In Variety's 1999 list of "Ten Scribes to Watch", Charlie Stuart Kaufman was the only one not pictured, and when Esquire staged a group portrait of top screenwriters, his name was prominent but again he declined to be photographed. Close-lipped about his own life and background, Kaufman confesses he's a shy, reserved guy: "I don't like talking about myself." His wild, surreal screenplays are in contrast to his personality; the Long Island native longs for quiet time, which he finds writing his darkly comedic tales.
Born on 19 November 1958 (despite what the IMDB tells us), Charlie had a normal kind of Jewish upbringing: "I grew up in the equivalent of Levittown, that kind of post-World War II development" he told Salon.com, and spent time staging "plays at home for my parents and making short movies" that, even then, were quite good.
He spent his sophomore, junior and senior years in West Hartford, Connecticut, after moving there from Massapequa, Long Island with his parents and older sister in about 1974. The town has produced some figures of minor celebrity, including a Nobel Laureate and several authors. Katharine Hepburn's family moved there when she was 20.
(High school senior, 1976)
As introverted then as he is now, Kaufman nonetheless appears to have been well-liked by those who knew him, though there's little doubt he felt like an outsider. Always very smart, he was a good student but not outstanding. He was anti-establishment, so school was not his priority, and he spent all three years in the TV Company (an elective for the study of TV production) and in the drama club. While there was no grand plan to turn into the cinema's comedically subversive soul that he is today, Kaufman never hid his taste for comedy — "I always loved the Marx Brothers, Woody Allen, and, when I was older, Lenny Bruce." Charlie himself was a talented comedic actor who performed in numerous school and community plays including "Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde." His big acting break came senior year when he landed the lead role in his high school's production of “Play It Again, Sam,” the Woody Allen play that first appeared on Broadway in 1969. Charlie wrote an account of the experience for his high school yearbook. Kaufman also acted in “On A Clear Day” his first year and “Up the Down Staircase” his second year, and was briefly involved with an improv group called Upscene, in which Charlie was a standout performer.
Some 550 seniors participated in the high school's commencement exercise on June 16, 1976. Charlie did not graduate with honours or high honours, but he did receive his school's Diane T. Weldon Scholarship for Achievement in Dramatic Arts and was one of three seniors honoured with the school's dramatics award for their work over the three-year period. (The other two went on to Central Connecticut State College, now Central Connecticut State University, and the Hartford College for Women.)
After graduating, Kaufman headed off for Boston University, reportedly hated it, and transferred to NYU where he studied film. Among his classmates was future film director Chris Columbus, but it was with student Paul Proch that Kaufman would form a lasting friendship. Possessed of the same skewed sense of humour, the pair wrote a multitude of unproduced scripts and plays, eventually scoring a breakthrough churning out ersatz Letters to the Editor for National Lampoon magazine, among other pieces which can be found here. "I think they paid $25 each," Kaufman would recall in an interview with the Hartford Advocate. "And that was exciting. And when we wrote our first article — and I want to say that the articles were 25 cents a word — it was a lot of money. I remember that the first big check I got from the Lampoon was a thousand-something. I Xeroxed it." Charlie and Paul's collaboration continued after college, resulting in scripts and plays such as Purely Coincidental, which North Adams Transcript journalist John Mitchell describes as "a brilliant attempt at building a story on coincidence and featuring lots of Don Knotts jokes." Says Charlie: "It's about film school, a very odd, very long screenplay. [204 pages.] I remember we sent it to what we thought was Steven Spielberg's house. Usually we got the stuff sent back to us, or we never saw it again. You know, the big thing was, you can't submit unsolicited manuscripts. We were always up against that. The only response we ever got was from Alan Arkin. He read it and wrote back this really lovely letter, which was so encouraging. He really liked it. And that somebody read it — that Alan Arkin read it — was really an enormous deal for us." More on the Purely Coincidental experience can be found here.
