Posted on Thursday, December 15th, 2011 by Angie Han
Since breaking out with Being John Malkovich in 1999, Charlie Kaufman has developed a reputation as one of the most creative, ambitious screenwriters working today. After earning acclaim for projects like Adaptation. and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, he made his directorial debut in 2008 with the wildly imaginative Synecdoche, New York. He is now working on his second directorial effort, Frank or Francis, and also has a political satire in the works with Spike Jonze attached to direct.
BAFTA recently invited Kaufman to talk about his craft as part of a lecture series called “Screenwriters On Screenwriting,” and in typical Kaufman style, the resulting talk is honest, philosophical, meandering, and a little bit messy — in a good way. Hit the jump for highlights and a link to the full video and transcript.
We can’t embed the video here, unfortunately, but here are a few key quotes from the 40-minute talk. Or, if you’d prefer to just go ahead and watch the whole thing, scroll ahead to the bottom for the link.
On creative satisfaction:
Do you. It isn’t easy but it’s essential. It’s not easy because there’s a lot in the way. In many cases a major obstacle is your deeply seated belief that you are not interesting. And since convincing yourself that you are interesting is probably not going to happen, take it off the table. Think, ‘Perhaps I’m not interesting but I am the only thing I have to offer, and I want to offer something. And by offering myself in a true way I am doing a great service to the world, because it is rare and it will help.’
‘That’s two hours I’ll never get back,’ is a favorite thing for an angry person to say about a movie he hates. But the thing is, every two hours are two hours he’ll never get back. You cannot hoard your two hours.
Your dreams are very well written. I know this, without knowing any of you. People turn anxieties, crises and longing, love, regret and guilt into beautiful rich stories in their dreams. What is it that allows us the creative freedom in our dreams that we don’t have in our waking lives? I don’t know, but I suspect part of it is that in our dreams we are not constricted by worry about how we will appear to others. It’s a private conversation with ourselves, and if we’re worried about it, this becomes part of the dream. I think if we were better able to approach our work this way, the results would be different.
A screenplay is an exploration. It’s about the thing you don’t know. It’s a step into the abyss. It necessarily starts somewhere, anywhere; there is a starting point but the rest is undetermined. It is a secret, even from you. There’s no template for a screenplay, or there shouldn’t be. There are at least as many screenplay possibilities as there are people who write them. We’ve been conned into thinking there is a pre-established form. Like any big business, the film business believes in mass production. It’s cheaper and more efficient as a business model.
On modern culture:
Our culture is marketing. What is marketing? Trying to get people to do what you want them to. It’s what drives our consumer culture. It’s what drives our politics; it’s what drives our art. Music, movies, books, fine arts, it’s part of every research grant proposal. I don’t want to participate. I don’t want to tell you how to sell a screenplay or tell you how to write a hit, or tell you how to fit into the existing system. I want to tell you that I have a hope that there’s another way to be in this world, and that I believe with courage, vulnerability and honesty that the stuff we put into the world can serve a better purpose.
On screenwriting advice:
I can’t tell anyone how to write a screenplay because the truth is that anything of value you might do comes from you. The way I work is not the way that you work, and the whole point of any creative act is that. What I have to offer is me, what you have to offer is you, and if you offer yourself with authenticity and generosity I will be moved.
Being well known doesn’t solve any of your problems, and I didn’t know that. I thought that it would and I had fantasies about having that. It solved certain problems practically, like I have a better chance of getting a movie made than somebody who doesn’t have a reputation, that kind of thing. Not a great chance now, but better. My own personal problems, the things that make me me, I’ve still got them.
If you’re an admirer of Kaufman’s — or really, if you’ve got any creative inclinations at all — it’s well worth watching the full video, which has been posted at the BAFTA Guru site. (Those who prefer to read his words can click on that same link and look for the “Transcript” link located just under the bottom right corner of the video.) The same lecture series also features talks by Moira Buffini (Tamara Drewe), John Logan (The Aviator), Guillermo Arriaga (Babel), and more, all of which can also be found on the website.
A big thanks to /Film reader Weston for sending this in!