Combustible Celluloid

An Interview with Charlie Kaufman & Michel Gondry

by Jeffrey M. Anderson

In an industry that traditionally treats writers with disdain and sooner or later crushes their spirits, Charlie Kaufman has surfaced as not only an uncommonly talented wordsmith, but also one with a fairly durable protective shell.

Since his first big hit, Being John Malkovich (1999), for which he won several awards and received an Oscar nomination, he has been lucky enough to select his own directors, namely Spike Jonze, who helmed Malkovich and Adaptation, as well as George Clooney, who made his directorial debut with Confessions of a Dangerous Mind and Michel Gondry, who directed Human Nature (2002) and Kaufman's latest film, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.

It's interesting to note that both Jonze and Gondry came from the music video industry. Between them, they've crafted at least half a dozen of the greatest videos ever made, and now the three of them are poised to shake up Hollywood's timid foundations. Gondry and Kaufman recently made a trip to San Francisco to discuss the film.

The great French director Robert Bresson once established two categories of film, those that try to represent something that already exists and those that try to create something new. The former category is plentiful these days with our plethora of remakes and big-screen adaptations of TV shows. The films in the latter category are few and far between. Lost in Translation was one recent example, and now Eternal Sunshine is another.

In it, Jim Carrey plays Joel, a sad sack who discovers that his girlfriend Clementine (Kate Winslet) has had him erased from her memory after a bad breakup. Unable to cope, he meets with Dr. Mierzwiak (Tom Wilkinson) and signs up for the same procedure, but decides in the middle of it that he actually wants to keep his memories.

At the same time, a love roundelay plays out during Joel's ordeal. The doctor's two assistants spend the night in Joel's apartment overseeing the procedure. Stan (Mark Ruffalo) invites Mary (Kirsten Dunst) over for a little fun, while Patrick (Elijah Wood) rushes off to comfort Clementine, illicitly using Joel's discarded memories to seduce her.

Remarkably, Eternal Sunshine combines some astonishing visual effects with a core emotional realism, and, not surprisingly, one comes from Gondry and the other from Kaufman.

To achieve the film's visuals, Gondry took the opposite approach one might expect. Instead of preparing heavily, he went mostly on instinct and did not even create a storyboard.

"When you read a script," Gondry says, "it's like someone's telling you a story and you can't stop yourself from visualizing. I wanted to refine this process. I wanted the process to be created during the shooting. I first wanted to find the right location. I didn't know much about New York so I spent six months going everywhere and taking pictures. Then I would put the actor in the context of the location before I decided where to put the camera."

Kaufman's take on the end of a relationship and the pain it can cause came from a very real place. "Movies about romance are almost always about people and their obstacles in meeting. Once they meet it's assumed that it's going to be great. But in real life, nothing's ever great," Kaufman grins nervously.

"I feel really kind of hurt by those movies," he continues. "Because I had expectations of the world. So when I write characters in relationships, I try to utilize what I know about the world and it's all very different. It feels important to show that."

The original idea came from an artist friend of Michel's, Pierre Bismuth. As a conceptual art project, Bismuth -- who is credited on the film alongside Gondry and Kaufman with the "original story" -- mailed out cards to people saying that someone's been erased from their memory and not to call that person anymore.

Gondry took that nugget to Kaufman, and they came up with the Joel/Clementine portion of the story, making it human. When they pitched the story to producers, everything went well and the movie was greenlit.

Unfortunately, Kaufman was still in the middle of the personal hell that he depicted so brilliantly in his screenplay Adaptation. Malkovich was finishing production and Gondry was interested in directing Human Nature.

"So I couldn't even write this thing for a while," Kaufman says. "It was a panic three years. A long moment. It was really hard. Everything was all happening at the same time. It was an unpleasant bunch of years for me."

Fortunately, the work speaks for itself.

March 19, 2004

Movies Unlimtied