10 Screenwriting Secrets from Charlie Kaufman

By July 13, 2017Blog, Featured

The history of cinema is peppered with idiosyncratic filmmakers with a fondness for unconventional material and offbeat storytelling techniques. From the Coen Brothers, to Jean-Luc Godard, and even Quentin Tarantino – there’s no shortage of filmmakers with a penchant for presenting audiences with something off the beaten path

Chief among them (second only, perhaps, to David Lynch), is Charlie Kaufman. Known for such screenplays as Being John Malkovich, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, and Adaptation (which also happens to be the best ever film about screenwriting) Kaufman is one of the few filmmakers capable of having his cake and eating it too.

Like Lynch, he’s carved a niche for himself telling strange stories in even stranger ways, landing him a sizeable cult of fans and considerable respect across the industry even in spite of limited box office returns. 2008’s Synecdoche New York marked Kaufman’s first foray into the director’s chair, a role he carried over into his most recent project, last year’s stop-motion animated Anomalisa.

Kaufman’s approach to writing is fundamentally deconstructive, particularly in the ways in which it plays with and incorporates screenplay structure into the story itself. It’s this out-of-the-box approach to storytelling that makes listening to Kaufman talk about his craft such an illuminating experience – even if your own sensibilities are somewhat more traditional.

Fortunately for us, Kaufman spoke at length about this approach (as well as the tricky, duplicitous nature of storytelling in general) back in 2011 at an event hosted by BAFTA. Some of you may have seen this video before, but for those of you who haven’t, you’re in for a treat. It’s a dense forty minutes to be sure, but much like Kaufman’s films, it’ll surely make you rethink a few of your preconceived notions about storytelling

The whole lecture is worth watching (we’ll embed a link below), but in case you’re strapped for time, here are ten takeaways!

We all like to pretend to be experts, even though we know we’re not.

“I don’t know anything.  And if there’s one thing that characterizes my writing it’s that I always start from that realization 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 even feel odd calling myself a writer or a screenwriter. I do when I have to – I put it on my income tax form – but I feel like it’s a lie, even though it’s technically true. I write screenplays for a living but it’s not what I am. When I was young I really wanted that label. I wanted to be something. I wanted to be a writer.

It’s funny now that I don’t want to call myself that but at the time I did. I think that it was necessary at the time, but now it doesn’t feel necessary because I think the thing I realise is: I’m not those things. 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.”

Finding your voice is a process of figuring out how to ‘do you’.

“My first writing job was on a TV show called Get A Life, starring Chris Elliott. The show was mostly in the voice of its creators Chris Elliott and Adam Resnick. They’d worked together on The David Letterman Show and Chris’ character came from that show.  So consequently Adam Resnick’s scripts were the best of the show and we all tried to write in Adam’s voice; that was the job.

I was frustrated with my results, but it occurred to me that there was no solution to this problem as long as my job was trying to imitate someone else’s voice. I could maybe get close but I was never going to get better at it than Adam. Rich Little can’t be better than Johnny Carson at Johnny Carson, you know?

The obvious solution was not to throw my hands up but try to find myself in a situation where I was doing me, not someone else. Do you. It isn’t easy but it’s essential. It’s not easy because there’s a lot in the way. In many cases a major obstacle is your deeply seated belief that you are not interesting.

And since convincing yourself that you are interesting is probably not going to happen, take it off the table. Think, ‘Perhaps I’m not interesting but I am the only thing I have to offer, and I want to offer something. And by offering myself in a true way I am doing a great service to the world, because it is rare and it will help.”

Understand what drives you to write in the first place.

“I do believe (people) 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.”

Don’t be a zombie to formula.

“When I first started to work in series television I didn’t need to take a course in how to write a half hour comedy. I knew what to do because I had been raised as a consumer of TV series. I understood the rhythms, I understood the types of jokes that were acceptable, I understood the stock characters. And of course all of this was in service of the perpetuation of the same consumer culture that trained me and made me desire to be part of it. I was a zombie.

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.”

Don’t be afraid of ambiguity.

“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…

Think about all the assessments, all the interpretations that occur with each interaction. Think about all that you bring to each encounter. Multiply that by all the people here. How much is going on in this room and how do we weave that into a movie?

