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Kaufman, Charlie

Entry updated 7 November 2022. Tagged: Film, People.

(1958-    ) US screenwriter, filmmaker and author. 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, 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 was nearly filmed by Steven Soderbergh 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 script 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 (1959-    ), who became one of Kaufman's two regular directorial collaborators beginning with this film. Jonze in turn introduced Kaufman to French director Michel Gondry, who collaborated with him on a poorly received rewrite of the 1996 Soderbergh project, Human Nature (2001), a science-based comedy about a man raised by apes (see Apes as Human). Kaufman then fulfilled his commitment to write Adaptation. (2002; the full stop is part of the title) for Jonze, for which he won his first Oscar. Adaptation. is a fantasized account of his own attempt to write a film version of Susan Orlean's nonfiction book The Orchid Thief (1994), into which he 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 a melancholic comedy directed by Gondry involving Memory Edits, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004).

Kaufman's 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). During the writing of Synecdoche, New York Kaufman scripted two audio plays for live audience, Hope Leaves the Theater and Anomalisa (both 2005), the latter as by Francis Fregoli, for composer Carter Burwell's Theater of the New Ear; the latter later became the crowd-funded stop-motion puppet-film Anomalisa (2015), which he co-directed with Duke Johnson. In 2010 he had worked briefly, and improbably, on the villain's dialogue in Kung Fu Panda 2 (2011). Later screenwriting projects include I'm Thinking of Ending Things (2020) based on the novel by Iain Reid, where his ongoing interest in the artefacts and collapses of human Memory are sharply etched.

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 embedding of plasticities of time, space, identity, and narrative continuity into "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.

Kaufman's long and conspicuously ambitious first novel Antkind (2020), which has been compared to Thomas Pynchon's Against the Day (2006), shares with this model a sense of America as a kind of Multiverse, a raree-show vision laced together in this case through Time Travel, in an iteration of this trope seemingly confabulated by the tale's protagonist, a slovenly mouthy film critic who – after inadvertently destroying the stop-motion puppet animated film that has been put into his keeping – may encounter the eponymous ant from the Far Future, who may be a Secret Master issuing retro-commands to this world. The effect is kaleidoscopic but congested. [NL/JC]

Charles Stewart Kaufman

born New York: 19 November 1958

works (selected)

about the filmmaker


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