Charlie Kaufman’s new film ‘Anomalisa’ comes out this week, here we take you on a comprehensive journey through his life’s work
This year's Oscars saw a film vying for Best Animated Feature that centres around mental breakdown and includes the best puppet sex since Team America: World Police. Anomalisa is the new stop-motion film for grown-ups, brought to you fresh from the brain that dreamed up films about living inside John Malkovich’s head and a rom-com about a company that will erase a person from your memories. That brain belongs to Charlie Kaufman. Here’s everything you need to know about the genius himself.
A IS FOR ADAPTATION
After the enormous success of their first collaboration (Being John Malkovich), Adaptation was the second film written by Kaufman and directed by Spike Jonze. Ostensibly an adaptation of Susan Orelan’s non-fiction book The Orchid Thief, the film ended up being a labyrinthine fictionalised account of Kaufman’s own tortured writing process as much as interpreting the original text for the screen.
B IS FOR BROTHER
In order to dissect a version of himself in Adaptation, Kaufman created a twin brother for himself, Donald. Both are screenwriters and both a credited as having penned the film they’re in. They’re also both played by a schlubby Nicholas Cage and serve as opposing facets of Kaufman’s own internal anxieties. Donald possesses the confidence and machismo that Charlie envies, but simultaneously looks down on his lack of artistic rigour.
C IS FOR CONFESSIONS OF A DANGEROUS MIND
Kaufman received the sole screenwriting credit on George Clooney’s directorial debut, but has since expressed his dislike of the finished product. He claims that Clooney was interested in different things to the original screenplay. While it’s an entertaining tall-tale with cheesy period charm, it clearly underplays the psychological complexity of Kaufman’s other work.
D IS FOR DEATH
Death is a constant blackly comic preoccupation for the characters that inhabit Kaufman’s bizarre worlds. From those trying to cheat death by living on in others in Being John Malkovich, to Chuck Barris actually dealing death in Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, to Caden Cotard’s slow excruciating decay in Synecdoche, New York. Mortality is always on his mind.
E IS FOR ETERNAL SUNSHINE OF THE SPOTLESS MIND
Undeniably the best known of all of Kaufman’s cinematic work, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is his most commercial film but doesn’t skimp on ideas. A romantic comedy about finding love and losing it, Jim Carrey and Kate Winslet star as Joel and Clementine, who have each other erased from their memories after a painful breakup only to fall in love again. It’s got much to say about how we construct our feelings for our loved ones, while also being visually inventive and irresistible fun.
F IS FOR THE FREGOLI DELUSION
The Fregoli Delusion is a rare psychological disorder where the afflicted believe that everyone around them is actually the same person – possibly in disguise – and that this person is out to get them. This disorder lies at the centre of Kaufman’s latest film, Anomalisa. It’s a perfect device to create a character unable to connect with other individuals in a soulless and homogenised modern world while still providing some uncanny laughs.
G IS FOR GENDER
There’s a constant theme of fluid gender running though Kaufman’s work both as writer and director. The body-swapping antics of Being John Malkovich allow for both male and female characters to experience life as the opposite sex. In Confessions of a Dangerous Mind Chuck Barris is raised as a little girl for his first six years. Perhaps most substantially, Caden in Synecdoche, New York is not just emasculated but regularly confused for women and goes on to cast a woman as himself in the film’s central play.
H IS FOR HUMAN NATURE
Both the title of the second script he wrote, and one of his most revisited topics. Human Nature is the story of a man raised as an ape in the forest (Rhys Ifans), the scientist who tries to educate him into human society (Tim Robbins) and that scientist’s unusually hirsute wife (Patricia Arquette). It’s a goofy exploration of our animal urges and our desire to control them, fitting nicely into Kaufman’s recurring examinations of the conscious and subconscious minds.
I IS FOR IDENTITY
More than anything else, this is the most consistent subject that Kaufman’s writing explores. Every one of his major characters is in some way wrestling with their own identity - as artists, as men, as women, as lovers. Identities are assumed and even stolen by others, can no longer by perceived by some, are purposely erased in one instance, and painstakingly constructed in another. “Who am I?” is a key question plaguing all of Kaufman’s creations.
J IS FOR SPIKE JONZE
The first director to bring Kaufman’s words to the screen was Spike Jonze. Being John Malkovich and Adaptation were Jonze’s first two features and he’s gone on to make challenging and distinctive work on his own, most recently with Her. In hindsight, he’s arguably the filmmaker (besides the man himself) best equipped to distil Kaufman’s idiosyncratic visions into live action.
K IS FOR CATHERINE KEENER
Catherine Keener first appeared in a Kaufman film as Maxine, the object of almost everyone’s affections in Being John Malkovich. She’s wonderful in her blunt banter with John Cusack’s Craig, and her bashful romance with Cameron Diaz’s Lotte. Keener had a cameo as herself in Adaptation before popping up again in Synecdoche, New York as the unfulfilled wife of the unhappy Caden. In Kaufman’s worlds, she is always playing a beautiful woman so close to the pathetic protagonist but yet agonisingly out of reach.
L IS FOR LAUGHTER
There are a lot of serious, sombre and cynical themes associated with Kaufman’s work, but one thing that is ever present is laughter. His work is inflected with surreal humour throughout, ranging from silly slapstick and gross-out juvenility to pitch-black and mordant tragicomedy. Even when the laughs aren't free-flowing, there’s always enough underlying wit to stop things becoming morose.
M IS FOR MALKOVICH
The title. The actor. The man. John Malkovich appears both as himself and as a life-size doll controlled by others in Being John Malkovich. The most surreal and memorable moment is the one in which he enters his own mind only to find a freakish reality inhabited only by people with his own face and who are able to repeat only the same single word ad nauseam: “Malkovich Malkovich Malkovich.”
