Kaufman at the 2015 Fantastic Fest
Charles Stuart Kaufman
November 19, 1958
|Alma mater||New York University|
Charles Stuart Kaufman (//; born November 19, 1958) is an American screenwriter, producer, director and novelist. He wrote the films Being John Malkovich (1999), Adaptation (2002), and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004). He made his directorial debut with Synecdoche, New York (2008), which film critic Roger Ebert called "the best movie of the decade" in 2009. Further directorial work include the stop motion animated film Anomalisa (2015) and I'm Thinking of Ending Things (2020). In 2020, Kaufman made his literary debut with the release of his first novel, Antkind.
One of the most celebrated screenwriters of his era, Kaufman has been nominated for four Academy Awards: twice for Best Original Screenplay for Being John Malkovich and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (winning for the latter), Best Adapted Screenplay (with his fictional brother) for Adaptation, and Best Animated Feature for Anomalisa. He also won two BAFTA Award for Best Original Screenplays and one BAFTA Award for Best Adapted Screenplay. Three of Kaufman's scripts appear in the Writers Guild of America's list of the 101 greatest movie screenplays ever written.
Early life and education
Kaufman was born in New York City to a Jewish family on November 19, 1958, the son of Helen and Myron Kaufman. He grew up in Massapequa, New York, before moving to West Hartford, Connecticut, where he graduated from high school.[unreliable source?] In high school, Kaufman was in the drama club, performing in numerous productions before landing the lead role in a production of Play It Again, Sam during his senior year.
After high school graduation, Kaufman attended Boston University before transferring to New York University, where he studied film. While attending NYU, Kaufman met Paul Proch, with whom he wrote many unproduced scripts and plays.
Early work and television (1983–1997)
Between 1983 and 1984, Kaufman and Proch wrote comedic articles and spoofs for National Lampoon. His work included parodies of Kurt Vonnegut and the X-Men. Kaufman and Proch tried to get their screenplays produced, sending them to many people in the film industry. The only response the two ever received was a supportive letter from Alan Arkin about their screenplay Purely Coincidental. In hope of finding a talent agent he began to write spec scripts for television series such as Married... with Children, Newhart, It's Garry Shandling's Show and The Simpsons. While pursuing his writing career he began working odd jobs in customer service to support himself and his wife, Denise. During the late 1980s Kaufman lived and worked in Minneapolis, answering calls about missing newspapers at the Star Tribune.
In 1991, one of Kaufman's spec scripts finally got attention and he gained a talent agent. The agent suggested Kaufman move from Minneapolis to Los Angeles in search of more job prospects. He moved to Los Angeles alone for two months interviewing for a variety of different television writing jobs. The only offer he got was a Comedy Central series titled Access America, hosted by actor Fred Willard, which coincidentally was being filmed in Minneapolis. Kaufman was prepared to accept the job and move back to Minneapolis until he was offered a job by David Mirkin writing for the second season of his and Chris Elliott's sitcom Get a Life, starring Elliott. He wrote two episodes of Get a Life before its cancellation in 1992. At first Kaufman found the experience of working on a writing staff nerve-wracking and did not speak in the writer's room for the first few weeks. After his work was well received by other members of the staff, Kaufman overcame his timidity and became more susceptible to showing others his work.
After Get a Life's cancellation, Kaufman pursued work on series such as Seinfeld, The Larry Sanders Show, The Simpsons and Mr. Show, but to no avail. He continued to work on other comedic series: Fox's sketch comedy show The Edge, The Trouble with Larry and Ned and Stacey, the last of which he also produced. The most notable series he worked on in this period was The Dana Carvey Show, which featured writers and performers such as Louis C.K., Robert Smigel, Greg Daniels, Stephen Colbert and Steve Carell. On all these series Kaufman struggled to keep his material from being adulterated or not produced at all, because of his unconventional writing and his quiet nature.
Kaufman also wrote some pilot scripts of his own, but none of them were produced. These included two pilots for Disney, Depressed Roomies and Rambling Pants (the former a surrealist take on the "buddy sitcom" and the latter focused on the adventures of a time-travelling poet named Pants) and a pilot for HBO, In Limbo, a naturalistic look at a romantic relationship devoid of the usual tropes of romantic films.
Move to films and critical acclaim (1999–2004)
Kaufman first came to mainstream notice as the writer of Being John Malkovich, directed by Spike Jonze, earning an Academy Award nomination for his effort and winning a BAFTA. He wrote the script on spec in 1994, sending it to many companies and studios, all of which turned it down. The script eventually reached Francis Ford Coppola, who passed it on to his then-son-in-law Jonze, who agreed to direct the film.