Kaufman lived in Minneapolis during the late 1980s, working in the Star Tribune circulation department for four-and-a-half years. "I would take missed-newspaper calls at 5 in the morning. It was a hard job, especially in the winter. I'd get up at 4 and take the bus downtown. It was freezing and everybody looked really sad on the bus. I worked at the art institute as well. I was the person who said 'The museum will be closing in 15 minutes' over the loudspeaker." Proch would visit Charlie and, in an unsuccessful attempt to secure the services of an agent, the pair wrote some TV scripts, such as a spec for Married... With Children (entitled "Al's Well That Ends Al") and "a Newhart in our style, which had nothing to do with the Newhart episodes that existed. Coincidentally, the big thing that they did at the end of that series, we had in our episode. We had Bob Hartley and his therapy group [from Newhart's previous sitcom] staying at the inn in Vermont. As you know, the ending — 'it was all a dream!' — it's not exactly the same, but there's enough of a similarity to make us, at the time, very suspicious, y'know?"
In 1991 Kaufman moved to Los Angeles with no job and no prospects. Aside from the National Lampoon articles, his first professional writing gig was on a sitcom. "I got myself an agent and moved out to L.A. during hiring season [when cast and crew are assembled for TV series]. I got nothing. Not even interviews. Then all of a sudden I got one phone interview from a guy who was doing a show in Minneapolis with Fred Willard [the Comedy Central series Access America, which featured clips from community-access TV shows around the country]. He hired me over the phone. I was really disappointed because coming out to L.A. was my last-ditch effort to get into show business. But I thought, OK, I've got a writing job that's better than anything I've had before. I'm going to move back to Minneapolis. I'm going to make that my home. My wife, Denise, was still out there waiting to see what would happen. And I was packing up to head home in my 1980 Jetta, which had no air conditioning, was falling apart and all rusted out from Minneapolis. Then I got a call from David Mirkin [the creator of Get a Life!, who presided over the surreal final seasons of Newhart and served a stint on The Simpsons]. He liked my script. I told him I was heading home and he said, "Don't." He didn't hire me but I trusted him. I had to give up the Minneapolis job in order to wait around. I called up Bo and I told him I wasn't going to take it, and then I got hired on Get a Life (Fox, 1990-92). I almost didn't live out here [in L.A.]. I do think everything that happened since is a result of that because I wouldn't have tried again."
Get a Life! was a quirky sitcom starring Chris Elliot as a 30-year-old paperboy living above his parents' St. Paul garage. "I worked on the second season," says Kaufman. "Not even the good season!" He had already written some short, spoofy films for Elliot that were shown on Late Night With David Letterman. The two Get A Life! episodes he penned, about a female ex-con who takes Elliot prisoner and about Elliot drinking a concoction that allowed him to travel back in time, both displayed elements of the surreal which would come to be a Kaufman hallmark.
He went on to write some 30 episodes of TV shows ranging from the ensemble sketch comedy The Edge (Fox, 1992-93) to more conventional sitcoms like Fox's Ned and Stacey during its second season (1996-97), as well as The Dana Carvey Show, and The Trouble With Larry (1993) — a short-lived comedy starring Bronson Pinchot and Courteney Cox. The IMDB reports he served as producer on Misery Loves Company (1995). Charlie also tried to sell many of his own pilots, including Depressed Roomies, which several television executives thought too dark and weird to be put on the air. "[Roomies] was about two guys who live in a tenement apartment, and… Well, it's kind of silly. They're absurdist, I guess. It got attention and people liked it, but it was weird, and it dealt with sexuality that was questionable for television at the time. And it didn't feel like a sitcom — it wasn't naturalistic. It was sort of theatrical. I also wrote something called Rambling Pants, which was a pilot about a poet, a travelling poet whose name is Pants. He was a very bad poet, but he doesn't know that. He travels the country and gets into different kinds of adventures — again, pretty silly. And that one has a lot of singing in it. People break into song way too much in that one — like every fourth or fifth line. He has a sidekick who was actually a newspaper reporter who kind of went astray and looks to Pants as a hero — this very naïve, sort of dumb Jimmy Olsen kind of guy. And I wrote something for HBO which was about a relationship. I wanted to follow this relationship from its inception, but it's sort of anti-romantic — it's a couple in this sort of a gridlock situation, where people are together but there's never really any clear reason why. And it was called In Limbo." The numerous pilots drew a lot of attention, but ultimately none were picked up.
