Director Spotlight: Charlie Kaufman


Charlie Kaufman is a screenwriter, director and philosopher. He’s directed three films to date: I’m Thinking of Ending Things (2020), Anomalisa (2015) and, my personal favourite, Synecdoche, New York (2008). He’s gained international acclaim for his directing and screenwriting, providing an insight into the human experience. In his early thirties, after years working monotonous early mornings at Star Tribune, Kaufman landed his first screenwriting job and started his career writing for sitcoms, a shift characteristic of his directing: laced with comedy but ultimately grounded in real life. He flew under the radar, until his screenplay Being John Malkovich was eventually picked up. Directed by Spike Jonze and released in 1999, the film was what first made Kaufman famous. 

Being John Malkovich tells the story of a struggling puppeteer who discovers a portal into the mind of actor John Malkovich and begins to live, and sell others, the opportunity to live through Malkovich. This is where we first see the theme of authenticity, something that the puppeteer, alongside his customers, struggles with in his attempts to ‘be someone else’. 

Authenticity is something Kaufman has himself struggled with, recalling the challenges of his sitcom-writing days. Kaufman describes how this experienced influenced him in a 2011 lecture for BAFTA, exploring how authenticity and honesty are key in screenwriting. He describes screenwriting as a “highly vulnerable, almost naked activity” where a writer’s life experiences are encapsulated in film.

Loneliness is a prominent theme in Kaufman’s work

Loneliness is a prominent theme in Kaufman’s work, particularly in Synecdoche, New York. His directing debut, the film became synonymous with his directorial style. It tells the story of Caden, a playwright with a turbulent family life, all-consuming health anxiety and the desire to do something meaningful with his life. Caden, while written in Kaufman’s surrealist styling and dramatised for entertainment, cannot help but be read as autobiographical. A creative like Kaufman, Caden is trying to make a difference with his work. Likewise, in the stop-motion animation Anomalisa, the protagonist battles with the mundanity of everyday life, drawing upon Kaufman’s years at Star Tribune.

Through his authenticity, Kaufman allows the viewer to feel less alone. His films are intended to be subjective — each person, on each viewing, takes away something different. Kaufman speaks of his screenwriting as the “exploration of a feeling.” I have taken from his films, especially Synecdoche, New York, an exploration of ‘sonder’. This feeling is defined as the realisation that every individual is living their own complex life and there is more to the world than just you. Kaufman encapsulates this feeling better than any filmmaker I have encountered, and I find it immeasurably reassuring that I am not alone in this feeling. 

Kaufman does not avoid the inevitable political contextualisation of the concepts he discusses, and at times delves into this, encouraging you to question the norms of capitalist society and over-consumption that drive loneliness. Take one scene in Synecdoche, New York, where Caden’s therapist claims his problems will be solved through buying her book. The mise-en-scène is cold and motionless, devoid of authentic concern, portraying a mechanic society commodifying struggle, and refusing to recognise its solutions are the cause. Kaufman’s portrayal gives his work real-world practical and ideological implications.

Charlie Kaufman, before all else, admits that he doesn’t know anything

Through Kaufman’s writing process, it becomes almost foolish to not draw parallels between his work and the work of philosophical greats. For Kaufman to write a screenplay he has to allow himself to “step into the abyss”. René Descartes started his philosophical inquiry with the Cogito, known as ‘I think therefore I am,’ viewing this as the foundation for his philosophy of mind, a starting point through which he could build a conception of the world. In a similar way, Charlie Kaufman, before all else, admits that he doesn’t know anything. This admittance allows him to build from scratch, introspecting his life and feelings, fuelling the raw and truthful nature of his work.

It has been widely understood that you cannot put certain feelings into words. However, I would go so far as to argue that Charlie Kaufman effectively uses film to explore these complex emotions. Cinema as a medium for philosophy has been widely debated, with some arguing that films should only have the purpose of entertaining. This fails to see that Kaufman is not a run-of-the-mill filmmaker – he works through the eyes of a philosopher. 

Image: Anna Hanks via Flickr

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