The last time Charlie Kaufman was featured in Sight & Sound (March 2016), he appeared on the front cover with the top of his head sliced off. Two characters from his film Anomalisa peered out of his skull, while the writer-director’s exposed brain seemed to throb with psychedelic, multicoloured radiation.
The cover line was “Inside the mind of Charlie Kaufman”, and that’s where this American original’s work takes us every time. From his groundbreaking script for Spike Jonze’s Being John Malkovich (1999); through inspired flights like Jonze’s Adaptation (2002) and Michel Gondry’s Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004); to his own directing ventures Synecdoche, New York (2008) and the stop-motion Anomalisa (2015, codirected with animator Duke Johnson), Kaufman has always been a radical anti-realist. He’s not one of those artists who take their audience on guided tours of recognisable external reality; if he does venture into the known world, it’s always via the esoteric, labyrinthine windings of his singular imagination.
This summer brings us two new, very different Kaufman offerings. One is a Netflix feature as writer and director, I’m Thinking of Ending Things, based on a novel by Canadian writer Iain Reid. It stars Jessie Buckley as a young woman who travels with her boyfriend (Jesse Plemons) to meet his parents, played by Toni Collette and Anomalisa voice star David Thewlis.
Although the film has been described in some pre-release reports as ‘psychological horror’, that’s a misleading label for what is much more a speculative inquiry into (among other things) identity, memory, the mind and the ageing process. Despite this being a road movie of sorts, you might also consider I’m Thinking… a work of chamber theatre: much of the film’s strangeness comes from the fact that long stretches consist of Buckley and Plemons talking in a car while driving through falling snow (Kaufman shot these scenes over and over again, in complete takes).
Hypnotically claustrophobic, I’m Thinking… represents the side of the Kaufman universe that’s all about contraction, suggesting an introspective mind’s tendency to curl up on itself like a worried hedgehog. By contrast, Kaufman’s debut novel Antkind is driven by expansion: by the imagination as a world-building engine spinning wildly out of control. Just as theatre director Caden Cotard in Synecdoche, New York staged a drama that expanded to engulf the world, Antkind’s fictional world spreads relentlessly in every conceivable direction – over 705 pages, no less.
Antkind has received mixed reviews – some wildly enthusiastic, others negative. Even as a fan of Kaufman’s work, and a fairly committed devotee of self-reflexive film and literature, I’ll confess that I found Antkind a somewhat stressful read, oddly pedantic in its deliberate repetitions (pratfall after pratfall, doppelganger after doppelganger, mental fugue after mental fugue) and pursuit of running gags – although its pedantry is, strictly speaking, that of the arch-nebbish antihero, failed film critic B. Rosenberger Rosenberg.
Yet there’s no denying that Antkind is brilliantly written, euphorically inventive, dense with sometimes inspired philosophical speculation. Reading it feels, for better or worse, like plummeting into a bottomless maelstrom; you can’t quite believe it when you make it to the final page with your mind intact.
I spoke to Charlie Kaufman in July, on a Zoom call with him in New York. I asked how lockdown had been for him. Was it good for his writing, or did it tend to shut him down?
Charlie Kaufman: It tended to shut me down. Everything feels very abstract – what the rest of my life looks like, and what the business I’m in looks like in the next year. Plus all of the worry and all of the isolation have impeded my ability to work. But because I have to, I’m starting to force myself to work.
What have you been doing since Anomalisa – and how did you come to make a movie for Netflix?
CK: Since Synecdoche I’ve struggled to get stuff made. [I’m Thinking…] is the first thing I’ve done with a studio since Synecdoche.
I’ve been looking over the years for something to adapt, and I came across this novel. It was very dreamy and somewhat nightmarish, which appealed to me, but it was also very contained – it was basically four characters, and it takes place in a car and in a farmhouse. I thought, “This isn’t going to cost a lot.” I mentioned it to the producer, Anthony Bregman. He thought Netflix would give it the green light, and they did – it was a very easy thing to set up.
How on earth do you sell a film like this to viewers? On the film’s Netflix page, it says, “This film is: Cerebral, Dark” – which seems a great way of putting people off.
CK: (Laughs) That’s always my goal, to put people off.