The challenge of multiple points of view forces us to come up with solutions, to throw away conventional approaches. Movies tend to be very concrete in their construction of events and characters. It’s a tricky medium in which to deal with interior lives. But I think it’s really a great medium for it. Movies share so much with dreams which, of course, only deal with interior lives. Your brain is wired to turn emotional states into movies.”

A screenplay is an ‘exploration’.

“So what is a screenplay, or what might it be?  Since we’re talking specifically about screenplays tonight. A screenplay is an exploration. It’s about the thing you don’t know. It’s a step into the abyss. It necessarily starts somewhere, anywhere; there is a starting point but the rest is undetermined.

It is a secret, even from you. There’s no template for a screenplay, or there shouldn’t be. There are at least as many screenplay possibilities as there are people who write them. We’ve been conned into thinking there is a pre-established form. Like any big business, the film business believes in mass production. It’s cheaper and more efficient as a business model.

But I don’t want to talk about that aspect of screenwriting. Here’s what I know about a screenplay; simply that it is a text which describes what happens in a movie. And I’m not even sure about this definition.”

Failure is a badge of honor. 

“Allow yourself the freedom to change as you discover, allow your screenplay to grow and change as you work on it. You will discover things as you work. You must not put these things aside, even if they’re inconvenient. Let’s not disregard all the little voices in order to simplify. Do not simplify. Let’s not worry about what it looks like, let’s not worry about failure. Failure is a badge of honour; it means you risked failure. If you don’t risk failure you’re never going to do anything that’s different than what you’ve already done, or what somebody else has done.

Just know that that’s the choice you’re making when you won’t put yourself at jeopardy like that. Don’t compartmentalise to make things simpler than they are, and don’t work towards results. Allow yourself time, let things brew. You’re thinking about it, whether you realise it or not. Letting the unconscious take over brings in freedom and surprise and removes judgement. At every single moment, every single person wants something.  Often many things, often conflicting things.  Understand this about your characters and yourself.”

Don’t limit your understanding of story to simple definitions. 

“Don’t let anyone tell you what a story is, what it needs to include or what form it must take. As an experiment, go out of your way to write a non-story. It will still be a story, but it will have a chance of being a different story. Our brains make stories. It is as basic to us as breathing; we cannot do otherwise.

Free yourself – and by extension the rest of us – with your efforts. If you give yourself too specific an assignment you will keep yourself locked away from your work. Go where it takes you. If you say you want to write about homeless people, and in the end reveal their humanity, you’ll end up with something illustrative and perhaps instructive.

If you say, ‘There aren’t words to put this moan I feel in me, but I’m going to swim in it and see what happens,’ you’ll end up with something real. But you’ll have to throw away any predetermined notion of what real is. It doesn’t mean you’ll end up with a million dollar screenplay or that critics will love it. You can write to that if that’s your goal. In the process you might lose track of who you are but that’s okay. They’ll assign you an identity.”

The medium is an important part of the message.

“I’m probably reaching here to say this, but I do think that when you’re doing a movie, when you’re doing a screenplay, you have to know why it’s a movie. And if it doesn’t have to be a movie then you shouldn’t make it.

It’s very important that what you do is specific to the medium in which you’re doing it. And that you utilise what’s specific about that medium to do the work. And if you can’t think about why it should be done this way or needs to be done this way, then it doesn’t need to be done this way and then you should figure out what it is about this – if you want to do it – that needs to be told in the form of a movie.”

Don’t lose yourself in cheap tricks. Stay focused on the world you are trying to build.

“With a screenplay you’re creating a world; consider everything, every character, every room, every juxtaposition, every increment of time as an embodiment of that world. Look at all of this through that filter and make sure it is all consistent. As in a painting, every element is part of one whole composition, just as there is nothing separate in the actual world there should be nothing separate in the world you create.

This is a little thing that I wrote, that’s just a personal thing for me, and it’s very… I don’t know, but you’ll see. But I hate this, so I’m just going to share with you that I hate it. ‘Do not write jokes to your readers in your stage directions.’ You know what I mean by that? People do that. Don’t do that.

Your job is to create an atmosphere. You’re trying to establish a mood. You’re writing a story and what you’re trying to do is to help this large group of people who are going to come together to understand the tone and the spirit and the feeling of this movie so that they can come together and make it. That’s what you should spend your time on, not with winks and stuff. Not winking at people.”