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i’m thinking of ending things by Charlie Kaufman 3
Courtesy of Netflix

Charlie Kaufman on his new film, a metaphysical time-hopping thriller

The director talks i’m thinking of ending things alongside its stars, Jessie Buckley and Jesse Plemons, who play a young couple on the verge of breaking up in a mind-boggling existential drama

In the 2002 film Adaptation, a fictional Charlie Kaufman slumps into existential despair when tackling The Orchid Thief by Susan Orlean. “I don’t know why I thought I could write this,” Kaufman, as played by Nicolas Cage, laments in a Charlie Kaufman-esque manner. “It’s someone else’s material,” he continues. “I have a responsibility to Susan!”

That quote encapsulates my fear of writing about Kaufman’s profoundly moving and annoyingly titled i’m thinking of ending things. Adapted from a 2016 novel by Iain Reid, Kaufman’s third directorial feature is never boring and always confusing. One viewing is not enough. In fact, I watched it three times, and came away with three different interpretations of what the actual story is. Which is a bit disconcerting. Have I misread the film twice, or perhaps thrice? Will a fourth viewing clarify everything? Or do I need to invest 10,000 hours, Malcolm Gladwell-style, into rewatching and rewatching i’m thinking of ending things until the Charlie Kaufman-esque jigsaw pieces fall into Charlie Kaufman-esque place?

“No, that’s what I hoped for!” says the real Kaufman, speaking over Zoom, from New York, where he looks like Charlie Kaufman, not Nicolas Cage. “My goal is to give people something that resonates with them at different points of their lives. There are things you won’t see the first time that you’ll see the second time, and so on.”

In that regards, Kaufman’s movies are certainly rewatchable. As a screenwriter, he’s responsible for Being John MalkovichHuman NatureAdaptation, and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind; as a writer-director, he further perplexed audiences with Synecdoche, New York and Anomalisa. Yet Kaufman’s Netflix-backed i’m thinking of ending things faces no pressure regarding box-office and thus delves into genre-bending, avant-garde territory with wild abandon. There’s no Spike Jonze or Michel Gondry to insert their pop sensibilities; for better or worse, it’s Kaufman at his most Kaufman.

The plot, at first, appears to be a break-up drama. A boorish mansplainer, Jake (Jesse Plemons – Breaking Bad, The Master, Fargo season two), drives his Pauline Kael-quoting girlfriend, Lucy (Jessie Buckley – Chernobyl, Beast, Fargo season four), to meet his parents (Toni Collette, David Thewlis) amidst a blizzard. Yet this simple premise veers off, like the car, into dark, mysterious corners. Is she thinking of ending things with him, with reality, or both? By the time an erudite, animated pig waddles on screen, you’ve already long accepted it’s more a breakup drama of the metaphysical kind. Netflix, really, should establish a new category on their homepage: “Journeys Into The Most Unpleasant, Jagged Contours Of The Human Psyche”. Eternal darkness of the spot-filled mind, if you will.

“I don’t know what the reactions will be,” Plemons tells me, alongside Buckley, over Zoom. “They are going to vary.” Both actors laugh at the understatement. “It’s a heavy film for this time, for sure.”

“It means it’s provoking something,” Buckley adds. “If it appealed to everyone, it’d be pretty boring.”

It left me feeling sad and alone, I say. Even more so than usual.

“Oh,” Plemons says, nodding. “Well, that’s what we want everyone to feel!”

With i’m thinking of ending things, Kaufman continues his fascination with internal voices: John Malkovich entering his own brain; Jim Carrey revisiting distorted memories; the Fregoli delusion of Anomalisa. So when Jake and Lucy communicate, they emulate the rhythm of panicky thoughts within one’s panicky head; faster and looser than regular conversation, yet with the precision of when you crack the perfect putdown five years after losing an argument.

“There’s layers, even, within that,” Buckley says. “I’m a figment of an imagination, and in my imagination, there’s a figment of something else. The snake is so long. We’re a collection of lots of other people’s thoughts, along with our own. There’s no one self, because we’re a continuation of particles.”

Indeed, when I devoured Reid’s book after viewing the film, my mind heard all the prose and dialogue in Buckley and Plemons’ voices; I physically read a hardback copy of Kaufman’s new novel, Antkind, but processed it as if Kaufman was personally doing the audiobook inside my brain. During lockdown especially, I found myself having imaginary conversations with people of the past, people I’ve never met, and Kaufman himself. As a journalist preparing questions, the interviews unfold in your mind and you adjust accordingly. Kaufman seems to be the only filmmaker tackling this phenomenon.

