ith 1999’s instant classic Being John Malkovich, Charlie Kaufman established himself as the Yeti of Hollywood screenwriters a much-discussed, rarely glimpsed, slightly mythical figure. He has a surrealist, fractious style and a marked interest in empathy and the misunderstood. Human Nature is his second film; it’s directed by Michel Gondry (Radiohead’s “Knives Out,” Bjork’s “Human Behavior” videos). It involves a 35-year-old virgin who teaches mice table manners (Tim Robbins), a hirsute nature writer (Patricia Arquette) and a man raised as an ape (Rhys Ifans). Reviews have been mixed, but Kaufman’s script has been roundly praised. “He is one of the very few screenwriters able to distinctly stamp his unmistakable personality on a film,” wrote one critic.
Recurring concerns in Kaufman’s writing include: minds (preferably those of real people), and getting into them. His new projects include Adaptation (in which Nicolas Cage plays a screenwriter named Charlie Kaufman), Confessions of a Dangerous Mind (a biopic of Gong Show host Chuck Barris, starring George Clooney), and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, which will star Jim Carrey and promises to do to the romantic comedy what Malkovich did to the workplace setting: simultaneously compress and expand it into something new.
So I read a review of Human Nature that said, ‘this movie is all about getting laid.’
Right. That was kind of a negative review. I remember someone saying that, and they were mad about it. I just think that everything is about getting laid in one form or another. People want to be connected, it’s a biological necessity. It describes a lot of our decisions, and our desires are all tied into that. I don’t think this movie is about getting laid in the way that a lot of movies are about getting laid kind of a gratuitous thing. It’s just about, you know, sex.
But it’s not that sexy.
This is the least sexual movie that’s completely about sex that I’ve ever seen. Even though two of the characters are naked for a great deal of the movie, there’s nothing prurient or titillating about it. Which we didn’t set out to do, but I think it’s an interesting achievement.
It seems your script could have made a much darker movie, but the film was very bright, almost Disney-fied in a way.
That’s Michel. I was pleased. I knew his work, I knew what he wanted to do with it. I liked it.
Is it as good as Being John Malkovich?
You know, yeah. It’s a hard question. For lack of sounding like a cliché they’re kind of like my kids. I have affection for them, and I have affection for the process and for the people involved in making them. Malkovich was a bit of a phenomenon: it was overwhelming to all of us. The critical reception was, um, not expected.
Is the film a slap at Hollywood?
The games people play . . .
The reason I ask is that I wanted to make fun of this Hollywood convention of the noble savage, that purity found outside of civilization. I’ve read reviews contending this movie is about how nature is the purest state. It’s not at all what this movie is about! There are trained mice, and there’s a man who’s raised in the wilderness by an insane person. I mean, there’s no nature at all.
In terms of people being forced into roles, I feel that a great deal. You’re pigeonholed, and it happens really early you’re sent down this particular path, and the longer you’re on the path, the longer you think it’s your actual nature. I guess maybe I was thinking about that. And I guess I was thinking about what people do, and what people think they have to do, to feel included. Which is, again, about getting laid, I guess, but it’s not only about that. It’s about feeling that people accept you. Patricia Arquette’s character in the film is this person who, through no fault of her own, has a condition that society finds unacceptable. Her life is marginalized, and I’m interested in that. I feel like that myself.
Marginalized in Hollywood, or marginalized in general?
In general. I always feel like I’m on the outside looking in. Which I think has as much to do with my self-consciousness as anything. But then I think, where did my self-consciousness come from?
Did you write Human Nature as a reaction to Being John Malkovich?
It’s a response to it in that I like to write something different than what I did last time. I don’t consciously think about themes when I write. They come out, but I’m mostly thinking about characters and situations. Things I think are funny sometimes tend to resonate for some particular reason. I like to think about why something is funny or terrifying to me. That’s why I write. I don’t want to set up some notion of why I’m writing about something when I’m writing it it just gets in the way of any kind of freedom I might have to explore things.
How do you write? Do you start with, say, a line of dialogue and build out of it? Do some plots come to you all at once?
Not all at once. With Malkovich, I had a couple of ideas that were completely separate in my mind. I had the idea of an office building floor that had very low ceilings, and I had the idea of a portal into Malkovich’s brain. And I had the idea of a guy who was falling in love with somebody outside of his marriage. They were just kind of separate things that I wanted to write about, and I just kind of worked them in together. I didn’t know going in that this was going to be Being John Malkovich. There’s no set way that it happens.
Something that struck me about Human Nature was how creatively all the disparate plot threads were tied together.
They really were all separate ideas. What I’ve found is that there are fortuitous accidents. And then maybe they’re not accidents; maybe that’s where my head is. Sometimes if I don’t know what I’m doing, I’ll just write a scene, and the characters will talk, and then I’ll get a plot point from that. Maybe I’ll have to throw out part of the scene, but I’ll go a direction I wouldn’t have if I’d just sat there and thought.
What was the first element of the story that came to you?
I think it was making fun of the wild-child movies. I was mad about that for some reason. I get mad about things.
And why was animal experimentation on your mind?
At the time I was reading maybe, again, fortuitously about John Watson, who was the father of behaviorism. And I was reading about some of his experiments with human babies that were horrifying. I was thinking about that, and I think it came from there.
What made you want to work with Gondry?
I met Michel through Spike [Jonze, director of Being John Malkovich] and he said, “This guy really loves Being John Malkovich, and he’s my favorite video director.” So that was pretty much it. A high recommendation.
Does the screenwriter have more power in Hollywood?
From what I hear, it doesn’t sound like it. I know a lot of people who are treated like crap. I’ve found myself in a good situation so far, working with the people I’ve worked with. But people still think of the director first. He’s the boss.
This is an impertinent question. In Being John Malkovich, Cameron Diaz is scuzzed out in a bad wig. In Human Nature, Patricia Arquette is covered in hair. What’s up with the beautiful woman/bad hair dichotomy?
Um . . . any correlation between those two things is completely coincidental. I know Cameron got a lot of attention for looking hideous in that movie, and I just didn’t understand it. I thought she looked really beautiful. She didn’t look like Charlie’s Angels Cameron, but she looked like the character she was playing, which was a somewhat sad, unglamorous person.
What can you tell me about Adaptation?
Nicolas Cage plays Charlie Kaufman and Donald Kaufman, two twin brothers representing me. It’s the story of how I was hired to write a script based on the book The Orchid Thief by Susan Orlean, and this screenplay ended up being about my inability to do an adaptation of it, among other things.
I’m looking forward to Confessions of a Dangerous Mind I’ve been reading about it for months.
If you’ve been reading about it for months, it’s because George Clooney is an expert at getting attention.
I can see what attracted you to Chuck Barris’s story. There’s a guy with some serious personal mythology.
Yeah, you know the mythology, right? [In case you don’t, Barris was host of the ’70s game show The Gong Show, and later claimed he was simultaneously working as a CIA operative. ed.] I was interested in whether or not it’s true.
What do you think?
[shrugs] No comment.
To read the Nerve Interview with Patricia Arquette, click here.
For the official Human Nature website, click here.
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