Kaufman, Gondry Give Pieces of ‘Mind’
Quirky author and director revisit a filmed trip down imaginary memory lanes
The big, brooding star of Con Air and Leaving Las Vegas would seem to have little in common with the slight, wiry man looking vaguely anxious as he faces a less-than-imposing panel of five student reporters on Tuesday. Cage was considered a few years back for the part of a big-screen Superman; calling Kaufman Clark Kent would be something of a stretch. For anyone who’s seen Kaufman’s 2002 meta masterpiece Adaptation, though, the resemblance can’t be denied. Here, in a sunlit conference room on the second floor of the Boston Ritz-Carlton, is living evidence that Cage was nearly perfect in his on-screen portrayal of that self-referential script’s author. Kaufman has the same quietly intense air as his film double, leans over in the same way to burst out with a self-deprecating jab or an enthusiastic riff.
Kaufman is sitting next to director Michel Gondry to promote their soon-to-be-released collaboration, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, in which Jim Carrey joins the growing list of actors who have played some version of Kaufman’s harried hero. The writer’s sense of humor, it becomes clear, is no more Carrey-esque in real life than it is on celluloid—at least, not in that mid-90s sense, when the world knew Sunshine’s star as the spastic man behind The Mask. Kaufman will at no point shout “smokin’!” or “somebody stop me!”—and neither, for that matter, will Carrey. Sunshine is another introverted film that makes tentative comedy of profound awkwardness, and if all Kaufman’s scripts have the feel of having been written by a man who knows his way around romantic rejection, his latest goes for the emotional jugular. A surreal, 108-minute look into a grimily futuristic process that medically excises the memory of a nasty breakup and the relationship it ended, Sunshine takes place for the most part within Carrey’s character’s psyche.
This makes for one of the most realistic dreams to hit screens since—well, since the respective last projects of Kaufman and Gondry, neither of whom has shied in the past from experimental ways to represent the subconscious. It also puts the two thin men with tousled hair in the unenviable position of having to lead a group of eager college journalists through their dense, dark cinematic fantasy in the early afternoon.
“It was a hard one to write,” Kaufman says by way of explanation—and, apparently, a hard one to make. The script spent years “floating around,” in Gondry’s words, before heading into production. Kaufman recalls that he and Gondry pitched the idea for Sunshine just a week after he received a contract to write a screenplay based on Susan Orlean’s non-fiction book The Orchid Thief—a writing project that, if we are to believe Adaptation, quickly became something of an existential nightmare. And shortly after getting the green light on the Sunshine project, the author and director say they threw themselves into 2001’s Human Nature, Gondry’s feature-directing debut and the duo’s first work together.
This down time was not necessarily a bad thing, they say. As executives moved on to other projects, what had begun as a simple dinnertime parlor game between Gondry and an artist friend took form as a complex, classically Kaufman script.
“We were very lucky,” Gondry says with his native French accent. “Charlie was left alone to write.”
Unsurprisingly, that writing process was an intensely personal one. Though his string of critical successes has no doubt brought a wide range of Hollywood stars within his reach, Kaufman says he paid no attention to casting possibilities as he wrote.
“I never have actors in mind when I’m writing, with the exception of John Malkovich,” he says, referring to 1999’s Spike Jonze-directed Being John Malkovich, in which a frustrated puppeteer discovers a hidden portal into the character actor’s mind.
Once Gondry had secured Sunshine’s cast—which also includes Kate Winslet, Kirsten Dunst, Tom Wilkinson, Elijah Wood and Mark Ruffalo—Kaufman says he made no effort to re-tailor his script to their dimensions. Speaking now of the fine points of shooting the film, he continues to use characters’ script names rather than those of the actors who play them.
In many ways, though, the most important character in Kaufman’s newest screenplay remains the same one who has emerged in one quirky script after another: himself. In one of Adaptation’s more transcendently bizarre moments, the fictional Charlie Kaufman (played by Cage) haunts the edges of the painstakingly-recreated studio set of Malkovich, his first produced film script, awkwardly interacting with that movie’s suddenly irritable cast and crew. Just the same, if Carrey’s Joel Barish is easily distinguishable from Cage’s Kaufman or the writer doodling now as the more talkative Gondry chats on, Sunshine’s author is never far from the new film’s margins.
