The Art of Screenwriting: Charlie Kaufman
Writing a script is one of the most challenging things an aspiring writer can pursue. The amount of time, effort, and energy you have to put into a script with a low chance of it getting picked up are why so many people don’t aspire to be screenwriters. Thankfully, there are plenty of notable screenwriters to look toward for inspiration; Charlie Kaufman being a very notable name for that reason.
Kaufman is known for writing the films Being John Malkovich (1999), Adaptation (2002), and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004). He also directed the films Synecdoche, New York (2008), Anomalisa (2015), and I'm Thinking of Ending Things (2020). So, what can we learn from Kaufman as aspiring writers? Let’s find out!
Photo credit: Criterion
Don’t Worry About the Audience as Much
Not all of Kaufman’s scripts have landed as well as his most acclaimed. Over the years, Kaufman commented on how writers shouldn’t worry about the audience as much. Focusing on the perspective of an audience member can end up hurting your script and get in the way of the writing process.
Kaufman believes in immersing yourself as best as you can to get an emotional experience in the story. It’s best not to separate yourself from it and look back on it with clarity to determine if it’s a story. Some may disagree with Kaufman’s technique. In his world, it’s best you focus on writing and finishing your script rather than worrying about everything else.
Don’t Change Your Story For Convenience
Going off the notion of not worrying about your audience, Kaufman believes in not changing your story for convenience. Many writers look to what’s selling or what’ll help their script get picked up rather than focus on their script. A screenplay is an exploration of a thing you might not know.
It’s a step into the unknown and once started, it’s about getting to the end. Though there are plenty of templates and rules available for a screenplay, Kaufman doesn’t think there should be. The point is to not worry about the other aspects of getting your story off the ground and get your story done before making changes.
Every screenwriter varies with what they believe in from a writing rules standpoint. In this case, it’s fairly clear that Kaufman isn’t a traditional storyteller. It’s why many of his scripts are the way they are and not a traditional storytelling method. Obviously, learn the screenplay format, but understand that knowing how to write won’t grant you a great script.
Explore Your Voice
Kaufman is a firm believer in exploring your voice. As you begin your screenwriting process, you may not know what style or genre fits you the best. Hence, it’s recommended to familiarize yourself with writing a script and seeing where it takes you. There are no rules, see where it goes!
Best Charlie Kaufman Scripts
As subjective as it is, three of the four scripts listed below are what many refer to as Kaufman’s best. Though the last is a personal opinion, you can certainly learn something from all four of these. Truthfully, all of his scripts are worth looking at, but these are definitely the four to start:
Logline - A lovelorn screenwriter becomes desperate as he tries and fails to adapt 'The Orchid Thief' by Susan Orlean for the screen.
Adaptation is the most notable Kaufman script because of how literal and meta the script is to Kaufman’s life during the time. If you don’t know, Kaufman based Adaptation on his struggles to adapt The Orchid Thief while suffering from writer's block. How’s that for putting yourself in your script?
Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
Logline - When their relationship turns sour, a couple undergoes a medical procedure to have each other erased from their memories forever.
People go back and forth between Adaptation and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind for Kaufman’s best work, but they’re equally valuable for different reasons. Like Adaptation, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is very original and is a potent script to analyze for emotional reasons.
Being John Malkovich
Logline - A puppeteer discovers a portal that leads literally into the head of movie star John Malkovich.
Being John Malkovich is Kaufman’s first notable work, and conveniently, it’s his first full-length feature film script that got made. Similar to Adaptation, it’s very meta in a lot of ways, and I can’t imagine a film like Being John Malkovich would be made today. It holds up as well as it did then and is great for dark and absurd humor.
Logline - A man crippled by the mundanity of his life experiences something out of the ordinary.
It’s a shame Anomalisa didn’t do well at the box office because I personally love the film. There’s so much to dissect and appreciate about the film, specifically how it touches on themes of human fulfillment, desire, boredom, and what it means to be human. It’s a must-watch in my opinion and one of Kaufman’s best.