Is it weird for me to say that Anomalisa contains the most realistic sex scene I’ve ever seen in a movie? Given that it’s happening between puppets?
It’s not weird. Almost everybody we speak to feels that way. We worked really hard on that scene. It took six months to shoot. We were very aware of people coming into it thinking it was going to be like Team America, that it was going to be a joke, and we didn’t want it to be [like that]. We knew there would probably be some laughing at first because it’s puppet sex. We weren’t opposed to that, but what we found is that there is the occasional laugh at that point out of nervousness, but then people get really quiet.
It seemed very, very realistic.
I find myself emotional about it, which is weird because I was involved in the movie and I still feel like Michael and Lisa exist somehow.
For the two hours you spend with them, they are real people. If someone had asked me before this movie how long would it take me to become embroiled in the emotional lives of two stop-motion puppets, I would’ve probably said, “I don’t know. Never?” Yet the real answer was about four minutes.
I think maybe because they’re not actors, you’re not looking and going, Oh, you know, that’s whoever playing this part. I remember when I saw The Celebration, I didn’t recognize any of those actors, and God, that movie affected me so much. You don’t get to do that in movies today because everything is about who you get in order to get financing. Not that I have anything against actors. I love great actors.
The Celebration was a Dogme 95 film, where the idea was to make it as real as you can as a filmmaker. But your movies always seems very interested in playing with artifice — in actively reminding the audience about the artificial experience of watching a movie onscreen.
I do want to play up the artifice because I’m interested in the Brechtian idea of presentation, but I also want an emotional interaction with the audience. It’s very important to me that the characters are recognizable and identifiable — not likable, I don’t care about that, but that there’s something presented that is honest in my mind in terms of human interaction.
Are there people who you think do that successfully — whose work is stylistically distinct but also emotionally affecting?
David Lynch. I love David Lynch. He’s really important to me. Also, [Lars von Trier’s] Breaking the Waves has some sense of artifice in it to me, but the performances are extraordinary, and felt. I really like the Coen Brothers. I think Barton Fink does that in spades. It’s got really funny stuff in it, really over-the-top characters, but I feel things in that movie, too. And there’s a Swedish director I really admire, Roy Andersson.
Have you ever read George Saunders?
Yeah, I read George Saunders early on. In fact, at one point I was going to adapt George Saunders’s CivilWarLand in Bad Decline for Ben Stiller. Probably there’s more people that do it in literature than in film. Certainly Kafka does it. When I was reading Kafka as a teenager, I found out that he thought his stories were really funny. At that point, I didn’t understand that. But once I’d heard him say it, I started reading them differently, and I saw it, and I loved it.
Is there anything from your childhood or teenage years that you remember finding just unspeakably funny — that left you laughing and laughing and laughing?
I don’t know if I remember laughing and laughing and laughing ever in my life. But when I discovered the National Lampoon, I remember thinking, Holy fuck. This is something that is talking to me. This was in the early ’70s. I was in junior-high school. I felt it with Woody Allen, too. I don’t know if I laughed and laughed and laughed with Woody Allen, but I do remember thinking, God. This is just hysterical. It was eye-opening to me, and I wanted to do that. I really like Phillip K. Dick. I think he’s really funny.
Do you go see any comedy movies now? Do you have any recent favorites?
[Kaufman looks at Sternbergh’s notes.] Do you write like that, illegibly, so that other people can’t read over your shoulder?
No. No. It’s actually …
I find I do that. When I write in coffee shops, my writing gets more and more messy because I’m nervous, not because it’s a secret but just because I’m embarrassed or something.
Do you watch TV? You may have heard that TV is currently going through a golden age.
I think that TV is having a sort of renaissance, but I also think that it’s a kind of a misnomer. I don’t think anyone’s doing really experimental TV. I like Breaking Bad and The Knick. They’re well done. But I feel like if it were a true golden age, there would be more, I don’t know, exploration. Maybe Louie does it. Probably Louiedoes it. I haven’t seen Louie in a while.
There’s a perception in the world that TV offers a lot more leeway now for creators to try different things, thanks to new outlets like Amazon and Netflix.
What’s an example, though?
I guess Transparent would be an example.
To be fair, I haven’t seen Transparent. But correct me if I’m wrong — the subject matter is new, and maybe pushing to another realm, but the form of it is — it’s a fairly naturalistic show, right?
Yes, it is.
