What can I say about Charlie Kaufman’s screenplays that hasn’t already been said?
See Synecdoche, New York if you haven’t!
It’s his best one and to me rivals the greatest films and novels of all time. It is terrifyingly honest, complex and true. It obsessively peels back the layers of the human condition until there is only a skeleton and it contains everything in it while making fun of an artist who tries to create a piece that contains everything.
From Charlie Kaufman’s 2012 BAFTA Screenwriters Lecture:
Thank you very much. I’m actually really happy to be here; at least that’s what I’m telling myself. I’ve never delivered a speech before, which is why I decided to do this tonight. I wanted to do something that I don’t know how to do, and offer you the experience of watching someone fumble, because I think maybe that’s what art should offer. An opportunity to recognise our common humanity and vulnerability.
So rather than being up here pretending I’m an expert in anything, or presenting myself in a way that will reinforce the odd, ritualised lecturer-lecturee model, I’m just telling you off the bat that I don’t know anything. And if there’s one thing that characterises my writing it’s that I always start from that realisation and I do what I can to keep reminding myself of that during the process. I think we try to be experts because we’re scared; we don’t want to feel foolish or worthless; we want power because power is a great disguise.
I’m a person who does this and I struggle with it. I think it was Thomas Mann who said, ‘A writer is someone for whom writing is harder than it is for other people,’ which I thought was pretty cool. I think that’s sort of it; if you take it seriously it’s a struggle.
Here’s a recent quote that I found: ‘We do not talk, we bludgeon one another with facts and theories gleaned from cursory readings of newspapers, magazines and digests.’ That was actually written in 1945 by Henry Miller and I think it’s timely. I think what it says is that the world has been on its present course for a long time. People all over the world spend countless hours of their lives every week being fed entertainment in the form of movies, TV shows, newspapers, YouTube videos and the internet. And it’s ludicrous to believe that this stuff doesn’t alter our brains.
It’s also equally ludicrous to believe that – at the very least – this mass distraction and manipulation is not convenient for the people who are in charge. People are starving. They may not know it because they’re being fed mass produced garbage. The packaging is colourful and loud, but it’s produced in the same factories that make Pop Tarts and iPads, by people sitting around thinking, ‘What can we do to get people to buy more of these?’
And they’re very good at their jobs. But that’s what it is you’re getting, because that’s what they’re making. They’re selling you something. And the world is built on this now. Politics and government are built on this, corporations are built on this. Interpersonal relationships are built on this. And we’re starving, all of us, and we’re killing each other, and we’re hating each other, and we’re calling each other liars and evil because it’s all become marketing and we want to win because we’re lonely and empty and scared and we’re led to believe winning will change all that. But there is no winning.
What can be done? Say who you are, really say it in your life and in your work. Tell someone out there who is lost, someone not yet born, someone who won’t be born for 500 years. Your writing will be a record of your time. It can’t help but be that. But more importantly, if you’re honest about who you are, you’ll help that person be less lonely in their world because that person will recognise him or herself in you and that will give them hope. It’s done so for me and I have to keep rediscovering it. It has profound importance in my life. Give that to the world, rather than selling something to the world. Don’t allow yourself to be tricked into thinking that the way things are is the way the world must work and that in the end selling is what everyone must do. Try not to.
This is from E. E. Cummings: ‘To be nobody but yourself in a world which is doing its best night and day to make you everybody else means to fight the hardest battle which any human being can fight, and never stop fighting.’ The world needs you. It doesn’t need you at a party having read a book about how to appear smart at parties – these books exist, and they’re tempting – but resist falling into that trap. The world needs you at the party starting real conversations, saying, ‘I don’t know,’ and being kind.
So you are here, and I am here, spending our time as we must, it must be spent. I am trying not to spend this time, as I spend most of my time, trying to get you to like me; trying to control your thoughts, to use my voodoo at the speed of light, the speed of sound, the speed of thought, trying to convince you that your two hours with me are not going to be resented afterwards.
It is an ancient pattern of time usage for me, and I’m trying to move deeper, hoping to be helpful. This pattern of time usage paints over an ancient wound, and paints it with bright colours. It’s a sleight of hand, a distraction, so to attempt to change the pattern let me expose the wound. I now step into this area blindly, I do not know what the wound is, I do know that it is old. I do know that it is a hole in my being. I do know it is tender. I do believe that it is unknowable, or at least unable to be articulable.
I do believe you have a wound too. I do believe it is both specific to you and common to everyone. I do believe it is the thing about you that must be hidden and protected, it is the thing that must be tap danced over five shows a day, it is the thing that won’t be interesting to other people if revealed. It is the thing that makes you weak and pathetic. It is the thing that truly, truly, truly makes loving you impossible. It is your secret, even from yourself. But it is the thing that wants to live.