Kaufman tells me the film is somewhat different from Reid’s book in that he wanted it to be more about “things that happen in an actual relationship… I wanted to talk about projection in relationships.” The rapport between the two central characters comes across, for all the strangeness, as very real, tender and plausibly fragile not least because of the muted, yet seemingly telepathic interplay between the lead duo.
Kaufman already knew Plemons from his role in Breaking Bad, while he was recommended to check out up-and-coming Irish star Buckley, and was enthused by her career-making performance in Michael Pearce’s film Beast (2017). Buckley’s unsettling, quietly nervy performance underpins the film’s thoroughgoing uncertainty: her character is possibly named Lucy, and possibly a physicist, or a student of virology, a poet, a painter, a film critic…
One fascinating, disconcerting thing from the start of the film is what a barrage of text there is. There’s a lot of dialogue, and internal monologue, and it comes across as very textured, with the voices overlapping or counterpointing each other, or dropping in and out in the mix. You’re asking us to really pay attention.
CK: (Pensive) Yeahhhhh… I do like the idea that if the movie is compelling enough for you to go back and watch it again, there are things you’ll discover that you won’t see the first time. I try and make things dense enough and open enough that you can have different experiences watching this movie different times. There are a lot of things in this movie that you won’t see the first time.
Both this film and your novel address questions of consciousness and memory – there’s a line in Antkind about memory being “a mechanism with which to trap parts of the world” – but the aspect that particularly seems to concern you in I’m Thinking… is the fear of ageing and time passing, and dementia. The film highlights the fact that old age in cinema is an absolute taboo.
CK: Yes, it’s vile, the way older people are portrayed and treated in this culture. One of the things about younger and younger people making movies for younger and younger people is this idea of elderly people as the Other. There’s this belief that older people are old, it’s not a continuum, you’re not on that continuum, you’re here and you’ll always be here, and old people were always old and they’ll always be old. But compassion in general comes from understanding that we’re all the same thing, all of us.
One of the film’s threads is a high-school production of the musical Oklahoma!. You use the show in a way that highlights the central place of the high school – in movies it’s like the primal centre of the American psyche, where all traumas begin…
CK: …Where all hope ends! We tried to utilise high school cinematically and make it resonant… It’s part of Iain Reid’s book, but just alluded to in an enigmatic way.
Thinking of things that could happen in a high school late at night, I thought about rehearsals for a musical. When I started revisiting Oklahoma!, which I hadn’t since I was a kid, there’s a lot of interesting dark stuff that happens, much more than I remembered.
The character of Judd, who also appears in my movie, is a really damaged, dark, scary, tragic person. You think of Oklahoma! and people singing and dancing dressed as cowboys, but there’s a lot of other stuff going on there.
While the eerily poetic I’m Thinking… is Kaufman in somewhat minimalist, almost monochrome register, his debut novel is maximalism run riot. Perhaps best described as ‘acid picaresque’, Antkind is about the mishaps of its first-person narrator, pompous, neurotic film critic B. Rosenberger Rosenberg, who stumbles on what he is convinced is a lost masterpiece – a three-month-long animation by an elderly recluse named Ingo Cutbirth. Rosenberg decides that discovering this film, which only he has seen, will bring him the glory he deserves – but then the only print combusts…
This premise, however, is only the seed for a ripely erudite essay in slapstick existentialism which takes in references to (flicking through the pages at random) King Kong, Zadie Smith, outsider artist Henry Darger, the Black Dahlia murder and much more, and obscurer, besides. There’s also an extended satire on an American president named Trunk, who falls in love with his own robot double; a linguistic thread involving Rosenberg’s desperate attempt to always appear woke, notably in his obsessive use of the (real) non-gendered pronoun ‘thon’, while helplessly revealing his prejudices; and, perhaps inevitably, a barrage of sniping at Rosenberg’s most-loathed filmmaker, “the minimally talented Charlie Kaufman”.
The book feels completely improvisatory, free-associative, but is it? I wondered if you actually went in with a strong sense of structure.
CK: I always try to write open-ended – when I’m embarking on something, it’s impossible for me to know what I need to know to draw any kinds of conclusion, or determine where it goes. I want to have freedom to explore. I don’t think that’s a particularly unusual thing for novelists – maybe more for filmmakers – but that’s what I do.
