Part 11: The Rough Draft

Yes, this is the real, unedited rough draft. At WIRED, we call this an 00. A few words about it from Jason Tanz:

Filing a rough draft always makes me a little queasy, and this one was no exception. I always feel the urge to write a note to my editor explaining the choices I made, stuff to look out for, etc., but usually am able to resist -- really, the editor should be coming to this blind, like any reader would. But for the sake of transparency, and if you'll pardon a little (more) self-indulgence, here are a few of the elements that gave me the most trouble as I tried to write this thing:

1. Making Kaufman work for our magazine -- I live in fear of my editors reading this story and asking "What does this guy have to do with Wired?" Early on, I tried to focus on logic, mathematics, and paradoxes in Kaufman's films, as a way of answering that question before it's asked. We'll see if it works.

2. Striking the right balance -- To be honest, I'm an unabashed Kaufman fan. I also quite liked Synecdoche -- perhaps more than the average moviegoer would. (I've spoken to several who weren't as crazy about it, and a few who were.) I didn't want my fanboysihness to override the story; at the same time, there's an equally pernicious impulse to dump on something just to prove that you AREN'T a fanboy, and I didn't want to fall into that trap either. In the end, I decided that my own opinions about the movie didn't matter; the point is that the reception has been mixed, and Kaufman himself is quite openly anxious about the movie's prospects. That's the story, regardless of what I think.

3. Getting just a little clever -- Kaufman writes (sometimes) about the process of writing. So there was a temptation to do the same within the text of this piece. (To see how obnoxious that could have been, check out my pitch, which succumbed completely to this temptation.) Nancy agreed that I should write this fairly straight. But at the same time, circularity and
recursion were themes that I was addressing in the piece, and I tried to subtlely add a few recursive elements in the draft. It's hard to know when you're beating readers over the head, or when you're being so subtle that 99% will miss it entirely. I still have doubts about the "one of these sentences is false" intro, but left it in for now.

OK, enough yammering. Here's the damn draft. DISCLAIMER: THIS IS A FIRST DRAFT. IT HAS NOT BEEN FACT-CHECKED OR COPY-EDITED, SO MAY/PROBABLY DOES CONTAIN FACTUAL ERRORS, TYPOS, AND OTHER MISTAKES.

UNADAPTED

Charlie Kaufman's ability to bend moviegoers' minds has made him one of cinema's most respected auteurs. But with his directorial debut, has Hollywood's brainiest screenwriter gotten too smart for his own good?

By Jason Tanz

There are TK sentences in this story. One of them is false.

[Break]

We open on Charlie Kaufman, sitting in the corner of an empty room in a French bistro in Los Angeles. He looks nothing like Nicolas Cage, who played Kaufman in the Kaufman-penned Adaptation. Cage was hulkish and balding; Kaufman is slight, beneath a healthy serving of reddish-brown curls. Two deep vertical creases climb from the bridge of his nose, the product, one imagines, of countless late-night brow-furrowing sessions. His wardrobe whispers "alternadad": short-sleeve Penguin button-down, tan jeans, lime-green socks. Kaufman, 50[CK], has a reputation for shyness, but he speaks directly, rapidly, forcefully.

He is here to promote his new film. After penning some of the defining movies of recent years -- Being John Malkovich and Adaptation, both of which won him Oscar nominations, and The Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, which won him an Oscar -- he has moved into the director's chair for the first time. It has been five years since he started batting ideas around with his friend and sometime collaborator Spike Jonze, five long years during which he worked on nothing but this bleak story of a man's anxieties, failures, flaws and ultimate demise. The result, Synecdoche, New York, is a deeply personal, borderline-obsessive story of heartache and death -- and not the fun kind of death that fills movie theaters, but the holy-crap-look-at-the-size-of-that-abyss kind of death that fills Joy Division albums. It is not, in other words, an easy sell. And now he has to plug the thing.

He is not very good at it. The first question is a softball -- How do you feel about this film in relation to your other ones? -- and the answer would seem pre-determined. I'm prouder of this movie than any I've ever done. Everyone should see it. But Kaufman doesn't do confident. "This is a difficult period for me right now with this movie, because it's over and I want it to be over," he says. "Putting it out into the world, there's a lot of..." He trails off, stares at a point in the middle distance for a few seconds, then continues. "It's so hard to know what I'm supposed to say. I'm participating in an article to sell this movie, but what am I supposed to say? 'It's great and I'm loving it'? It seems to be a tricky thing to sell people on, and I'm frustrated with that."

