Inspiration. Ambition.
Passion. Process. Technique.

By: Geri Cole

Promotional poster for I'M THINKING OF ENDING THINGS.

Season 7 host Geri Cole speaks with Oscar- and Writers Guild Award-winning screenwriter and director Charlie Kaufman about his latest film, how his writing is shaped by fear, finding meaning in his films, the benefits of walking, and much more.

Charlie Kaufman is a critically acclaimed screenwriter and director. His writing credits include ETERNAL SUNSHINE OF THE SPOTLESS MIND—for which he received the Academy, Writers Guild, and BAFTA Awards for Best Original Screenplay—as well as BEING JOHN MALKOVICH and ADAPTATION, both of which earned him a BAFTA Award and nominations for the Writers Guild and Academy Awards in their respective screenplay categories.

Three of his screenplays were included in the WGA’s “101 Greatest Screenplays” project in 2005. Kaufman’s feature directorial debut was the 2008 film SYNECDOCHE, NEW YORK.

His latest project, the Neftlix psychological drama I’M THINKING OF ENDING THINGS, is based on the 2016 novel by Iain Reid. The film is narrated by the unnamed girlfriend of Jake as the new couple travel deep into the country to visit Jake’s parents’ secluded farm. Upon arriving, she comes to question everything she thought she knew about Jake, and about herself. The film was released in late August and is available to stream on Netflix.

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Thanks for listening. Write on.


Geri Cole: You’re listening to OnWriting, a podcast from the Writer’s Guild of America East. I’m your host, Geri Cole. In each episode, you’ll hear writers working in film, television, and news break down everything from the writing process to pitching, favorite jokes to key scenes, and so much more. Today I’m speaking with Charlie Kaufman, writer and director of the new Netflix film I’m Thinking of Ending Things. Charlie has won a Writer’s Guild Award and an Academy Award for his original screenplay Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and has received multiple award nominations for his films like Being John Malkovich and Adaptation. We talked over Zoom about how his writing is shaped by fear, finding meaning in his films, and the benefits of walking.

Hi. So nice to meet you. Thank you so much for taking the time to do this. I’m also a screenwriter and a member of the Guild and a longtime fan of your work. And this is my first time hosting this podcast, so very excited. So I guess I just want to start off by asking how you’re doing, how you’re holding up during these very interesting times and if you have been able to feel inspired during this time.

Charlie Kaufman: Inspired, yeah, maybe. I mean, there’s a lot going on. There’s a lot to think about. It’s been difficult, obviously, as it is for everybody. But I’m working, and I’m always trying to incorporate what is going on in the world and in my life in the stuff that I do. So trying to do that. How about you?

Geri Cole: It’s been a process. There’s been a lot of me trying to just take breaks and walk away, honestly, and turn off.

Charlie Kaufman: Are you in New York or on the-

Geri Cole: [crosstalk 00:01:55]? Yes. Yeah, I’m in Brooklyn. So yeah, it’s been a lot. So also, I want to obviously talk about your new film, but I also am very interested in just talking about your process since this is for the Writer’s Guild, and we want to just understand how you work. So if you want to talk about where you write, your process. Do you outline? Do you work off cards? Do you have any rituals that you feel comfortable sharing?

Charlie Kaufman: I walk a lot. I would say that’s the thing that’s been most helpful to me in my writing life. I do a lot of walking, and I bring a notebook, a pocket notebook, and I jot down ideas. It helps me think, and it gets me away from a computer, which is a very distracting thing for me. So yeah, and I’ve been doing that. I’m in New York as well for this, so I’ve been taking very long walks. And it’s really the only thing I do to get outside. Other than that, I don’t have any rituals. I have a difficult time getting started, and that’s always been the case. And I’ve said this before, but I think it’s something that I’ve learned that is important, is that I used to really get frustrated and worried about feeling blocked, but not so much anymore because I’ve had the experience of being blocked and realizing down the road that I wasn’t, that stuff was [inaudible 00:03:26] in ways that I didn’t understand. And I come to things a month later that make me glad that I didn’t force it because if I forced it in a different direction before it was ready, I wouldn’t have come to this idea. So I know we don’t always have that luxury because deadlines are deadlines, but it is something that I’ve discovered about working for me.

Geri Cole: That’s actually really great to hear because I feel like sometimes it can feel procrastination, and it’s like am I shooting myself in the foot? Or is this the process, that it does just take me time to mull and think. And walk, that’s a really great idea, to just walk around and take things in.

