The new film from CHARLIE KAUFMAN, the screenwriter behind Being John Malkovich and Adaptation, is the most important US film of the year. Paul Dale reveals the Hollywood revolutionary’s long road to Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.
Family snaps: Charlie Kaufman’s scriptwriting career includes work with Nicolas Cage, Cameron Diaz and John Malkovich, as well as Kate Winslet, Elijah Wood, Kirsten Dunst and Jim Carrey in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
'ktubel A bad phonetic spelling from the Arabic. it means ‘and so it is written‘. invincible kisrnet that can be used for anything from silencing secular thinkers to making the kids sit down for their tea. l'nder a decade ago it could have been the mantra of the LS scriptwriting seminar egotists who were beginning to broker power in Hollywood. Bttt that was before the
Mennonites made a hole in the wall and let in a faint ray of
sunlight. It was before the coming of a nervous nebbish from Massapeqtta. New York they called ('harlie Kaufman. March 2004. the sixtysomething. self-professed Hollywood
screenwriting guru Robert McKee gets a plug in laniiv Fair
for his seemingly endless round of scriptwriting conferences traversing the Atlantic. l'nder the moniker ‘the Iivangelist'. McKee is pictured in front of a blackboard upon which is scribbled the \r'enn diagrams and spider connections he is famed for. The hlurb above his head gives McKee his rightftrl credit as one of the longest lasting and most inlluential forces in ['8 cinema. ’et there is something vaguely ottt of whack about the press lingering McKee at this moment in time. It is akin to the horror of. say. watching l)aniel Arap Moi open up his heart on Parkinson after the Kenyan elections. It just seems a little indecent. It was the likes of McKee. Lew Hunter and genuine screenwriter William (ioldman who originally opened the copy flow gates on the ﬂedgling script tutorial business. Their cottage industry became a publishing phenomenon and someone needed to stop it. It just needed someone with a little imagination and the courage to turn the other cheek. liive years ago (‘harlie Kattfman was in post-production on Being John .llrilkiir'ir'lt and working on rewrites of a script for a tnovie called Human Nature. ()ut of the blue came Michel (iondt‘y. the eccentric Versailles visionary. the man responsible for just about every decent music promo Bjork. Massive Attack and the (‘hemical Brothers had had since the mid-1990s. (iondry had been looking for a feature liltn project to direct. but with his taste for insane whimsy. he was finding it hard to lind something to get his teeth into. And then one night he went ottt for dinner with Pierre Bismuth. an artist who creates pseudo-political installations. That night Bismuth asked (iondry what he would do if he received a card in the mail that stated that he had been erased from someone‘s memory. and that he could no longer contact him or her. (iondry had a seed of an idea and he tttrned to the one man he thought he could trust with the notion. ‘Michel catne to me with this idea.’ Kauftnan recalls. ‘He asked me ill wanted to develop it into a screenplay. but when I sat down to write it I thought. “I have no idea how to do this.” The screenplay took Kaulinan three years to complete. ‘lt wasn‘t three years of writing.’ he explains. ‘I was writing Adaptation before I could work on literna/ Stats/tine fttll time. btrt it was definitely a struggle. I think I have a logical mind. btit I'm not a particularly organised person. My work tends to have symmetry. bttt it’s not like I write from nine to IE and then have lunch. I do a lot of stalling.’ As ever Kaufman turned away from endless hours of flinging McKee‘s seminal text Story
[I is a statement of
‘WHEN I SAT DOWN TO WRITE IT
I THOUGHT “I HAVE NO IDEA HOW TO DO THIS’"
against the walls of his Pasadena residence. He turned instead to an old friend to see him through translating (iondry's bizarre vision of displaced memory. ‘I found this quote and I liked it. Serendipitously. it's from a poem called Eloise to Abelard by Alexander Pope. “How happy is the blameless vestal‘s lot! The world forgetting. by the world forgot. liternal sunshine of the spotless mind! liach pray"r accepted. and each wish resign'd". I found it exceptionally moving. And I liked that the title was hard to remember. I thought it was very pretty. btrt very cumbersome. and nobody could remember it. It was kind of counterintuitive. Anyway. when I finished writing the screenplay. l was sort of aware that this was less of a comedy than anything I‘ve ever written before.‘
What Kaufman has actually achieved with liternal .S’iiits/tiite oft/1e Spotless Mind is something remarkable and unique. Without trying to give away too much. Kaufman hoodwinks the viewer by taking the basic tenets of the classic movie love story and dressing it around a chronically depressive office worker Joel (Jim Carrey) and impulsive bookworm (‘lementine (Kate Winslet). The story's trajecton is almost set in stone (to descend from falling passionately in love to marital tedittrn. boredom and separation). when Kaufman wheels out the mother of all McGuflins. plot gimmicks. call them what you like — Lacuna Inc. It's a company run by cuddly Dr Howard Mierzwiek (Tom Wilkinson) that offers its customers the chance to remove bad memories from their cerebral cortex. Kaufman uses Lacuna as a device to take his simple story into the realms of comic dementia. Inverted. punch drunk and indebted to the spirits of surrealism. Nietzsche and Hollywood old boys Tod Browning (Det'il Doll) and Jack Arnold (7710 lneredible .S'ltrinking Man). Kaufman's script taps into those rarest of cinematic themes — pain and avoidance. and the mess of boredom-indttced phobias. Kaufman doesn't so much tell a story as hold up a mirror to every cringy moment in his adult life since his mother found him masturbating in his bedroom as a teenager. The blackly comic mixes with the humane. and when (‘lementine proclaims: 'l’m just a fucked tip girl who‘s looking for some piece of mind.‘ you are left in no mind as to who is really saying it. (‘harlie Kaufman is the star/character of Iiternal Sans/tine of a .S'pot/ess Mind just as he was of Being John .IIrt/kiii'ir ‘ll. .rldaptation and ( '(nr/esst’ons‘ o/ia Dangerous Mind.
Hell. we are lucky to have Kaufman. He‘s been put on this earth to let all the bttrns and thieves who have had their screenplays thrown on the slush pile know that maybe the studios were wrong. McKee might not approve — he would probably sigh his much quoted dictum that 'Anxious. inexperienced writers obey rules; rebellious. trnschooled writers break rules: an artist masters the form.’ while nodding in recognition that the foundation upon which his house has been built is being slowly washed away and his tenure as a sage may soon come to an end.
Eternal Sunshine of a Spotless Mind is on general release from Fri 30 Apr. Reviewed next issue.
if) 2".) Apr Hill-‘- THE LIST 17