Geri Cole: So actually, that makes me think about when you’re saying that there was going to be a bidding war over Eternal Sunshine of a Spotless Mind, I feel like success never looks like what you think it’s going to look like. And I wonder if how your idea of success or what it looks like has changed over the years.
Charlie Kaufman: I mean, it’s a tricky thing to answer because I have an answer, but I also have answer, again, from just subjective vantage point. So when I say, and I say honestly, it’s disappointing and it is not what imagined when I was younger, I’m also saying it from the safety of having a certain career trajectory already, so it’s not someone struggling. And the thing I always sort of think about when I think about Adaptation, the movie, is that the anxiety and frustration and depression that I was going through when I was trying to write that script and failing is not conveyed in the movie because the movie exists as proof that I got through it. Just the existence of the movie means that I got through it. But at the time, I didn’t know that I was going to get through it. I thought it was going to be the end of my career. I thought I was going to have to give back the money they paid me. And so I don’t know how to answer that with taking all of that into consideration.
I mean, I’m older now, and so my concerns are different. I feel like I have less ambition now in that regard, but maybe I have less ambition partially because I’ve achieved a certain amount of success, and therefore, I can afford to have less ambition. But yes, it definitely is not what I imagined it would be when I was starting out, but nothing is in my life. I’m probably [crosstalk 00:23:49]. But that’s okay. I mean, it’s interesting. It’s interesting to sort of realize or come to the conclusion that there’s a lot of bullshit in Hollywood. It’s interesting. It’s liberating in some way. But again, I come to that conclusion from a position of some safety, and so it’s not entirely fair for me to say that.
Geri Cole: I think it’s super helpful to hear, actually, that it-
Charlie Kaufman: I’m hoping that it is because I’m saying it to try to be helpful, but I also want to preface it to say that I understand that if you’re watching this and you’re just starting out, that it’s kind of full of shit for me to say that I don’t care about Hollywood anymore. You know?
Geri Cole: Yeah. I get that, that it feels like an easier thing to say now. But I also feel like it’s very nice to hear because it’s also very easy to get caught up. It’s like you don’t have to.
Charlie Kaufman: Yeah, and I’ve always tried to sort of be true to myself, even in the earlier days, and I think that part is good, to realize that you as the writer are the person who knows things. If the executives tell you it’s a bad idea, it’s most likely not the truth. It may be the truth, but it’s most likely not because their goals and their agenda is different than yours. They’re in a business. And I guess as a screenwriter you can be in a business, but I don’t think the best screenwriters are. I mean, they’re earning a living, and I think that they like making money, like anybody does, but if they’re good, their goal has to be to somehow be truthful, like any writer. So as a studio, your goal doesn’t have to be truthful. As the studio, your goal is get people to go to the movie and keep your job safe. And those are at odds with each, I think.
Geri Cole: Unfortunately.
Charlie Kaufman: Oh, it is unfortunate. And there’s very little place for experimentation. Now, there used to be more. And maybe with streaming there will be more again. I hope so because I think that would be good for us as a society to not just be churning out products.
Geri Cole: I agree. So what were, do you think, then some of your hard-[inaudible 00:26:11] lessons, a thing that you appreciate now that you wish you had appreciated earlier?
Charlie Kaufman: I mean, I feel like if I say stuff it’ll be like what I just said. I mean, I think I cared about things like Box Office. I mean, I never had it. I mean, I never had any success there, or very little, so I thought it would help my career, and I think it would’ve, but I also think that I was attached to it in ways that I don’t think is healthy. It’s tricky, again, because it is true that if your movie does well, then you have more opportunity to make more movies.
Geri Cole: Or that same movie over again.
Charlie Kaufman: Oh, yeah. I think there was an ego thing about it. And it’s not like I don’t have a ego anymore. Of course I do. But I think that I need to recognize that there was an ego attachment to that. I could tell myself that it was like well, it’s pragmatic because I want to be able to make more stuff, but there was also why don’t people want to go to my movie? I kind of think that that wasn’t helpful to me. I mean, like anything, you’re learning as you grow and you work and you think. And so I think you have to be kind of patient with yourself. You need to get to certain things.
Geri Cole: Yeah, it’s like having patience with yourself is… Well, one, I have a theory that patience is a finite resource. You’re given a certain amount when you’re born, and it’s like you might use all of it. Don’t use it all up. And so I feel make sure you save some for yourself is actually very good.