Being John Malkovich and beyond
While waiting for more work after one of the sitcoms he wrote for was cancelled, Kaufman started writing a film script that began as "a story about a man who falls in love with someone who is not his wife." It eventually evolved to incorporate elements of whimsy and inventiveness. He included such oddball details as having his hero be a puppeteer who finds work on the 7 1/2 floor of a Manhattan office building, a randy centenarian boss and eventually the actor John Malkovich. Reportedly Kaufman selected the latter for several reasons, including the fact he is a gifted actor as well as for the lilt of his name which, when repeated frequently, can seem hilarious. "I wrote it just to get assignment work. I never thought anyone was going to make it. Then Malkovich read it and liked it, which I was very happy about, and I thought that was as far as it was going to go. And it was, for a couple of years. Then it kind of came together." The screenplay created a buzz around Hollywood, but producers were too scared of the story's oddness to actually make it. Then the company owned by R.E.M's Michael Stipe bought the script and things began to move. Spike Jonze, previously known for only his music videos and TV commercials, signed on to direct the film. The cast, including Catherine Keener, John Cusack and Cameron Diaz, all got on board because of the originality of the material. As Diaz described it, "they say in Hollywood there are only 14 scripts. Well this is number 15."
From its initial screenings, Being John Malkovich generated positive buzz and its inclusion at various film festivals before its theatrical release led to its cachet.
Portraying the inner mind of Malkovich is one thing; cerebral cinema is another. "My movies don't offer lessons," says Kaufman. But there is a lesson to learn from watching his work. "I try to be truthful in writing."
In 2002 Charlie followed up Malkovich with not one but three films. In Human Nature a coquettish Patricia Arquette portrays a sexy siren with animal instincts, as electrically charged as the electrologist (Rosie Perez) who treats her. Written the year after Malkovich — again after one of the shows he worked on was cancelled — the film was met with an indifferent reception, not helped by minimal publicity and a limited theatrical run.
Adaptation fared much better with critics and fans alike. Using Susan Orlean's The Orchid Thief as a starting point, it blurs the line between fact and fiction in telling the parallel tales of Kaufman's own struggle to adapt Orlean's book, and the tale of Orlean herself, writing about orchid thief John Laroche.
Once his career took off, Kaufman invited Paul Proch to submit material that he'd pass along to his agent, and they collaborated again shortly after Adaptation. Proch recalls, "There was an old screenplay we tried to rewrite for HBO when they asked him to do a series. It was just too crazy. We were gonna do a fake documentary about this guy making this film. They turned it down, and then they did Project Greenlight. Ours was more interesting. I don't feel too bad, because they turned down Mulholland Drive, too." [If anyone has a copy of that script, how's about
Confessions of a Dangerous Mind brought to the big screen Chuck Barris' "unauthorized autobiography", wherein the real-life former gameshow host claims to have worked as a CIA assassin while simultaneously chaperoning Dating Game contestants around the world and introducing the masses to a variety of questionably-talented folks via The Gong Show. Directed by George Clooney, starring Sam Rockwell, Drew Barrymore, Julia Roberts and Clooney himself, the star power and Barris' claims ensured the film was "highly-anticipated" according to critics... yet upon its release the film was met with mediocre success and a mixed reception similar to the one which greeted Human Nature. Unlike all the previous films, Charlie didn't work with the director, and reportedly some re-writes were done by Clooney himself. The final cut did not impress Charlie, who disliked the "aren't-I-cute" tone of the movie.
March 2004 saw the wide release of 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. This is the film that finally won Charlie an Oscar, after previous nominations for Adaptation and Being John Malkovich. In Kaufman's words, the romantic comedy was "about this guy [played by Jim Carrey] who finds out that his girlfriend of two years [Kate Winslet] has had this surgical procedure which has erased him from her memory. So he's freaked out and trying to live with it and he can't, so he decides to have the same procedure. Most of the movie takes place in his brain as she's being erased, and you see their whole relationship, moment-by-moment, backwards from this sort of bad end to the better beginning. Halfway through, as the memories start getting better, he decides he doesn't want the procedure." More serious in tone than Kaufman's previous work — though still containing more subtle elements of humour — Eternal Sunshine quickly became his most commercially successful film to date, no doubt helped by the big-name cast including Jim Carrey, Kate Winslet, Elijah Wood, Kirsten Dunst, Tom Wilkinson and Mark Ruffalo. The film was arguably the most positively-reviewed movie of 2004, making it into the top half of almost every Top 10 list that year. Carrey's character was based partly on Paul Proch, and some of Proch's art appears in the movie.