Kaufman and Jonze reunited yet again as the screenwriter and director of Adaptation, which earned him another Academy Award nomination and his second BAFTA. Adaptation featured a fictionalized version of Kaufman and his fictional brother, Donald, who is credited as writer of the film along with Kaufman. The idea came to Kaufman while attempting to adapt Susan Orlean's book The Orchid Thief into film. Struggling with writer's block, Kaufman turned the script into an exaggerated account of his struggles with adapting the screenplay.
Kaufman wrote the screenplay for Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, a biopic based on the "unauthorized autobiography" of Chuck Barris, the creator of such popular game shows as The Dating Game and host of The Gong Show. The film focuses on Barris's claim to have been a CIA hit man. It was George Clooney's directorial debut. Kaufman criticized Clooney for making drastic alterations to the script without consulting him (instead, Clooney consulted Barris). Kaufman said in an interview with William Arnold: "The usual thing for a writer is to deliver a script and then disappear. That's not for me. I want to be involved from beginning to end. And these directors [Gondry and Jonze] know that, and respect it."
Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, released in 2004, was Kaufman's second pairing with director Michel Gondry. Kaufman won his first Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay and third BAFTA for the film together with Gondry and French artist Pierre Bismuth. The trio also received the prestigious PEN American Center 2005 prize for screenplay for the film. David Edelstein described the film in Slate as "The Awful Truth turned inside-out by Philip K. Dick, with nods to Samuel Beckett, Chris Marker, John Guare—the greatest dramatists of our modern fractured consciousness. But the weave is pure Kaufman."
Directorial work and writer for hire (2005–2014)
After agreeing to participate in Carter Burwell's Theater of the New Ear, a double bill "sound play", Kaufman wrote and directed the audio play Hope Leaves the Theater, while the other play in the production, Sawbones, was written and directed by the Coen Brothers. Hope Leaves the Theater follows a middle-aged woman, dissatisfied with her life and relationships, watching a play-within-the-play, and featured performances by Hope Davis, Peter Dinklage and Meryl Streep. Theater of the New Ear debuted in April 2005 at St. Ann's Warehouse in Brooklyn, New York. Due to scheduling conflicts, later productions of Theater of the New Ear did not feature the Coens' play, replacing it with Anomalisa, which Kaufman wrote under the pseudonym "'Francis Fregoli". Anomalisa centers around a man (David Thewlis) who perceives everyone in the world to be the same person (Tom Noonan) until he meets an exception (Jennifer Jason Leigh).
Kaufman made his directorial film debut with the postmodern film Synecdoche, New York, starring an ensemble cast led by Philip Seymour Hoffman. It premiered at the Cannes Film Festival in 2008. The idea for the film came when Kaufman and Spike Jonze were approached to direct a horror film. Rather than make a conventional horror film, the two agreed to have the film deal with things they found frightening, such as mortality and life's brevity. Kaufman decided to direct the film after Jonze left the project to direct Where the Wild Things Are instead. The film premiered at the 2008 Cannes Film Festival where it split critics, with some calling it the best film of the year and others finding it pretentious. In the years since its release it has appeared on multiple lists ranking the best films of the 21st century. The film's poor box office resulted in Kaufman finding it difficult to gain funding for scripts to which he has attached himself as director.
Kaufman was slated to write and direct a film with the working title Frank or Francis. Few details have been confirmed about the plot except that it is a musical comedy about internet anger culture and was set to star Jack Black, Nicolas Cage, Steve Carell, Kevin Kline, Catherine Keener, Paul Reubens, Jackie Weaver and Elizabeth Banks. In July 2012, Black said that funding for the project had fallen through, as the studio was unsure about its chances for success after the financial failure of Synecdoche, New York. Although the future of the project is not certain, Kaufman says "It could still happen. It would have to be reinvented, though. We had a whole cast and we were headed into pre-production. So, I’d have to get people back and who knows if they would be interested anymore. But at this point, we don’t have any money, so that’s a secondary concern."
Trying to make a return to television when the funding for Frank or Francis fell through, Kaufman sold a series to HBO in the May of 2012 with Catherine Keener attached to star, but the series did not get past the scripting stage. Kaufman also directed and wrote a pilot for FX titled How and Why in 2014. The plot was described as being about a "man (played by John Hawkes) who can explain how and why a nuclear reactor works but is clueless about life". Along with Hawkes, the pilot co-starred Michael Cera, Sally Hawkins, Catherine Keener and Tom Noonan. FX decided to not pick up the pilot.
