Kaufman, Charlie

Tagged: Film | People

(1958-    ) US screenwriter and filmmaker. An NYU film-school classmate of writer-director Chris Columbus, Kaufman struggled for a decade writing spec scripts for television and occasional pieces for National Lampoon while working a series of low-paid jobs in Minneapolis, before eventually landing script work on a series of now little-remembered television shows through the 1990s; the experience of protracted unsuccess remains an emotional centre of all of his major films. Of his early screenplays Human Nature, a science-based comedy about a man raised by apes, was nearly filmed by Steven {SODERBERGH} in 1996 but shelved when the director opted to make Out of Sight (1998) instead; while a 1997 draft for A Scanner Darkly survived a change of director but was not credited in the eventual 2006 film, although some elements of Kaufman's adaptation of Philip K Dick's novel survived, and its influence can also be seen in Kaufman's screenplay for the paranoid comedy Confessions of a Dangerous Mind (2002), based on the television host Chuck Barris's seemingly confabulated memoir of a double life as a CIA assassin.

Kaufman's breakthrough work, written in 1994, was the spec screenplay Being John Malkovich (1999), about a portal into a celebrity's mind and Identity. Originally intended simply as a writing sample, it was passed by Francis Ford Coppola to his then son-in-law Spike Jonze, who would become one of Kaufman's two regular directorial collaborators. Jonze in turn introduced Kaufman to French director Michel Gondry, and the pair devised and sold a concept for a melancholic comedy about Memory Edits, eventually realized as Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004); when that production was delayed by Kaufman's commitment to write Adaptation. (2002; the full stop is part of the title) for Jonze, Gondry resurrected and filmed Human Nature (2001), though the result was poorly received. Kaufman won his first Oscar for the screenplay of Adaptation., a fantasized account of his own attempt to write a film version of Susan Orlean's nonfiction book The Orchid Thief (1994), into which Kaufman introduced borderline-sf elements touching on Evolution and Drugs; credit, and thus award, were shared, in an appropriately Kaufmanesque twist of surrealism, with his fictional twin brother Donald, killed off in the film's misfiring final act. Two years later he won again, deservedly, for Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. His next film project was Synecdoche, New York (2008), in which a Theatre director's attempt to stage his life as an immersive warehouse performance consumes and displaces the reality; initially devised for Jonze to direct, it became Kaufman's first feature as director after Jonze was diverted into making Where the Wild Things Are (2009) instead. During its writing Kaufman scripted two audio plays for live audience, Hope Leaves the Theater and Anomalisa (both 2005), for composer Carter Burwell's Theater of the New Ear; several of the actors were subsequently cast in Synecdoche, New York. In 2010 he worked briefly, and improbably, on the villain's dialogue in Kung Fu Panda 2 (2011). His prospective second film as director is a musical Hollywood satire, Frank or Francis; screenwriting projects include the adaptation of Patrick Ness's The Knife of Never Letting Go (2008), a crowd-funded stop-motion version of Anomalisa, and a further film with Jonze.

A screenwriter of wide literary reach and dazzling technical skill whose immersion in the work of Philip K Dick has informed much of his best writing, Kaufman has established a trademark in lugubrious Metaphysical comedies turning on bewilderments of Identity across layered realities. A hands-on screenwriter, he likes to work closely with, and preferably to be, his director; his earliest love was theatre, and much of the distinctiveness of his work turns on the bold incorporation of essentially theatrical techniques into film writing – particularly the plasticities of time, space, identity, and narrative continuity around embodied performers – with an unobtrusively insistent fondness for writing songs into his films. A high-wire performer regarded by his peers and lionized by fans, he is one of the very few screenwriters to be a marketable brand in his own right. Though not in any reductive sense a genre figure, he is a maker of radically original idea-driven narratives whose strongest work to date has been that which most closely approaches or assimilates sf. [NL]

Charles Stewart Kaufman

born New York: 19 November 1958


about the filmmaker


Previous versions of this entry

Website design and build: STEEL

Site ©2011 Gollancz, SFE content ©2011 SFE Ltd.