It is the thing from which your art, your painting, your dance, your composition, your philosophical treatise, your screenplay is born. If you don’t acknowledge this you will come up here when it is your time and you will give your speech and you will talk about the business of screenwriting. You will say that as a screenwriter you are a cog in a business machine, you will say it is not an art form. You will say, ‘Here, this is what a screenplay looks like.’ You will discuss character arcs, how to make likeable characters. You will talk about box office. This is what you will do, this is who you will be and after you are done I will feel lonely and empty and hopeless. And I will ask you for my two hours back. I will do this to indicate my lack of love for you.
I will do this to communicate that you are a waste of time as a human being. It will be an ugly thing for me to say. It will be intended to hurt you. It will be wrong for me to say. It will lack compassion. And it will hurt you. And you will either dismiss it or take it in, but in either case you will hear it and it will affect you. And you will think about what you can do next time so you can be more lovable, and with that your wound will be buried further. Or you will think about how hateful people are and how your armour needs to be thicker so that you can proceed as planned with your ideas. With that, your wound will be buried further.
I think the best way to begin to combat the systemic indoctrination is to look at intention. The aphorism, ‘The road to hell is paved with good intentions,’ doesn’t ring true to me. I think intention is at the bottom of everything. My intentions are shifting and complex and often at odds with each other. And if I know what they are, and watch them closely as they slip and slide all over the place, I have a better chance of putting something honest into the world and this is my goal. My own Hippocratic Oath – I do not want to harm.
I am painfully conscious of the harm that occurs when participating in the media with unclear intentions. I do not want to be a salesman, I do not want to scream, ‘Buy me!’ or, ‘Watch me!’ And I don’t want to do that tonight. What I’m trying to express – what I’d like to express – is the notion that, by being honest, thoughtful and aware of the existence of other living beings, a change can begin to happen in how we think of ourselves and the world, and ourselves in the world. We are not the passive audience for this big, messed up power play.
We don’t have to be. We can say who we are, we can assert our right to existence, we can say to the bullies and conmen, the people who try to shame us, embarrass us, flatter us, to the people who have no compunction about lying to us to get our money and our allegiance that we are thinking – really thinking – about who we are, and we’ll express ourselves and other people won’t feel so alone.
This is Harold Pinter: ‘A writer’s life is a highly vulnerable, almost naked activity. We don’t have to weep about that, the writer makes his choice and is stuck with it. But it is true to say that you are open to all the winds, some of them icy indeed. You are out on your own, out on a limb, you find no shelter, no protection, unless you lie. In which case, of course, you have constructed your own protection and, it could be argued, become a politician.’
It’s weird to be a human. We get to think about things, we get to wonder. It seems like quite a privileged position in the universe. And I wouldn’t give it up for certainty because when you’re certain you stop being curious. And here’s the one thing I know about the thing you’re certain about; you’re wrong.
It’s always a mistake to settle on any explanation for anything, because whatever you settle on you will be wrong, even if you’re right. Everything is ephemeral; everything is in a constant state of flux. Thinking past any conclusion you’ve drawn will reward you with a more complex insight and a more compassionate world view. This is something I’m constantly trying to learn and re-learn.
There’s another quote that I like, this one’s a little long, but I think it’s good. It’s by a guy named John Garvey: ‘I am increasingly convinced that the need to be right has nothing whatsoever to do with the love of truth, but to face the implications of this means accepting a painful inner emptiness; I am not now what I sense somehow I am meant to be. I do not know what I feel from the bottom of my heart, I need to know. The beginning of wisdom is not to flee from this condition or distract yourself from it. It is essential not to fill it up with answers that have not been earned. It is important to learn how to wait with that emptiness. It is the desire to fill up that emptiness which leads to political or religious fanaticism.’
I think what might make this form of endeavour exciting for writers is that they find themselves in an environment where they’re encouraged to use their powers to explore the world, their minds and the form itself. Think about the staggering possibilities of the marriage of light, vibration and time. I think craft is a dangerous thing. I saw a trailer for a movie, I don’t want to say what the movie is, but it’s coming out soon. And it was gorgeous, it was… gorgeous. And it made me really depressed, and I was trying to figure out why.
I think there was an amazing amount of craft and skill on the part of the filmmakers in this movie. And yet it was the same shit. I know that this movie is going to do really well, and I know that the people who made it are going to get rewarded for it, and so the cycle continues. So I think the danger of craft is that it needs to be in second position to what it is that you’re doing.
It’s seductive to put it in first position, often because what you’re doing is meaningless or worthless, or just more of the same. So you can distinguish yourself by being very, very good at it. I think you need to be willing to be naked when you do anything creatively in film or any other form, that’s really what you have to do because otherwise it’s very hard to separate it from marketing.