Welcome to the mind of Charlie Kaufman, maybe not the happiest place on earth, but one of the most fascinating. At a time when most movies measure success by the number of cornea-frying fireballs, Kaufman creates different kinds of explosions -- IN YOUR MIND! -- merging the existential despair of Beckett, the absurdist humor of Monty Python, and the intellectual playfulness of a natural-born puzzle geek. (Kaufman is particularly fond of Epimenides' Paradox, a classic one-sentence brainbuster: "This sentence is false.") In Malkovich, the eponymous actor enters a portal into his own mind. In Adaptation, a screenwriter named Charlie Kaufman writes himself into his own movie, which becomes Adaptation. And the lead character of Eternal Sunshine witnesses his memories as they are being erased, including the memory of his decision to erase his memories. Cognitive scientist Douglas Hofstadter, in his Pulitzer-winning tome Godel, Escher, Bach, refers to such regressions as "strange loops" -- circular paradoxes that contain themselves. And Kaufman's Moebius scripts contain some of the strangest loops ever put to film. "I've been told that my stuff is mathematical," says Kaufman. "There's like a hidden epiphany in it for me. You think you understand something, and then another version opens up."

For anyone who doesn't mind a little grey matter with their Raisinets, Kaufman is more than a writer; he is a brainiac-god. "Once, everybody who was in screenwriting wanted to be Quentin Tarantino," says Mick Spadaro, who runs beingcharliekaufman.com, a fan site. "Now, everybody wants to be Charlie Kaufman."

"It's hard not to see his influence," says Anthony Bregman, who has served as producer on three of Kaufman's films. "Every submission I get is, 'We have a Charlie Kaufmanesque movie for you.'"

But it's hard to imagine anyone trying to keep up with Synecdoche, Kaufman's most Kaufmanesque film yet. (Yes, that's a tautology.) Let Stranger Than Fiction and Tropic Thunder splash around the ontological kiddie-pool; Synecdoche plunges to such murky depths that it makes Adaptation look like Mamma Mia! The film revolves around theater director Caden Cotard, played by Philip Seymour Hoffman, who attempts to capture the "brutal truth" of his own existence by staging a life-sized, real-time recreation of it. He casts an actor to play him, who then must cast an actor to play him, and so on ad infinitum. Caden's girlfriend attracts the affections of the actor playing Caden, and Caden sleeps with the actress playing her. The entire story, meanwhile, is filtered through Caden's perspective -- further complicating matters, because his autonomic nervous system may be shutting down, and there are hints that he suffers from psychosis, chromosomal damage, and Capgras syndrome. Meanwhile, Kaufman himself hovers around the outer rim of this infinite spiral, a director who -- like Caden -- is attempting to recreate the story of his life, only to get muddled and lost along the way.

If that description makes you yearn for a Kaufman decoder ring, keep wishing; this time, the puzzle master doesn't provide any answers. "Adaptation or Eternal Sunshine ultimately have a safety valve -- a clever conceit that you come to understand," Kaufman says. "There isn't anything like that in this movie, which is more like life. Things flying off and becoming unhinged and being incomprehensible seem to be the process of existence. That's what I set out to explore. I don't know. Maybe it isn't a good idea for a movie."

Early indications suggest that Kaufman may be right. Synecdoche was one of the most hotly anticipated films to screen at Cannes in June, but it left the festival without a distributor. (To be fair, no other American film got picked up at Cannes either.) And while the movie has received its share of raves -- Time called it "a miracle movie" -- most reviews have focused instead on its difficulty; Variety's mostly warm analysis warned that "a venturesome distrib will have its work cut out for it," adding that the film spins "into realms that can most charitably be described as ambiguous and more derisively as obscurantist and incomprehensible."  (Synecdoche was eventually picked up, two months after Cannes, by Sony Classics. It hits theaters in late October.)

For now, on this August afternoon, there is nothing for Kaufman to do but wait, anxiously, for the market to render its cold verdict. He has been here before. When he submitted the screenplay for Adaptation, he says, he assumed he was destroying his career. "Charlie's nature is to set himself up in ways that he can't possibly succeed," says Spike Jonze, who directed Adaptation and Malkovich, "to set up goals that are impossible to pull off."