N IS FOR NICHOLAS CAGE
Adaptation is one of the best performances of Nicholas Cage’s oft-maligned career. Playing both Charlie Kaufman and his twin brother Donald, he gets to present two sides of the same coin. It’s an unexpectedly low-key turn that drops his usual ‘Nouveau Shamanic’ acting style in favour of something far more nuanced and compelling.
O IS FOR ORCHIDS
“Why can’t there be a movie simply about flowers?” asks (the character) Charlie Kaufman while he’s struggling to adapt The Orchid Thief. The search of John Laroche through the swamps to find the mysterious Ghost Orchid serves as a metaphor for Kaufman’s own search for the perfect screenplay and for perfect masculinity. When Laroche eventually cultivates the rare flower, it serves to further undermine Kaufman, who has compromised on his own writing.
P IS FOR PUPPETS
His very first film, Being John Malkovich, opens with a puppet show performed by John Cusack’s Craig. Through puppets he is able to live out the fantasies and frustrations that he can’t articulate elsewhere; often sexual in nature. This becomes even more pronounced when he begins to take control of John Malkovich’s body like some giant puppet in order to sleep with Maxine. Sixteen years later, Kaufman has made his own puppet show, Anomalisa, though this time they are stop-motion rather than on strings.
Q IS FOR QUIRKY
Quirky characters and situations are where the surreality of Kaufman’s work is often born. Being John Malkovich takes place on the half-height 7 1/2th Floor; Miranda Otto’s Gabrielle affects a French accent to appear more seductive in Human Nature. From apartments that are perpetually on fire to people constantly mishearing his protagonists, quirky humour has helped create the offbeat rhythms throughout Kaufman’s career.
R IS FOR ROBERT MCKEE
Traditional storytelling structures are of no real interest to Charlie Kaufman and he rails against them, particularly in Adaptation. This is highlighted by his brother Donald’s attendance of a seminar by the famous screenwriting tutor Robert McKee. Charlie eventually meets McKee (Brian Cox) and submits to his template – subsequently spitting in the eye of convention as the storyline suddenly lurches into something far more generic. Kaufman himself once said: “We’ve been conned into thinking there is a pre-established form” – so he’s obviously still not convinced by McKee.
S IS FOR SYNECDOCHE, NEW YORK
After writing the screenplays for five feature films, Kaufman finally moved behind the camera himself for the mind-bending Synecdoche, New York. Another tortured artist struggling to come to terms with his own work, Philip Seymour Hoffman is exceptional as Caden Cotard. Fiction and reality begin to blur into one as Caden and his enormous cast commit unreservedly to the realism of a mammoth production about the futility of his own life.
T IS FOR TOM NOONAN
In Synecdoche, New York, Noonan played the unsettling figure of Sammy who eerily stalked Philip Seymour Hoffman’s Caden for years before being cast to play him in a stage production. From there, Noonan popped up again in Kaufman’s TV movie How and Why before nabbing a voice role in Anomalisa. In that film, he plays the voice of every single character except for the protagonist Michael and the eponymous Lisa; it’s a voice that rattles around in your head for days afterwards.
U IS FOR UNDERCOVER
The great confession at the centre of Confessions of a Dangerous Mind is that Chuck Barris – a real life television producer famous for game show hits like The Dating Game and The Gong Show (think Blind Date and Britain’s Got Talent) – was actually an undercover government assassin. The CIA have always denied his claims, but his autobiography laid out his secret life as a contract killer.
V IS FOR VESSEL
“Adults are like this mess of sadness and phobias.” Similar sentiments are expressed throughout Kaufman’s writing, in which the body is just seen as a vessel for tormented minds. Malkovich and Michael Stone in Anomalisa are perhaps the most obvious examples of this, but there’s always a sense that people are blank slates onto which individuality is projected by society, memory, or oneself.
W IS FOR WRITING
The majority of Kaufman’s career to date has been as a writer and it’s a process that he portrays in large and small ways throughout his films. Adaptation is a version of his own writing process, but it also follows Susan Orlean as she writes the book that Kaufman is adapting. Much later in Synecdoche, New York Caden seeks deeper truth through written directions passed to his actors to work into their performances. Notes are written for speeches, to remember, to express love, anger, and regret. Written words carry import within his films as well as being his chief method of engagement with his characters.
X IS FOR XEROX
Copies, doubles, doppelgängers. They appear in great quantities throughout Kaufman’s films infringing on the sense of self. From a multitude of Malkovich’s to the fictional twin brother Donald, from the actors hired to play real people and eventually take over from them to the unbearable world of identikit Tom Noonans. Kaufman’s realities are full of reflections and replications.
Y IS FOR YEARNING
All of Kaufman’s characters are inflicted with an indescribable yearning. It invariably takes slightly unexpected and sometimes even uneasy forms, but there is always a purity of love or tenderness at its centre. As Chris Cooper’s John Laroche says in Adaptation: “The only barometer you have is your heart. Now, when you spot your flower, you can’t let anything get in your way.” Sadly, lots of Kaufman’s characters find immovable barriers in their way, but it never lessens their devotion.
Z IS FOR ZOOGENY
Zoogeny is the doctrine pertaining to animal development or evolution and forms the basis of the discourse in Human Nature. Rhys Ifans’ Puff is animalistic and Tim Robbins’ Dr. Bronfman seeks to speed up evolution and turn him into a civilised man, able to resist his baser desires – though Kaufman shows that his unchecked desires are no more uncivilised than the doctor's.