While struggling to get his directorial work made, Kaufman continued to work as a writer for hire, writing numerous unproduced screenplays. These included a satire set on a planet inhabited by everyone who ever lived, to be directed by Spike Jonze; an adaptation of George Saunders's book CivilWarLand in Bad Decline, to be directed by Ben Stiller; and an adaptation of Arthur Herzog's novel IQ 83, starring Steve Carell. He also did uncredited rewrites on films such as Kung Fu Panda 2 and Ad Astra.
Continued directing and debut novel (2015–present)
Dino Stamatopoulos, a former colleague of Kaufman's from The Dana Carvey Show, became interested in adapting Kaufman's Anomalisa play script into a stop motion animated film. With Kaufman's permission, Stamatopoulos turned to the crowdfunding website Kickstarter to fund the film. The Kickstarter page was set up in August 2012 and by the time funding had ended $406,237 was pledged. The rest of the $8 million budget was funded by the film's production company, Starburns Industries. Kaufman co-directed the film with Duke Johnson, who had previous experience in stop motion filmmaking, and the original cast of the play production returned to reprise their roles. It had its world premiere at the Telluride Film Festival on September 4, 2015, receiving universal acclaim from critics. The film went on to win the Grand Jury Prize at the Venice Film Festival and was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Animated Feature, but like Synecdoche, it did poorly at the box office.
Kaufman's debut novel, Antkind, was released in July 2020. Kaufman said in 2016 that the novel was being written so as to be unfilmable, and is itself about "an impossible movie." In Antkind, film critic B. Rosenberg attempts to recall a three-month long stop-motion animation film that perished in a fire. Believing the film to be his last chance at achieving the respect and admiration of his peers, B. embarks on an absurdist journey that explores comedy, film theory, philosophy, and social commentary across Antkind's 706 pages.
In January 2018, it was announced that Kaufman was working on writing and directing an adaptation of Iain Reid's 2016 novel I'm Thinking of Ending Things. In December 2018, it was announced that Brie Larson and Jesse Plemons were signed to co-star as the leads; the film was described as "the story of a woman’s trip to a family farm that leads to an unexpected detour leaving her stranded, [and] a twisted mix of palpable tension, psychological frailty and sheer terror ensues." The project begun filming in March 2019, with Jessie Buckley having replaced Larson, and Toni Collette and David Thewlis joining the cast, and was released on Netflix in September 2020 to positive reviews.
Kaufman is developing a limited series for HBO based on his unproduced screenplay of I.Q. 83. He is also writing a script about dreams for Ryan Gosling's production company and an adaptation of the novel The Memory Police that Reed Morano is slated to direct.
Themes and influences
Kaufman's works explore such universal themes as identity crisis, mortality, and the meaning of life through a metaphysical or parapsychological framework. While his work resists labels, it is sometimes described as surrealist. He sometimes includes fictionalized "facts" about his life in his work, notably Adaptation. and Hope Leaves the Theater. Gender identity is also a recurrent theme in his work.
Apes recur in Kaufman's work: in Being John Malkovich, Lotte has a pet chimp named Elijah; in Human Nature, Puff was raised as an ape; in Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, Penny dreams about an ape; and in Adaptation, the original deus ex machina was a swamp ape.
Some writers and directors Kaufman has named as favorites of his, or as influences, are Franz Kafka, Samuel Beckett, Stanisław Lem, Flannery O'Connor, Shirley Jackson, Philip K. Dick, Patricia Highsmith, David Lynch, Lars von Trier, Roy Andersson,  Woody Allen and The Coen Brothers.
