With his latest film as writer/ director, the Oscar nominated animation Anomalisa, in cinemas, it is time to look back at the career of Charlie Kaufman, a writer whose weird and wonderful films have earned him one Oscar win and four Oscar nominations. He is a unique talent, with a filmography of oddball screenplays that ponder the serious matters of life and death while retaining a unique quirk that no other writer working today is capable of producing. Many interviewers have commented on his shy, awkward persona – a quiet, unassuming man who is responsible for some of the most innovative films of the 21st century.
Born on 19th November 1958 in Long Island, USA, Kaufman has described his upbringing as ‘casually Jewish’. In a 2009 interview in The Jewish Chronicle, he briefly mentions his time at Hebrew school, which he attended solely to study for his Bar Mitzvah. In reality, he was a rebellious child who didn’t want to conform to religion; he did remark that ‘this wasn’t Judaism’s fault’ and that this is just an aspect of his personality. Despite this, his work is still informed by themes of Jewish anxiety that feel like surrealist counterparts to the best of Woody Allen’s filmography. Kaufman has declared himself as a fan of Allen’s work, but personally feels his religious upbringing bears no influence on his work.
This fight back against conformity has informed his screenplays, which have strong existential themes twinned with surrealism and feel a world away from his Hollywood cousins. He attended New York University (NYU) film school with director Chris Columbus in the 1980s. While Columbus went on to direct blockbusters like Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, Kaufman was winning awards for Being John Malkovich. While Columbus, a more mainstream writer/ director, made the transition to Hollywood very quickly, Kaufman had a longer journey to becoming a cult icon.
After graduating from NYU, Kaufman became a writer for hire on several unsuccessful sitcoms, many of which he has openly declared he didn’t personally find funny. Unthinkable as it is now, he struggled to initially get his voice heard in writer’s rooms, with successful series like Seinfeld and The Simpsons both rejecting applications to join their writing teams. Out of this exasperation, he began writing for himself, penning Being John Malkovich in 1994.
Director Francis Ford Coppola (The Godfather, Apocalypse Now) saw the screenplay and handed it to his then son-in-law, influential music video director Spike Jonze, to direct as his debut. It resulted in one of the most critically acclaimed films of the 1990s, bagging tons of awards for its screenplay, including a Bafta, as well as Kaufman’s first Oscar nomination. The pair collaborated again in 2002 for Adaptation, another award-winning tale, which cast Nicolas Cage in a dual role playing both Kaufman and his fictional twin brother, struggling to follow up the success of their previous film.
But it was 2004’s Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind – Kaufman’s second collaboration with French director Michel Gondry after 2001’s underseen Human Nature – that cemented his reputation as one of the greatest screenwriters of the 21st century. Bagging him his first Oscar for Best Original Screenplay, the film was a science-fiction love story about a dysfunctional couple (career-best performances from Jim Carey and Kate Winslet) who keep meeting and falling in love repeatedly after getting their memories erased following messy break-ups.
After a film widely declared a masterpiece upon release, Kaufman moved from writing to directing with 2008’s Synecdoche, New York. His most challenging film (and biggest commercial failure) to date, this decades-spanning effort starred the late Phillip Seymour Hoffman as a theatre director making a city-spanning art installation based on his own life. It delighted critics, but completely alienated audiences, leaving studios with no choice but to not fund future projects.
After a 2012 musical comedy about ‘internet rage’ starring Jack Black was cancelled midway into production, animator Duke Johnson met Kaufman to express interest in making a short animated film based upon a play Kaufman wrote a decade earlier. As part of a project where filmmakers would write ‘radio plays’ to be read onstage, Kaufman wrote Anomalisa in 2005. As commercial prospects go, a film about a narcissistic businessman doesn’t exactly scream blockbuster. Turning to Kickstarter for funding, the directing duo rose well above their target amount and could produce a feature-length stop-motion animation based on the screenplay. It was nominated for several awards and is currently in UK cinemas.
Beginner’s Guide to: Charlie Kaufman
Being John Malkovich (1999)
Kaufman’s first screenplay is one of the strangest films of the 1990s – as well as being one of the most universally acclaimed, an announcement of a brave and bold new talent. A puppeteer (John Cusack) finds a portal into the head of actor John Malkovich in his new office, which lets anybody who crawls into it experience life as the actor for fifteen minutes before being thrown out from the sky into a motorway. Hollywood executives were initially confused (one complained that it would flop unless it became ‘Being Tom Cruise’), but the critical acclaim and success that followed weren’t to be scoffed at.
Following from Malkovich, Kaufman was approached to adapt non-fiction novel The Orchard Thief by Hollywood producers. Struggling from writer’s block, he instead wrote a film about struggling to write an adaptation of the novel, with Kaufman (and his fictional twin brother Donald) played by Nicolas Cage in his best performances of the century.
Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004)
Widely regarded as one of the best films of the new millennium, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is the rare movie that functions as both a love story and a cynical break-up story. Socially-awkward Joel (Jim Carey) meets the free spirited Clementine (Kate Winslet) at a train station; a relationship blossoms before both realise they already have had a relationship, with the severe emotional trauma of the break-up causing them both to have had their memories erased at a clinic. Heartfelt yet high-concept, it is Kaufman’s most human and most widely accessible film – a modern classic fully deserving of its status.