In 2005 Kaufman returned to his roots, in a way, writing the sound play "Hope Leaves The Theater" as part of a double-bill with the Coen Bros' "Sawbones." Audience members watched the actors read their lines on stage, accompanied by sound effects and an orchestra, recreating the style of old-time radio plays. The unique concept was devised by composer Carter Burwell, who scored Being John Malkovich and Adaptation. Both plays were well-received in New York and London, with Kaufman's — a self-referential, hall-of-mirrors piece, similar to Adaptation in themes and style — receiving most of the attention and praise. It starred the voices of Meryl Streep and Peter Dinklage — who portrayed themselves, as well as characters in the play — along with Hope Davis, whose character was (just like the audience) ostensibly watching a play starring Streep and Dinklage. At UCLA, due to scheduling conflicts, "Sawbones" was replaced with Francis Fregoli's "Anomalisa." Fregoli was in fact a pseudonym for Kaufman. (Google "fregoli syndrome" for interesting results.)
The question arises: why such wild, convoluted plots? "I like to live in the confusion," says the writer of his preference for chaos over concrete. "When you complicate things, that's when things are more interesting."
Always an avid reader, though loath to list influences lest his work be compared to theirs, among those whose work Charlie enjoys are authors ranging from Franz Kafka, Samuel Beckett, Stanislaw Lem, Philip K. Dick and Stephen Dixon to Shirley Jackson and Patricia Highsmith, who both specialise in "the queasy, really subtle shit that happens between characters; it can seem like nothing's happening, but it's horrible just the same." Another favourite is Flannery O'Connor, who believed that Southern writers aptly render "the grotesque" because they can still recognize what it is. Reading O'Connor made Kaufman fear "that I wouldn't have a voice because I didn't seem to come from anywhere — I was jealous of other parts of America." Part of Kaufman's own development came from recognizing the "weirdness" within his purview. Some of his favourite films include What Happened Was... (Tom Noonan), Naked (Mike Leigh), Safe (Todd Haynes), Ladybird Ladybird (Ken Loach), Eraserhead (David Lynch) and "most of the Coen Brothers and David Lynch things."
If the buzz any new Kaufman project creates is any indication, then he'd better be able to adapt to the attendant glories of fame. Nope, says the writer: “I'm still shy and quiet,” just like he was when he was a Bar Mitzvah boy.
It's funny that one of filmdom's hottest writers projects more of a warm-milk image. “It's a quiet life. I stay home and I work,” he says of what it means being Charlie Kaufman.
He presently lives in Pasadena with his wife and daughter, where "there's no sense of people looking at you to see who you are."
What next? Synecdoche, New York, a "scary movie" that will mark Kaufman's directorial debut. The sprawling film is about playwright Caden Cotard (Philip Seymour
Hoffman), the mysterious illness he appears to be suffering from, and
the convoluted relationships he shares with several women in his life.
Caden's attempting to create a work of "brutal honesty," building a
scale replica of New York City in a warehouse and populating it with a
cast of hundreds, some playing friends of Caden's, one playing Caden
himself. "I have no interest in making a genre horror movie," Charlie said while writing the project. "I keep trying to figure out what's really scary, not what's scary in movies because that is too easy." He told the LA Times, "I was thinking about things that are really scary to me, not horror-movie scary… [The film is] about getting ill and dying, about time moving too quickly as you get older, and not feeling that you've accomplished what you've hoped for. There are issues of enormous relationship nightmares that I was thinking about. Losing his family. Losing the respect of his wife."
Kaufman has spoken of perhaps someday writing a novel or returning to TV. He also wrote a screenplay adaptation of Philip K. "Bladerunner" Dick's A Scanner Darkly, though Richard Linklater eventually helmed that project and wrote his own adaptation. Richard, you fool!
(Some of the information above, including Charlie's high school years, was provided directly to BCK by sources who wish to remain anonymous, and by
The majority of the rest came from www.hollywood.com and Jewish Exponent, as well as Colin Covert's interview with Charlie which appeared online at the Star Tribune, and Mike Russell's Q&A with Charlie, titled (KAUFMAN sweats), from In Focus.
Most of the information about Kaufman's work with Paul Proch came from a piece in the Hartford Advocate.
Thanks to Nate Teibloom from Jewhoo for pointing me toward the JE profile of Charlie.)