Charlie Kaufman: I think your brain is processing stuff even when you don’t know it. And giving yourself the time for that seems valid to me, so yeah. And I also think it’s also not good to be mean to yourself, to kick yourself or hate yourself because you’re not getting stuff done. And if you can approach it more gently, which is what I think this maybe allows, it might free you up to feel not so judgmental about procrastinating or whatever you are calling what you’re doing.

Geri Cole: When you do have deadlines, do you lock yourself in a room, and it’s like all right, let’s get some coffee and snacks?

Charlie Kaufman: [crosstalk 00:04:54]. Yeah, and I do work well under pressure too. So when it’s looming, like with my book, I mean, I actually missed several deadlines, but it was a self-imposed deadline towards the end because I just couldn’t do it anymore, and I just said okay, I’m going to. And I get up every morning… And this was before I was in New York. I was in California. I get up every morning and go to the local coffee shop, which opened at 6:30, and I’d sit there and write-

Geri Cole: Wow.

Charlie Kaufman: For four hours. And I got a lot done, and I finished the book in a short amount of time.

Geri Cole: Wow.

Charlie Kaufman: And it was only 10:30 in the morning. Four hours of work, I’d gotten 15 pages or whatever, and I still had the whole day in front of me. So it can happen when it needs to. And that felt good too. But I was ready at that point because I’d spent enough time with it, and I wanted to be done.

Geri Cole: To just get it out.

Charlie Kaufman: Yeah, I mean, after five and a half years just to get it out.

Geri Cole: Yeah. It needs to go. This real estate is taking up too much space. I really appreciated the BAFTA Guru speech where you were talking about being honest about who you are is the best thing that you can do.

Charlie Kaufman: The BFI speech, yeah.

Geri Cole: Oh, yeah, sorry, BFI speech. And I feel like your writing, to me, always feels so painfully honest, so, so to the bone honest. And I’m curious about how you are vigilant about keeping it that honest.

Charlie Kaufman: Well, because you know when you’re bullshitting, right?

Geri Cole: Yeah.

Charlie Kaufman: Especially if you kind of step back from it and you’re like well, this isn’t true, what I’m saying isn’t true. And if that I think becomes sort of like a guide for your work, then I think that you just have to correct that. Or this is lazy, or I borrowed this from a movie, maybe not even intentionally. It’s just I’ve seen so many movies, so I know that this is what happens when two people speak to each other. But it’s really not. It’s what happens in movies. And so if you can sort of step back from that, which I try to do, and I’m sure I’m not always successful, but I try to do that. And I remember really long time ago when I was first working professionally, I read this thing that… I think it was Harold Pinter… said that, “Each thing I write needs to be more naked than the last thing I wrote.” And at that time, that really felt like yeah, that’s what I have to do. I don’t even know if it applies anymore, but at the time it was like yeah, that seems good. Just do it. Just force yourself to be vulnerable because if you’re not being vulnerable… And that goes maybe back to the BFI thing… then you’re giving anybody anything. It becomes self-serving, and I don’t think that is our job.

Geri Cole: Yeah, I really appreciate what you were talking about, that 500 years from now, a person will find your work and connect with it because they see themselves in it, and that’s-

Charlie Kaufman: You hope that. And the reason I know that is because I’ve had that experience where I’d write something, and it’s like, I mean, it felt like it was written yesterday. And it was like wow, what a gift that is. You never know if your stuff is going to travel through time like that, but it feels like it’s something to aspire to, and the only way you can do that is by telling the truth, what your experience of the world is.

Geri Cole: I was also curious about your relationship to music because I’m Thinking of Ending Things to me felt very musical. In a lot of ways it felt like an album, and each scene felt like a track. So I was curious, do you listen to music while you write?

Charlie Kaufman: No, never. I never do. And in fact, I was planning on having no music in this movie originally. So when I hired Jay Wadley, who is the composer, it was basically so he could write the jingle for Tulsey Town and a couple of other sort of source things. But then we started to think more about it and introduce… I mean, it’s pretty limited in this film. In fact, the main theme of the ballet is kind of repeated throughout the movie and sometimes backwards even. I don’t know. I can’t listen to music. I’ve tried it when I’m working. I know a lot of people do, and it’s helpful. It hasn’t been something that I’ve been able to do, maybe because my writing is so halting, and it doesn’t flow like music. I mean, I hope that it will flow like music when people are watching the thing, but when I’m working on it, it’s like stopping and starting, and there’s not a lot of rhythm to it. It’s just kind of like riding the brakes when you’re driving.