|1999||Being John Malkovich||No||Yes||Executive||USA Films|
|2001||Human Nature||No||Yes||Yes||Fine Line Features|
|Confessions of a Dangerous Mind||No||Yes||No||Miramax Films|
|2004||Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind||No||Yes||Executive||Focus Features||Co-story writer with Michel Gondry and Pierre Bismuth|
|2008||Synecdoche, New York||Yes||Yes||Yes||Sony Pictures Classics|
|2015||Anomalisa||Yes||Yes||Yes||Paramount Pictures||Co-director with Duke Johnson|
|2020||I'm Thinking of Ending Things||Yes||Yes||Yes||Netflix|
|1991–1992||Get a Life||No||Yes||No||2 episodes|
|1992–1993||The Edge||No||Yes||No||20 episodes|
|1993||The Trouble with Larry||No||Yes||No||Also story editor|
|1995||Misery Loves Company||No||No||Yes||6 episodes|
|1996||The Dana Carvey Show||No||Yes||No||8 episodes|
|1996–1997||Ned and Stacey||No||Yes||Yes||22 episodes|
|2014||How and Why||Yes||Yes||Executive||Also creator|
|2005||Hope Leaves the Theater||Yes||Yes|
|Anomalisa||Yes||Yes||Under the pseudonym Francis Fregoli|
|2001||Human Nature||"Hair Everywhere" and "Here with You"|
|2008||Synecdoche, New York||"Synecdoche Song", "Gravity", "Little Person", and "Song for Caden"|
|2015||Anomalisa||"None of Them Are You"|
|2020||I'm Thinking of Ending Things||"Tulsey Town Jingle"|
Awards and nominations
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- Ebert, Roger (November 5, 2008). "Synecdoche, New York Movie Review (2008)". Retrieved October 16, 2015. "Charlie Kaufman is one of the few truly important writers to make screenplays his medium."
- "Charlie Kaufman Is The 21st Century's 'Mad Genius Of Cinema'". GQ. June 3, 2016. Retrieved January 9, 2017.
- "Charlie Kaufman: Screenwriters Lecture". British Academy of Film and Television Arts. Retrieved October 16, 2015. "One of modern cinema's most celebrated writers"...
- Ulin, David L. (May 14, 2006). "Why Charlie Kaufman Is Us". The Los Angeles Times. Retrieved October 16, 2015. "In exploring our inner selves, he's become one of the best writers of his generation, David L. Ulin argues."
- "101 Greatest Screenplays List". Writers Guild of America, West. Archived from the original on August 13, 2006. Retrieved September 13, 2015.
- Applebaum, Stephen (May 7, 2009). "It's not easy being Charlie Kaufman". The Jewish Chronicle. Retrieved April 27, 2018.
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- Solomons, Jason (March 17, 2016). "Tradition? No, I just want to write what I think is funny". The Jewish Chronicle. Retrieved April 27, 2018.
- Bloom, Nate (February 25, 2016). "The tribe at the Oscars, 2016". Times of Israel.
- LaRocca, D. (2011). The Philosophy of Charlie Kaufman. University Press of Kentucky. p. 3. ISBN 9780813133928. Retrieved 2014-10-15.
- "Biography". BeingCharlieKaufman.com. Retrieved 2012-08-28.
- "Scans of said articles". Beingcharliekaufman.com. Retrieved 2017-12-04.
- "Journey Into Madness". Archived from the original on 2017-02-10.
- "Charlie Kaufman: Confessions of an Original Mind". GoodRead.com. Retrieved 18 January 2020.
- "Salon.com Interview by Michael Sragow". Retrieved 2007-05-15.
- Kobel, Peter (October 24, 1999). "FILM; The Fun and Games of Living a Virtual Life". The New York Times. Archived from the original on November 28, 2010. Retrieved November 4, 2010.
- Claude Brodesser (November 10, 1999). "Scribe revisiting reality". Variety. Retrieved December 5, 2017.
- "Kaufman interviewed by William Arnold". Seattle Post-Intelligencer. 2004-03-18. Retrieved 2007-05-19.
- "PEN Center USA: 2005 Literary Awards Winners". Archived from the original on 2006-11-25. Retrieved 2007-01-12.
- David Edelstein. "Forget Me Not: The genius of Charlie Kaufman's Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind". Retrieved 2016-07-24.
- "Creative Screenwriting Magazine on Hope Leaves the Theater". Archived from the original on 2007-04-29.
- "The Body – Projects – Theater of the New Ear". Archived from the original on 2007-01-07. Retrieved 2007-01-12.
- "Theater of the New Ear". Retrieved 2015-07-30.
- "Kaufman's Directorial Debut Lands Williams, Hoffman". Archived from the original on 2017-12-05. Retrieved 2017-12-05.
- "Synecdoche, New York: A Great Film About the Upcoming Zombie Apocalypse? | Blog | WorldMaker.net". Blog.worldmaker.net. May 18, 2009. Retrieved November 27, 2012.
-  Archived January 2, 2009, at the Wayback Machine
- Kois, Dan (January 5, 2009). "Vulture's Critics' Poll: The Complete Ballots". Vulture.com. Retrieved November 17, 2015.
