Charlie Kaufman is the author of the screenplays Being John Malkovich (1999), Human Nature (2001), Confessions of a Dangerous Mind (2002), Adaptation (2002), Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004), and Synecdoche, New York (2008), the last of which he also directed. He has a fondness for inserting himself into his own work and writing about sex.
When asked over the phone: ‘You do have a reputation for being reclusive, for being extraordinarily shy, for refusing to have your photo taken and so forth. Is it all true?’ Kaufman replies: ‘There’s a bit of a mythology about me. And there are photos. I was on a panel at Cannes. They were snapping away.’ But he follows what appears to be a factual statement with the caveat: ‘Then again, I am talking to you on the phone, in a completely dark room with infrared goggles on.’ In this interview, Kaufman plays with his public persona and, as he does in his films, purposefully refuses to delineate the differences between various levels of reality, truth and fiction.
In Adaptation, when Charlie is having difficulty adapting Susan Orlean’s book The Orchid Thief, he inserts himself into his own screenplay because he decides that the only way to get past his writer’s block is to ‘write about what you know’. Apparently the screenwriter knows himself pretty well. In interviews concerning the film, a stock question put to Kaufman is, ’Why put yourself into your film?’ And, so far, he has always given the same reason as his fictional counterpart: it was out of artistic necessity. Kaufman also creates a fictional brother for his fictional self called Donald Kaufman. Donald represents the pro-Hollywood aspect of the film industry that both Charlies claim to despise, but, as the film progresses, it become apparent that they have to incorporate Hollywood elements into their scripts to get the green light. If we were to assume that the real Charlie is like the fictional Charlie, and vice versa, then we would be ignoring practically every assertion made by contemporary film theory about narrative, genre, and subjectivity.
Kaufman performed in his high school’s production of Play It Again, Sam and, in his yearbook entry, he ironically states: ‘At last, my dream had come true; I wasn’t a victim of my machismo physique. I was able to free myself, to be short … to be somebody!’ The desire ‘to be somebody’ and have an identity is as evident throughout Kaufman’s work as his desire to subvert and question the methods of obtaining and portraying such states…
The full 1,500 word version of this essay is published in Directory of World Cinema: American Independent 1, edited by John Berra, published by Intellect Books, 2010.