Charlie Kaufman: Well, I mean, I think whether or not it’s a finite resource, I think it’s a good thing to realize that your compassion should extend to yourself, not just to other people. And I think that that is something that for a lot of people, myself included, it’s not something that I completely believe, but I do think it’s true because I think, in addition to being a happier way to live, it allows you maybe to be more compassionate to the world in general if you can allow yourself failure and not judge yourself too harshly.
Geri Cole: So I also wanted to touch a little bit on you have some series coming up that are also adaptations. I was curious if you have a different approach in writing original content versus adaptations or if your focus changes at all.
Charlie Kaufman: I think, again, this was learned over time. I mean, and I don’t know if it’s objectively true, but for me, I used to think that my job as someone adapting something was to be faithful to the source material, and I don’t think that anymore because I can’t work that way. And I haven’t been able to. Other people may be able to and produce good work, but I feel like when I do that or try to do that, it feels dead. And so I try when I’m adapting to put myself, sometimes literally, usually not, put myself and my thoughts and the things that resonate with me and that I understand about the material and use that as an inspiration to do something else. Yeah, so for this HBO thing that I’m developing, it’s based on a screenplay that I wrote, which is based on a book called IQ 83, which is about a virus that causes stupidity.
Geri Cole: Which feels very true.
Charlie Kaufman: Yeah, it’s very true, and it’s very current. And it was made as a screenplay for Paramount, and they didn’t make it. HBO was interested, and it was like I was desperate for them to be able to get it away from Paramount. Paramount was nice enough to let them develop it. But my script that I originally wrote has almost nothing to do with the novel, other than that basic premise because the novel wasn’t interesting to me, other than that basic premise. And it wasn’t a thing that I felt like… I wasn’t adapting Pride and Prejudice or something. It was like it’s not a book that people are aware of or attached to, so I didn’t feel that that was a necessity to kind of be true to it in that way. And I felt it was dated, and it just didn’t inspire me. So I took it, and like I said, there’s almost nothing from the book in the movie. And then now that HBO is developing it, and now that we’re going through this nightmare, which wasn’t the case when I wrote it, there’s so much more that I’m going to have to change.
First of all, it’s a series, so I have to figure that out. But also I just have this material now that, I mean, it would be a crime not to use it. So I am. And again, it makes it alive because, again, the thing I wrote is dead to me, even though I tried to make it alive from the book and now that that’s like five years old or something, and it’s not relevant, and I’m not interested in that version anymore. And I’m more interested now in trying to figure out something that feels alive for now.
Geri Cole: I’ve never thought about writing in that way of trying to create something that’s alive rather than… My general thinking is you’re trying to craft the perfect tapestry or something versus breathing life, and you want it to be able to live right now is a really interesting way to-
Charlie Kaufman: Whenever I’m writing… And going back to Adaptation, sort of the genesis of what happened with that script was when I couldn’t write that thing, I said to myself okay, what am I thinking about right now? Because that’s the thing that I’m thinking about now, and therefore it’s the thing that’s causing all the tension and life in me. And I was thinking about that I couldn’t write the script. So I thought well, what if I do that? And then once I came up with that idea and decided to put myself in it… And I was terrified of doing that because it seemed insane to me. And I wasn’t really well-known at the time either, so it seemed really kind of arrogant. But I remember I was speaking to Spike Jonze, and I told him the idea, and I told him my anxiety about the idea. And he said, “No, you have to do that.” So that was actually something I think that gave me… He didn’t just say, “God, no, you’d be an idiot to do that. You can’t do that.” He was like, “No, you got to do that.”
So I did it, but once I committed to doing it, the whole thing opened up. All of the stuff started to come alive for me. And the stuff about my brother was just… I invented him because I needed somebody for the main character to talk to because he’s a writer, and he doesn’t talk to anybody. I thought it was funny that he had an identical twin because that’s such a movie cliché. And so I just thought it was funny, but once I decided on that, then the whole idea of him being a [inaudible 00:33:41] and taking a screenwriting course and all of that stuff just became part of the movie, and it started to really relate to the book, which I’d been living with for a year and a half at that point in ways that I couldn’t have anticipated. I started to see these thematic parallels literally about adaptation and evolution and all of that stuff. That became exciting and allowed me to write it. So I mean, for me, and I know that people are different, and a lot of people like to outline, and they like to know where it’s going, but I don’t. I don’t want to know where the thing is going. I fee like I haven’t earned the ending yet when I’m starting out. It’s like you don’t know the subject yet, I think. When you’re starting out, you don’t know anything.
