Nakedly sincere, Charlie Kaufman presents us with a strikingly insightful masterclass on writing without a formula, the responsibilities of a film-maker and the art of failing. Although diffident and somewhat gawky in appearance, Kaufman’s surety of his own work is absolute.
“If what you’re doing does not have the possibility of failing, then by definition, you’re not doing anything new.” – Charlie Kaufman
Taking center stage at Göteborg International Film Festival (Sweden), Charlie Kaufman seems about as comfortable with the attention as would his namesake character in Adaptation. When the host expresses hope of learning something from him, Mr. Kaufman even lets out an anxious laugh before claiming “Then, you’ve come to the wrong place”, humbly oblivious to his own ingenuity.
Charlie Kaufman on how to write
“It doesn’t appeal to me to have a kind of a formula, for writing anything.”…“I’m not interested in going in with a frame work. I think it inhibits the possibilities for me.“ Even though seeming opposed to structure within his own work, he admits that “It’s helpful for some people and I wouldn’t tell people not to do it if they want to do it”.
Many writers have opposed feelings towards the idea of structure within their stories. It “inhibits the possibilities” whilst simultaneously being “helpful”.
Structure can, if allowed, inhibit a writer, but can also un-inhibit an already inhibited one. Consider a map. If used to keep you on the exact path you planned out from the start, it’ll hinder you from stumbling upon the unimaginable. If, however, you ignore the map completely and find yourself lost, you’ll end up wandering in circles.
So, my advice would be to dare stray from structure, that’s where you’ll find the parts of your story that only you can tell, but keep it in mind in case you get lost in your story and need to return to its core.
Charlie Kaufman is no traditional man, or writer, and does not wish to be so. His approach is highly original, both in process and product. Not only does he stray from structures and guidelines, his actual films aren’t exactly your typical blockbusters either.
Kaufman’s works aren’t, seemingly, intended as commercial, and can therefore afford to explore angles unexpected.
Charlie Kaufman about ‘Adaptation’ (2002)
“The main character in this movie is the screenplay itself. The evolution of the screenplay from its initial intents to its ultimate corruption. To me that’s the tragedy of this creature that is this screenplay, that never was able to reach the fruition that Charlie had hoped. He was never able to write a movie about flowers”.
Kaufman describes his works as “self-conscious”, a very on-point description. Although giving the impression of being a highly introverted individual, Kaufman’s films are all but so.
I would even go so far as to say that the feelings and thoughts he doesn’t display in his personal life are extroverted through his work. To showcase one’s inner life like that is not only brave, but also heartwarmingly earnest.
“I think that you have the responsibility to be truthful. You’re going to put something into this world that so many people are going to get stuck in their brain”.
Opposed to the idea of Hollywood Romances, he implies that dishonest works can even be right-out damaging to real life relationships, something he’s experienced personally.
“It sets up unreal expectations, which I think you then project onto your partner and it destroys the possibility of an actual conversation between people.”…“If you do something that is truthful, truthful in the subjective personal sense, not in any kind of larger sense, maybe someone else in the world can hold on to it and not feel like they’re a complete freak for not living in this “Romantic Comedy world.””
Romance is one of the most sought after genres. So why, if these films set up un-relatable characters and worlds, are they so attractive?
“The Republicans of the United States have a theory that the reason that they can get support from people who they’re not helping at all is because these people aspire to the American Dream.“…”It’s like this hopeful thing, that you’re going to be living your life to a soundtrack.”…”It’s appealing in a short-run sort of way, but then you know you have to go back to the actual business of living your life and you suddenly feel like you’re really Less Than. And I don’t think that’s ultimately helpful for people.”
Movies and fiction have the ability of taking people away from reality, of offering a less mundane alternative to the everyday 9 to 5. An “escape” like this may have an almost drug-ish effect in that its extravagance makes the actual world seem bleak in comparison.
This doesn’t mean that fantastical movies or great escapes are necessarily bad, as aspiring and dreaming of better things aren’t necessarily so, but they have the potential.
As a writer, you need to consider the ideals you’re setting. If soldiers are presented as heroes, children may dream of the day they get to hold a gun.