Geri Cole: Also, I mean, I don’t get into too many spoilers, but I do have so many questions and/or theories about I’m Thinking of Ending Things. I don’t know if you feel comfortable sharing what you felt like you were conveying, because to me, again, it felt a lot like an album about aging in a way and/or… I have several theories. Like the unconscious mind and a conscious mind playing through a memory and having that battle, because it does such an incredible job of creating that tension between the two. I was also thinking maybe it’s a sentient memory that keeps waking up and re-experiencing itself. So yeah, I don’t know if you want to talk more about-

Charlie Kaufman: I don’t, actually, but I really like your thoughts. They’re really interesting, and all of them make sense to me, and all of them do relate to stuff that I was thinking about. So I mean, I would leave it at that, because, I mean, I feel like I’m a broken record in saying this, so I apologize if people have heard it before, but I really like when people have their theories and their interpretations because it allows them to be part of the process of the film as opposed to the filmmaker lecturing, “This is my point.” And I mean, when you’re doing a creative thing, I want the person who is viewing it or reading or listening to it to bring who they are to it. That’s the only validity it has to me. And so I really hope to keep it open so that people don’t… Because if I say this is what it’s about, then it’s very difficult for people to think it’s about something else. And I want them to. I mean, if they come to the same conclusion that I have, that’s fine, but they don’t need to, in my estimation.

Geri Cole: That’s awesome. Yeah, I like that, that it’s like it should remain open so that everyone can sort of pour themselves into it.

Charlie Kaufman: I like the sentient thing that you said, and it does relate to things that I thought about. And I also like the idea of the album, which is not something that I’d thought about, but it makes complete sense to me as you described it. So that’s cool.

Geri Cole: Thanks. I also actually wanted to talk… I feel like memory is a theme that’s run through a lot of your work. If you want to talk a little bit about your relationship to memory. Is it something that you think about or are curious about or have intentionally put into your work.

Charlie Kaufman: I do, and I’m very interested in the subjective experience and trying somehow to convey that in my work because I feel like all of our experiences are subjective. So obviously, memory is a big part of that. Fantasy is a big part of that. Loss of memory is a big part of it, which comes to play in this, like in Eternal Sunshine. Also in this book I wrote, the loss of the memory of this film that this guy is trying to remember is a big part of it. Yeah, I don’t think we really exist without it as human beings. And I also think that it colors everything in the moment that we’re experiencing because there’s so much going on in a person’s brain as they’re interacting or going about their day that isn’t the thing that they’re interacting with. It’s the relation that that thing has to other things in their lives, which are all contained in their memory. Or I would say that there’s two things that are going on… Well, there’s many things maybe, but the two things that I’m thinking about right now are memory and projection. Those are two… So how does this fit into what I understand what I’ve experienced? And what’s going to happen because of this?

So because of that, it’s very difficult or impossible for people, or at least the people that I am, to exist in the present moment without all of that kind of stuff going on, jumbling [crosstalk 00:14:14] up, which is interesting, and I think it makes for interesting stories and studies of human character. And so I don’t know how to write something that isn’t subjective. I don’t know what it would be. It would be like a weird lie to me, because everything that I think, it’s because I’m me, because it’s my experience, because of the things that have affected me. And you can project outward and try to understand the larger world, and you can to a certain extent, but you’re still understand it-

Geri Cole: Through you.

Charlie Kaufman: From your vantage point, right?

Geri Cole: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Charlie Kaufman: So it’s just interesting to me, and so I pursue it. I fail at it, but I keep trying.

Geri Cole: Yeah, like even in this moment where it’s like the choices that you’re making are based off memory, in a sense, of what has all happened previously to you up until this point, and then you’re just sort of trying… It almost feels like falling forward a little bit.

Charlie Kaufman: It is, yeah. It is definitely falling forward into the abyss.

Geri Cole: The constant unknown. I also wanted to talk quickly… I know this is a writing podcast, but wanted to talk quickly about you on the directing of this film, which I mean, the performances were incredible. The tension was incredible. Everything felt almost violent, even though there’s no blood, there’s no gore, but the tension was tight [inaudible 00:15:45]. And so I was curious, especially in that kitchen scene, how that timing, how much of that was on the page, how much of that was… Did it evolve as you worked with each of the actors? How that came about.