Peep Show is a show I really like. It’s a show that’s in the form of a sitcom, but it takes a very specific position in its presentation, I think, to great effect. I love that show, and Black Mirror, too. It’s very different than you would see on American television.
Do you ever watch any of those really out-there Adult Swim shows?
You know what things I like on Adult Swim at night? Those infomercial things that they do. I just think some of those are amazing. I love the one for the allergy medicine. Did you see that one?
Oh, you’ve got to see this one. It’s really good. It starts out as a nature documentary about bears, and then it goes to commercial, and the commercial is just for some allergy medicine … I won’t even tell you what it does. I won’t do it justice if I [do]. But it’s just this really horrifying, really well-done surreal nightmare. I’ve always loved things that purport to be one thing but turn into something else.
Did you happen to see that video “Too Many Cooks”?
Yeah. It’s great. That was the first one I saw, and then I saw one about the pipe that goes into your toilet system and gives you feedback about what’s in your stool. But it’s this tracking thing, the government’s finding all this shit about you, literally. It’s really, really funny.
It seems that —
Key & Peele. Sorry. I just want to say Key & Peele. I think they’re amazing. I think that show is some of the best sketch comedy I’ve ever seen. Didn’t mean to interrupt you, but I didn’t want to forget about that.
Is there a particular sketch of theirs that you really like?
Oh God, I’m trying to think. I’d hate to single one out because I like so many of them. There’s something in their work to me that is — a lot of times on SNL and other sketch shows, there’s premise, and then it plays out, and it’s beat, beat, beat, beat, beat, over. But I feel like with them, there’s premise, and then it turns. That’s the thing I love about anything, whether it’s Monty Python or Mr. Show or Kids in the Hall — anything where it feels like it doesn’t go where you think it’s going to go. That freedom, that sort of anarchy of form, is the thing that really appeals to me.
It seems that you would be an ideal person for an Amazon or a Netflix to throw a lot of money at and say, “Hey, make us a distinctive, Charlie Kaufman–esque show.”
I had a pilot at HBO that Catherine Keener was going to be in. The whole series takes place on one day. The premise of the show is that there are so many different accidents in your life that lead you in different directions, and as you look at someone’s life from birth to, let’s say, 50, there are so many different versions of that life that could have happened. My idea was that you take this woman, she is this age on this day, that’s the only given, and then each episode is based on a different route. Maybe it broke off here and the difference is very small; maybe it broke off when she was a baby, in which case it’s a completely different life. In the course of the series, you start to recognize, first of all, there’s clues given as to what these things were that happened that changed the course of her life. But there are also similarities in all these different versions of herself — about who she is. What I thought was really cool about the show, in addition to the premise, which I really liked, is that there’s no one right version of it. You can watch this in any order, and it’s a different show. The example that I like to use is that in one episode, she’s married to this man and you see their life together. In the next episode, she’s divorced from this man and you see her life having been divorced from this man. In a third episode, she and this man walk by each other on the street, clearly have never met. And depending on which order you watch the series in, there are different a-hamoments.
So what happened with it?
I wrote a first episode, and then they wanted to see a second episode because they weren’t sure what it was going to be. So I wrote a second episode. And I decided to make the second episode very, very different, so that they could see how it could be very, very different. The response I got from them was, “Well, I don’t see how this could be the second episode. It’s so different.” And it’s like, “Well, no. I’m not saying it’s the second episode. I’m saying it’s another episode. This isn’t like the order that the show has to go in if we want to establish the premise.” It may not be the real reason they didn’t want to do it, but they could not remove that idea from their head. Ultimately, they didn’t go ahead with the series.
That sounds frustrating.
I think that’s a really good idea for a show. I thought it was a really interesting, novel version of a TV series. It would be fascinating, and I think it would get an audience, and I think people would be challenged by it. But it was an unusual show, and they wouldn’t do it, and I was really frustrated with that. When I pitched the idea, there was a bidding war between FX, Showtime, and HBO. We went with HBO. After HBO said no, they put [it] into turnaround and allowed us to take it to other places. Nobody bought it, and that includes Netflix, Amazon, Hulu, AMC, and Sundance.
You also had a pilot at FX, How and Why, that didn’t get picked up for a series. Do you think TV is evolving in the direction where someone might be willing to take a chance on this kind of show in five years, but just not right now?