A lot of us creative types are hopeless introverts and can, as Kaufman himself, fully master the art of being awkward.
“Situation comedy writing… you sit in a room with a bunch of other comedy writers and you pitch jokes. The first job I got, I didn’t say a word for six weeks and every day I, I would go home and think I was going to get fired that day. I was so scared, and so shy, and so inhibited.”
Charlie Kaufman may have been mortified when put in a situation where he was expected to showcase his skills, but by showing up every day although he’d rather go hide in a closet, he came out on the other side. My guess is, stronger.
Kaufman explains that even though working in big groups isn’t ideal for him, he did learn a lot.
“You don’t know what the other person is going to say, so you’re bouncing stuff against the unknown. I think that’s the good thing about collaboration.”
If he works alone, the product feels like a more sincere reflection of himself. Even so, he did have trouble going back after having worked with Paul Proch.
“I became very paralyzed”…”I couldn’t surprise myself, in any way. So the thing I did, and I did it with Being John Malkovich, is I decided that I was going to collaborate with myself, and the way to do that, I thought, was to get myself off of that track that was very familiar.”
Trusting your instincts
When you’re working on your own, nobody else is going to push you to try what you haven’t tried before, and it’s not always easy to dare trust yourself.
How do you know what works and what doesn’t when nobody’s telling you? About writing Being John Malkovich, Kaufman says:
“I trusted that it was funny because I thought it was funny.”
It’s remarkably simple, yet quite refreshingly optimistic. If you think your work is really good, then chances are that at least some of those who see/read it, will do so too.
The people who’ll appreciate your work are probably those who, on some level, would understand your inner workings. Write for them.
A lot of your ideas, especially the great ones, are probably going to be a little crazy. Crazy’s not bad, so don’t worry. But how do you keep them from coming off as silly?
Charlie Kaufman about relatable characters
“There’s gotta be a real emotional basis for what’s going on with the characters. If there isn’t anything, then it’s just silly, and it’s weird, and it feels frivolous to me. It has to be about something.”
An essential part of almost any story is making your audience feel alongside your characters. Nobody will care on the behalf of a character that’s not relatable. By relatable, however, I don’t mean that he/she needs to look or even act as you or me, but the inner feelings, or the “emotional basis”, needs to feel real.
Take The Lion King as an example. The characters are lions, nobody’s pretending otherwise, so they’re obviously not relatable in any physical sense. Even so, the world cried when Simba lost his father. Because he gave us a real emotional response.
Something that keeps coming back throughout this interview, whether because of Kaufman in particular or because it’s a common issue is hard to say, is the concept of taking risks.
“I think it’s kind of the job description, for me. I think that’s what I have to do. I don’t think I’m doing my job if I don’t do that- But still, it’s scary.”
“If what you’re doing does not have the possibility of failing, then by definition, you’re not doing anything new” […] “So the only way that you can do anything new or interesting is to open yourself up to that risk of failing.”
The concept of failing, or being a failure, is terrifying. It is, however, how you learn. If you never break down, you can never understand what’ll get you up. There may be things you want to tell that haven’t been told before in ways that haven’t been shown.
These are the scariest stories to tell because of the prospect that people won’t understand them. These are also the stories the world needs to hear, and the ones you need to tell.
Charlie Kaufman rounds off this particular topic with this rather quizzical, yet, if you manage to overlook the odd wording, astoundingly on-point statement:
”This is the only way that it’ll be worth anything at all. Maybe it won’t be, but it won’t – definitely won’t be – if I don’t do that.”
I consider this statement the key to Charlie Kaufman’s success. Giving the world something it’s already ready for eliminates the possibility of presenting it with what it needs to go forward.
When asked about the possibility/impossibility of telling a story, Kaufman’s answer will once again make the structure aficionados out there want to jump off a cliff.
“I’m not really interested in stories. Because I think stories are things that are kind of polished and seen from a distance, and I want to try to do stuff where it’s like it’s immersed. Where I’m immersed in it when I’m working on it. And the audience will experience that immersion, that chaos and confusion of actual existence, as opposed to a story with a beginning, a middle and an end.”
