Being John Malkovich's Classic Status Wasn't Something Charlie Kaufman Or Spike Jonze Expected

"Being John Malkovich" was a huge success because it's so bold and unique, but that's exactly what made its success so unexpected. The writer, Charlie Kaufman, was new to feature screenwriting after cutting his teeth in television. The director, Spike Jonze, had only ever made commercials and music videos. This would be the first feature film for both of them, but neither imagined it would go very far. Thankfully, they were wrong, and their collaboration earned them each an Oscar nomination.

Kaufman didn't even expect "Being John Malkovich" to get made when he wrote it. He was working as a sitcom writer at the time and struggling to make it in the industry. "Charlie, he'd written it really just for fun, he never thought it was gonna get made," Jonze explained to Criterion (via Joseph Dolo). "He wrote it as something he hoped would get him some jobs in the film business."

The screenplay created more buzz than Kaufman anticipated. "It got a really positive response. I started to get a little known," he recalled to The Guardian. "People would read it and tell me how funny it was, invite me for meetings, tell me nobody would ever make the movie. I had maybe 15 meetings like that, so I wasn't really expecting it to get made."

The writer assumed his project had reached a dead end — until Jonze got attached. "He was in a position to get a movie made," Kaufman explained. But getting a green light would not guarantee the project's success. Even though Kaufman had gotten his film off the ground, he still did not anticipate that the film would get a lot of attention. "I didn't really expect it to be anything. I don't think Spike did either," the writer recalled. 

Once "Malkovich" premiered, things started to change.

Kaufman and Jonze didn't think Malkovich would be a hit until after it was released

In the early days of production for "Being John Malkovich," Jonze faced backlash for his creative choices. The financiers didn't like "how dark the basement was," he explained to Criterion. "They'd try to get us to put more fill lights into the film because it didn't look like a comedy." They were also upset because "they didn't recognize Cameron Diaz," who was a major draw for the movie. "We started getting a lot of pressure from the studios and from the financier," Jonze admitted.

Luckily, they were saved when the production company behind "Malkovich" was purchased by Universal Pictures. "Suddenly nobody cared about this little mini micro-budget movie," Jonze recalled. This allowed the director and the rest of the cast and crew to have full creative freedom, even after the cameras stopped rolling. "Not only did nobody bother us for the rest of photography, nobody bothered us for another year."

The attitude toward "Being John Malkovich" finally changed during the festival circuit. "I remember it going to the Venice film festival, which was the first exposure it had," Kaufman recalled (via The Guardian). "I just got a phone call saying that it was this big thing, and then all these articles got written about it. It was exciting."

From there, "Being John Malkovich" took off. Kaufman established his style as a surreal and compelling storyteller and Jonze displayed his ability to meld the uneasy and the ridiculous. In the decades since its release, "Malkovich" has cemented its status as a modern classic. Kaufman and Jonze would collaborate again with "Adaptation" in the years following "Malkovich," but have not combined their creative forces since. Here's hoping that this pair will rekindle their artistic partnership soon.