind” from George Clooney), Kaufman directed his debut feature “Synecdoche, New York” in 2008.
While many — myself included — think of it as a modern classic (Roger Ebert called it the best film of the 2000s), the expensive, intricate film lost money just as the entire industry was buckling down in the wake of that year’s economic collapse.
Last year, Kaufman re-emerged with the melancholy and moving animated film “Anomalisa” (co-directed by Duke Johnson), which earned raves worldwide, along with an Oscar nomination for Best Animated Feature. It, too, underperformed at the box office. So what’s next for the talented but hard-to-market Kaufman? He sat down at the Karlovy Vary Film Festival and discussed the work he’d like to be doing and the non-cinematic writing projects that have captured his imagination.
So, “Anomalisa” was a crowd-sourced film, at least to some extent.
To some extent.
Anybody who’s done that at all knows that the fulfillment part is always the biggest pain in the ass. I’m just wondering how many objects you had to autograph for your donors.
I don’t know if we’re done yet, to tell you the truth. It was definitely thousands of things I had to sign. But you know, what happened was, once we were picked up at Paramount, they kind of took over the thing. I wasn’t involved in the crowdfunding thing; the company Starburns [Industries] that took it on, they were trying to raise money, and they wanted to do this. And I was like, I don’t want to crowd-source, I’m not asking people for money. But I said, “If you can raise the money, I’ll come on and make the movie with you.” So I was separate from it.
“Anomalisa” started as a radio play. Are you interested in other media? Obviously you started in television, and you’re well established as a screenwriter, but do you want to write for the theater? Novels?
Both, yeah. I mean, I love doing the theater. I started out doing theater as a kid, that was my path into all of this. Then I went to film school and I wanted to be a director, and actually was initially interested in acting.
But when I got to do these theater pieces, it was the first time I’d done it in a long time, and it was really a lot of fun. It’s sort of balancing for me — maybe I can’t balance it, but I’m hoping to be able to balance earning a living and then having the opportunity to do these other things. I’d like to do a play, I’ve been talking about it a lot with some actors that I want to work with, and I’m excited about that idea. And I’m writing a novel, which has been sort of a struggle for me, but I’ve been doing it for a few years now, trying to finish it.
Part of it is that I want to explore these other things, and part of it is that the business has become really difficult, it’s harder to get things made, and it’s harder to have any kind of autonomy or freedom. I got really lucky for a period there, after being unlucky for a very long period, so I was able to get stuff made, and then the business changed in 2008. “Synecdoche, New York” didn’t make money, and that sort of makes it more difficult to continue directing.
Is it naïve to think that there was a period where someone like you, coming into “Synecdoche” with such an established track record, and even with “Synecdoche” not being a box-office smash but getting great reviews, that there was at one point the kind of producer who would step up and say, “You know what? Maybe this one didn’t turn a profit, maybe the next one won’t, but I want to be in the Charlie Kaufman business.” Or am I just being romantic about the ’60s and ’70s?
Yeah, I think the timing of “Synecdoche,” which was 2008, which was when the business changed completely, whether it was my personal experience of the business changing because of that movie, and the business changing, literally…
When the economy collapsed.
The economy, yeah. I mean, first of all, “Synecdoche” was commissioned by Sony. They ultimately put it in turnaround, but they were going to make that movie, which is insane. They made “Adaptation,” which is a movie that they would never make now. So studios don’t do it, and the smaller companies, they’re struggling to figure out how to stay afloat. The answer is that I haven’t been able to figure out how to transition into that world that you’re describing.
And then I was just gone for a while. One speculates that people are thinking about you, and then people are no longer thinking about you. There’s a new crop of people that they’re thinking about, and you’ve got to figure out how to worm your way back in. The thing about “Anomalisa” was that the only reason that happened was because of the crowdfunding. And then we ended up with a guy named Keith Calder, who financed the movie and gave us complete freedom. That movie would never be made within the system. It almost wasn’t made outside of the system: It was pretty tough going, we kept running out of money.
So I’ve been trying to get this movie made, called “Frank or Francis,” for, um…well, since 2010. There have been a couple sort of possible permutations that just didn’t happen. The question is, Why? Considering that the budget is not extraordinary, and I have this sort of incredible box-office cast [according to Vulture, that ensemble included Jack Black, Nicolas Cage, Steve Carell, Elizabeth Banks, Kevin Kline, Catherine Keener, Paul Reubens and Jacki Weaver], and any one of those people in any other situation, with maybe any other director in a movie that maybe was less risky, would get a movie financed.