“That’s all part of it,” says Kaufman. “I was thinking about how people live in our heads through memory or fantasy or projection. Then with the sound design, we’re going for this sense of fracture and overlap and interruption – all the stuff that’s part of the process of thinking.”

“I’m a figment of an imagination, and in my imagination, there’s a figment of something else. The snake is so long. We’re a collection of lots of other people’s thoughts, along with our own. There’s no one self, because we’re a continuation of particles” – Jessie Buckley

So is i’m thinking of ending things Kaufman’s own version of Peep Show? “Oh, God, no,” Kaufman says, jolting in his seat. “Peep Show is singular. It stands by itself! I love Mitchell and Webb! I know they didn’t write the show, but I love the writers and I love Mitchell and Webb separately!” Was the layering of Buckley and Plemons’ voices inspired by ASMR? Kaufman scratches his head. “That’s that whispering stuff? I’m not into it. It’s very odd and creepy.” Well, what about David Lynch? “I love David Lynch,” he concedes. “He’s very important to me in my cinema viewing and life.”

To prepare for the shoot, Buckley watched Oklahoma! and films by John Cassavetes. For Plemons, it was Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and Mike Leigh’s Naked. “I already knew David Thewlis was one of the best actors out there, but after Naked? Man…” Plemons says. “Weirdly, his character was so similar, and the opposite, to Jake, in his drive and pursuit to answer questions.”

Thewlis and Collette, as Jake’s parents, deliver five or six of the oddest performances of their careers. Think Naked and Hereditary – then multiply that with your most scarring nightmares. I don’t want to give too much away of what happens at Jake’s childhood home, but I’m not sure I could, anyway. The conversation at the dinner table may seem harmless – topics include Andrew Wyeth’s paintings (“can a picture of a field be sad without a sad person looking sad in the field?”), and how easy it is to confuse the word “genus” with “genius”. But at the same time, Kaufman captures the awkwardness of meeting a partner’s parents while visualising the terror that everyone you know and love will grow old and die. It’s this middle section, in particular, that cements why Kaufman is a genus. I mean, genius.

“It’s so unsettling in the pacing and editing,” Plemons adds. “I was having flashbacks.”

All this horror is, perversely, shot pristinely by Paweł Pawlikowski’s regular cinematographer, Łukasz Żal. For instance, the camera will acutely zoom in on the sweat on Plemons’s upper lip or the gangrene on Thewlis’s rotting toe; the boxy aspect ratio means a picture of a field can be sad without a sad person looking sad in the field. “I love Cold War and Ida,” says Kaufman. “That’s why I spoke to Łukasz. Initially, Netflix were resistant to the aspect ratio. They felt it’d turn off audience members who’d think something was wrong with their screen.

“So we tried different aspect ratios, but found there was a certain tension in 4:3 that wasn’t in the wider ones. It made it feel more worrisome and claustrophobic.” Could a movie this wilfully uncommercial only exist with Netflix? “Well, in the sense that nobody else was giving me money to make a movie,” Kaufman sighs. “You know, any movie.”

Although Kaufman is a quadruple Oscar-nominee – he actually won for Eternal Sunshine – he entered “director jail” when Synecdoche, New York made $4.5 million worldwide from its $20 million budget. Anomalisa, his long-awaited follow-up, only existed through Kickstarter. In 2014, Kaufman wrote, directed, and shot a supernatural comedy pilot, How & Why, with Michael Cera and Sally Hawkins; FX never screened it. “I can’t show it without FX’s permission,” Kaufman says. “I don’t know that I want to show it at this point.”

“I was thinking about how people live in our heads through memory or fantasy or projection. Then with the sound design, we’re going for this sense of fracture and overlap and interruption – all the stuff that’s part of the process of thinking” – Charlie Kaufman

Kaufman also wrote Frank or Francis, a musical about film criticism, and assembled a cast of Cate Blanchett, Jack Black, Steve Carell, Catherine Keener, Emma Thompson, and Nicolas Cage. Kevin Kline would have played an animatronic skull that analyses screenplays and generates guaranteed Oscar-winners. In a twist only the animatronic skull could predict, every studio rejected it. “I’m assuming Netflix read Frank or Francis,” Kaufman says. “But it’s a bigger movie. i’m thinking of ending things is very small, which is why I thought I could get financing for it.”