That's not a fun job description, but Kaufman doesn't see that he has any other choice. "I'm not going to pander," Kaufman says. "I'm going to anti-pander. But then the question I raise about myself is, Is that pandering?" Pause. "You can't win."

[BREAK]

Here's another paradox, albeit one not quite worthy of a Kaufman film: Charlie Kaufman, perhaps the world's most famous writer of movies, hates almost all movies. I HAVE SEEN HIM QUOTED SEVERAL PLACES ON THE PERNICIOUSNESS OF MAINSTREAM HOLLYWOOD STORYTELLING. I PARTICULARLY NEED HIM TO TALK ABOUT HOW STORIES DON'T ALWAYS END HAPPILY OR EASILY, WHICH WILL TIE INTO THE END OF THIS STORY. SHOULD BE EASY TO GET THIS OUT OF HIM IN TORONTO. I HOPE TO ALSO GET A COUPLE OF OTHER SCENES OUT OF TORONTO TO WORK INTO THIS GRAF AND INSERT BELOW, WHERE I'VE PUT ASTERISKS.

It may seem surprising, then, that Kaufman began his path to screenwriting stardom as a scribe for that most constrained and artificial of formats, the half-hour sitcom. It is probably less surprising that Kaufman was not very successful at it. (How do you know when you're toiling in obscurity? When Chris Elliott's cult series Get a Life is the best-known show on your resume.) Throughout the early 90s, Kaufman worked on such forgotten gems as Ned and Stacey, Misery Loves Company, The Dana Carvey Show, and a sketch-comedy show called The Edge. He developed a pilot for Disney called Astronuts (their title), which Kaufman remembers as "a throwback to the Monkees about a goofy rock band that were astronauts by day and their biggest challenge was getting back from space in time so they could make their gig."

More than once, Kaufman wrote scripts that so incensed the networks that they opted to "go dark" --  not broadcast the show that week -- rather than air them. Kaufman penned an episode for the short-lived Bronson Pinchot vehicle The Trouble With Larry, in which the title character mistakes his archaeologist-roommate's rare child-king mummy for a piñata, and then has to replace it with an injured tightrope-walking monkey in a full-body cast. "They wouldn't do it," Kaufman remembers. "There was a woman on staff who was an animal-rights person, and she was crying. I was like, 'Man, this is the stupidest thing. It makes no sense any way you look at it. The monkey's in a human hospital. A mummy doesn't look like a piñata. Why can't you make a fake mummy instead of stealing the monkey?' That's what was funny to me about it. It was like saying 'This form is such bullshit, let's play around with it.'"

In between short-lived gigs, Kaufman worked on a similarly bizarre screenplay about a hapless puppeteer who discovers a portal into the consciousness of actor John Malkovich. The script was audacious and silly, and Kaufman, who wrote it to attract more television work, never expected it to be made. But in YEARTK he got a call from Spike Jonze, a popular music-video director seeking his first foray into feature films. "It was unlike anything I had ever read," Jonze says. "Later, Charlie told me that the script had gotten around and everyone said it was unmakeable. I guess I didn't know any better."

Kaufman was unfamiliar with Jonze -- whom he assumed was the son of 1940s novelty musician Spike Jones -- but the two quickly bonded. Jonze invited Kaufman, who lived in New York at the time, to his Los Angeles home, where the two spent four days going over every line of the screenplay. Jonze had issues with the movie's third act: Kaufman's draft spun off into chaos, with the main character engaging in a puppeteering duel with the devil, who enters Malkovich's body and rules earth like a tyrant. Together, the two hammered out a new ending that felt less madcap and more emotionally resonant.

That provided a template for Kaufman, who has been deeply involved with the making of almost all of his films, a rarity for a screenwriter. In his subsequent movies -- Human Nature, Adaptation, and Eternal Sunshine -- Kaufman submitted drafts to the directors, then worked hand-in-hand with them as they revised and polished the script together. (The one exception: Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, an impressionistic biopic about Gong Show creator Chuck Barriss. Kaufman says that George Clooney, who directed the film, never consulted him, and he still holds a grudge. "My value to a director is to keep them aware of what the movie's really about," Kaufman says. "He wasn't interested in that.")

