Everyone already knows that Charlie Kaufman is a genius. This is an acknowledged fact. The man who brought us both Being John Malkovich and Adaptation could not possibly be anything less. This week, with the release of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Hollywood's master of the brilliantly bizarre will try to reaffirm what is really no longer in doubt: that he is the go-to man for screenplays that are surprising, confounding, weird and joyful.
It was strangely gratifying, then, to find that Kaufman is not a people person -- or at least not a press person. Short, bearded, with a hat of curly brown hair, he seems vaguely irritated as he fields 30 minutes worth of questions from a roundtable of reporters, all of whom want to learn about his influences, his methods, his relationships with directors and where all those insane ideas come from.
"It's all personal," he says of his latest project, which is a love story that takes place in a world where unpleasant memories can be erased with a simple overnight procedure. "It's not all my life, but a lot of it is, and my thinking about what might be true about relationships."
Despite the concept's roots in science fiction, Kaufman wanted to apply it to his characters rather than develop it as an end in itself. "I was more interested in what I could write about a relationship using this conceit, and also structurally, what it allows you to do with a story .... Whether or not you could actually erase memories and what it could mean is of less interest to me than other things in the story."
Jim Carrey agrees: "I love the clunky sci-fi aspect of this movie .... It doesn't take [the movie] over, it's just a function within it."
This shouldn't be surprising to anyone who has seen Kaufman's earlier films. Malkovich turned a corker of a gimmick -- a puppeteer discovers a portal that allows him to spend 15 minutes inside the head of John Malkovich -- into a genuinely touching story about longing and loss. Adaptation similarly took a clever meta-film idea and came up with an incisive analysis of the creative process. Kaufman may make this look simple, but he assures us that it's not: "It doesn't come easily for me. It's a real struggle .... There's nothing I do to prepare, I just kind of think about things a lot, and I go over things a lot in my head even when I'm not wanting to ... a lot of obsessive thinking."
For their part, the cast of Eternal Sunshine seems duly impressed. When asked the requisite interview question -- "What appealed to you about the script?" -- Kate Winslet replies, "Absolutely everything. I'm going to try and find some new things to tell you, but I feel like it's all been said. It was just a brilliant, brilliant script. Charlie is such an incredible writer. Every single character in this script is completely fleshed out ... and alive, and incredible." Carrey spread it on a little thick: "... Someone gave me the script, I read it, I thought it was incredible, and I couldn't believe that I was being offered. So I was just very, very happy. It's one of those things, you know ... I read that script and I kind of had that guilty feeling, like 'how can I get that one and The Truman Show?'"
Meanwhile, Kaufman seems to alternately resent and grudgingly accept his relatively newfound fame. He's stayed out of the limelight, which lets him go outside without an entourage. Still, he is occasionally recognized by an avid movie buff. "Are you Charlie Kaufman?" they ask him. What does he say? "Sometimes I say no"