But the scribbler who managed to make a meditation on rare flowers into a film with not one but two versions of himself in the starring roles is not, he says, always entirely thrilled with the business of putting his innermost thoughts on multiplex screens.
“The first time I saw Nicolas Cage masturbating in Adaptation with my name attached to his body, I was embarassed,” Kaufman says.
But he says he’s warmed “happily” to the role of self-analyzing amateur shrink, at once a more straight-forward and yet infinitely more obscure variation on Woody Allen’s narcissistic neurotic.
“I have no choice but to use my head for my work,” Kaufman says.
Speaking of the film’s “counterintuitive” title—a bright quotation from Alexander Pope with only overtones of Sunshine’s warily-relieved darkness—Kaufman says he chose it because it’s “long and hard to remember.”
Is he serious, or sending himself up yet again? It can be hard to tell. One thing Kaufman’s frenetic characters do not share with their creator is his nearly-constant deadpan.
Asked a less-than-incisive question—whether he drew on personal memories for a sequence in which a childlike Carrey is washed in a remembered kitchen fixture—Kaufman replies, “I still bathe in the sink.”
After the formal interviewing is done, as one reporter expresses his adulation for a short film featuring Carrey on Gondry’s recently-released career retrospective DVD—quickly followed by surprise at the fact that Kaufman has not seen the segment himself—the writer volunteers a simple explanation for falling out of the loop.
“I don’t have a television,” he says in all apparent seriousness.
Really? The man who did an early stint writing for Chris Elliott’s groundbreaking sitcom “Get a Life,” not plugged in to the small screen? No, Kaufman reveals with a flashed smile and a clipped word after a moment of confusion. He does have a television, though he wouldn’t say he watches it a lot.
A few minutes later, the same student proclaims that he likes Human Nature better than any of the other films Gondry or Kaufman have worked on, simultaneously asserting that it is most viewers’ least favorite. Both creators frown, and Gondry objects that he thinks plenty of people liked his first film; Kaufman, meanwhile, volunteers that Human Nature is in fact the number one video rental in the country. Met with momentary befuddlement from even Gondry, Kaufman again gives the nod and half-laugh that indicates he is not, apparently, speaking genuinely.
Kaufman and Gondry say they had a similarly ambiguous, sometimes combative—but ultimately profoundly productive—relationship during the making of Sunshine.
“It’s like friends from school, you don’t really choose them,” Gondry offers after a while when asked about how the two work together. He is greeted with laughter.
Even now there are occasional flares of tension between the director and the screenwriter. Mentioning a key scene towards the end of Sunshine, Gondry unintentionally dredges up an on-set clash over how precisely to stage its action. The two turn away from the reporters to banter about the differing ways they thought about pulling it off, and Kaufman still seems somewhat sore that Gondry’s approach won out.
“The scene could have been 100 times better if you hadn’t done that,” he says to the director, adding that his could just as easily have been the wrong choice.
Still, they say this friction can be good for the final product.
“We have good fights,” Kaufman says.
“I beat him up because he’s tiny,” Gondry chimes in.
After laughter from the room and a brief silence, Kaufman comes back, deadpan again.
“I think I could take Michel,” he says, eyeing the auteur. “I can’t say that about a lot of people.”
Gondry agrees with a smile, conceding that he is “a very weak person” before qualifying that with the word “physically.”
Earlier in the afternoon, Kaufman relates the plot of an Ian Frazier short story he kept in mind as he wrote Sunshine. In it, he says, a man and a woman are sitting in a marriage counselor’s office; the man spends the bulk of the story pouring out his heart about the grave problems in their relationship, and the story ends abruptly as the woman says that she’s never met the man before.
Gondry calls the story “cool,” but is apparently hearing the anecdote for the first time. In a moment that typifies their off-kilter dynamic, Gondry uses the out-of-sync beat to point towards even newer creative possibilities.
“That could be a whole movie itself,” he says excitedly.
—Staff writer Simon W. Vozick-Levinson can be reached at email@example.com.