And if I gave “Frank or Francis” to Spike Jonze — I’m not saying he’d want to do it, but if Spike wanted to do it, probably people would be more willing to take a chance on a budget that’s small, considering the star power. But I haven’t been able to get it done.
Television is not the same as when you left it; it’s become a place for auteurs to get the money and hours they need to tell a story. Do you see, maybe, eight episodes of an HBO series as something you’d be interested in doing?
I mean, I see it. HBO doesn’t see it. [Laughs] I’ve had a couple of pilots, maybe three. No, two; one was from when I was younger, before TV became the golden age. And I did an FX pilot [“How and Why”], which I directed and made, but they didn’t pick it up. So, I don’t know. I thought the pilot was good, I thought it was really interesting, and I had an extraordinary cast [including Keener, John Hawkes, Michael Cera and Tom Noonan] again.
But it was odd, and I don’t know how odd things are on television. I’m not sure that they’re odd. I mean, I think the quality of the writing [on other shows] is good. There’s a lot of crime stuff, that seems to be the thing, and I didn’t have any crime in mine. Not that I’m against crime, but I didn’t. [Laughs]
Bret Easton Ellis likes to say that the “golden age of television” is being a little oversold, in that the writing comes down to the basic episodic breakdowns.
In the U.K., it’s more experimental. [They take] more chances, and there’s really kind of odd things that you see there, that I really love. I hope that it happens in the U.S., and I think that it will, because I think that just one of those shows needs to get through, and they need to see that people want to see them. I had a really kind of good concept for HBO that I felt very confident about as an idea, but it was structurally odd. And I think it could have been successful, but they ultimately just were worried about committing to it, so they didn’t.
I’m curious if you’ve seen “The BFG.”
No, I actually looked up the trailer last week to see what it was, because I wasn’t familiar with it.
I ask because Melissa Mathison‘s screenplay very much follows the rhythms of the Roald Dahl book, which is not in keeping with the third-act-of-a-children’s-adventure-movie that we’ve all had ingrained into our DNA at this point. And the movie’s tanking.
That’s the reason why, you think?
Who knows, there’s always a million reasons. I’m just wondering if you think that we have a generation of moviegoers who are being conditioned by studios not to accept anything outside the narrative norm as even being a movie.
Well, we’re being trained to think that just because we’re being conditioned, but also because if you look at the screenwriting gurus and that sort of thing, everyone says that this is the form it takes. I don’t know how that movie ends, but I do feel when I look at “Synecdoche” and I look at “Anomalisa,” and try to understand why…
“Synecdoche” was divisive, you know, there were some very good reviews and there were some very bad reviews, and that movie did not do well, and it wasn’t marketed well, and there wasn’t money put into it, and all those reasons. But “Anomalisa” got almost universally great reviews, and it didn’t do well. And somebody said to me, a producer that I know, said that it’s because it’s unhappy. And I don’t know if that’s the problem with “The BFG” — is it an unhappy ending?
No, not at all, it just doesn’t take us through the usual climactic story beats that we’ve come to expect. I’m just thinking about the research you must have done for “Adaptation,” this notion that there’s one way you have to write a screenplay if you want to get a film made. I think it was Stephen Sondheim who said that a producer accused him of being able to write a hit show but refusing to do it.
Somebody said that to me recently, I think there was an argument — I won’t say where it was — internally about whether or not I could do a commercial thing. Somebody brought me up in a meeting, saying, “No, he could do it.” They didn’t say I don’t want to, but… Yeah, with things like those screenwriting structural things, it’s not only about how to get a movie made, I think it’s also that they talk about it outside the commercial aspects of it.
They talk about it as if this is the story structure that goes back to — they talk about Aristotle’s “Poetics,” and obviously Joseph Campbell talks about whatever he talks about — and everybody sort of assumes that, well, this is what it has to be, and I don’t understand that. It makes no sense in any kind of artistic endeavor, and history is rife with proof of that. There’s a new way of painting that comes into being, and the French Academy is, “Aaah, you can’t do that!” And then of course those things become the thing that everybody does. I don’t see why writing — certainly in novels, people have [expanded the form] and in poetry, people do that.
