The Most Original Writer in Hollywood?

June 3, 2011

Amidst all the mindless sequels and films that depend on gimmicks and formulaic story telling, I turn today to an oasis of screenwriting genius whose imagination is an antidote to the dreary, repetitive stories and characters that are the hallmarks of “summer movies.”

When I am asked about originality and creativity in screenwriting over the last 10 or 15 years, there is always one name that instantly comes to mind: Charley Kaufman.

Who, you might ask?

Mr. Kaufman is the genius (and I do not use that word lightly or often) behind the screenplays of 3 of the most original films of the last 20 years. All 3 received Oscar nominations for Mr. Kaufman (not a bad batting percentage) and one won him the Oscar itself.

Mr. Kaufman’s first Academy Award nomination was for the are-you-kidding-me-what-kind-of-mind-thinks-that-way? original screenplay for Being John Malkovich. This one isn’t easy to synopsize but I’ll give it a shot. In the film, John Cusack plays Craig, a puppeteer who somehow finds a portal into the mind of the actor John Malkovich. Craig’s ambitious colleague Maxine finds about the portal and starts charging admission to people who want to be John Malkovich for a while. Needless to say, the entire experience is rather unsettling for the real John Malkovich who, of course, plays himself.

Mr. Kaufman then wrote the brilliant Adaptation which still stands as one of the most insightful films ever made about the whole process and experience of being a writer. In the film, Nicolas Cage plays a writer who is tormented (and I really mean tormented) by his own insecurities as he tries to adapt a successful but nonlinear novel into a screenplay. In the film, Cage actually plays Charlie Kaufman. We see him on the set of Being John Malkovich and follow him as tries desperately to adapt the novel (written by an author played by Meryl Streep). The film jumps around from the characters in the novel itself, played by Ms. Streep and Chris Cooper, to  the utterly tortured life of Charlie Kaufman himself.

Mr. Kaufman then won the 2005 Oscar for his mind-bogglingly brilliant screenplay for Eternal Sunshine of The Spotless Mind. The film asks a very provocative question: what if you could literally erase a person and every experience had with that person from your memory? In the film, Ms. Winslet and Mr. Carrey meet, have a passionate affair that goes south, and they both avail themselves of a new technology that erases experiences from your memory. What happens when they meet again? Does love conquer technology? Eternal Sunshine is a true original and is  one of my personal, all-time favorite movies

Got all that straight?

If you’re ever in the mood for a wild movie weekend with 3 beyond original movies, I heartily recommend this Charlie Kaufman triple-header.

Think of the experience as a 1960s acid trip without LSD.

And there will be no hangover… or Hangover 2 for that matter.


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