And so to say I’m starting this, and it’s going to end with this, it feels like you’re kind of corraling yourself into a conclusion that you haven’t earned and you don’t know if it’s correct. And because of that, you’re going to work towards something that is not necessarily the exciting direction. And it’s kind of like it’s a way of working that doesn’t really have a safety net. And it’s caused me a lot of problems because things take longer, obviously. If you outline something, and they’ve given you 12 weeks, which they usually do, which insane, you could probably finish it in 12 weeks. I can’t finish anything in 12 weeks because it keeps growing and turning into these other things and morphing. So I find it an interesting and somewhat scary way to write, but I don’t think being scared is a bad thing when you’re working. I think it can be exciting. It’s easier for me to be scared in my work than it is for me to be scared in real life. You know what I mean? I feel like I have some sort of courage that I don’t have in the real world when I’m writing because I can take what I think are chances, and I get excited about things. As soon as I come up with an idea that I know you can’t put in a movie, I have to put it in a movie.
Geri Cole: Like well, now it’s going in.
Charlie Kaufman: Yeah, it has to. And I’m coward if I don’t. I mean, sometimes they don’t end up because sometimes it turns out it was a terrible idea. But you realize that over time, but at the moment when you think I can’t do this, and you go yeah, it has to be there. And then it’s exciting because you’re trying something you don’t know how to do, which is exciting.
Geri Cole: That is exciting. And I’ve never, again, thought about writing in that way, where it’s like it’s good if you’re scared and that you haven’t earned the ending yet. I really appreciate that, that you have to sort of give it time and space to grow into what it’s going to be.
Charlie Kaufman: Well, let’s say you were a physicist. And I’m just coming up with this analogy now, so it may [crosstalk 00:36:35]. But let’s say you want to be a physicist, but you’re an undergraduate, and you’re going into your first college physics course. You will not write your doctoral dissertation that year. It wouldn’t make sense because you don’t know anything yet. I mean, you’re a student, and you’re learning, and your knowledge will expand over the years, and your interests will change over the years. And if you look at that as a screenplay or any piece of writing, you have to allow for that to be the evolution of the piece. You start out, you’re writing about a relationship, let’s say, and you don’t know the people yet. We’ve just invented them. They’re two-dimensional characters probably at that point, right?
Geri Cole: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Charlie Kaufman: So why would you want to say and then at the end, this happens to them, and then commit yourself to that? Because you can be really surprised and excited once you get to know them. And you can always change it if you’ve said this is the way it’s going to end, but it’s harder because so much of what you’ve done is in service of getting to that place that you’ve predetermined they should get to. And so things become kind of plotty, or they can become kind of plotty because you’re trying to lay all this pipe and maneuver it. And that’s always kind of unfortunate, I think.
Geri Cole: Yeah. I wonder also, then… I mean, and you don’t necessarily have to name names… out of all of the projects that you’ve worked on have a favorite and why it turned out to be your favorite? If it was because it grew into something that you couldn’t have anticipated and/or just the time and the energy of the people for that project or if-
Charlie Kaufman: Yeah. I don’t know. I mean, I know this is kind of a cliché answer, but I do feel like they’re kind of my kids, and I don’t want to say which is a favorite.
Geri Cole: Not pick a favorite, yeah.
Charlie Kaufman: I don’t want to say it out loud, but I also don’t even want to think it. But if you have a bunch of kids, I don’t know if you want to go down the road of saying, “This is my favorite.”
Geri Cole: “This one’s the prettiest.”
Charlie Kaufman: I mean, almost everything that I’ve worked on, I’ve had good experiences with the people. And everything I’ve written has been interesting to me in the process of writing. Some of them have been more difficult for me to work on than others. So yeah, I kind of want to maybe stear clear of that one.
Geri Cole: That’s fine. That’s totally fine and fair. So I’m also curious about what your cultural diet is like, what you consume daily. What’s considered a special treat that you’ll allow for yourself, or if you even view it as having to allow yourself certain things or if you’re allowed to sort of consume whatever culture you’re interested in?
Charlie Kaufman: When you say culture, you mean like media kind of culture?
Geri Cole: Yeah, like reading or music. I know you actually spoke about walking, which you said is a point of inspiration.