In screenwriting, you wouldn’t do it that way, and the main reason for that is that people come into this because there’s an extraordinary amount of money to be made if you get into the business. So their motives are not the same as if you’re writing anything else — your chances of making a living at it are nil, but you can come here and do quite well. So maybe people start seeing it as a form rather than an exploration.
“Frank or Francis” is a musical, right?
It is. An excessive musical — there’s 50 songs in it. And they’re not all full songs, I mean, snippets, you know. “Frank or Francis” uses the singing as a way to express the interior lives of these people. Because a lot of it is about what happens online, and rather than having people typing with voiceover, or seeing stuff onscreen, which didn’t seem cinematic to me, I thought it would be cool if they sang while they did it.
And I’m certain that scares people, because… “Well, what would that look like? Would anybody go to see that?” The answer is: I don’t know! The answer is, based on my experience, probably not. But it seemed like kind of a cool way to try to do something. It seemed interesting and fun, and the songs are funny, and the script is — “Synecdoche” was a comedy, a lot of people don’t think that, but it was written as a comedy by me.
“Frank or Francis” is very clearly a comedy. On the page, I mean, the jokes are jokes, and the songs are funny, and it’s very lively. There’s kind of a funereal thing going in “Synecdoche,” but “Frank or Francis,” because of the singing and the characters being larger than life, I think it doesn’t have.
And who’s writing the music?
Do the immediate financial returns of “Synecdoche” or “Anomalisa” temper your satisfaction with having made them?
I take a lot of pride in fighting to get things made and having that happen. And in both of those cases, I feel very proud that those movies exist, and of the work. I’m hesitating to say “fearlessness,” because that sounds like I’m bragging, but I think the fact that we went forward and made these things that we didn’t know would be commercially successful makes me feel good about myself. Yeah, I don’t feel at all ashamed at the box office. What I do feel is that it makes it really hard for me to get things made.
And it’s frustrating for me, especially when the reviews are there, the reviews are great, let’s go on this ride, and then there’s no ride, you know? Which was specifically the experience of “Anomalisa.” We came out of nowhere with that movie, we had no expectations, no one knew we were making it, more or less, aside from the Kickstarter thing, which had happened a long time ago at that point.
And then Paramount picks us up — Paramount! OK, this is it! I had ownership of the movie, which I’d never had before. I made no money on that movie, because there was no money to be made, but I had a percentage of the movie if the movie did well. And that’s the other issue: I need to make a living, and it gets very hard sometimes struggling to pay mortgages and stuff like that.
I mean, I’m not crying poverty or anything, I’m just older and I would like to have a sense of security, like it’s OK if something doesn’t happen for three years, I could survive. Or I could work on my novel when there’s no money coming in. Or I could do a play, which I really want to do and am frustrated that I can’t.
There was that period where the French started bankrolling Woody Allen, and the Japanese were underwriting Jim Jarmusch. I want some Ukrainian billionaire to be like, “Yes! Charlie Kaufman!”
I do, too. But I think both those guys have long histories as directors, and — I don’t know about Jarmusch in terms of box office, but Woody Allen was massive for a while, right?
In the ’70s and ’80s, I don’t know about the box office, but they were big movies, they were the important movies of that era. And Jarmusch’s movies probably don’t cost a lot, right? I feel like if I had one successful movie on my own terms, where it feels like, OK, you made the movie you wanted to make, and people went to see it, then it changes everything. I mean, I had all these movies that got a lot of attention, but they were directed by other people, and I think people see that, and they go, “Well, hire Spike.”
So if Disney comes calling and says, “We’ll make ‘Frank or Francis,’ but we want you to do three drafts of ‘Avengers 8,'” could you make that trade?
Of course. But — no one wants me to do that. I have to prove myself in that world, I think. Why would they want me? It isn’t like I’m turning down those things left and right; I’m actually embarking on something a little more mainstream now for a studio, and if that does well, if that would affect me as a writer…it could happen. That would be nice. I’ve never even seen any “Avengers” movie, so I don’t know what they’d be. Because when I think of “The Avengers,” I think of, um…
Emma Peel and John Steed?
Yeah! And it’s really sort of bothersome to me that it’s now associated with this other thing. It’s like [2004 Oscar-winner] “Crash” — Don’t call it “Crash”! [David Cronenberg‘s 1996 film] is a very different movie, and the one [the title] should be identified with.