It’s not completely improvisatory in the sense if I come upon something that excites me at a certain point down the road – and this is true of my screenplays as well – I will go back and adjust the stuff that comes before it so that it fits, so it isn’t arbitrary. There’s improvisation, and then there’s a structure that comes of that improvisation.
Your antihero B. Rosenberger Rosenberg is a film critic and a shmuck – and is constantly railing against other critics. As a film critic, I have to ask – what do you have against us, considering you’ve consistently had great reviews for your work?
CK: I wouldn’t say ‘consistently’ – some critics actively seem to really dislike me. [The New York Observer critic] Rex Reed said Synecdoche, New York was the worst movie ever made.
I don’t have anything against film critics. I like B. Rosenberger Rosenberg. I really like him. I don’t think I set out to like him – I feel like he’s a victim, and in a very conspicuous way. He’s a victim of me, of the writer, and he cannot win because he will not be allowed to win. But he’s a struggling human being, and he wants things that people want – he wants to be liked, he wants to be validated, but everything he does is a misstep. He’s not just a buffoon – I give him a lot of interesting things to think along the way.
One of his theories is that comedy is a terrible thing because it’s cruel. Where do you stand in relation to comedy now? People first thought of your work as exuberant, playful, albeit with a melancholy turn. Since Synecdoche, your humour has been very dark indeed – Beckettian, even.
CK: Well, certainly Beckett is funny – and I actually thought Synecdoche was a comedy. Malkovich has jokes in it, Synecdoche doesn’t have jokes, but it has conceptually funny ideas, in the same way you could say that Kafka has funny stuff in his novels.
When I decided to make this book funny, I thought, “OK, I’m going to make it obvious that it’s at least intended to be funny – there will be jokes.” And then the idea of the horror of relentless jokes becomes part of the conceit – it’s endless jokes, mostly at the expense of this one person, and that then becomes like a horror story.
You also engage satirically with certain political/cultural ideas of the moment, notably in Rosenberg’s obsessive need to show himself as woke. How much are you engaged with or perplexed by those ideas?
CK: I was most interested in a character study of a person who wanted to appear a certain way, but wasn’t that way – who needed this constant validation from the outside world. He wants to be seen in a certain way, he possibly doesn’t deserve to, but he wants it. It becomes performative for him. I’m writing about a person who in a comic way has this need, more than I’m writing about a culture.
The sequences involving ‘President Trunk’: did you ever worry that the real Trump is so much a satire of himself that it might be futile to take him on in this way? And do you feel we might be approaching the end of his era?
CK: There was some concern that it might date the book – when I finished it, there were the impeachment hearings and we didn’t even know if he was going to be president when the book came out. But I like the sequence a lot. When I saw the Trump robot that they were introducing into the Hall of Presidents in Disney World, it was so frightening-looking – that was sort of where that idea originated.
The circumstances in this country are so dire that even if he doesn’t get re-elected, there’s an enormous amount of struggle ahead. If Republicans retain control of the Senate, it’s not going to be as terrible, but… Trump isn’t acting alone. The world is not going to be saved by Trump being gone – but he needs to be gone, it will be a step.
Despite his lockdown unease, Kaufman has launched into new projects, which include a new novel, a script for Ryan Gosling’s production company, and a series he’s developing for HBO, “based on a screenplay I wrote several years ago, about a virus that causes stupidity”.
As for I’m Thinking of Ending Things, it’s hard to imagine quite how a Charlie Kaufman film will fit into the strange economy of Netflix – just one choice on a vast menu, alongside Tiger King, The Crown and Money Heist. Kaufman is extremely enthusiastic about his film being on the platform – not least, he says, because it will be seen around the world, and stay visible for a long time: “A movie like Synecdoche or Anomalisa which doesn’t perform commercially disappears after a few weeks.”
So what is the place of a Charlie Kaufman film in the world today? You have said that after Synecdoche, the industry no longer considered you bankable in the same way. Do you feel more secure about your place in the world?
CK: I don’t feel secure at all. I don’t know how anyone could feel secure in the world as it is right now. Everything is up in the air, and also in some odd way feels irrelevant. Things are so awful, so who cares where my career is? (Laughs)
And, meanwhile, are you impatient for cinemas to reopen?
CK: No, I never go to the movies.
Originally published: 9 September 2020