At least once, to be polite, I offered to give him a break, but Kaufman didn’t seem to want one. “The more we talk, the more I have a chance of saying something that’s not idiotic,” he said. Those phone calls were often the only entries on either of our calendars. It felt good to have them fixed there, dependably marking time.
Relatively quickly, the curve in my corner of the US started to flatten while the one in New York spiked, and Kaufman found himself somewhat dislocated at the epicentre of a pandemic. He only recently moved to Manhattan from Pasadena and was living alone in a temporary rental, still figuring things out. “How are you?” I would ask each week when he picked up the phone, and Kaufman would say, “I think I’m the same, but I’m always anticipating the next thing” or “I still seem to be avoiding getting sick, but who knows” or “Everything is threatening.” One week he told me that he’d dropped his glasses on the floor in Whole Foods and couldn’t bring himself to put them back on, even after washing them five times. (“What happens when your glasses break?” he asked. “What do you do?”) And one week, when I asked how he was doing, he could only burst out laughing. And then I burst out laughing. Then Kaufman said, “How are you?” Then, after more laughing, the laughing died down and, very quietly, he told me, “I’m in a panic.”
Eight weeks, this went on. It was a bizarre way to get to know a stranger, at a time when there was scant opportunity to discover anything new in life at all. A bond formed: not friendship, not therapy, but a kind of reciprocal Stockholm syndrome with qualities of both.
I feel like I’ve got some kind of obligation that I’m not meeting right now … to find the world and not have it delivered to me.
The whole first draft read like that, more or less. It was slow-moving and a little weird. But given the disordered circumstances, I’d decided that the most honest approach was simply to write a portrait of one specific human being talking to another specific human being (me), to present a record of conversations that seemed to have been made more intimate by the dismaying stretch of time in which they took place.
The problem was, in the two weeks since I’d turned in the story, hundreds of thousands of protesters had taken to the streets; things had taken an unmistakable, turbulent turn. What I heard my editors saying, and what I tried to explain to Kaufman now on the phone, was something I had sensed myself: The world was furious and roiling, and the profound introspection and “baroque interiority” of the piece I’d written (my editors’ words) felt out of sync. Didn’t that dissonance need to be resolved, or at least acknowledged, in the story somehow? After receiving some (excuse me) slightly murky instructions about how that might be accomplished, I agreed to start by calling Kaufman back, to at least bring the chronology of our conversations up to date.
In April, he had busied himself a little, taking a job adapting a short story for Ryan Gosling’s production company. Kaufman’s college-age daughter came to stay with him, and they got in the habit of taking long walks around Manhattan and felting together, as they did when she was young. But mostly, as he once explained, “I feel like I’ve been spinning my wheels and wasting my time and looking at stuff online that I shouldn’t be. It’s making me very anxious. I feel like I’ve got some kind of obligation that I’m not meeting right now, an obligation to do something, to not waste time — to find the world and not have it delivered to me.”
Antkind had been finished for several months, as had a new film Kaufman wrote and directed, based on the novel by Iain Reid, I’m Thinking of Ending Things, which will be out on Netflix in September — a phantasmagorical, tightly wound thriller about a young couple, played by Jesse Plemons and Irish actress Jessie Buckley, driving through a snowstorm in Oklahoma. Kaufman was proud of the film, but called it “odd, small and a little complicated” and felt certain it would not produce any significant upswing for his career. “I honestly approached it as my last directing job.”
Kaufman is in the curious position of being admired in Hollywood but also constantly thwarted by its business model. Somewhere along the line, his actual stature and the perception of it had slipped awkwardly out of alignment. (When an interviewer from The Hollywood Reporter asked Kaufman in 2016, “Would Charlie Kaufman ever consider doing television?” Kaufman replied, “Charlie Kaufman has tried.”) After a trio of his earliest films, Being John Malkovich, Adaptation and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind earned him three Oscar nominations and one win, he accumulated enough clout to direct one of his own scripts for the first time: Synecdoche, New York, starring Philip Seymour Hoffman as a theater director whose warped ambition leads him to build (somehow) a full-scale replica of Manhattan inside a warehouse in Manhattan, which includes (somehow) a replica of the warehouse, which contains (somehow) another Manhattan inside it.
Synecdoche came out in 2008, when the economy was in free fall. Revered critic Roger Ebert called it “the best film of the decade,” but commercially, it was not a success. The film industry rapidly contracted and turned risk-averse. The big studios Kaufman had worked with no longer seemed interested in greenlighting the kind of mid-budget, idiosyncratic films he wanted to write and direct.
“I have a lot of things that could spark, but won’t,” he told me one of the first times we spoke. He spent nearly a decade seeking financing for a script he wrote called Frank or Francis, a musical about an internet troll’s deranged feud with a film director that included 50 original songs. The only way a studio would let Kaufman direct it, he was told, was if he loaded it with movie stars. So he got Steve Carrell and Jack Black attached. Also Cate Blanchett, Nicolas Cage, Emma Thompson, Kevin Kline, Elizabeth Banks and Catherine Keener. But still, it wasn’t enough.