- "The 100 best films of the 21st Century". The Guardian. September 13, 2019. Retrieved September 13, 2019.
- "The 21st Century's 100 greatest films". BBC. August 23, 2016. Retrieved September 8, 2016.
- Jagernauth, Kevin (November 12, 2015). "Charlie Kaufman Explains Why Star-Studded 'Frank Or Francis' Fell Apart, Says It Could Still Happen". Indiewire. Archived from the original on December 30, 2015. Retrieved December 9, 2015.
- "Is this the plot of "Frank or Francis"?". BeingCharlieKaufman.com. 2011-07-30. Retrieved 2012-08-28.
- "IN CONVERSATION: CHARLIE KAUFMAN". Vulture.com. Retrieved 8 March 2017.
- "FX's Charlie Kaufman Pilot Not Going Forward". Deadline Hollywood.
- "Charlie Kaufman on his new film, a metaphysical time-hopping thriller". Dazed and Confused.
- "Steve Carell, Charlie Kaufman Lock 'I.Q. 83'; Viral Outbreak Dumbs Down World". Deadline Hollywood.
- "Charlie Kaufman on his new film, a metaphysical time-hopping thriller". Dazed and Confused.
- "Daisy Ridley-Starring 'Chaos Walking' will Shoot in Canada". Backstage.
- "Charlie Kaufman's Anomalisa". Kickstarter.
- Starburns Industries (May 22, 2014). "Kickstart Update #39: Anomalisa Timeline". Kickstarter. Retrieved June 11, 2018.
- Kohn, Eric (September 5, 2015). "Telluride Review: Charlie Kaufman's Marvelously Strange 'Anomalisa' is An Animated Identity Crisis". Indiewire.com. Retrieved December 9, 2015.
- "Anomalisa (2015)". Rotten Tomatoes. Retrieved December 9, 2015.
- "Anomalisa". Box Office Mojo. IMDb. Retrieved February 21, 2016.
- "Charlie's novel has a title! And maybe a release date? And a blurby thing". Being Charlie Kaufman. February 18, 2019. Retrieved April 4, 2019.
- "Antkind by Charlie Kaufman review – absurdism ad infinitum". the Guardian. 2020-08-02. Retrieved 2020-10-27.
- "Charlie Kaufman Adapting Novel by Canadian Author Iain Reid for Netflix". The National Post. January 25, 2018. Retrieved July 31, 2018.
- "Brie Larson to Star in Charlie Kaufman's Netflix Movie 'I'm Thinking of Ending Things'". Collider. December 4, 2018. Retrieved December 5, 2018.
- "AQUAMAN 2 IS IN THE WORKS, AND MORE MOVIE NEWS'". Rotten Tomatoes. December 7, 2018. Retrieved December 8, 2018.
- Howland, Jack (March 21, 2019). "Charlie Kaufman movie for Netflix filming in Fishkill, Hudson Valley". Poughkeepsie Journal. Retrieved March 22, 2019.
- "Larson out, Toni Collette, Jessie Buckley and David Thewlis in for "Ending Things"". Being Charlie Kaufman. March 28, 2019. Retrieved April 4, 2019.
- PPCite web|url=https://variety.com/2020/film/features/charlie-kaufman-im-thinking-of-ending-things-1234748358/%7Ctitle=‘I’m Thinking of Ending Things’ Director Charlie Kaufman Isn’t Trying to Mess With Your Mind|date=August 27, 2020|website=Variety|access date= October 8, 2020}}
- "Indie Wire interview". Archived from the original on September 24, 2005.
- "How to Be Someone Else: Transgender Themes in the Work of Charlie Kaufman". Crooked Marquee. 2020-09-07. Retrieved 2020-10-03.
- "Adaptation (Draft 2)". Archived from the original on March 28, 2009.
- "Charlie Kaufman interview: Life's little dramas". Scotsman.com. Retrieved 8 March 2017.
- "Talking with the Kaufman About Pandas". The L Magazine. Retrieved 8 March 2017.
- "Being Charlie Kaufman". Salon. Retrieved 8 March 2017.
- "Being Charlie Kaufman". Salon. 1999-11-11. Retrieved 2020-06-24.
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- Mooallem, Jon (July 2, 2020). "This Profile of Charlie Kaufman Has Changed" – via NYTimes.com.
- Andreeva, Nellie (January 14, 2014). "John Hawkes & Michael Cera To Star In Charlie Kaufman's FX Comedy Pilot". Deadline Hollywood. Retrieved 2014-01-14.