Charlie Kaufman speaks at Karlovy Vary
An animated and truly frightening horror film is one of several projects the writer/director would like to do soon
Screenwriter and director Charlie Kaufman rose to fame with films like Being John Malkovich and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. He was at the 51st Karlovy Vary International Film Festival to give a public lecture, introduce his latest film and also receive the Festival President's Award at the July 9 closing ceremony.
His latest film, Anomalisa, used puppet animation to explore the concept of individuality in the modern age. He wrote the script and also co-directed it with Duke Johnson. The film was aimed a mature audience. It earned good reviews but was not a box-office hit, taking in less than its production cost.
Except for the two main characters, all of the voices are done by the same actor. Kaufman declined to explain why that was done. “It is important to understand that that is what you are hearing,” he said, adding that it was one of several choices he made for the film. “I don't ever really explain why those choices are made … because I want people to have their interaction with it and their experience with it. Everything is related to everything but I am not going to tell you why. That is your job,” he said at a news conference.
The possibilities for animation are not limited. “Animation is a form like any other form. It is not a genre. It can be used for fantastic movies, it can be used for children's movies. But we were thinking we wanted to use it for an adult [themed] movie, so we did. And we tailored it to what we thought was appropriate for that. I hope there comes to be a broader understanding of what animation can be and that there is more opportunity for different styles of animated movies to exist in the world,” Kaufman said.
“If our movie made $100 million, the terrain would change. Obviously there would be more adult movies but that didn't happen, so I don't think there will be a lot of people clamoring to make make R-rated animated movies anytime soon,” he added.
He said his collaboration with co-director Duke Johnson was “very, very full.”
“It is an interesting process, animation. It is very front-loaded. Most of the decisions are made before you shoot the movie. You have to know exactly what you are planning on doing because it takes so long,” he said, adding that the actual animation was a somewhat mechanical task.
Anomalisa deals with people who work in a call center, and Kaufman had worked in that field for a decade. “When I was looking for a profession for the main character in this movie I thought that was kind of fun, it was funny that somebody would be a celebrity in that world. And I know that world. So it was kind of an easy thing for me to write from this point of view,” he said.
Kaufman intends to continue directing. “I would collaborate with [directors] Michel [Gondry] or Spike [Jonze] or somebody else again on something if it felt right, but I am trying to get my own directing career a little more active,” Kaufman said.
“It has gotten considerably harder for me to get things made. The early films were made with sort of established directors. … Since 2008 I have been trying to direct my own movies. Obviously there was a financial collapse in 2008 that changed the movie business, but also the fact that I am trying to make movies myself now makes it more difficult. Synecdoche, New York, which was my first film, did not do a lot of business obviously hurt my chances. So it is hard. It is different and it is harder,” he said.
He has also tried to get some of his work on television. “I would love to do TV. I have tried but I have not been successful in getting anything produced. I have written a few pilots. I actually produced and directed a pilot. we shot it, but the studio didn't pick it up, so we didn't go to series. So it is a little disheartening for me because I have tried and I think I have done some good work. … It is a lot of effort and then nothing happens and it remains in a drawer somewhere,” he said. “If something came up that I could do I would be very interested. I like the idea of … having a story I could develop over a series of episodes,” he said.
The studio apparently felt the series would not be popular enough and that the concept was too complicated.
He has a few projects ready that he would like to see get made next. “I wrote a screenplay called Frank or Francis that I have been trying to get made for about six years now. … I just wrote a script for Paramount that I would like to get made but I don't know if it is going to happen. I am basically trying to keep my head above water. I am working on a novel,” he said.
“At this point in the film business I am taking assignments when I can get them. I can't really engage in writing spec scripts and hoping they get made. So right now I am just sort of doing what I need to do to make a living but also hoping that I can do something interesting within the framework of the assignment work that I do,” he said.
He would also like to try more animation, if he gets the chance, despite the lengthy process. “I would love do another animated movie again but not a (TV) series. The ongoing process of animating every week would be really difficult to get the quality I would want to get. But I would love to do another animated movie. I don't think it is in the cards easily because Anomalisa did not make the box office that would have helped get another one made but … I have talked a lot [with producers] about making an animated horror movie, and that is something that I want to do,” he said. The film would be scary, and not “Tim Burton cute.” “Something really frightening. I think that this form lends itself to some really nightmarish kind of stuff,” he said.
He is not a fan of some how-to books and courses on screenwriting. “I think you learn it like any other craft, by practicing it, and I think anybody can practice it and get better at it. The thing that I react to negatively in those screenwriting courses is that they describe in very specific and dogmatic ways how a screenplay should be constructed and what a screenplay needs to contain and I don't believe there is any one way to do that, as in there is no one way to make a painting. … You need the option to sort of step outside these conventions and explore. And to be told you can't do that, it makes the process of writing smaller not bigger,” he said.
As for his own writing he has a “ritual of procrastination.” “It takes me a long time and it is always a struggle for me to write and to find the direction I want. I don't write sometimes for weeks, sometimes for months, but I am always thinking about it.… If I rush it I am going to choose an inferior direction. In the end when I look back on something that has been successful, I am thankful that I didn't force it in a direction it didn't want to go,” he said. “But I get stuck a lot. I walk a lot. I carry a notebook with me and I go to a cafe almost every day,” he said.
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