He developed ideas for television, then watched them founder. He took jobs to pay his mortgage, including an uncredited rewrite on Kung Fu Panda 2. In 2015, he co-directed the critically exalted stop-animation film Anomalisa, with Duke Johnson, based on a script Kaufman wrote for a live radio play — but only after Johnson’s company raised the initial chunk of the project’s budget on Kickstarter.
When a book editor first approached Kaufman, in 2011, asking if he’d ever thought about writing a novel, he recognised how liberating that might be. Whatever he chose to write wouldn’t have to be filmed or budgeted, or screened for a test audience, or tweaked to get a particular rating. If he wanted to write about an army of animatronic Donald Trumps, known as “Trunks”, or place a new mountain range in the middle of North America, he could. And if he wanted his protagonist to have sexual intercourse with that mountain range, he could do that, too. And more than that: He had to do it. Though he hadn’t seriously written prose in 40 years, and kept imagining critics punishing him for his ineptitude, or just his audacity for trying something new, he took the same approach that he does with his screenplays. Ideas that came up that felt like “Oh, you absolutely can’t do that” — those were the ideas that Kaufman forced himself towards. “I have to put myself in a position to fail ridiculously,” he says.
This was never clearer to me than when he talked about writing Adaptation. In short: Kaufman signed on to adapt The Orchid Thief, by Susan Orlean — a delicate, wide-ranging, meditative book about orchids, loosely centered on the story of an oddball Floridian plant poacher but without any hint of conventional plot — precisely because he had no idea how it could be done. After spending months in an “overwhelming depression” over the project, as he put it, he finally stepped back from the source material to consider what was preoccupying him at that moment in his own life, hoping to find something that felt alive, or sufficiently kinetic, to push him forward. And what was preoccupying him was obvious: “This idea occurred to me,” he says, “and it opened things up.”
In the end, Adaptation centred on the screenwriter Charlie Kaufman, struggling to adapt The Orchid Thief. In one of the first scenes, we see Nicolas Cage, as Kaufman, flop-sweating at lunch with a befuddled Hollywood executive, waving a copy of Orlean’s book in the air and ranting about how he doesn’t want to “cram in sex or guns or car chases, or characters learning profound life lessons … or overcoming obstacles to succeed in the end. The book isn’t like that”, he says, and “life isn’t like that. It just isn’t”. It was precisely what the real Kaufman explained to a real Hollywood executive before taking the job.
Discussing Kaufman’s creative process in my first draft, I described him as essentially constructing tortuous escape rooms for himself, then writing his way out. This approach seemed to cause him so much suffering that I eventually asked him:
”Is there any part of you that feels afflicted by your convictions?” Did he ever just wish he could write an action film or something? “There’s no part of you that wishes it were easier?”
“I would like to have money that I don’t have,” he replied, “and I tell myself that I could write a commercial blockbuster.” But he also understood that he might be flattering himself; he’d never actually tried. He was proud of his commitment to do original, meaningful work. “There’s lots and lots of garbage out there that isn’t honest and isn’t trying to help clarify or explore the human condition in any way,” he told me, “and it sends people down the wrong road” — skews our perceptions of our own lives, and each other — “and it’s mind-numbing and it’s toxic, and I don’t want to have that on my resume. I don’t even mean my professional resume, but my resume as a human being.”
Spike Jonze, who directed both Adaptation and Being John Malkovich, compared Kaufman to Kanye West — albeit haltingly and with a number of disclaimers. “This is a weird comparison,” Jonze told me, “and I hesitate to bring him up because everyone has an opinion about this person, but …” Jonze and West have been friends and collaborators for 15 years, he says, almost as long as Jonze has been a friend and collaborator of Kaufman’s. “And the thing about Kanye is,” Jonze says, “it’s not that Kanye doesn’t care what people think about him. It hurts his feelings if he’s misunderstood, like anybody. But he can’t not be himself. He has no choice in the matter. And I think Charlie’s the same way.”
To be fair, almost everyone I interviewed for this article appeared to struggle to express what they admired about Kaufman. Actress Catherine Keener, a close friend of Kaufman’s who has appeared in three of his films, actually took the step of signaling to me in advance, via text, how lousy she would be at talking about Kaufman and started crumpling under that difficulty within a few seconds of my getting her on the phone: “If you could see my face, you would know how I feel when I talk about Charlie,” she says, though it was, in fact, completely apparent to me — not only from the warmth of Keener’s tone but in the vigorous determination with which she kept trying to describe Kaufman, how sincerely she wanted me to know what she knew.
“Charlie is, you know, out of this world and kind of normal at the same time,” she says. “I feel like he can have a conversation with anybody and also … he can not.” Finally, having again failed to put some other elemental quality of Kaufman’s into words, Keener just tells me, with defeat and delight, “Charlie knows what he is!”
I don’t mean to be flip about this; I empathised with the problem because I was experiencing it myself. I worried that the conversations Kaufman and I were having wouldn’t translate well in print either; that people would skim through the article I was writing impatiently, feeling exhausted by Kaufman and his tendency to process every minuscule facet of existence through a vast, clattering, Rube Goldberg machine of introspection. But in real life, it was actually pretty moving to listen to. His vulnerability didn’t make you want to turn away from him; it made you want to be vulnerable too.
(Adapted from an article that originally appeared in The New York Times Magazine.)
Antkind is out now through Fourth Estate, $32.99.