Jonze was initially slated to direct Synecdoche as well. The idea for the film came from Amy Pascal, Sony's TITLE TK. While traveling with Kaufman and Jonze to promote Adaptation, she suggested that the two work on a horror movie. Jonze had recently suffered anxiety dreams, and he and Kaufman agreed they would rather capture the eerie quality of those night terrors than recreate standard slasher-flick tropes. The two hashed out some basic details -- a man dying of an unidentifiable disease -- and Kaufman left to write.

He emerged two years later with Synecodoche, a sprawling opus that spans TK decades of regret and death. By that time, Jonze was already committed to directing an adaptation of Maurice Sendak's Where the Wild Things Are. Kaufman, who majored in filmmaking at New York University, always planned to direct. He asked Jonze if he could take over Synecdoche, and Jonze quickly agreed.

With Kaufman at the helm, there was no need to engage in multi-day script-polishing sessions, no requirement to adapt his work to another director's vision. This time, Kaufman was free to make the movie as he saw fit. Other than some cutting for length, there was virtually no difference between Kaufman's first draft and the shooting script.

But if this was a thrilling prospect for Kaufman, it was less so for Sony; after reading the script and learning that Jonze would not direct it, they abandoned the project, requiring Kaufman to drum up financing from other sources. (He eventually got $20 million from Sidney Kimmel Entertainment.) Meanwhile, Kaufman found himself growing defensive over some of his artistic choices. He says that he and Jonze had some difficult conversations after screenings, when Jonze would suggest directions with which Kaufman disagreed. "There were tensions," Kaufman says. "But Spike loves the movie now. He has told me that it isn't the movie he would make, but it shouldn't be. It's the movie that I made."

*** INSERT ANOTHER SCENE FROM TORONTO HERE.

Jonze says that, for him, the story of Synecdoche ends at the screening at Cannes. "I'd already seen this movie so many times in editing, but at that screening, somehow I still felt it very deeply," he says. "And the movie was over, and the credits were rolling, and I was still sitting in that space that the movie created. And then the lights came up, and suddenly I'm seeing thousands of other faces in that same space. And they gave Charlie a standing ovation, and it had such feeling to it. That felt like the end of it. Now we have to release it, and there's all this other stuff, but that felt like the ending."

[BREAK]

Well, that's one ending. It's a pretty familiar one to any movie buff: the dedicated individual who believes in himself, takes on every risk, and triumphs. That's been Kaufman's story so far -- it's the story of Being John Malkovich, the story of Adaptation, the story of Eternal Sunshine. It wraps everything up in a nice bow and lets us all feel good about ourselves. Maybe this ends the same way, with Synecdoche finding a dedicated following and earning its place in cinematic history, even if it never does Dark Knight numbers.

But maybe there is another way to end to this story. Maybe it doesn't end with Kaufman's moment of triumph in Cannes. Maybe after Cannes, Synecdoche sees a limited release. Maybe audiences don't love it. Maybe Kaufman doesn't emerge victorious. Maybe he spends five years pursuing the truest expression of his artistic vision, only to find it misunderstood, or underappreciated, or -- worst of all -- ignored. Maybe this is a story of frustration and disappointment and failure. It may not be a happy ending. It may not be the kind of ending that would make for a good Hollywood movie. But it is the kind of ending, for better or worse, that Charlie Kaufman would write.

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    I doubt anyone is still checking this but just in case... I've found it to be a success. I always love voyeuristic peaks into other people or group's workflows and processes and I'd like to thank you all for having the balls to conduct the experiment.

    I feel like there was a bit of an omission here by skipping any of Jason's actual interview or writing process. This seems like a pretty big jump from "he did an interview" to ... here's a rough draft. The edit process is interesting as well but I feel like the real meat, especially if this blog is a bit of a Kaufmanesk meta element and not just a "behind the scenes", is in the writing process. Does Jason write a basic outline of the story pre-interview to help decide what lines of questioning are going to fit the story or go in with no outline and let the information gleaned through the discussion determine the direction? As a self proclaimed fan-boy what was the mental process preparing to interact with Kaufman? How did the actual interaction compare with any preconceived notions etc. etc.

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