Maybe. I can’t predict the future. I feel like the interest in this movie, to bring it back to Anomalisa for a second, came only after the thing was done. I don’t think we ever would’ve sold it. People seem to really like it now. Obviously, Paramount really likes it now. But we wouldn’t have sold it to Paramount as an idea. There’s absolutely no way.
What’s the biggest obstacle for a project like this?
I feel like what studios look at, to a certain extent, is precedent. When we pitched Eternal Sunshine, and there was a lot of interest in that, and the thing that we heard back: “It’s a new way to tell a love story.” That was what they saw. That’s not what I thought about when we worked on the idea. But they fit it into this model. It’s a love story. People like love stories.
I don’t know if the moral of that story is uplifting or depressing. Because on the one hand, you have this situation where no one’s going to get behind something until it’s actually made. Yet at the same time, this movie did get made. You raised the initial funding on Kickstarter. Did that seem like an encouraging process to you?
We had enough money just to start with Kickstarter. Then Keith Calder, who has a company called Snoot Entertainment, came in and asked us if we needed more money, and we did need it, a substantial amount of money. So that happened, Kickstarter happened, then Keith happened, and then Paramount happened after the movie was done. But while we were making the movie, we didn’t even know if we were going to finish it because the money situation was really dire.
That has to be a continual struggle, especially with things that aren’t obviously commercial — to avoid constantly feeling like everything is just going to run aground eventually. How do you stay optimistic?
Desperation, I think. I don’t know if it’s optimism. And I’m not sure it’s pessimism either. I think, This is not going to happen. But let’s keep going, because the only way it is going to happen is if you keep going, and what else are you going to do? So you keep going.
I know for some people out there, it’s very frustrating to know that there are Charlie Kaufman scripts that aren’t being made into films —
Yeah. I’m one of them. I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to interrupt you with my joke.
As someone with a very distinctive voice, does it frustrate you to see a lot of much more generic material having an easier time getting made?
I’ve certainly had this experience where it’s like, “Why the fuck is that person getting attention for that when I have this thing that no one cares about and can’t get made?” You see shit on television or in a movie and you think, How did that person get a job when they wrote that? When I was trying to get into the business, I’d see stuff on TV and it was crap, and I was like, I can write at least this well. And then you’d hear that, well, these people are really brilliant, and the specs they write are amazing, but once you get into the system, you have to dumb it down. So there must be all these amazing comedy writers out there who are doing things that are not good because that’s what they’re paid to do. And you know what? It’s really not true. There are really good comedy writers out there, but there are a shitload of people who are not, and they also work, and the stuff that you see on TV is a fair reflection of the level of skill out there, and people should know that.
Back in 1999, when Being John Malkovich came out, that was a really great year for film. Not just Malkovich, but Magnolia, Three Kings, the South Park movie, The Matrix, The Blair Witch Project — all these different films that felt fresh and revolutionary for different reasons. And there was a widespread sense at the time, like, Oh, something is about to happen. This is the beginning of something. Looking back, 16 years later, it feels like whatever that was didn’t happen.
I think that there’s really big reasons that it didn’t happen. I think 9/11 is one of them. And what happened with the mortgage crisis. And what happened to the economy in 2008. It certainly changed the movie business. We made Adaptation at Sony — not Sony Classics, at Sony. Amy Pascal green-lit that movie. That’s not something that would ever happen at Sony now, ever. There’s no mid-level movies being made anymore anywhere, and so it’s really complicated for people who need $20 million to make a movie.
Around Being John Malkovich, there was this funny moment when there was a strange mythos around you. There was even a rumor that you didn’t exist, or that you were someone else’s alias. Were you aware of all that at the time? Did you think it was amusing?
I heard stuff like that, and I didn’t really think anyone was taking it seriously. I didn’t want to be photographed because I’m a self-conscious person, and I just couldn’t deal with it. But I did a lot of interviews during that time. There was no question that I existed. If anyone thought I didn’t exist, it was people who weren’t journalists. There’s actually this one interview I did for Synecdoche, New York where I got really mad at this guy. I was really tired and in a bad mood, and I went outside to do this TV thing, which they didn’t tell me I had to do — I was like, Oh fuck, I didn’t know I had to do any TV. And this guy said, “So why don’t you do any interviews?” And I went off on him. I was like, “Well, you know, it’s really weird, this lazy fucking journalism. Because there are a thousand interviews with me online, and I always get asked that question. I’m sitting here right now, talking to you in front of a fucking camera, and you ask me why I don’t do interviews?” It’s this weird thing that they want to perpetuate because they want to make you into a character or they have their own idea about you, but it’s clearly not true. It’s not true in general, and it’s clearly not true now because we’re here.
