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Talking Head

Our big-time New York interview with the makers and stars of the ultra-weird Being John Malkovich might just be too creepy and intense for you to handle

By Jared S. White, Crimson Staff Writer

I love the one-on-one interview, the tte--tte over coffee or lunch where you can really get inside somebody's head. Perhaps that was too much to ask from the makers of Being John Malkovich, after the film has already taken you quite literally into the head of Mr. Malkovich himself. Instead, I had to content myself with a frenzied conversation with all the luminaries involved with the film on the top floor of a New York high-rise hotel. Sometimes it was hard to tell them all apart; everyone who worked on the movie seemed to wear many proverbial hats. Plainspoken wunderkind director Spike Jonze is basking in the glow of his meaty supporting role acting in Three Kings. The producer Michael Stipe is also the frontman for R.E.M.--and, incidentally, likes to wear sparkly eyeshadow. Curlyheaded screenwriter Charlie Kaufman doubled as the executive producer of the film (and has a slew of strange projects in development). John Cusack likes to direct himself. Cameron Diaz likes to change the color of her hair - for the interview, long brunette tresses, in case you wondered. And then there's the real John Malkovich himself. No, he isn't quite as creepy in person. Well, almost.

The Harvard Crimson: Mr. Malkovich, I have to ask you a question first, because this really intrigued me when I saw the film. How much of the John Horatio Malkovich in the film was actually you, the real John Malkovich? How much was it an invented character?

John Malkovich (speaking languidly, as if reciting a solilquoy in creepy monotone): I don't know if I can answer that, because I can't tell who the real John Malkovich is at all. Certainly, when I first read the script, it struck me as being something familiar to me. Perhaps this story is something I could have lived, without being something I actually lived in reality. I don't think [the Malkovich of the film] is so much like me, but I like that. I remember one of the first reactions I had when reading it was quite creepy: when I did live in New York, which I have not done for many, many years now, I lived at 7 1/2 W 75th Street. So when I read the first few pages and saw the number 7 1/2, I thought that perhaps someone was stalking me.

THC: After this movie, maybe someone will. You reveal a lot in the movie, especially when you enter your own subconscious where you are everyone - men, women, torch singer - did that worry you? Did you think you were revealing too much?

JM: Well, in my subconscious, I think I am a woman singing on a piano. Hard knowledge to have of yourself.

Did you find in any way that the film changed you in any way?

JM: I think John Cusack can field this one.

John Cusack: Yes, I'm Mr. Malkovich's attorney.

JM: Oh, I don't know that a film has ever transformed me. If it did, I wouldn't be able to feel that transformation until many years later.

JC: The thing that I took away from the film was the culture of celebrity, and the difference between artistic integrity and fame. People who are artists want the wrong thing, sometimes, and that was one of Craig's character flaws. He is a very good puppeteer but he wanted more recognition than perhaps a puppeteer is worth. One of my favorite lines in the film is when Maxine calls up and asks Craig if Malkovich is appealing. Craig responds, "Of course, he's a celebrity." That's something to ruminate on.

THC: Another one of the main themes of this movie is getting to be somebody else other than yourself. Who would you want to be?

JC: The greatest thing about Catherine Keener in this film is that she makes Maxine so cruel and so likeable at the same time. Every time she does something horrible, she gives you the sinking suspicion that that is going to be the last time she'll be horrible, and now she's going to start being nice. I always thought when I was younger that I would want to be the guy who could make a girl like Maxine stop being such a bitch.

JM: Being anybody else would be fine for me.

THC: Why is this movie about Being John Malkovich, rather than somebody else?

Charlie Kaufman, the screenwriter: I don't know. At the time when I wrote this film it was the only choice, and it never changed.

Spike Jonze, the director: Oh, we tried. We couldn't come up with anyone. I don't know what we would have done if John Malkovich did said no. Our list was empty

John Malkovich, the: When I had originally read it, it was sent to an office I had in Los Angeles. It arrived one day I'd when I was going back over to Europe. All the planes were incredibly late and I had run out of all the books and things I had to read. I called my partner and asked if there was anything at our office to read. He said, "Oh, yes, there's one thing you have to read." He kind of sent it along. And at first, we expressed to Charlie that I myself would be interested in directing or producing it... if it wasn't about me. I suggested William Hurt. But Spike wouldn't change it.

THC: How did you all like working with the monkeys? I know Cameron was caged with one, and John spent a lot of time with them too.

JC: In some ways this is the favorite movie I have ever done. The reason I liked it so much is that I tried to get as much food as I could before lunch so that during lunch I could have the animal trainers come and lock me in my trailer with the monkeys. The trailer is very small - this is a lower budget film - so the chimps would just run around off the walls. It was really, really fun; my trailer became a monkey-tossing petting zoo. I'd much rather be hanging out with chimps than being here right now.

Cameron Diaz: Yes - it was amazing. It was an experience I cherish. We had a week before shooting, and the animals had to get really comfortable with me. So I would dress up as Lotte before there was even a Lotte. It was kind of a half-Lotte, transforming into a bad wig and the wrong contacts. I would spend four or five hours a day with the monkeys, crawling in the trees outside our production office in downtown Los Angeles. I would burp them and change their diapers.

JC: I remember thanking Charlie and Spike because I got to do a scene where I was sitting on a couch in a hovel with a monkey telling the monkey that I was an unappreciated artist. I did that looking straight into the monkey's eyes. All I could think was, "My god - this is as good as it gets. There's nothing that can compare to this."

CD: Still, even though it's an amazing experience I'll never forget, there's also something very disturbing about these creatures who are caged and used for our purposes. It upset me a great deal. I do not suggest anyone go out and buy a monkey for a pet.

THC: It is striking how much of a physical departure that the two of you made in creating your characters for this movie. You're both great, but totally unrecognizable.

JC: Yeah, I've done a moustache and beard before, but never to the extent of the Craig Schwartz look.

CD: To help us come up with our characters, Spike had taken pictures of random people with a long-lensed camera on the streets of New York. We pieced our characters together from these images, by asking, "Who's Lotte? Who's Craig? Who are these people?" It wasn't about snubbing anyone, or taking down looks, or just creating a shocking effect. We just to find the people whose stories we wanted to tell. That's acting, which is really fun.

THC: I thought that both Cameron Diaz and Catherine Keener did a wonderful job with Lotte and Maxine, but that, as two versatile actresses, you probably could have played either part. Did you gravitate towards these roles when the script first came across your desk?

CD: I don't have a desk.

JC: Next question?

Saffold is just one voice in an often silent chorus of minorities who have felt the chill in that September afternoon. How are the players in Harvard's dramatic community reacting to the perception that theater is a white-only world?

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