Charlie Kaufman Made Being John Malkovich By Smashing Two Failed Scripts Together

Before Charlie Kaufman became the genius screenwriter behind "Being John Malkovich," he was struggling to make it in the entertainment industry. His failures led him to create one of the most unique scripts ever written. The filmmaker would go on to have a storied career, but his big break came from a script he never expected to get made and two scrapped film ideas.

Kaufman began his career as a writer working on a show called "Get a Life." He snagged the job after writing a "very odd spec television show" for series creators Chris Elliot and Adam Resnick, he told Indiewire in 1999. "Adam's scripts were the best thing about 'Get a Life' — and we all tried to write in Adam's voice. That was the job," Kaufman explained to The Guardian.

As much as he admired Resnick, Kaufman was not able to write like him. "It occurred to me that there was no solution as long as my job was trying to imitate someone else's voice," he recalled. "The obvious solution was to find a situation where I was doing me, not someone else."

This inspired Kaufman to use his downtime to write a feature film. His first two ideas couldn't hold water on their own, but he combined them to write the screenplay that would eventually earn him an Oscar nomination.

A mind-portal and a forbidden office romance

Breaks between television seasons gave Kaufman time to start on a new project. "I wrote 'Being John Malkovich' while I was waiting for [the next sitcom] hiring season," he explained. Still, he never imagined that the screenplay would be used as anything other than an example of his writing capabilities. "My idea was that I would write a script and use it to get work," Kaufman claimed. He was used to writing projects that would never see the light of day. "[Prior to 'Malkovich'] I wrote a lot of pilots that didn't get produced, but that got attention, and they were pretty weird," Kaufman told Indiewire.

The writer started two stories with compelling premises, but when both stories reached dead ends, Kaufman decided to put them together. "I had this idea that someone finds a portal into someone's head, and I had another idea that somebody has a story about someone having an affair with a coworker," the writer recalled (via The Guardian). "And neither one was going anywhere, so I just decided to combine them."

These two storylines would spark the A and B plots in "Being John Malkovich." The portal would evolve into a story rich with twists and turns that commented on identity, celebrity, and control, among other poignant themes. The affair would transform into a convoluted love triangle between a neglected puppeteer (John Cusack), his zany wife (Cameron Diaz), and his aloof coworker (Catherine Keener).

For Kaufman, story ideas often lead to unexpected places, and "Malkovich" was no exception. "Writing is exploring," he said. "You can't have it established before you begin. I can't, anyway." His innovative style and commitment to creativity continue to permeate his work decades after "Malkovich" was released.