Charlie Kaufman: You mean the eating?

Geri Cole: Yes.

Charlie Kaufman: The eating where they don’t eat. I had a day with all four of them. I had one rehearsal with all of them. Jesse and Jessie I had before David and Toni for a few days, but for that scene, which is basically mostly what we worked on that day, I had that maybe five hours. And it’s on the page. I mean, I don’t think there’s anything in that scene that isn’t scripted. There are places in the movie where someone said something that we kept in, but I don’t think in there. But they’re just really good. I mean, I don’t know. My DP and I were concerned about the very limited angles we had there and the static-ness of the everybody just sitting around the table for a very long time, and was it going to be boring? And there are a few things that we do in trying to keep it moving technically with the camera. There’s a lot of anticipation in this movie. The camera anticipates what’s going to happen, which was kind of an idea that we were working with to sort of if something is in somebody’s head, they know what’s going to happen next. And so that was sort of an idea, which we really ended up liking.

But mostly it’s just because the actors are good, in my opinion. And I had very little to do with that, other than casting them. They’re just good, and they brought all of that life. And then there’s obviously some stuff we do in editing to move things in a certain way. But mostly it’s just them. And that’s my advice, is-

Geri Cole: Get awesome actors?

Charlie Kaufman: They know what they’re doing. Let them do it.

Geri Cole: Did you write for these actors at all? Did you have anyone in mind when you were creating these characters?

Charlie Kaufman: No. I think that David, who I had worked before, I might’ve had it in mind for the father, but probably when I was finishing the script, not when I started it. Jesse and Jessie were not the first people cast for this. Two other people had to drop out, and Toni and I had just… I mean, I met Toni years and years ago, and I had just recently seen her in this British TV series, the name of which I have forgotten, but it was a really extraordinary performance. And so I had her freshly in my mind for that. And yeah, when I found Jesse and Jessie, it was very exciting for me also.

Geri Cole: Yeah, I’ve read a little bit about Jesse Plemons’ performances being compared to Philip Seymour Hoffman a little bit, or feeling reminiscent of Philip Seymour Hoffman, who had worked with you before. And I don’t know if you felt that at all or if you-

Charlie Kaufman: No, I mean, not really. I mean, like I said, Jesse was not the person I had in mind at first. I had thought about him. I love Jesse Plemons, and as soon as the person that I was going to work with couldn’t do it, Jesse was the person who came to mind. I think physically, maybe that’s what people are responding to. I don’t really know. I mean, I’ve heard it. I certainly didn’t cast Jesse because he reminded me of Philip Seymour Hoffman. I cast Jesse because I think he’s a great actor, and I thought that he was right for this particular character and the inwardness of this character [inaudible 00:19:29] he excels at.

Geri Cole: I think we talked a little bit also about you’ve had a very unique career. And I feel like the work that you do is, you could argue, unconventional and could feel a little bit wild. And so I wonder how have you found success trying to successfully pitch ideas that people might have a hard time getting their mind around and of getting people on board.

Charlie Kaufman: Right. I haven’t done a lot of it. So I mean, in terms of my career, the first screenplay I wrote, which was Being John Malkovich, I wrote as [inaudible 00:20:05], and so I didn’t have to pitch it. People read it. And Human Nature was the same thing. Adaptation I was hired to write, but I mean, I pretty much told them, “I don’t know what I’m doing with this. I’m just going to figure it out.” And they allowed that, for some reason, maybe because Being John Malkovich was successful. I don’t know. And the one movie that I think I pitched is Eternal Sunshine, which Michel Gondry and I went around and pitched. And that was a movie that when we came up with the pitch, I was told by my agent that this was going to be a big thing. I’d never had that experience before or since. The people are going to want to buy this. There’s going to be a bidding war because I don’t know why. And there was, I mean, a minor sort of bidding thing going on when we pitched it. And it just struck a nerve with people as a pitch, I think because it was a love story, but it was told in kind of a new way or an unconventional way.

But yeah, I mean, with this movie, it was a book, and basically my producer and I went to Netflix… Or he had a deal already… with the book, and they bought it based on the book and a brief conversation. They certainly didn’t know what it was going to turn into because I didn’t know what it was going to turn into. So that’s fortunate because they probably wouldn’t have bought it if I pitched the thing that it turned into. But it was a thriller, and I think the book had been a bestseller, so it was interesting. And it wasn’t expensive, so that was a selling point.

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 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.


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