In the meantime, Kaufman’s writer-for-hire gigs included punch-up on Kung Fu Panda 2, an early draft of future flop Chaos Walking, and uncredited material for Ad Astra. “They added voiceover after Ad Astra was made,” Kaufman explains. “It wasn’t part of the original script, and they were looking for some fixes.” So is Kaufman considered a voiceover expert? He responds sarcastically. “Yes, I am the voiceover expert. I’m the go-to in Hollywood. No!” He pauses. “I do think about what people think about, so I do have experience there.”

The thing is, Kaufman is a voiceover expert. Adaptation lampoons Robert McKee’s screenwriting seminars (Cage’s incessant narration is interrupted by McKee announcing, “God help you if you use voiceover”) and Synecdoche does away with voiceover completely – instead, Philip Seymour Hoffman’s abstract thoughts materialise in his physical environment. An idea so daring, it lost Sony nearly $16 million.

i’m thinking of ending things amalgamates both extremes. The surreal landscape recalibrates according to the characters’ moods and Buckley’s interior monologue fills the silences like oxygen. At one point, Kaufman cuts away to a deliberately mawkish film-within-a-film, as if someone is dreaming up the hackiest romcom imaginable, and the words “DIRECTED BY ROBERT ZEMECKIS” appear as a punchline. “We had to get Zemeckis’s permission,” says Kaufman. “He generously granted it.”

The discombobulated aesthetic extends to inconsistencies in Buckley’s clothes, which change subtly  in colour and pattern from scene to scene. “There’s no continuity in the film whatsoever,” Buckley exclaims with glee. “Fanatical continuity experts will have a field day. We’re really catering for those guys to have a great time for the next year-and-a-half.”

All of which is to say, i’m thinking of ending things is a time-travel movie. At least, I think it is. “It’s time-travel in the way you time-travel in your brain,” Kaufman notes. “You think about things that happened. You think about things that might happen. Much of your time is therefore spent in the past and future.”

Or maybe not. “Time doesn’t exist in this film,” Plemons responds when asked the same question. “So no.”

Whether i’m thinking of ending things is a time-travel movie or not, the climax will prove transportive for those on Kaufman’s wavelength. In Adaptation, McKee advises Kaufman, “You can have flaws and problems, but wow them in the end and you have a hit.” Netflix subscribers will certainly respond with a “wow” – whether that’s a “wow, that was amazing” or a “wow, what the fuck did I just watch?”, I cannot predict

At the very least, viewers will stream a movie dedicated to broadcasting an anxious person’s internal monologue. Like how, right now, I desperately want to ask Kaufman about why his title has no capital letters – an answer I want to know so badly, it’s jotted down, ironically, in capital letters on my notepad – but time is running out, and I know someone else will ask that question, and I want my interview to be unique, so I ask about his once-planned movie about the secret rulers of the world which Spike Jonze was meant to direct.

“It’s time-travel in the way you time-travel in your brain. You think about things that happened. You think about things that might happen. Much of your time is therefore spent in the past and future” – Charlie Kaufman

“What?” says Kaufman. “Oh, that.”

Kaufman explains that the unproduced movie has been, for years, misreported by the press. Joaquin Phoenix was never attached, and the leaked synopsis was incorrect. “The premise was that everyone who ever lived on this planet was for some reason alive at the same time. So it was this massive collection of different cultures and societies and antagonists and wars – the whole history of humankind was now playing out in one timespan.” He considers it too expensive and complicated, even for Netflix. “I think it’s something beyond my capabilities.”

Still, in the future – if we accept in this reality that time exists – Kaufman fans have much to look forward to. “I’m working on a screenplay for Ryan Gosling,” Kaufman says, mysteriously. “And possibly (an adaptation of the 1994 Japanese novel) The Memory Police – a deal is being negotiated.” He’s also resuscitating a version of IQ 83 he once wrote for Paramount. “I’m developing that into a series for HBO. It’s about a virus that causes stupidity.”

With i’m thinking of ending things, Kaufman requests that people watch it on a larger screen than a laptop, if possible, and with friends, if safe, as he considers the post-viewing conversation part of the experience. Perhaps, then, the key to i’m thinking of ending things is in Kaufman’s new novel. In the final pages of Antkind, the narrator concludes that “remembering the movie is the movie”. Maybe it isn’t so much that Kaufman’s movie needs to be viewed several times, but that each viewing sharpens and distorts the memory of what unfolds. It’s someone else’s material – remembering the movie is the movie.

“You had three different viewing experiences?” Buckley says. “Well, I’ve had different experiences every single time too, and I was actually in it! It shape-shifts and is its own thing every time.”

“I’ve only seen it once,” Plemons adds, laughing. “So I had no idea what was going on.”

i’m thinking of ending things premieres on Netflix on September 4