Charlie Kaufman: Walking is good for me because it allows me to think, but it also allows me to sort of be in the world and see things. And I’m alone in an apartment most of the time, so I don’t have a lot of interaction with people or just seeing people on the street and getting ideas from different people and what I witness. But yeah, I mean, I read stuff for work. I’m reading a book called Reaganland now, which is about the lead up to Ronald Reagan’s… What do you call it?… presidency and sort of the turning of the culture to the right, which we’re obviously living in now. So that interests me, but that’s definitely a work-related thing. I’m trying to sort of… It’s just a very large sort of picture of the way politics has worked and continues to work in this country. And so it interests me because the thing I’m working on now is going to have a very large scope. It’s going to be a bigger palate, canvas. Having difficulty with words right now. And I want all those pieces to sort of be interwoven and interact with each other. And so I felt like this was a book that looked interesting to me in that regard.
Geri Cole: But nothing just for yourself?
Charlie Kaufman: I don’t know. I mean, I watch some TV, I guess. I’ve watched some movies. Not a lot. Pretty boring.
Geri Cole: I mean, I’m usually surprised by, even myself, the things that I find myself watching. Sometimes it’s YouTube polls. But those can be inspiring sometimes-
Charlie Kaufman: [crosstalk 00:41:46]. Can you think of any?
Geri Cole: I mean, it’s going to get embarrassing, but-
Charlie Kaufman: Well, now it’s your turn to be embarrassed.
Geri Cole: Yeah, there’s a lot of YouTube polls just of vlogs, lifestyle vlogs.
Charlie Kaufman: Oh, really? Okay. So lifestyle like cooking? What is the lifestyle? What does that mean?
Geri Cole: That’s the thing. I feel like they don’t even actually talk about cooking. Sometimes it’s just what they did today. And it’s like I don’t know why, yeah.
Charlie Kaufman: There are people that you gravitate towards, that you like [crosstalk 00:42:22]?
Geri Cole: Yeah. I actually think it is, is that I like to find women in different countries who do these vlogs, and it kind of gives me a slice of life… I mean, granted, obviously, they have a very specific [inaudible 00:42:31] the life that they’re living, but what [inaudible 00:42:33] life might look like in Vancouver or in England or [inaudible 00:42:38], different parts of the world.
Charlie Kaufman: That’s interesting. I like that. My daughter is studying Spanish with somebody from Argentina one-on-one over Zoom, I guess, or Skype. Anyway, so that’s really interesting for her because this woman, who’s a young woman as well, they just talk. And I think it’s kind of like a cultural exchange, which sounds like the kind of thing that you’re interested in too.
Geri Cole: Yeah, actually, I should look into-
Charlie Kaufman: Yeah, it’s kind of cool. I’m thinking of doing it. She’s kind of inspired me because I’m really bad with languages, but I did at one point study Portuguese, and it was at a [crosstalk 00:43:25], and it just basically the teacher and I would talk, and that was the session. We’d spend an hour talking. And I was actually kind of able to communicate. And then she moved back to Brazil, and I stopped, and I just forgot everything. But I really like that method of learning a language because it’s different than what I did in school, which I never really felt like I could communicate. And I’m interested in it because I feel frustrated that I’m not bilingual or anything, any other than one lingual.
Geri Cole: Only one lingual.
Charlie Kaufman: I’m one lingual. [crosstalk 00:44:07]. Apparently not even that. [crosstalk 00:44:11].
Geri Cole: Hey, I said the tension was tight earlier, so it’s really… I actually also have always felt bad about only being one lingual, and I’m always curious, though, about how much… There’s a lot of culture carried in language, so it’s like when you do learn another language, you’re learning a whole different possible perspective.
Charlie Kaufman: Yeah, you think differently. You have to just because of syntax, let alone vocabulary. You’re thinking differently, yeah. It’s a flaw in the education system in this country. It doesn’t exist in other countries.
Geri Cole: That is true, which you could say about many things, unfortunately.
Charlie Kaufman: [crosstalk 00:44:54]. You really could. You really could. [inaudible 00:44:57].
Geri Cole: Yeah. Well, thank you so much-
Charlie Kaufman: [crosstalk 00:45:01] a pleasure. Thank you very much.
Geri Cole: It was my pleasure. Again, I’m such a big fan. My husband is also a huge fan. He’s losing his mind outside the door. Thank you. This was really good.
Charlie Kaufman: Thank you very much.
Geri Cole: That’s it for this episode. OnWriting is a production of the Writer’s Guild of America East. Tech production and original music is by Stockboy Creative. You can learn more about the Writer’s Guild of America East online at wgaeast.org. And you can follow the Guild on social media WGA East. If you like this podcast, please subscribe and write us. I’m Geri Cole. Thank you for listening, and write on.