“I have a lot of things that could spark, but won’t,” he told me one of the first times we spoke. He spent nearly a decade seeking financing for a script he wrote called “Frank or Francis,” a musical about an internet troll’s deranged feud with a film director that included 50 original songs. The only way a studio would let Kaufman direct it, he was told, was if he loaded it with movie stars. So he got Steve Carell and Jack Black attached. Also Cate Blanchett, Nicolas Cage, Emma Thompson, Kevin Kline, Elizabeth Banks and Catherine Keener. But still, it wasn’t enough. He developed ideas for television, then watched them founder. He took jobs to pay his mortgage, including an uncredited rewrite on “Kung Fu Panda 2.” In 2015, he co-directed the critically exalted, stop-animation film “Anomalisa,” with Duke Johnson, based on a script Kaufman wrote for a live radio play — but only after Johnson’s company raised the initial chunk of the project’s budget on Kickstarter. And in all that time, Kaufman made a point of being disarmingly transparent with the press about the obstacles he met with, which the press at times overemphasized, much to his embarrassment. (New York Magazine, 2016: “Charlie Kaufman Is Having a Pretty Depressing Existential Crisis: ‘I Wonder If It’s Not Cool or Sexy to Be in Business With Me.’”)
When a book editor first approached Kaufman, in 2011, asking if he’d ever thought about writing a novel, he recognized how liberating that might be. Whatever he chose to write wouldn’t have to be filmed or budgeted, or screened for a test audience, or tweaked to get a particular rating. If he wanted to write about an army of animatronic Donald Trumps, known as “Trunks,” or place a new mountain range in the middle of North America, he could. And if he wanted his protagonist to have sexual intercourse with that mountain range, he could do that, too. And more than that: He had to do it. Though he hadn’t seriously written prose in 40 years, and kept imagining critics punishing him for his ineptitude, or just his audacity for trying something new, he took the same approach that he does with his screenplays. Ideas that came up that felt like “Oh, you absolutely can’t do that” — those were the ideas that Kaufman forced himself toward. “I have to put myself in a position to fail ridiculously,” he said.
This was never clearer to me than when he talked about writing “Adaptation.” In short: Kaufman signed on to adapt “The Orchid Thief,” by Susan Orlean — a delicate, wide-ranging, meditative book about orchids, loosely centered on the story of an oddball Floridian plant poacher but without any hint of conventional plot — precisely because he had no idea how it could be done. After spending months in an “overwhelming depression” over the project, as he put it, he finally stepped back from the source material to consider what was preoccupying him at that moment in his own life, hoping to find something that felt alive, or sufficiently kinetic, to push him forward. And what was preoccupying him was obvious: “This idea occurred to me,” he says, “and it opened things up.”
In the end, “Adaptation” centered on the screenwriter Charlie Kaufman, struggling to adapt “The Orchid Thief.” In one of the first scenes, we see Nicolas Cage, as Kaufman, flop-sweating at lunch with a befuddled Hollywood executive, waving a copy of Orlean’s book in the air and ranting about how he doesn’t want to “cram in sex or guns or car chases, or characters learning profound life lessons … or overcoming obstacles to succeed in the end. The book isn’t like that,” he insists, and “life isn’t like that. It just isn’t.” It was precisely what the real Kaufman explained to a real Hollywood executive before taking the job.
Discussing Kaufman’s creative process in my first draft, I described him as essentially constructing tortuous escape rooms for himself, then writing his way out. This approach seemed to cause him so much suffering that I eventually asked him:
“Is there any part of you that feels afflicted by your convictions?” Did he ever just wish he could write an action film or something? “There’s no part of you that wishes it were easier?”
“I would like to have money that I don’t have,” he replied, “and I tell myself that I could write a commercial blockbuster.” But he also understood that he might be flattering himself; he’d never actually tried. He was proud of his commitment to do original, meaningful work. “There’s lots and lots of garbage out there that isn’t honest and isn’t trying to help clarify or explore the human condition in any way,” he told me, “and it sends people down the wrong road” — skews our perceptions of our own lives, and each other — “and it’s mind-numbing and it’s toxic, and I don’t want to have that on my résumé. I don’t even mean my professional résumé, but my résumé as a human being.”
Spike Jonze, who directed both “Adaptation” and “Being John Malkovich,” compared Kaufman to Kanye West — albeit haltingly and with a number of disclaimers. “This is a weird comparison,” Jonze told me, “and I hesitate to bring him up because everyone has an opinion about this person, but. …” Jonze and West have been friends and collaborators for 15 years, he said, almost as long as Jonze has been a friend and collaborator of Kaufman’s. “And the thing about Kanye is,” Jonze said, “it’s not that Kanye doesn’t care what people think about him. It hurts his feelings if he’s misunderstood, like anybody. But he can’t not be himself. He has no choice in the matter. And I think Charlie’s the same way.”
Jonze stuttered a bit, then added: “Again, I hesitate to make the comparison. They’re so different in every other way.” Then he was quiet for a moment, a long moment, searching for another way to capture it.