Charlie Kaufman expresses the importance of being truthful. His approach seems to be that films shall reflect the real world instead of an impossibly perfect alternative to it.
A lot of the films being made today can often seem frighteningly foolproof, being just a little bit too shiny. Sure, these can be stunning to look at, but my interpretation of what Charlie Kaufman is telling us is that he doesn’t want to create something that is beautiful from afar, but rather something you could imagine existing inside of.
If you’re a creative person, chance is you’ll have a lot of ideas. That’s fantastic, keep ’em coming. It can, however, come a time when you find yourself hindered by the sheer number of them. Asked how he’d solve the problem of facing too many ideas at once, Kaufman answers:
“My kind of way of solving it, is I just add more ideas… I like the idea of density and opening things up. When I’m writing, I don’t have an outline, generally, where I’m saying I have to go from this point to that point. I find that kind of constricting… If I have a new idea, that excites me, I’ll include it, if I can.”
I think I just heard every screenwriting professor out there to cringe as Charlie Kaufman said this, but it just proves once again that we all work differently in our creative process.
Whether you add up all your ideas and turn them into a story or construct a story first, and then figure out which ideas fit into it, is up to you. Most ideas do work, in some context. They may not, however, necessarily work within the project you’re currently working on.
The most terrible idea could be magnificent, if put into the right concept.
Charlie Kaufman on Rewriting and Feedback
On the topic of rewriting and receiving feedback, Kaufman spoke of being faced with questions about his work from director Spike Jonze (Being John Malkovich) during their reading-sessions.
“It put me in a position of having to explain it, and either I explain it or I can’t, and then we can change it if I can’t. And then I feel fine with changing it, because we’ve talked it through.”
Receiving and accepting feedback is one of the most vital parts of becoming great. It’s also one of the most difficult.
Taking feedback on a paper for school is one thing, but when it comes to something that’s so close to your heart that it’s almost a part of you, it becomes personal. The feelings you portray best are probably those you’ve experienced yourself, and if someone doesn’t understand them, it may be hard to hear.
The advice I would give is to connect your heart strings to your keyboard whilst you’re writing, but once it’s time to sort out what makes sense and what doesn’t, you may want to disconnect. If you find that you can’t explain to your reader why something needs to be the way it is, consider the possibility that it doesn’t.
So what about your inner critic?
“I really need to train myself to let myself write the stuff that isn’t gonna work out. Because if I’m editing and being a critic while I’m writing, I just sit there. Which I do a lot of.“
Ending up not writing at all for fear of writing something that isn’t good enough is highly common. It’s also astonishingly ludicrous. We’ve all done it, don’t fret, but it’s a pattern that will most likely hinder you.
If you have something finished, even if it’s shit, you have a starting point. You’ll end up having to rewrite the first draft anyways, so there’s no need to get it perfect the first time. Just get it done. Then make it perfect.
Throughout this masterclass, it ‘s been fairly evident that Charlie Kaufman values artistic integrity far higher than commercial appeal. It is vital that you don’t try so hard to write what people want that you forget why you’re writing. But as an un-known artist without much credentials, how to face skepticism because your work isn’t “sellable”?
“I think tenacity is really the only thing. What happens with tenacity is that the more people that see your stuff, the more times you get to talk to people, the greater the chances you’ll hook up with somebody who gets it and wants to do it.”
If you’ve found something about yourself that is special, show it or you eliminate the possibility of someone else finding it too. There is lots of ignorance out there, my friend, and if you are extraordinary, that’s something you’ll have to learn to either face or ignore.
A lot of people won’t understand you, but are they really who you’re writing for? Consider why you write, and then do so shamelessly.
When asked why he writes movies, Kaufman awkwardly stumbles on the words before offering the most honestly beautiful response yet.
“I don’t know why I do it. I don’t know what else I’d do.”
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Camilla Beskow is a screenwriter, and former student at the Gotland based film school Storyutbildningen. Among her favourite films are Pan’s Labyrinth and Good Will Hunting.