Combustible Celluloid

Interview: Spike Jonze, Charlie Kaufman

Saying it with Flowers

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

October 25, 2002—Spike Jonze and Charlie Kaufman are talking about the orchid expert with no front teeth, played by Chris Cooper, in their new film Adaptation, which opens Friday in Bay Area theaters.

Asked how they "removed" Cooper's teeth for the film, Jonze replies, "with pliers."

A typical answer for two of Hollywood's most atypical filmmakers. 33 year-old Jonze began his career working for underground magazines and videotaping skateboarders. He moved up to music videos, and created some of the most memorable ever made: Bjork's "It's Oh So Quiet," the Beastie Boys' "Sabotage" and Fatboy Slim's "Praise You" and "Weapon of Choice" (the latter starring Christopher Walken in a surprisingly graceful dance routine).

The secretive Kaufman (one source claims he's 44), began his writing career on TV, notably Chris Elliot's early 90s cult show "Get a Life," before striking gold with his Oscar-nominated 1999 Being John Malkovich, directed by Jonze.

The pair has reunited for Adaptation, one of the year's best films, and an even more ingeniously perverse movie than Being John Malkovich. Adaptation tells the story of a screenwriter named Charlie Kaufman who's having trouble adapting Susan Orlean's book The Orchid Thief into a movie.

Adaptation jumps back and forth between Charlie (Nicolas Cage) working on the movie, and the movie itself, with Meryl Streep playing Orlean and Chris Cooper playing John Laroche. While Charlie struggles to create an interesting and original screenplay, his twin brother Donald (Cage) attempts to write a routine Hollywood trash-fest about a serial killer.

Jonze and Kaufman manage to keep both story strains fresh and interesting before combining and colliding them in the third act. The fictional Donald is credited on the real screenplay, and is presumably responsible for this third act, with its chase scenes, shootouts, and sex scenes.

The two Hollywood misfits seem unconcerned with confusing their viewers and, frankly, are just as happy talking about The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai as they are about Adaptation.

Viewers should know, however, that though the Charlie in the film is fat and bald, ("Do I have an original thought in my head? My bald head?" he asks in the opening monologue), the real Kaufman has a full head of curly hair and is quite thin. His youthful looks might even put him at about the same age as Jonze.

"It was a way for me to write a sort of self-loathing character and at the same time keep a little bit of my privacy," Kaufman says. "He's representative of me, but I have my own problems, which I'll keep to myself."

Kaufman explains that the writing process depicted in the film reflects fairly accurately the writing process behind Adaptation.

"I liked the book, I took this job and I thought I'd figure out how I'd do it afterwards. When I didn't, I got all panicky because people were waiting on it. I got depressed and it took a long time. I'd be waking up, getting up for weeks on end, and the first thing I thought in the morning was 'I can't face this today.' Eventually I tried to find where my energy was coming from, and it was coming from 'I can't do this.'"

Jonze describes the reaction of the movie executives who first read Adaptation.

"Very surprised and taken aback. They were expecting an adaptation of The Orchid Thief, this book that they'd put in a couple of years developing and picking out a writer that would be appropriate for it. They trusted Charlie, and then all of a sudden they got this thing that was written by two people."

Just because Jonze and Kaufman are in cahoots doesn't mean that they don't like to challenge each other. Jonze likes to trick Kaufman into appearing in their movies in cameos, which Kaufman absolutely refuses to do. Indeed, he told me last spring that he hoped he wouldn't win the Oscar for Being John Malkovich just so that he wouldn't have to appear in front of all those people.

In one particularly clever scene in Adaptation, Charlie visits the set of Being John Malkovich. He stands in the corner and technicians continually shoo him out of the way. When stars John Cusack and Catherine Keener (playing themselves) walk by, he waves but they ignore him.

"Nicolas wasn't there that day," Jonze says. "So when we were shooting it, I asked Charlie if he'd be the off-camera eyeline for them."

Kaufman continues. "And I did, after I was guaranteed that I would be off camera. Somebody on the crew said that I was a really good Charlie. I was really proud," he laughs.

Kaufman has also written two other recently produced screenplays, Human Nature for director Michel Gondry, and Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, for first-time director George Clooney. Those are both interesting films, but Kaufman's particular vision seems to coalesce best with Jonze at the helm.

Asked if they would work together for the rest of their lives, they cheerfully reply, "That's our plan."

Partial Spike Jonze Filmography:
Being John Malkovich (1999)
Adaptation (2002)
Where the Wild Things Are (2009)
Her (2013)

Partial Charlie Kaufman Filmography:
Being John Malkovich (1999)
Human Nature (2001)
Adaptation (2002)
Confessions of a Dangerous Mind (2002)
Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004)
Synecdoche, New York (2008)

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