It’s funny how, if anyone shows even a whiff of resistance to being photographed or interviewed, that people still immediately think, Oh, that person must not even be real. It’s happening right now with the writer Elena Ferrante. People think, That must be a pseudonym. Or she’s a figment of our imagination.
If you stand up against it in a way that’s even sort of humanly natural, you get pegged as a certain kind of person. I had that happen with an Oscar nomination: They call you up in the morning because they want to get a quote — “How excited are you?” — and they feed you what you’re supposed to say. You’re this excited. And I was like, “It’s nice, you know. I’m happy, but I’m also a grown-up. I’m not jumping off the walls.” And they wrote about that. I don’t remember exactly what I said, but the way it was printed made me look like an ungrateful asshole. I got some calls from agents. You have to be careful.
I read an interview with you where you said that the initial idea for Being John Malkovich was that you wanted to write a movie about a man who was in love with someone who was not his wife. Which is an interesting idea, but it also seems like a long journey from that to what the final film was all about.
Yeah, I did say that, but it’s not exactly the entire thought process. What I was trying to do with Malkovich was — I had worked with a writing partner out of college, Paul Proch, and we had collaborated together, and I’d become quite comfortable with, or stimulated by, the interaction, and the idea of collaboration. But I wanted to move towards stuff that I couldn’t do in collaboration, which is the more personal stuff. So what I thought I would do, because I was sort of struggling — you know, you kind of get bored with yourself — so I was thinking, What if I try to break that pattern by collaborating with myself? My thought was that I would take two disparate ideas that I’d had and see if I could make them work as one screenplay: One was the man falling in love with this woman who wasn’t his wife, and one was the idea that someone finds a portal into John Malkovich’s head.
Is the initial spark of an idea for you usually a character? Or an image? Or is it a concept — like the idea of, what if you found a portal into the brain of another person.
With Malkovich, it isn’t as simple to me as what if you found a portal into someone else’s brain. It’s what if you found a portal into John Malkovich’s brain. That was what worked. That’s what I thought was funny. It wouldn’t have worked, in my mind, with anyone else.
With Eternal Sunshine, Michel Gondry approached me with a one-line idea: What if someone got a note saying they were erased from somebody’s brain? I didn’t want to do the normal go-to thing, which would have been a thriller of some sort. I wanted to do something about relationships, and when I was writing it, I’d feel like I was having to pay too much attention to the science-fiction element of it. I didn’t want that to get in the way of the exploration of what a relationship actually looks like in people’s heads.
But it always comes from different places. Like with Adaptation, I liked Susan Orlean’s book, and it was offered to me. I struggled with how to do it, and I was stuck for a long time. And then I came upon this notion that I’ve used a lot since: What am I thinking about now? What am I worried about? Where is my head at? What am I in the middle of? What am I drowning in? And, literally, what I was thinking about was my inability to write the script, and that was a really literal translation, adding that element to the story. I feel like my responsibility is to be as honest as I can be in my work about myself.
Is there something that you’re in the midst of now, a great concern or struggle that you think might be the soil from which the next thing sprouts?
There are things I’m thinking about, but there are also things I’m committed to working on right now. I’ve got things that I have to finish. I like when things that I’m working on transform — especially if they take a long time, which they usually do — during the process because other things come up in my life or the world, and I combine that with existing stuff. I’m working on a novel and I’m rewriting a screenplay for Paramount — I mean, I wrote it, it’s my script, but I’m doing the rewrite on it — and I’m adding stuff that is of concern to me or that I’m in the middle of.
You’re writing a novel. How are you finding that process?
I’m finding it really hard. I think the hardest part is the paralyzing fear, venturing into this other thing where I’m going to be judged by different people in a new way. Which isn’t going to stop me from doing it, but it is something that’s inhibiting. With screenplays, I’ve got a bit of a track record, and I’m more comfortable with the form. I still struggle with them, and I often still don’t like the stuff that I write, but I feel less worried about putting it out there.
I can imagine that writing fiction, on the one hand, would be very liberating in that you don’t have to worry about essentially, like, selling it to some person or fitting into some mold.
