Welcome to Filmmaking Tips, a long-running column in which we gather up the shared knowledge of a particular filmmaker and assemble it all into the internet’s favorite thing: a list. This one is about the filmmaking tips of Charlie Kaufman.
Charlie Kaufman is crazy, but he’s not that crazy. This according to Charlie Kaufman. He also can’t tell you how to write a screenplay, which is the frustrating truth straight from the Oscar winner’s mouth. After all, if writing were like putting together something from IKEA, we’d all have golden statuettes. Meaningless gold statuettes.
Kaufman is the kind of writer that challenges convention. From Being John Malkovich to Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind to his directorial debut Synecdoche, New York, even his titles aren’t typical. He’s thoughtful and careful, but most of all he’s a daring explorer tracking through uncharted terrain hoping to find something special but not necessarily hoping he’ll blaze a trail to it.
He’s also got a lot to say, so here’s a bit of free film school (for fans and filmmakers alike) from a totally sane crazy person.
The filmmaking lessons we can learn from Charlie Kaufman
1. You Can’t Completely Put Yourself in the Audience’s Shoes
“[Getting perspective while filming is] a problem and it’s not a problem. I think it’s always a problem on every movie I’ve worked on ‐ and I’ve been involved in all of them in post-production and editing ‐ to have the same perspective as an audience member who hasn’t seen the movie. Which is why you have screenings. It’s the only reason we’ve ever done it, and it’s one thing that we’ve taken from working with Spike [Jonze] and Michel [Gondry]. It’s like, “We want [the audience] to understand this, but they don’t.” Sometimes you don’t care, or you don’t want them to. But this is important to us ‐ sometimes when [viewers] have questions, we ask ourselves, “How do we clarify that kind of thing?” You can never have the same perspective, except maybe a few years later when you catch it on TV and see it in a different way. I don’t think it’s possible, otherwise, for anybody.
But I also think perspective is overrated and not what I’m going for. When I’m writing, I’m trying to immerse myself in the chaos of an emotional experience, rather than separate myself from it and look back at it from a distance with clarity and tell it as a story. Because that’s how life is lived, you know? Life is not lived 10 years ahead of itself ‐ there’s a lie to that. The conventional wisdom is ‐ people say this all the time ‐ you should only write something when you’re far enough away from it that you can have a perspective. But that’s not true. That’s a story that you’re telling. The truth of it is here, right now. It’s the only truth that we ever know.”
2. Something Big and Difficult on Set Might Be Small and Easy in the Final Cut
“I don’t watch [my movies] either. You don’t want to. Because you’ve spent so many months going over and over it in editing. But I will occasionally, several years later, catch something on television. I feel I get a cleaner view of it after a few years. There are so many mistakes, so many glaring problems. I remember watching Being John Malkovich. We had this one scene, scene 100, which was so difficult for us. It was a scene where Dr. Lester explains how the portal works and it was a bear. We did so many different versions, so many different angles, and voice-overs. But when I watched it, it goes by pretty quickly. You don’t really think about it. It serves its purpose and it works in a way that for an audience, I think… I don’t have anything like that in this movie ‐ you know, glaring problems that I had to work around. It’s hard for me to sort of feel it.”
Thus, another true problem of perspective ‐ you never know that the thing you’re agonizing over might not be such a terrible beast after all. This piece of advice seems less pragmatic. That is to say, knowing it won’t mean you can avoid it. It just means you should be aware that it exists. And maybe laugh about it later on.
3. Don’t Shun Changes to Your Story Just Because They’re Inconvenient
4. Forget Form. There is No Form.
From the full version of that speech:
“So what is a screenplay, or what might it be? Since we’re talking specifically about screenplays tonight. A screenplay is an exploration. It’s about the thing you don’t know. It’s a step into the abyss. It necessarily starts somewhere, anywhere; there is a starting point but the rest is undetermined. It is a secret, even from you. There’s no template for a screenplay, or there shouldn’t be. There are at least as many screenplay possibilities as there are people who write them. We’ve been conned into thinking there is a pre-established form. Like any big business, the film business believes in mass production. It’s cheaper and more efficient as a business model.”
That particular speech is long, but it’s unbelievably satisfying and should read in its entirety. Far more than six tips come directly from it, the biggest of which might be “Know a hell of a lot, but know that you actually know very little.”
5. If You’re In Charge, You Don’t Get to be the Insane One
Kaufman, after being asked by David Cronenberg about his experience as a first-time director on Synecdoche, New York: “There is a lot of management going on. Maybe that was the biggest surprise — just the amount of tending that I had to do. The different personalities . . . It’s not my way, and it’s never been my function before as a writer. I tend to be a moody and somewhat withdrawn person, and I felt very clearly that I had to throw that away because that wasn’t allowed here-there were other people who were going to be filling that role. Sometimes it became exhausting, especially around the eleventh hour of the day. So I wasn’t allowed to pout in any way, which is another thing I like to do.”
Cronenberg: “Because when you’re a director, you can’t be that way. People need to hear from you. They need encouragement and support from you. So you have to somehow find generosity of a particularly weird kind in yourself, don’t you?”
Kaufman: “I’m the father of . . . Well, she’s 8 now, but parenting is a relatively new experience for me, and I feel like there is that same kind of thing. It’s kind of like, ‘Okay, this is my job here. I can’t be so insane around this person. She needs me not to be.’”
There’s probably some merit in being eccentric. For Kaufman, there clearly is, so maybe it’s surprising to think of him with all his wonderful neuroses commanding a large group of people to work as a unit and create something massive. At a certain point, no matter how bizarre you as, no matter who sunken into the label of “artist type” you become, in order to make a film, a leader must emerge.
6. Explore Truthfully and Be Courageous in Finding Your Voice
What we’ve learned about filmmaking
There are two things about Kaufman that are striking. Yes, of course he’s a little strange, a little hesitant, maybe even a little moody. But those obvious personality traits don’t speak wholly to his talent the same way that Ernest Hemingway wasn’t defined solely by his alcoholism. Being eccentric won’t make you as strong a writer or director as Kaufman, but the two truly obvious things about his work ethic might help.
One, he takes his time. His scripts take years to develop, meaning he doesn’t steamroll through them on a tear. He’s calculated and calculating, taking great care in handling difficult concepts and experimental structures. This may not be universal, but chances are if you’ve got something that laughs at convention while exploring huge ideas and you haven’t spent more than a year on it, you’re probably still selling your story short.
Two, he knows an unbelievable amount. Just reading through interviews and speeches, it becomes clear that he’s insanely well-read, swirling a large number of facts and ideas and perspectives around in his brain. That probably helps when attempting to plumb the depths of the human experience, but being able to channel those thoughts into a clear purpose (even if the film you’re making is ultimately open to interpretation) is vital