Or keeping it cheap.
I can write whatever the fuck I want in this thing, and it doesn’t change the budget. Same amount of paper.
Is there any one ongoing idea or concept that you’re intrigued by but haven’t been able to figure out how to use?
I’ve thrown so much stuff out that I’ve got drawers full of it, and honestly, unless I went through the drawers, I wouldn’t be able to tell you what it is. I don’t remember. Just notes and things. The stuff that I haven’t given up on is mostly because someone paid me. Because the vast majority of things that I have tried to do, I haven’t figured out and ultimately gave up on because I can. You know? Once somebody pays me, I can’t give up because otherwise they’ll sue me. So it’s a great motivator for me, payment. And not in a typical way. I mean, obviously, I like to get paid and stuff, but it’s this feeling of obligation, which is a big part of my existence, and guilt and responsibility, and it just plays into all of those neuroses that I exist with.
Your films are often full of different, interesting, disparate ideas — like in Malkovich, for example, there’s this element of floor seven and a half. Which is, in and of itself, funny, but it’s not integral to the main idea of the movie. In a way, these extra ideas are added like ornaments on a tree.
In my mind, floor seven and a half is not a flourish. I don’t see it as an extraneous ornament. I see it as a part of the story, and when I’m looking at it, I understand why it’s there in terms of the themes and the ideas. I don’t stick things in willy-nilly.
You had a script, Frank or Francis, which is about a feud between a filmmaker and a film critic, and it’s very much about the culture of the internet —
It’s about the internet and internet anger. Which, I think, is a real thing. And I think it’s a really, really destructive force in our society.
Do you think our reliance on the internet as a way to make connections is exacerbating our worst qualities?
I think if you engage with it, as someone whose work is out there, it makes it more complicated. It’s hard for me to ignore it. If something somebody says gets picked up and people start reposting it on Twitter or something, it’s just like, it can get really big, really fast. So you’ve got all of these opinions, and you don’t know where they’re coming from or who’s saying them, and it can affect … I mean, in my case, it can affect a film, but it can also affect one’s feelings about one’s work, if you let it.
Do you react badly to online criticism?
If someone says something about me, I can let it affect me. I can let it begin a self-questioning process or a self-doubt process. A feeling of failure. Like, why does this person hate me? So it’s messy for someone like me who seems to like to read these things or need to read them. I don’t know why. I wish that I didn’t.
You seem drawn to exploring a certain kind of human anxiety that is very universal, and has been around for as long as people have been telling each other stories. Have you ever considered engaging more with the particular anxiety that comes from a particular political moment? This moment we’re in, with the election, Donald Trump, Paris, Syria, climate change, the political landscape — it seems like a particularly ripe time to feel anxious. And to feel a very particular kind of anxiety, like, Are we going to be able to pull this off as a species?
I think the answer is no.
We’re not going to be able to pull it off?
Rewatching Synecdoche, there is a layer of societal collapse in that movie happening around the characters.
It’s alluded to. People are trying to get into live in the fake city. There’s lines of people wanting to get in there because it’s so bad outside. Which I thought was funny.
Do you consider your films political?
I watched 99 Homes last night. Have you seen that movie?
I really liked it. I think it was great. Really good performances, and really harrowing, and it’s very political. You know what it’s about: the housing crisis. And I thought about that. Would I ever make that movie? And I don’t think I would make that movie. Not because I don’t think that movie is great, because I do. It’s just not my movie for some reason. I wrote a script for Paramount which is a political and social satire, and it’s very, very big, and it’s about the United States after a crisis. But it’s at a heightened, hopefully comic, and horrible level. It’s a funny, awful scenario, but, like I said, it’s more fanciful, and it’s specifically about the United States. There’s so many bad roads that we can and will go down. I don’t have any crystal ball. I think that we need to take the world seriously as human beings, in every aspect of the world.
Is that the kind of implicit politics you see in your own work?
To me, Anomalisa is political. In a very small sense. It’s about being able to see other people, and I think so much of what is wrong right now in the world is that people don’t see each other. We literally do not see each other as human beings — as people with fear and desires and longings. And therefore, you’re able to treat other people as objects that you can use to get what you want. It’s a hard thing to do, to see people on a personal scale. It’s a very hard thing. I think if we could do that, we’d make better decisions as societies and individuals, be better and kinder, and just by that alone, the world would be a better place.